The Half-Life series is one of the most successful video game series in gaming history, having everything from aliens, futuristic police states and mysterious agents. However, many gamers will only be familiar with later installments of the game and would have missed out on where it all started, where a physicist named Gordon Freeman is unwittingly launched into an extra-terrestrial catastrophe in a remote research facility…
Developer: Valve Corporation
Publisher: Sierra Enterainment
Platform: PC (reviewed), PlayStation 2
Genre: First Person Shooter
Released: November 9th, 1998
The original game itself was ground breaking at its time of release. In fact, if it wasn’t for Half-Life the modern FPS could be very different. The developers, Valve, had ambitious plans for the game and managed to create a new type of shooter. Instead of being another clone of Doom or Quake, Half-Life transformed the FPS experience. It was the new template which future action games have regularly looked to for inspiration. At the time it was a graphical triumph. NPCs (non-playable characters) looked convincing, though there were only a few character models, and little additions such as bullet marks on scenery or ammunition resting on objects rather than floating in mid-air made the game feel realistic. Scripted events (such as the ‘Blast Pit’ alien smashing through a window) were also new in Half-Life, and these further helped players immerse themselves in a living, breathing world, rather than just slogging through countless enemies to the end of the level.
The game incorporated many core ingredients which other shooters have used up to present times such as multiple weapons select-able at any given time, explosive traps to lure enemies into, and primary or alternate firing modes. The player could look around in full 3D, rather than only being able to pan left and right, which enabled multi-tier fighting in the environment. The game also used health and armour bars, which gave the player a buffer before they actually died. Although this was not a completely new idea for its time, today this mechanic has evolved into shields and regenerative health in most FPS’s.
Half-Life also boasted varied environments and impressive set pieces which captivated players. It mixed gunplay with platforming to great effect and even included swimming sections, where the player had to keep in mind that they only had a limited oxygen supply. Many of these additions are taken for granted by more recent generations of gamers, but at the time, these new mechanics were the future. Additionally, Half-Life was one of the first games to use the mouse and keyboard control scheme that is still popular today. Despite having multiple functions, such as jump, crouch, use flashlight and change weapons, the game mapped out the controls very well and was not uncomfortable to play.
Story wise, the plot centers around a theoretical physicist named Gordon Freeman, who is present at the exact moment an experiment goes horribly wrong, causing the entire Black Mesa complex to become infested by a variety of murderous aliens. Originally armed with nothing more than a trusty crowbar, Freeman must battle his way through zombified scientists, the military, imaginative boss fights and even other worlds to escape the facility in one piece. He also encounters the mysterious ‘G man’ throughout the game and the player can sometimes catch a glimpse of him before he vanishes. This shady agent is integral to the plot, and also appears in the sequels.
Even today, the gameplay feels fluid, responsive and in depth. The platforming sections do not often result in multiple retries, however sometimes the movement is slightly over sensitive and can send Gordon falling to his death occasionally. Combat can take place on multiple levels, resulting in tense fire fights which encourage the player to try to flank the enemy, especially soldiers. Different enemies also have certain weaknesses, or require certain tactics to take down, meaning that the player must think before charging in guns blazing. Good examples are Vortigaunts, aliens which shoot green lightening to attack. If timed correctly between blasts, the player can kill these without even taking a scratch, providing there is cover around.
There are certain flaws with the game however, the most prominent of which being the lack of a waypoint or objective list. This makes the game difficult to continue if the player has left it for a while because it is easy to forget what they should be doing or where they should be headed. The only indication of what to do generally comes from NPC’s in a one off speech. Some levels in the game are drawn out and confusing to begin with, such as the ‘On A Rail’ section, which involves backtracking and multiple possible routes. These levels in particular suffer from the lack of an objective marker.
Half-Life also extended its gameplay with a couple of expansions, and even a multiplayer deathmatch mode. The expansions, Blue Shift and Opposing Force were welcome additions, as the player got to play through the Black Mesa incident again as either a security guard or a military soldier, showing them different perspectives on the events. Adding new weapons and alternative endings to the game, the expansions were a must have for anyone who had enjoyed the original. The PS2 ported version also had Decay, a co-operative game mode with its own miniature story-line.
Not only did Half-Life have a hugely successful sequel and smaller ‘Episodes’ on top of it, it has also been recently modded and rebooted in the source engine. Black Mesa is available for download and features updated visuals, more voice acting and brand new puzzles. It is a perfect starting place for those who want to experience the original game but with improvements and higher quality graphics.
A masterpiece in gaming, Half-Life will stand the test of time for generations to come. The Black Mesa modifications have breathed new life into it, so if you haven’t experienced this game yet, now is as good a time as any.