Half-Life (PC) review
"Back in 1998, nothing came close to the creative vision of Half-Life. Even in 2014, naming shooters with storytelling on par with Half-Life is a difficult proposition."
Long before Valve jump-started the digital distribution revolution with their gargantuan Steam platform, they actually made games. The beginning of their fabled journey to fortune and glory was sculpting a little gem called Half-Life. It turned first-person gaming on its head, infusing meaningful context into the environments and gameplay. Nearly 17 years after its release, not every aspect of Half Life has aged well. However, it still an overall marvel to experience and has rightfully earned its place as a PC classic.
This is due primarily to how the narrative is cleverly woven into the world through the visual presentation. The plot itself is derived entirely by the player by reading the setting, not having it spoon-fed to them in cutscenes or text boxes. You are Dr. Gordon Freeman, you work for a private research center called Black Mesa, it's seems like any other day of fruitless labor and being scolded by middle-management. That is, until you perform an experiment in the anomalous materials sector and it accidentally spawns a portal to another world. Chaos ensues, hostile aliens come pouring into the facility, the military arrives and starts massacring scientists, and nobody has the brains nor balls to do anything about it but Freemen. From start to finish, you have complete control over Freemen and actively glean these crucial details. Every step you take on this odyssey through industrial complexes, spooky laboratories, drainage systems, desert canyons, and even other dimensions is one of your own. It feels cohesive and marginally real, with nothing gamey like scores or intrusive loading screens to be found. When combined with the mysteriously vague plot that forces your brain to read between the lines, it makes Half-Life feels like an experience, not a videogame. Now nearly every FPS tries to capture that same magic, but rarely succeed. Back in 1998, nothing came close to the creative vision of Half-Life. Even in 2014, naming shooters with storytelling on par with Half-Life is a difficult proposition.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the production values. In this regard, the game has aged terribly. To be fair, at the time, a full 3D shooter grounded mostly in reality was innovative. You saw and interacted with things that were relatable, instead of ice-skating through hell shooting lasers at hulking cyber demons. But the game is regardless a mess of recycled monochromatic textures and character models. I can't imagine back then it was any easier to navigate the grayscale mess that is Black Mesa than it is now. Later, the alien domains change up the art direction in exciting ways, but not enough to substitute the industrial labyrinths synonymous with Half-Life level design. On the other hand, the audio is simply fantastic. Weapons are perfect blend of realistic booming and exaggerated tinkering, ambient noises like climbing on ladders or stepping on grating are spot-on, and collecting pick-ups of any kind reward your ears with delightfully satisfying confirmations. There is a reason Valve reuses a lot of its audio assets from Half-Life in all their games, it's perfect. Too bad the graphics engine they used didn't have the same spectacular pedigree as Source, otherwise praise for the visuals might match the superb sound design.
Moving on to gameplay, which is a bit of a mixed bag. The clear emphasis on rigorous platforming didn't serve the game too well. Sure tightrope walking on pipes and avoiding being crushed by giant pistons is entertaining, but not when every mistake is a fatal one. This game eventually devolves into a grind of quick saving/loading the likes of which would make Super Meat Boy aficionados weep. Too much of Half-Life involves traversing punishing platforming obstacles courses that admittedly surpass the cruel ingenuity of contemporaries like Super Mario 64. Conversely, combat is exceptionally fun and smooth. The AI is leagues ahead of what the competition was doing at the time, unafraid to run for cover, flank from different angles, or huck grenades at campers. Aliens come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from annoying bugs that chip away health to armored captains with artillery weapons. Your arsenal features a variety of standard real world firearms as well as thrown together sci-fi nonsense. Each has unique properties that are useful from one end of the game to the other, and control tightly. The only discernible issue with the combat is some enemies deal far too much damage, even on easy mode. Anytime you encounter more than a single enemy, your health will be depleted enough that you will feel the need to stop and scour for more. This interrupts the otherwise organic flow the experience far too much. As a product of the nineties, it's perfectly acceptable, though it seems like Valve's engineers could have done more to balance the pacing.
In fact, with more intelligent tweaking, Half-Life could have been a timeless masterpiece. As it stands, the game is merely a textbook example of how trying something different can payoff in big ways. Half-Life is undoubtedly a classic, but only for the few things it does exceptionally well. Any gamer who either wants the full Half-Life story or just likes to know their gaming history would be amiss not to play it. And if its any consolation, it’s a good way to pass the time until Half-Life 3 is confirmed.
Community review by Andre_Miller (March 03, 2014)
Andre Miller clearly likes playing and writing about videogames. He lives in Southern California and loves to soak in the delicious sunshine. You can find him on twitter at @Andretwopointoh
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