Half-Life (PC) review
"There’s a surprise around every corner, be it a new enemy, a new platforming challenge, or some new method of simply scaring the piss out of you, like watching a scientist get sucked into a hole in the wall, only to see him re-emerge in pieces a moment later. Take out any five-minute segment of Half-Life and it probably wouldn’t seem like anything particularly special – you have to play it all at once to fully understand just how well each piece compliments the next, how it all adds up to one nearly seamless FPS experience with rarely a single dull moment, or even one that feels like what you’ve already been through. It is truly greater than the sum of its parts."
I could ramble on endlessly about Half-Life's masterfully crafted, thrilling opening sequence, in which a scientific experiment goes disastrously wrong, a portal to another world is opened, and a vicious alien race begins to pour into the Black Mesa facility where the majority of the game takes place. In terms of survival horror atmosphere – in a game that can’t even be properly classified as survival horror, I’ll remind you – the guys at Valve put every trick they can think of into effect. Flickering lights, roaring alarms, dead bodies and pools of blood littering the floors, automatic doors slamming open and shut, pieces of dismantled machinery firing sparks and electric bolts every which way, scientists being massacred by hideous beasts while you watch helplessly from the other side of a bulletproof glass window… There’s even a moment when you’ll hit a button to call upon an elevator, and you’ll catch a quick glance of the car plummeting down the shaft with cargo load of screaming passengers; look down to see what became of them. It’s a truly nightmarish sequence, a sensory overload that assures you, right up front, that this is a disaster and you’re right in the middle of it.
But there was one detail in particular that stuck out to me. When the horrific images of this opening scene begin to die down and you finally get yourself a gun, you’ll pass through a pair of doorways into a corridor where you’ll be assaulted by a couple of squealing hound-like critters that fire shockwaves. In between the two automatic doors – they don’t work, so you’ll have to use your ever-trusty crowbar to smash through them – there’s a broken fan spinning slowly overhead. The sound it makes as it rotates is so perfect that to this day it’s one of the most distinct memories I have of playing Half-Life. It’s this low creaking sound, and it probably doesn’t seem too out of the ordinary to most people, yet I found it more unsettling than nearly any scream for help or alien cry I heard throughout the rest of the game.
This probably seems like an insignificant detail, and it is. But what’s great about Half-Life is that Valve has poured so much attention to detail into every aspect of the game that I can pick out something minor like that and instantly send fellow fans back to specific moments in the game. If you’ve played Half-Life, you’re probably recalling that scene I just described now, even if the aforementioned “broken fan noise” wasn’t as unsettling to you as it was to me. Half-Life takes places almost entirely in a single location, which must have created an unenviable position for Valve. They needed to design a game that wouldn’t feel derivative at all, that would be more than simply a set of nondescript rooms connected by a set of nondescript halls. A game like that would have been boring; Half-Life, in turn, is so full of variety that every single room feels unique.
Why, I could just mention “the freezer,” and anyone who’s played Half-Life will know: Yes, that was the place where I had to navigate through chunks of dangling meat to activate a moving platform, which would then be used to cross from one ventilation shaft to another! Or I could ask them about “the dam” and they’d think: Oh yeah, that was where I had to jump into the water to avoid getting shot down by the dastardly helicopter, and began making my escape down the river. Or I could bring up “surface access,” and they’d recall: Wait, wasn’t that the place where those ninja-like assassins tried to ambush me? Every location in Half-Life comes with a fond memory and a one- or two-word description that will instantly send fans back to the first time they played through this stellar adventure.
That’s part of what makes Half-Life one of the greatest first-person shooters ever made, even by today’s standards. There’s a surprise around every corner, be it a new enemy, a new platforming challenge, or some new method of simply scaring the piss out of you, like watching a scientist get sucked into a hole in the wall, only to see him re-emerge in pieces a moment later. Take out any five-minute segment of Half-Life and it probably wouldn’t seem like anything particularly special – you have to play it all at once to fully understand just how well each piece compliments the next, how it all adds up to one nearly seamless FPS experience with rarely a single dull moment, or even a moment that feels remotely like what you’ve already been through. It is truly greater than the sum of its parts.
