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Half-Life: Desert Crisis (PC) artwork

Half-Life: Desert Crisis (PC) review

"Blasting someone out of the sky with an electromagnetic beam rifle; making heads explode with twin Desert Eagles while somersaulting through the air; disintegrating someone's entire torso with an over-sized, electrified sledgehammer - these are some of my fondest memories in gaming. "

Blasting someone out of the sky with an electromagnetic beam rifle; making heads explode with twin Desert Eagles while somersaulting through the air; disintegrating someone's entire torso with an over-sized, electrified sledgehammer - these are some of my fondest memories in gaming.

Our favorite games of all time are the hardest ones to write about. We want our word to be a divine revelation that says "This is it!"

Desert Crisis is the sum of the reasons I play first-person shooters. It takes the best of the exaggeration school of Quake, especially its speed, crazy weapons and emphasis on movement, and the best of the pseudo-realism school of Counter-Strike, particularly its objective-based team gameplay and demand for pinpoint crackshot accuracy. It's a rich and experimental blend reflective of the game's indie roots as a Half-Life mod, one that leans closer to Quake but ultimately doesn't quite belong to either category. MP5 submachine guns and Spas 12 shotguns are fired alongside lasers and plasma cannons, as players move not only on the ground, but also off walls and through the air. This game is fast, blindingly so, and violent, delightfully so, appealing to and satisfying the most visceral of instincts while demanding exclusive and constant attention.

The initial experience of playing Desert Crisis can be disorienting because there is nothing else quite like it. After connecting to a server and choosing a team, you will be prompted to customize every aspect of your character. You don't merely select primary and secondary firearms, but also melee weapons, armor levels, equipment, and special skills ranging from bio-regeneration to martial arts mastery to technological expertise, and more. There are literally hundreds of possible combinations, not every one useful, but enough of them viable to afford a degree of freedom and variation that many other first-person shooters simply can't claim with their preset classes or restrictive purchase systems.

You might think you have found the perfect setup, having selected the most seemingly powerful weapons and the heaviest armor, only to find players dressed in little more than cotton and denim flipping over your crosshairs to headshot you with a 9mm pistol, or sprinting toward you with a katana to liberate your head from your body before you can react.

In fact, it can be to your benefit to select less armor or even none. The relation between armor and movement is inverse and extreme, so choosing to fight naked gives you the running and gymnastic capabilities of an Olympic athlete. In addition to higher speed values, Desert Crisis' emphasis on movement manifests itself through tools of mobility that must be used strategically and appropriately: a four-way somersault, the ability to jump off walls, and a frenzied forward dash. Unlike similar Half-Life mods at the time that required the binding of several new, unfamiliar, and potentially out-of-the-way keys for less useful stunts, Desert Crisis incorporated contemporary shooter controls to make itself accessible. Somersaulting merely requires the simultaneous input of the jump and crouch keys, a combination many players will recognize as the Half-Life long jump. Walljumping is easily achieved by pressing jump again near a wall. Instead of bogging players down with the difficulty of learning how to perform a technique, it allows them to concentrate on learning how to use it.

It might seem easy to dismiss all of this as pointless and pretentious acrobatics. In reality, what you have been given is not merely the ability to jump around, but the power to invoke the vertical plane at will, and this has a variety of both aggressive and evasive applications. Flipping to the side is better for throwing off pistol accuracy, while backward is preferred for reducing shotgun damage. Alternatively, either technique can be used to elevate yourself to fire explosives at the floor. It even forces you to learn to shoot at angles that otherwise wouldn't even exist. It's a self-indulgent concept with measured implementation.

In keeping with this theme of self-indulgence, the actual gunplay is suitably insane. The mix of contemporary ballistics and sci-fi energy weapons is only one of the characteristics that sets Desert Crisis apart. Weapons are brutally effective and player characters are very fragile, not to mention the ever present possibility of dying by headshot - all facts meant to be compensated for with extreme mobility. While some first-person shooters have bullets with an immobilizing effect, Desert Crisis goes to the opposite extreme. Bullets have a Smash Bros.-like pushing effect that can propel players into and through the air, sometimes to safety, other times to their cratering deaths.

But as much as the weapons feel brutal, they look even more so. You don't merely shoot people in the head; you decapitate them with bullets! If your Dirty Harry magnum revolver aim is true, a spherical mass of flesh will soar straight up through the air, ejected from its now headless, crumpling body, all to the sound of a very satisfying splat. The effect is amplified for more obviously powerful weapons like explosives, which have the tendency to rend one body half from the other while splattering comically exaggerated blood.

If that weren't enough, even a single game of Desert Crisis would be enough to recognize that the action doesn't stop at gunplay. It extends to swords, hammers, machetes, knives, even fists! With plenty of range and power, these close-quarters weapons are almost as deadly and terrifying as firearms. Particularly for those players who specialize in Kung Fu, they make extremely reliable tertiary weapons when combined with the ability to close the distance in an instant by sprinting, so much so that they become a frequent part of gameplay.

This seemingly uncontrollable chaos and self-indulgent excess are threaded together by a streamlined objective system that enhances the action by lending it focus and purpose. The most common game type is one of push-pull territorial control, with zones marked by laptops that must be hacked to achieve capture. The catch is that the player hacking is defenseless while doing so, and must rely on teammate cover (or sheer opponent incompetence) for the team to be able to push forward and ultimately win. Meanwhile, players on the other team need to scramble madly to kill the one stationary, but often obscured and well protected, target in a sea of rapidly moving ones. It's an objective system that actually facilitates the action rather than distracting from it.

Desert Crisis' crowning achievement as a crazy and amazing first-person shooter would not be possible without its inherent status as multiplayer game. The appeal of performing crazy and amazing, but ultimately canned, actions on unchanging AI opponents can only last so long. The human element makes for a game that is spontaneous and continuously evolving. The crazy amazing things that happen are not mere visual splendor, but a result of interaction between players.

For an example, many years ago my electromagnetic sniper rifle was feared across the game's five or six servers. One player attempted to throw off my aim by walljumping repeatedly, thinking I would be unable to make an almost completely vertical shot. When I landed it, instead of expressing frustration, his only response was "NICE." The action is so crazy that even being killed can be enjoyable if it happens under amazing circumstances, something that can't be said about many games. It was an experience we shared, one of awe, hilarity and personal absorption.

These days, I no longer have the privilege of being able to play Desert Crisis regularly because of a relative lack of players. Its best days are long gone but certainly not forgotten. Some of us have realized that nothing can truly replace it, so we play every Sunday. A handful of Europeans and Americans who would segregate themselves in a more popular game due to latency differences gather together on one server. Such is the devotion this game inspires. And even if there comes a time when no one is around to play with me, I will still have my memories.


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Community review by radicaldreamer (July 16, 2009)

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zippdementia posted July 19, 2009:

hey, wow, great review! I don't have any complaints on this one. Just bummed I never tried this out in its hey-day.
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radicaldreamer posted July 19, 2009:

People still play it on Sundays, though it's primarily Europeans and a few Americans, so the server is European. I get 200 ping. The overall level of play isn't as high as it used to be, but everyone more or less knows what they're doing so it could be difficult to start now.

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