Look, let’s just go ahead and get this one out of the way. If nothing else, I’ll have something to link to every time I bring it up in another article.
Actually, there’s never been a better time to get into Half-Life if you haven’t already. Valve is wont to practically give the original away on Steam, and the fantastic, and free, Black Mesa remake has finally been (mostly) released. Also, you’ve surely already heard a steady stream of reports about how wonderful and groundbreaking and gripping the game is. We’re going to poke a few tiny holes in that rosy view, but in general, everything you’ve likely heard about Half-Life being excellent is still pretty true.
Half-Life casts you as silent protagonist extraordinaire Gordon Freeman, assisting advanced research at the comically enormous Black Mesa facility in New Mexico. Despite the fact that you’re playing a character in an elite laboratory where you need two PhDs just to push a trolley around, Gordon’s character is supposed to be the “everyman.” He doesn’t speak so that you can transplant your own personality onto him. He has no particular skills or training, and can afford much of his survival to his fancy, armored hazard suit. Much like how Die Hard freshened up the action genre by not having a expert commando in the lead role, it encourages a feeling of vulnerability when Gordon (and you) face some of the game’s more lopsided engagements.
Now it’s important to note that Half-Life’s actual story gets more credit than it should. That story is not particularly revolutionary, or even memorable. You partake in a reckless experiment with a mysterious crystal that ends up opening a portal to another dimension. You’ll spend the rest of the game trying to bypass chemical spills or malfunctioning equipment, fighting interdimensional nasties, and making your way to the high-security Lambda Complex where you might have a shot at closing the portal. That’s it, and while there are a few (predictable) twists along the way, there’s not much to it overall.
What Half-Life excels at is the storytelling, which not only changed the FPS genre, but much of storytelling in all modern games. At a minimum, it proved the “peaceful intro,” and that it was indeed okay to let players take in the sights and not have a gun for a while. It’s not an exaggeration to say that nearly every action game from 1999 on at the very least takes notes from the basic model and concepts laid out here. Half-Life broke away from non-interactive cutscenes or “couple of paragraphs in the manual” storytelling and placed everything you need to know firmly within the game world itself.
Specifically, Half-Life makes expert use of scripting. Scripting is exactly what it sounds like – a pre-planned setup that lets a character turn to face you and deliver some lines of dialogue, an enemy teleport in and start firing, or a wall in front of you to explode and crash into some sparking machinery. Scripting had been around in some form since at least Doom (where passing an invisible trigger releases some nearby monsters), but Half-Life was the first to pull all the pieces together and show – not only what could be done here – but why it was important. Everything in the game is designed to put you in the eyes of Gordon, and at the mercy of the crumbling environment around you. Again, this was an evolutionary step rather than a revolutionary one, built upon the framework of what came before, but a crucial step nonetheless.
You’re never – not once – taken out of Gordon’s eyes. There’s never a cutscene or a discarded audio log to find. Instead, all events happen around you, with plot points relayed directly to you by the speech of another character, or shown through tightly scripted moments. You’ll rush to rescue a scientist trapped in an elevator shaft, but be seconds too late. You’ll encounter a monster that reacts only to sound, and will learn this when you watch an unfortunate guard come out shooting. Add to all this the general scenes of mayhem – unseen monsters yanking hapless scientists into air vents, haywire lasers carving up a hallway – and you get the sense of a living environment far more than any game that came before it. It’s also extremely effective to pass through areas of the lab at the peaceful start of the game, and then again post-accident to see those same areas in a state of absolute chaos.
There’s also some excellent use of friendly characters. Throughout your journey, you’ll encounter trapped scientists and guards. If they’re just standing around and not about to die, you can press the “use” key to get them to follow you. A second tap has them hold position. They’ll even follow you through map changes, and their pathing rarely trips up. You’ll most often need them to unlock specific retinal scanners that you don’t have access for, but scientists will also heal you, and guards will support you in combat. While you could just kill a guard for his ammo, it quickly proves more valuable to have, essentially, a mobile turret with unlimited bullets following you around. It all leads to a neat sense of camaraderie as you lead a ragtag group of survivors to limited safety.
I particularly love the disaster film situations you’re placed in. To me, the essence of what makes Half-Life great are the moments where you’re desperately trying to navigate some boxes floating atop toxic waste, swimming as fast as possible through crushing machinery, or dodging a falling elevator while trapped in the shaft. There’s a sequence where you’re forced to slide down a pipe and hope you can maneuver yourself so the thin railing stops you from tumbling off a cliff. Not to mention, there’s all sorts of ledges and air vents that collapse under Gordon’s feet, sending you tumbling into ambushes or even worse situations than you were just in. This is the stuff that I personally really responded to, and what elevated it above bog standard FPS action.
However, your time between these memorable setpieces will be filled by, well, bog standard FPS action. Gordon collects a hefty arsenal of firearms in his journey across the base, and will need to deploy them on zombified lab workers, teleporting aliens, and the full might of the military. Zombies and headcrabs give some good jump scares, the teleporting aliens phase in on cue to surround or surprise you, and the soldiers display some impressive AI for the time. They’ll work as a squad, take cover, try to flank you, and retreat when wounded. Enemies at this time (even the aliens here) were still at the “run forward and shoot” stage, so to see some actual level of coordination suddenly show up was a welcome surprise.
