Games like Half-Life don’t come around very often. Moreover, the critical media adulation that comes with it, while typically revolving around notions of revolutionizing the industry standard, tends to come around even less. But Half-Life doesn’t arrive in a blaze of genre originality. The First-Person Shooter has seen its fair share of outstanding software examples on the PC and other gaming formats, but Half-Life’s arrival does, in many ways, signify a redefinition of the FPS genre – possibly for ever. As a gaming experience it doesn’t step away from the constraints of the genre too significantly, but it certainly raises the bar in terms of realistic motivations and reactions from NPCs (Non-Playable Characters), vastly improves object and environment physics and, most importantly, it introduces a multi layered cohesive storyline to the equation rather than the simple and arbitrary destruction of everyone and everything. Half-Life is teeming with countless details that could very well change the face of the FPS genre, and video-gaming in general, for years to come.
Welcome to the Black Mesa facility; it is truly a sight to behold. From the very outset of Half-Life, your character (Gordon Freeman) is completely encapsulated within his environment; the world around him is almost alive, and its level of realism is staggering. We find Freeman riding in an electric car that provides him with transport around the facility, and us with a whistle stop introductory tour. From this moment forward it is apparent that Half-Life is no ordinary game. A recorded guide’s voice supplies interesting technical details and security parameters on each passing area of the vast complex, and Black Mesa robots are clearly visible as they busily work through preordained program routines: lifting crates, operating computers, and moving machinery. Freeman finally arrives at his destination, and here we bear witness to our first human interaction with a security guard. No surprises that the guard talks to Freeman during this preparatory stage, but during the game the ?Use’ key allows for complete dialog exchange with every human that we come across. This factor alone raises the bar considerably in terms of character evolution and NPC interaction. Then Freeman enters the heart of Black Mesa, the place where all the white-coat-wearing, gray-matter-processing scientists beaver away perpetually. We’re all friends here, though, and each scientist greets Freeman amiably as he makes his way through their industrious throng. Everything within Freeman’s environment reeks of authenticity, every design, every detail, and every nuance is well observed and stunningly realized. Half-Life’s opening minutes effortlessly submerge us into the game’s ?calm before the storm’ atmosphere like no prior video game ever has. The lighting and particle effects are simply amazing (just fiddling with something basic, like the flashlight, is a wonder all of its own). Almost all environmental objects react as they should; for example, wooden crates can be destroyed – to see if they reveal anything of value or practical use – by prizing them with a crowbar, or shattering them wildly with a few well-placed rounds of hot lead. Yet more contributing factors towards Half-Life’s graphical prowess, genuine realism and gorgeous aesthetic.
Not only do generic human NPCs and standard environmental objects appear painstakingly realistic in Half-Life, but the ?weird’ and the ?other worldly’ elements that Freeman encounters are also absolutely believable. All of the creatures that suddenly start appearing after ?the incident’ at the beginning of the game are also highly detailed. The monstrous crabs, bull squids and zombie monsters are the most prevalent of Freeman foes during the game’s opening sections. But, just as we’re beginning to feel the creeping tread of boredom that accompanies the ominous FPS sensation of recoil-reload-repeat when it comes to adversaries – the military enemies abruptly make their entrance. The marines are out to get Freeman and they appear fully equipped to do so. Ensuing exchanges of blistering gunfire look, feel, and sound just as authentic as the environments, the NPCs, and the physical details. And, by the end of the game, the sheer variety of Freeman’s enemies, and the amount of loving development detail that’s poured into each one will cause nothing short of player amazement.
Half-Life sports a considerable arsenal of weaponry for Freeman to haul around with him, and every one of them appears as it should under such extreme circumstances – impressively menacing. And it’s not only the firearms themselves that open the eyes of appreciation, but also their visual effects, muzzle flare, kick back?and levels of destruction. Ranging from the simple melee effectiveness of the crowbar, all the way to the almost ?planet killing’ ferocity of the alien hardware, the weapons of Half-Life are as graphically satisfying as the enemies are varied, and the environments are immersive. In terms of art direction, concept design and game graphics, Half-Life is one of the best games available, in any genre, on any format; in short – it’s awe-inspiring.
Lively as the visual side of Half-Life is, its considerable graphics and sprawling level designs are nothing without comparative sound quality. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that the sound is equally as well crafted as the game’s visuals. Everything is beautifully recreated and sounds exactly as it should: the individual and charismatic character voices, the terrifying growls and screams of creatures, the sharp crack of gunshots, the deep reverberation of explosions?and pretty much anything else that can be physically manipulated. Half-Life’s aural experience surrounds and engulfs on every level; almost every human character has dialog, and every creature has a specific sound – thankfully making it a little easier to discern them from distance. Another worthwhile note concerns the fact that, in some instances, sound drastically affects Half-Life’s gameplay; certain creatures in the game react based solely on sound, so being careful with weighty footsteps is often imperative.
