During lockdown, I’ve mostly been catching up on my games rather than watching films. I bought the Half-Life games a while ago but never got around to finishing them. Well now, I’m all caught up and I do want to talk about the first game that is heralded as one of the greatest PC games of all time.
The start of ‘Half-Life’ follows the morning routine of Dr Gordon Freeman, an M.I.T. Graduate and Theoretical Physicist who works for Black Mesa Research Facility (an already ominous name) which is located in an abandoned Cold War I.C.B.M. launch silo in New Mexico, USA. During an experiment using an Anti-Mass Spectrometer and a ‘Xen Crystal’ which the scientists ‘went to great lengths to obtain’, the subsequent reaction causes a ‘Resonance Cascade’ which teleports various Alien beings from the Xen home world and causing untold destruction. Gordon must make his way through the facility, battling dangerous creatures, the American military from soldiers to Ninjas all culminating in an all-out battle with the Supreme Leader of the Xen forces.
Video Game Developer, Valve have consistently been one step ahead of the industry with a number of their titles showing off new tech and software.
The original Half-Life was developed using a modified version of the Quake Engine by id Software which Valve used to create the GoldSrc engine. The original game bared a resemblance to the Quake games on the most basic level as it largely involves running around an environment and shooting things but, one area where ‘Half-Life’ shines is in its storytelling.
‘Half-Life’ achieves the difficult task of telling a story without telling it. There are no cinematic cutscenes, no rolling text screens or lengthy exposition dumps. There’s one man with a crowbar and a facility full of aliens, that’s as much as the player can grasp in the first 30 minutes and that’s about as much as the player can take in but if one pays attention to the background details, the full story begins to unfold.
I’d be here forever if I had to list them all, but a prime example is the beginning. The game begins with a lengthy sequence showing Gordon on the train ride into work. Thanks to the announcer, we know that the train picked up Gordon from the ‘Level 3 Dormitories’ which clearly shows that the Black Mesa employees live on the complex. The player is free to look around the train and witness at all the other scientists at work, most of which the player will either visit or encounter at some point during the game such as helicopters, rockets and hazardous pits of radioactive waste.
Another stroke of brilliance was having a silent and faceless protagonist in Gordon Freeman. We know what he looks like because of concept art and box covers but due to the first-person camera, we don’t see his face in the game. This type of protagonist makes for a great immersive experience as the player is seeing the events through the eyes of Gordon Freeman but are free to react to the games events because Gordon doesn’t offer his own.
For the first 30 minutes, before the Resonance Cascade, the player is free to wander around Sector C, have a peek into the offices, listen to conversations between the other scientists and even interrupt their work by turning off lights and other shenanigans. The player is technically playing the role of Gordon Freeman in doing his job but everything after the Resonance Cascade is totally new to Gordon Freeman as well as the player.
Another aspect that was indicative of FPS’s of the 90’s was the lack of objective markers. Just after the Resonance Cascade when Gordon is left at the bottom level of the Anti-Mass Spectrometer, it’s not immediately clear what to do next. The layout of Black Mesa provides a more organic approach to the game’s progression as the environment leads the player through the various events and set-pieces. There will occasionally be an NPC who will give Gordon directions on where to go next but even if a line of dialogue is missed, it’s not too difficult to find where to go next even if I did have to divert to YouTube a few times but that’s just because I’m stupid.
As for the gameplay, it’s largely the typical FPS affair. There is a satisfying escalation in the weapons which is parallel to the escalation in difficulty. First, it’s the iconic crowbar and a handgun, shotgun and SMG until Gordon is wielding a crossbow, a precision rocket launcher and a gun which only takes depleted uranium as ammunition. They’re really fun to use and give enough solutions to apply some strategy to any given combat scenario.
The only thing I really am not a fan of is the first-person precision platforming which sucks balls. Judging distances and directions in first person takes time which fortunately, a lot of the platforming sections allow for but there are a few sections that took an annoying number of attempts, especially the section before the rocket launch where you have to avoid the laser tripwires or be blown up but the lines are so close together and you can’t see your feet.
There is a lot of platforming in the Xen world, especially in the final boss fight. There aren’t a great many boss fights in the whole game but there are two in Xen. One against the ‘Gonarch’ or the head crab with a big, swinging ball-sack and then there’s the Nihilanth who is the supreme leader of the Xen and the one being who is orchestrating the Xen forces on Earth.
The boss fight was a massive pain in the butt for me because dodging all the electrical attacks and the other enemies was particularly annoying whilst I’m trying to find the jump pads that will get me high enough to fire a few rounds into it’s head before I get teleported elsewhere. After about two hours, several dozen attempts and not one drop of patience in my body, I managed to do it.
To finish the game, Gordon has a meeting with the G-Man, a mysterious man in a blue suit who can be seen at various points throughout the game. The player does not interact with the G-Man until the end of the game where he tells Gordon that his ‘employers’ have taken control of Xen now that the Nihilanth is dead and they wish to recruit him. Gordon can either accept or decline. Declining means certain death but upon accepting, the G-man puts Gordon into stasis which sets up the events of ‘Half-life 2’. Sadly, the most interesting bits happen off screen. We know that the G-Man acquired the Xen crystal that was used in the experiment that caused the Resonance Cascade but what are his motives? Who are his ‘employers’?
I haven’t played the expansions, namely ‘Opposing Force’, ‘Blue Shift’ and ‘Decay’, just the main game but I really enjoyed the main game and I’m not against playing them at some point in the future. ‘Half-life’ has also been properly remade with ‘Black Mesa’ which just recently came off early access on Steam. Valve released a remake of ‘Half-life’ around the same time as ‘Half-life 2’ made in the Source engine but it was the same game with slightly more polished graphics and a few sections that were changed to incorporate a bit of ‘physics’. It was also notorious for being a bit ‘buggy’. I haven’t played that either but I understand that the Xen level is twice as long and sod that. I’d like to play ‘Half-life: Alyx’ but sadly, my funds can’t stretch to a whole new VR setup right now.
To this day, ‘Half-life’ remains one of the best video games of all time to the fans and the PC gaming community and now having played it, I can see what everyone means. It’s one of those games that you feel like you’ve played simply because of its reputation. ‘Half-life’ succeeds in telling a really interesting story because it’s left to the player to uncover the secrets of Black Mesa and what they were really up to. All I can say for certain after playing through the first ‘Half-life’ is that the G-Man is running the show.
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