Still, it’s shooting lots of stuff with guns. I’ve been trying to get Static to write this review for years (I think his perspective would be more interesting than me rambling on about another FPS), but the switch to nearly pure shooting about four levels in was the point where he lost interest. I can’t really say I blame him. The difficulty ramps up too, as you take on tanks, helicopters, or ten or more soldiers all by yourself in later levels. The nimble assassins will surely test the patience of the FPS inexperienced, with their constant backflipping and cloaking. Even “easy” difficulty still relies heavily on having your armored suit charged, and without remaining power, your health is woefully vulnerable. This is still an FPS at its core, with elements of basic puzzles and platforming included – not the other way around.
In fact, Half-Life has some real issues with pacing overall. I could probably recite the opening moments from memory, and there are absolutely some favorite scenes I could lay out in detail, but the middle is kind of a bland blur. An underground tram sequence seems to last hours as you inch forward through concrete tunnels and take on successive groups of soldiers. A battle across the surface against tanks and aliens also seems to drag, perhaps slowed by frequent minefields and a harassing helicopter. Even many of the interior labs or mechanical sub-basements don’t contain enough specific features to take note of. Different sections of the complex don’t look indistinct, but the boxy hallways connecting each section often do.
Compare rote shooting inside samey corridors to moments like entering a missile storage facility full of tripwire mines you have to navigate with equal parts caution and wholehearted leaps of desperation. How about riding an extended garbage chute through waste disposal while dodging crushing machines and toxic green goop? Later you’ll swim through a nuclear reactor, or find yourself trapped in a metal cage that’s dropped into a tank with a ferocious alien shark. I’m not saying the game doesn’t need its shooting sections, but I am saying that they’re the most uninteresting part of the experience. If you can slog through some fairly standard stretches of boring gunplay, you’ll be rewarded with some excellent action movie moments.
There are, however, some moments that aren’t that compelling. I’m talking about the nefarious platform challenges that plague the later levels. Early on, it’s a bit fun and thrilling to hop along boxes swinging precariously over a bottomless chasm. But once the element of timing is introduced (around the Lambda lab section), it becomes tedious. In one area, you have to navigate up an experimental tower with rotating sections, ducking and dodging deadly outcroppings, and timing your jumps to hit the next area as it spins by. The last fifth of the game takes place in the aliens’ domain, the border world “Xen,” which consists entirely of floating rock platforms and low gravity. Xen specifically was blasted by the press at the time, and while it’s not quite as loose and uncontrollable as it’s made out to be, it’s not particularly enjoyable either.
Graphics run on a modified Quake II engine. Architecture is rather boxy. Lighting is fixed by sectors, but there is some support for colors. Animations are static and a bit stiff, particularly as you watch security guards and their lumbering run. Textures in the unmodified game are also low-res, sometimes blurry, and often reused. My biggest issue are the two detail draw-in lines that always update at a fixed distance from your view. It creates a sort of rippling effect as the low detail (distance) textures get updated, but it’s a trademark of the engine.
Further, the Black Mesa complex certainly looks advanced and elaborate, but there’s also a bit too many pointlessly cavernous rooms without much in the way of props. Compare this to Unreal or Jedi Knight, and you’ll find a surprising number of areas that just come across as boring. By far, the most interesting stuff comes through the scripting. When a monster crashes through a wooden door, or a falling pipe shears off the catwalk in front of you – and you don’t expect it – you’re now less focused on picking apart surface details and instead looking out for what’s going to collapse on your head.
Music is sparsely, and smartly, used. There are a handful of short tracks that only play at key cinematic moments, like looking out over the vast New Mexico desert after finally reaching the surface, or underscoring a massive battle sequence against a horde of grunts. The rest of the game relies on the ambient sound, covering everything from the chirps and chatters of your foes to the distant humming of base machinery. The real standout is an extremely hollow reverb effect in some hallways or air vents that, while a bit much, is also practically a signature of the engine. Voices are excellent too, though every guard sounds (and looks) the same, and there are only three variants of scientists. You’ll also overhear some plot conversations if you don’t always rush in guns blazing – another concept that would get quickly adopted by the genre.
Multiplayer deserves a mention, but mostly in terms of the incredible out-of-box mod support the game featured. I’ve talked before about how the mod community was what turned Half-Life into an investment, and it’s true. Vanilla deathmatch was quickly (and rightfully) forgotten in favor of some truly inspired mods like Action Half-Life, Day of Defeat, Natural Selection, and some excellent single player stuff like They Hunger, Afraid of Monsters, Invasion, and Chronicles that would keep Half-Life relevant for years. Half-Life’s basic multiplayer wasn’t what you got it for. The endless amount of incredible free stuff atop a very robust netcode was.
In summary, Half-Life is succinctly described as The Towering Inferno: The Game. Technology advances finally let us see convincing moments of disaster film shlock, and I thought it was incredibly effective in Valve’s virtual world. While the shooting is competent, and the story is present, these aren’t the things that make the game memorable. I’d like to deduct points for the tedious Xen levels, the frequent barren rooms, or just to be “edgy,” but that really wouldn’t be fair. Plenty of games would ape Half-Life in the years to follow, but none quite hit that exciting combination of disaster film moments and focused storytelling. A welcome evolution to the genre.
Creates a convincing virtual world and shows off the virtues of advanced scripting and smart design. Surprisingly long, with as much variety in locations as the setting allows. Smart soldier AI and NPC buddies that follow without much hassle.
Middle of the game seems to drag. Areas or hallways between major setpieces are often monotonous. Timed, first person platform challenges toward the end game can be a hassle.
“Well, there goes our grant money.” — a scientist