Throughout the course of Half-Life, the liveliness of the game world truly envelops both Freeman and the player. Upon reaching military controlled areas, the constant chatter from nearby radios sound amazingly real; often, distant echoes carry on the air, and the eerie sounds of creatures screaming and military weapons firing fill the environment. The voice in Freeman’s protective HEV suit also adds to the tension by constantly relaying health status; if he should fall a great distance, and lose too much health, the HEV suit will inform Freeman that he’s incurred a fracture. Suffering from burns, or being wounded by the claws of an attacking creature will often relay a different damaging consequence through your suit. Of course, there are HEV recharging stations littered throughout the game, and physical damage is not irreversible.
For great lengths of time, the game’s musical score sits in the background of the Half-Life experience, but it’s always verging on the sinister and foreboding. When scenes and pre-scripted actions call for it, though, the music throttles forward and admirably stimulates both heart and eardrum. The inclusion of Half-Life’s more dramatic musical moments serves to inspire frantic action from the player and a sudden torrent of deathly fortitude from Freeman. It makes for some seriously high-charged stand offs and confrontations – perhaps none more so than the first time Freeman encounters the merciless marines.
Despite Half-Life’s expansive catalogue of quality game elements, it is still an FPS and, as such, it unfortunately contains certain gameplay problems. Many of the jumps and acrobatic moves that Freeman is required to perform are not always easily achieved due to miscalculation; the game is not forgiving when it comes to this. However, it doesn’t intrude too heavily upon the gameplay, and is more of a trail and error annoyance rather than a mechanical glitch. On the whole Freeman is extremely maneuverable and reacts consistently to your commands, but like other FPS games, there are some environments or hazards that prove particularly tough to navigate, or gain access to, or jump across. One particular aspect that characterizes Half-Life is Freeman’s ability to use certain vehicles, operate fixed weaponry (turrets and such), and generally manipulate his environment. He can shoot out the cannon of a stationary tank, or push objects into advantageous positions to help reach high places. This deep interaction with the environment obviously affects gameplay in a very positive way because it opens the possibility of there being multiple ways to pass from area to area.
The way that Freeman’s HEV suit is recharged, or his health replenished, also has an effect on the gameplay. Being dangerously low on HEV power and health, and needing desperately to locate a charging station makes for some white-knuckle tension as Freeman takes every step with the kind of mortal caution that only imminent death can invoke. Now that’s realism. It also deepens the sense of relief, progression and fulfillment that the player feels when Freeman, on the cusp of the afterlife, finally plugs in for a recharge. There are no handily placed red-cross boxes or floating hearts in Half-Life?and subsequently Freeman finds himself fighting for his life in more ways than one.
Another defining aspect of Half-Life is the fact that the adventure is not divided by levels but quick chapters (brief load times between each one), which means the action doesn’t stop; the game is a relentless journey of pursuit and escape – there’s scant time for a breather. Of course, the game can be quick saved at any time, but either way this new continuous form of exploring the world makes it a more realistic experience and also directly affects gameplay because it demands maintained concentration levels.
The puzzles in Half-Life are enjoyable and involving, too. They’re not overly hard, but exist to be challenging enough to promote lateral thought (no harm in thinking a little). Some of the puzzles are intuitive while others, like many FPS puzzles, require a little backtracking to accomplish something that has been overlooked. This, of course, can be frustrating beyond belief as the solution is likely in plain view – but the forest cannot be seen for the trees. Many of the puzzles require direct interaction with the environment and/or its modification in order to achieve the solution.
Game developers take note: Half-Life is absolute proof that First-Person Shooters need not occupy a gaming category that labels them as shallow, story deficient ego trips with big guns and bigger body counts. Half-Life is not perfect (perfection is surely not a realistic or attainable goal) but its few weaknesses are vastly overshadowed by the vast sway of towering quality that ceaselessly bombards the player. The storyline runs in perfect harmony with the action and acts as a conduit not a stopgap, or a padding device. Each gaming element compliments the next and the entire presentation is nothing short of, well?dare we say it?revolutionary.
Video game history will surely remember Half-Life as a game that dared to take evolutionary strides forward and revolutionize a genre that was in danger of uninspired saturation. Half-Life also proves that it’s not impossible to produce a gaming experience that exemplifies ?the whole package’. Jaw-dropping graphics and visual attention to detail, stunningly varied and accurate sound design, multi-faceted gameplay and an entertaining, engrossing and involving storyline – it’s ALL there. Currently, there is no other game like Half-Life, but it won’t be long before swarms of imitators rise from the FPS slagheap. So do yourself (and developer’s Valve) a favor by securing the original experience before the also-rans sully its good name. Outstanding!