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Half-Life (PC) artwork

Half-Life (PC) review

"The intro sequence is the part that endures, obviously; the commute into the creaking heart of the Black Mesa Research Facility will never quite lose its majesty. Once the soundscape oozes in and your eyes open, your tramcar winds its way down through the massive complex, sweeping you through a foreseeable world in which technology is definitely awe-inspiring, but far from reliable and farther from invasive. Incredible multi-articulated robots repair busted-up chemical vats. Steel airlocks and e..."

The intro sequence is the part that endures, obviously; the commute into the creaking heart of the Black Mesa Research Facility will never quite lose its majesty. Once the soundscape oozes in and your eyes open, your tramcar winds its way down through the massive complex, sweeping you through a foreseeable world in which technology is definitely awe-inspiring, but far from reliable and farther from invasive. Incredible multi-articulated robots repair busted-up chemical vats. Steel airlocks and electronic doors keep the place secure, but the guards' passkeys are playing up again. An intricate rail network ferries people all over, but you're still bloody late for work! In five memorable minutes that are as effective today as they were in 1998, VALVe Software sets its stage with an effortless piece of storytelling.

It's the only bit of Half-Life that's dated well, actually.

I can't even remember when I first played it. Can you blame me? Gaming is all about moving forward, after all. Yes, the W key's been firmly depressed since the beginning, and every few months the unstoppable march of progress tosses up a new god for us to scream about. Half-Life was revolutionary, undeniably so, but it's still just one node on the genre timeline; its narrative technique and fresh design have long since been absorbed into the FPS canon. Decisive twists that once blew minds now elicit tired sighs, and effects that were once magical might as well have been scraped into the screen by a sadist. It has a sequel now. The sequel has a sequel. The original Half-Life's time has come and gone. No doubt about it.

But hey - gaming's not just about progress. It's also about wild-eyed nostalgia, and an upcoming 8-year anniversary is as good an excuse as any. If nothing else, Half-Life's got to be worth booting up for old times' sake, or to pay your respects if you've never played it. It's not as if it's a trouble, on you or your equipment; they're practically giving it away now, and even if you can't adjust there's still a fond laugh to be had at the install program's test to see if your PC can play WAV files.

And, of course, that brilliant intro, easing you back into the past, to be savoured like McQueen's Mustang or Ben-Hur flipping the chariot. The rest of the game unfolds with the much the same expository grace, but it isn't quite so timeless, unfortunately. The critical twist - routine day at work goes horribly wrong - has been ripped of so much that even if you haven't experienced this one before, it's still more cute than anything else. Seamlessly cast in your role as lab assistant Gordon Freeman, friends bid you good morning but you've no time to say hello because you're late, you're late, for a very important date! In the great big ominous test chamber! Computers crash and panels explode as you rush by, but it'll probably all be fine. There's no chance that we'll accidentally summon alien horrors that will eradicate all life in a blind fury, right guys? Wink wink!

But seriously, try not to smirk when the guy covered in blood wails, "We tried to warn them!"

All the same, even as ripe for parody as the cold ravages of gaming advancement have made it, the disastrous shitstorm depicted in Half-Life still carries a fair kick. In 1998, the human soul of the game's opening sections was something fairly new to the FPS genre, so much so that the aesthetics of violence hadn't quite caught up yet. Games have never been known for their respect for human life, but Half-Life destroys mankind not with the washed-out ragdoll subtlety of a modern title, but the vivid, brutal finality that a Doom or a Quake would apply, usually only to a sci-fi bestiary. The game contrasts the human presence of today's games with the hard-boiled gore of yesteryear to powerful effect. Foresight doesn't make the image of an alien beast's shockwave pulse blowing a terrified scientist into a shower of red pulp any less of an impact. Likewise, the game's sparse architecture and clean lines just makes its violent scenes harder to ignore; when an electricity-spluttering Vortigaunt carves you open, the sight of your own bright red blood on a clean grey wall is a harrowing one.

