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Half-Life (PC) artwork

Half-Life (PC) review

"Unforeseen Consequences"

Half-Life (PC) image

It's difficult to envision a gaming landscape without Half-Life, Valve's breakout hit from 1998. Being the most influential game from the year that gave us Ocarina of Time, Starcraft, Thief, Final Fantasy Tactics, Baldur’s Gate, and Metal Gear Solid is no small task, but Gaben and the boys fresh outta Microsoft employment were up to it with their paradigm shifter. For better or for worse, there is no going back to how things were before the first-person shooter was reshaped forever.

Who can forget the world of Half-Life? The absolute mastery over technical design has not yet lost all its power. Those '98 textures and models aren't quite Crysis-tier, but the foreboding and isolated industrial aesthetic perfectly conveys the danger and loneliness of your dire situation, and Valve's mastery over the realm of sound further amplifies the atmosphere. Half-Life isn't only the HEV Suit, a crowbar, and a pair of horn-trimmed glasses; it's an echo of footsteps touching the iron grate of a bridge hovering over the darkened maw, it's the screeching of missiles about to fell towers lining canyon walls, it's the whirring of the floodlight-bathed elevator taking you deeper into concrete hell. Half-Life is the silence between mechanical moaning and alien roars. It's rust-coated metal striking rust-coated metal. It's the humming of unimaginable energies coursing through an otherworldly realm. It's Kelly Bailey's immaculate soundtrack reaching forlorn riffs and heavy beats and ethereal ambiance. Your exploration of Black Mesa is memorable for not just the scale of your environs, but for how intimate your awareness of them becomes throughout the game.

Half-Life screenshot Half-Life screenshot

Communication is paramount to worldbuilding, especially oft-wordless visual story telling to be experienced in Half-Life, but it also breathes life into gameplay. Gunshots roar with power appropriate to type and damage output. Should your foes be on the receiving end of that might, they'll let loose blood and pained cries alike; should you be the unlucky one, diagetic sound from the HEV suit's computer provides a calm awareness to contrast the furious firefight you're trying to survive. The creak of an iron door, the beep of a device's on button, and the growling of a machine's activation; situation and player action alike are communicated to the player.

Beyond the technical advancements, Half-Life is very much a work of transition, in both design and tone. The superior, unfettered movement found in the 90s FPS gives Half-Life a gameplay advantage that most modern genre titles have been too senseless to emulate; hitscan-based weaponry makes for lightning-fast combat encounters with handfuls of foes more wily than Doom's hellish pantheon of brutes; the level design is neither as simply straitjacketed as Call of Duty's corridors nor as ludicrously labyrinthine as Marathon's mazes. The first-person immersion has been copied countless times over the years, yet the sheer, raw oppressiveness of Black Mesa's decrepit reactors and desert warzones resonate at least as deeply in these days of chrome-coated hallways as the events playing through Gordon Freeman's eyes did for players in a story-less '98. In many ways, Half-Life is the most aptly titled game ever made; it's the point at which a genre shifted from one casting mold to another, and Half-Life manages to retain most of the best of both worlds.

Half-Life screenshot Half-Life screenshot

Yet Half-Life is not a completely timeless work. The AI was revolutionary for its time, especially the HCEU soldiers with their squad tactics, but a few too many self-destructive grenade tosses and blind corner-turns into your loaded shotgun make it easy to forget just how dynamic the combat can be the rest of the time. Well, the dynamism isn't the best, either; all the weapons are reliable and fun, yet aside from the late-game novelties, it's that same set you've seen since Wolfenstein 3D or so: melee, pistol, machine gun, shotgun, blah blah blah. Make no mistake, it's still amazing how something as minor using a different weapon in the exact same encounter can change how a situation plays out, but how much better would any given game be if it's arsenal was as creative and diverse as Unreal from the same year? Say, didn't Unreal make many of Half-Life's transitory achievements, with less compromise to expansive level design, just a few months earlier, anyway?

Indeed, Half-Life can not be held wholly guiltless for the mind-numbing monotony of the modern FPS. No regenerating health or minuscule time-to-kill to be found here, but there's the linearity and the hitscan weapons, among other elements that grew less welcome over time. Yet it is not just to blame a trend-setter for imitators less careful in their iterations; it would be just as silly to ignore the depth of the universally appealing works of Steven Spielberg or Stan Lee just because modern large-scale films and mainstream comic books cannot be bothered to implement the dexterity their epics retain to this day. Even if Half-Life were to be as ultimately overlooked as its (possibly superior) relative Unreal has been over the years, Gordon Freeman's adventure would be no more or less astounding.

Half-Life screenshot Half-Life screenshot

Half-Life isn't just a defining turning point in a genre and possibly game design as a whole; it's a good influence that's at leas as prominent as the bad. Yes, there's those corridor shooters that failed to reach the dark energy emanating from this masterwork, but there's also the giant increases of standards for technical wizardry and attention to detail in gaming worlds. And don't you forget the modding scene: magnificent multiplayer mods under-discovered and behemoth, new tales and depths of Black Mesa, wholly original stories taking place in Gothic countrysides and alternate timelines and everything in between. All this and a new mogul of gaming begun by just a few fellas tired of working under the big guys! That's something you see only once in a lifetime.

Follow_Freeman's avatar
Community review by Follow_Freeman (November 25, 2018)

When he isn't in a life-or-death situation, Dr. Freeman enjoys playing a variety of video games. From olden shooters to platformers & action titles: Freeman may be a bit stuck with the games of the past, but he doesn't mind. Some things don't age much.

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hastypixels posted November 29, 2018:

A hale and hearty review of the game that launched a thousand "confirmed" memes in addition to the broader spectrum industry. Phew. Freeman you're one heckuva writer, and I should be sleeping right now, but I'm glad you covered this.

My entrance was at the ground floor of City 17 and its narratively attached locales, so I couldn't talk sensibly about it apart from a scathing lash at the remake, Black Mesa. Which is only now nearing completion, but so help me, will anyone even notice?
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Follow_Freeman posted November 30, 2018:

Thank you very much! As for Black Mesa, it's a fine effort, but I'd count it among the many examples of a game getting itself into hot water by revving up the hype machine before full launch. I've decided not to play it until its completion, so I have no professional opinion on it. Although, strangely, there are plenty of Black Mesa mods -- yes, mods of a mod -- on, the Half-Life modding website. If I ever review Black Mesa, that'll be an angle I cover.

And I think you would like Unreal Gold, incidentally; it's arguably the best single-player FPS ever made, in my opinion. Plenty of overlapping design between it and HL, which is very interesting.

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