Platforming in an FPS is rarely a good thing, yet considering how much of it there is in Half-Life, you have to wonder if it’s simply a matter of how talented the developer has to be. The platforming in Half-Life probably works because it’s rarely a simple matter of “use good timing to jump across this gap without dying,” though there is some of that, too. In many cases, rooms tend to resemble puzzles in which players are forced to analyze their surroundings and use their thinking skills to progress. How do you get to the other side of the pool of radioactive fluid without falling in? How do you cross the conveyor belt without getting smashed by the mechanical pistons? How do you descend the cliff without falling too far and killing yourself? Half-Life often feels like one big navigational puzzle with spurts of action thrown in for good measure – an unusual approach, but one that works and gives the series a distinct feel unlike any other FPS around.
Once the shooting starts – this is a shooter, remember? – Valve often downplays the action in favor of atmosphere and suspense. There are these little critters called headcrabs, which kind of resemble the facehuggers from Aliens and like to latch onto their hosts’ heads and possess them. They leap incredible distances and make these horrible screeching noises, and they are the source of most of the game’s jump-in-your-seat shocks. There are a lot of ventilation shafts in Half-Life, and you can expect to find more than a few tiny headcrabs tucked away in these areas, just waiting for a bespectacled scientist in an HEV environmental hazard suit to crawl by. Half-Life is a hell of a lot freakier than most of the so-called survival horror games I’ve had the misfortune of wasting my time with. Valve knows that louder does not necessarily mean better.
But then Valve also knows that every once in a while, yeah, loud can be pretty awesome. One story development that occurs early in the adventure is that the U.S. military has become involved, and that their mission is to wipe out all evidence of an alien outbreak, which includes killing all Black Mesa personnel. The purpose of these military brutes is likely to balance out the would-be monotony of killing endless hordes of animal-like aliens, and the AI used to bring the soldiers to life is impressive even today. If they know you’re under cover somewhere, they know that it’s not a good idea to chase after you blindly, but rather to flush you out with a grenade. Or, if they do decide to pursue, they’ll try to outflank you and use their numbers to their advantage. Whereas the aliens provide a challenge only due to their unearthly powers (like being able to shoot electricity or whatever), the military grunts you’ll encounter provide a challenge because they’re intelligent opponents.
Anyone who complains that Half-Life doesn’t have enough action obviously never made it to the chapter called “Surface Tension,” when players finally get a taste of fresh air and realize that’s only the start. In this segment, the longest and most intense chapter of the game, Valve pulls all the stops barely gives you a chance to pause for breath. Soldiers outnumber you by the dozens and ambush you relentlessly through dilapidated old buildings. Tanks sit around every corner, just waiting for the opportunity to take you out instantly with a well-placed shell. A seemingly unstoppable helicopter begins tailing you and eventually chases you through a minefield. (The comeuppance it receives is gratifying, to say the least.) This portion of the game is so exhilarating that it’s a miracle the game is able to maintain any momentum once it finally quiets down again.
Funny thing happens in the game’s final act. Something story-related occurs that drastically alters the setting of the game, and I found that I was suddenly not nearly as interested in the adventure as I had been for the first two-thirds. Many enjoyed this unexpected twist, and it’s certainly impossible to deny the artistic merits and atmospheric ambience of this act, but whereas I had been playing through the rest of the game because I was enjoying myself, I found myself completing this segment only because I hoped the game would once again rise to the heights it had set for itself this far. It only led me to one of those final bosses that is laughably easy to defeat if you know how to kill it, and horribly difficult if you don’t. (Even if the eerie, poignant final cinematic was totally worth it.)
But even then, it only comes to show that Valve was capable of constantly surprising me, and for the majority of the game I found myself grinning every time they pulled something new out of their pockets. In one instance, you’re faced with a monstrous enemy, and it looks as if you’re about to be involved in some tedious boss fight, when in fact your foe’s ultimate demise is more of the “activate these pipelines and hit this switch to incinerate it on the spot” variety, and the means of actually achieving that goal are more clever than you might think. While it hurts that Valve stooped to a more generic level in the game’s final moments, it’s hard to complain when the overall product is this amazing.
So how about the “cargo elevator,” when you thought dodging all those falling headcrabs would be enough, and then you got a sinking feeling in your chest when you realized they were all waiting for you at the bottom? Or what about the “auto shop,” when you had to use the lift to get a good vantage point and sneak a few potshots on the unknowing guards waiting patiently outside? Good times, good times.
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