This uncompromising depiction of catastrophe is what fuels the entire game, and lends the first few chapters specifically a genuine sense of chaos, with your first attempts to flee the ruined lab marked by confusion and shock. With every corner turned you find the familiar corrupted by the alien; a scientist mauled by his zombified colleagues, a security guard torn in half by a wayward laser beam. It's all you can do to zigzag through the carnage, grab a discarded crowbar, and beat back the terrors that block your sprint to the surface.

Not that Half-Life holds you under the bloodstained claw permanently, though; it is a first-person-shooter, so obviously it's not long before you're reborn as the Angel of Go!@#$! Genocide. The exotic wildlife of the Xen dimension make unpredictable enemies for the first quarter or so of the game, but the real battle begins when the cleaners arrive to suppress the incident, killing everyone and everything on-site. All of a sudden, you're shooting humans as well; the one-man war that you wage against the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit of the US Marine Corps bristles with anger on both sides. They may be nowhere near as clever as the ranks of a Far Cry or a F.E.A.R, but these hard-bitten bastards are tough enough and armed enough to get the job done without the need for fancy tactics. They move and fire, lob grenades and man artillery, scream profane insults and scrawl hateful graffiti. They have you cowering under tables and behind crates, but they're such callous, fascist bastards that you savour every opportunity to pop out and give them both barrels in their gas-masked heads, spitting bile and fury at the screen as you do. Half-Life may start civilised, but when its drama peaks it strips away even your own humanity, leaving only teeth-baring bloodlust.

And this is all to say nothing of the sexy ninja bitches!

Again, it's that odd dichotomy between the old ultraviolence and the new sophistication. To say that the combat in Half-Life is anything approaching realistic would be ridiculous, and something of a disservice to the efforts of developers today. Even in the later stages, when you're forced to enter the explosive fray between the massed forces of the Marines and the bullet-eating juggernauts of Xen, the action plays out with none of the tactical intricacies or control subtleties of a modern FPS - but that just makes what is there hit all the harder. Without the smooth filters and rounded edges that soften the conflicts of today, with only a few good firearms and a couple alt-fire modes in your hands, the action in Half-Life is so solid you can feel it in your bones. Battles are pacy, often through in a matter of seconds, won or lost on your ability to think fast and act decisively. Victory comes on a knife-edge, stolen from the jaws of a gibbing with a few hitpoints left, usually thanks to a split-second leap or a magnum round fired on a instinctive twitch. It doesn't feel real - it feels raw.

It's all thanks to the unique place in history and the unique place in the spectrum of FPS design that Half-Life occupies. Like Gordon Freeman in the game's mind-bending climax, it sits between disparate worlds, one of which is familiar, one of which is not. For those enjoying it on its release day, the brutality was the comforting part, and the emotional undercurrent the element that lent the game its disturbing power. For us, today, it's just the other way around. We're used to the buddies, the banter, and the tragedy, but we haven't seen it depicted with such tactile, visceral exuberance, for a while at least.

And it's not even rooted in that one position - the nigh-on infinite library of add-ons, user levels, and total conversions produced in the last 7-and-a-bit years by the industrious fanbase provide a thousand different spins on the genre. There are old-school monster shoots and sophisticated narrative experiments, available for free download. Some releases are so far out there that they're impossible to quantify, the simple brushwork and limited textures supported by the engine delivering nothing but a mystifying glimpse into some far-off lunatic's mind; sometimes, it has been scraped into the screen by a sadist. From zombie holocausts to Vietnam flashbacks, unofficial sequels to recreations of Balkan conflict zones, there's an internet's worth of diverse entertainment to be experienced here, covering every template you can think of.

You'll always come back to Half-Life, though. I can't even remember when I first played it.

Can you remember the first time you saw Star Wars? Half-Life isn't quite a retro FPS, and it's definitely not a modern title. It's not much like the classics that inspired it, or the classics it inspired. Half-Life is its own game, of its own time. If you're going to play it, play it, but play it for what it was. Don't play the sequel or the remake. Play the oldest version you can find, without patches or enhancement packs. Don't mind the obvious plotting, or the threadbare graphics, or the simple action. Let it judder and quake as you skip your way through it's hokey sci-fi yarn, and it'll thrill you like you'll likely never be thrilled again.

Let Half-Life date. It's not going anywhere.

autorock's avatar
Community review by autorock (August 27, 2006)

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