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Ah, the original Half-Life. A game many consider one of the best ever made. Half-Life was released in 1998 and back then I never even heard of it nor did I have a computer that could run it, anyway. It was when I first entered High School that I obtained Half-Life and at the time, the only reason I wanted it was because it came with Counter-Strike 1.6. Yeah, that was before I despised multiplayer-focused games. But I did try Half-Life back then and it didn’t really do anything for me. The slow start, the environmental puzzles, I just couldn’t get into it. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I really gave the game another chance. I did beat Half-Life 2 when that came out and figured I should beat the first one to see what all the fuss was about. So about a year or two ago I beat Half-Life: Source and it finally clicked. I finally understood why this game is so revered. So I recently decided to beat the original Half-Life and, honestly, I still think it’s better Half-Life 2. But do I consider it among the greatest shooters or games ever made? Let’s see.
You play as the silent protagonist and theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman. He arrives at the fictional Black Mesa Research Facility located somewhere in the New Mexico desert. During an experiment something goes wrong. What they call a “resonance cascade” occurs causing aliens from another dimension to invade the facility. Shortly afterwards, government soldiers are sent in to cover up the event. There are no cutscenes and the story is told through various interactions with NPC scientists and guards throughout the facility. The game is broken up into several chapters and is relatively seamless with brief loading times in certain sections. Thanks to modern hardware these load times would only last about one or two seconds. The Black Mesa facility itself is very reminiscent of the real-life Area 51 out in Nevada and I think the entire setting and premise is just fantastic. Interdimensional aliens? Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. There’s not a lot of dialogue and maybe about three or four voice actors for all of the scientist and guard NPCs. I also have to mention the mysterious G-Man whose motives are never really clear. You can spot him in various locations if you look hard enough as he seems to be following you throughout the entire game. He may even possess special non-human abilities. I think he’s one of the coolest characters in video games just due to the sheer mystery surrounding him.
Half-Life is a first-person shooter but it does take some time before you get to the meat of the action. I think that’s what deterred me from playing for so long. The game kind of starts out slow and back then I just wanted to shoot shit. For the first hour or so the game has you navigating your way around the facility beating enemies to death with a crowbar and eventually you come across a pistol and shotgun. It’s not until about halfway through the story do you really start pumping enemies with bullets. There is some puzzle solving and it’s all environmental puzzles, mainly figuring out how to progress to the next area. Sometimes you may need to press a button, turn a valve, or maybe blow something up to create a path. I’ve never been a fan of solving puzzles in games and that’s another reason I lost interest in Half-Life way back when but now I’ll add it to my list of exceptions. The puzzles didn’t fry my brain or anything but it’s the level design, action, and immersion that really kept me interested.
The level design is incredible. I really felt like I was navigating through some large facility. You’ll traverse through vents and shafts, labs, and even outdoor environments. The game opens with this train ride through Black Mesa. It’s a way to display the game’s credits and it also shows you different parts of the facility, work being done, different mechanisms, and it does a good job at introducing you to Black Mesa, helping to create the immersive environment. However, I do feel the train sequence does go on a little too long and you can’t skip it or really do anything except wait. The design work is really amazing making the entire facility feel real and well connected. Throughout the game are guards and scientists that you can recruit to follow you around. Many times you’ll need them to open doors granting you access to specific areas. Guards are the most useful as they can also back you up in combat. They normally carry a pistol and will shoot at enemies but the AI here isn’t phenomenal. If you have to crawl through a vent or navigate around a significant obstacle, chances are they’ll stay behind.
Besides bashing enemies to death with a crowbar, Gordon will acquire other numerous, more effective weapons. When the Blue Shift expansion pack was released in 2001, it gave players the option to use the HD pack in the original game. I don’t believe you need Blue Shift installed nowadays to use it as there is an option to turn HD models on or off. Throughout my playthrough I had the HD models turned on. So the M4A1 replaces the original MP5 and the Beretta M9 replaces the Glock 17. The HD pack also includes new sound effects for the assault rifle and shotgun and also includes more detailed character models. Along with the pistol is a .357 Magnum that can do serious damage, killing several enemy types in one shot. Later in the game you’ll acquire a crossbow, an RPG, and even some alien weapons with the Gluon Gun being my favorite. It can vaporize enemies in a matter of seconds. It’s awesome. Charging up the Tau Cannon can prove useful in dispatching enemies quickly and the Hive Hand fires these small hornet-like things that can overwhelm enemies. In addition to all of these are hand grenades which really feel floaty when thrown, satchel charges, and laser trip mines. There’s also these little tiny alien creatures called Snarks that can be thrown. They’ll run around and bite enemies and eventually explode. Every time I threw one they always seemed to come back and attack me so I didn’t use them often.
Early in the game you acquire the HEV Suit which is essentially a fancy suit with extra protection against gunfire, radiation, and is even equipped with a flashlight. Throughout the game you’ll come across these health and charging stations. Health stations can provide a specific amount of health and charging stations provide Gordon with armor. The suit constantly monitors your vitals so if you’re low on health for example, the suit will let you know. You still have a heads-up display, of course, but this is still a nice touch. Late in the game you’ll acquire the Long Jump Module which enables you to jump longer distances.
There are a good variety of enemies to deal with. The beginning of the game has you dealing with these little crawling creatures called Headcrabs. They leap around and latch onto a victim’s head, essentially turning them into a zombie. I guess you could say they control the victim or use the body as a host. I’m not really a fan of this enemy type but they seem to be a staple for the Half-Life series. Soon enough you’ll encounter alien enemies like Bullsquids, Vortigaunts, and Houndeyes among others. All of the alien creatures are well designed and have unique attacks. But it’s the soldiers that pose the real threat. When the soldiers are called in you won’t be so quick to run and gun through areas. You normally encounter them in small numbers and they’re aim is quite good so you’ll be looking for cover often. They do run around the area and with the spotty hit detection, shooting them can sometimes feel like a chore. There’s a couple scenarios where you encounter the most annoying enemies in the game and I think they’re supposed to be Black Ops soldiers or something. They move really fast and jump around making them really hard to hit. Yeah, they’re just a nuisance. The second time I had to deal with them I decided to just not even waste my ammo and run past them all.
Half-Life has aged well enough but it does have it’s share of problems. Even with the HD pack, this is still an eighteen-year-old game and it shows. Textures are blurry, animations can be glitchy, I noticed some clipping here and there, and the actual sound quality of the NPC voice overs is just terrible. But there was nothing game breaking or that really holds the game back in any regard. Half-Life was released back when games provided a real challenge and didn’t constantly hold your hand so even on the Medium difficulty I had trouble in some areas. It’s also one of those games where you can turn a corner and immediately get raped with attacks. Needless to say I was quick saving and quick loading constantly. I think some of the enemies have cheap attacks, specifically the Vortigaunts. They fire these green electrical blasts and they never seem to miss unless you’re behind something. Maybe I just suck but it always felt like when I was in view they would never miss even if I was moving. They’re not hard to kill but they become plentiful later in the game making some areas just annoying to navigate.
The biggest problem with the original Half-Life is Xen, the Borderworld, the last several chapters, all names for what’s otherwise known as the chapters that suck. Xen is like this other dimensional world where the aliens come from and in theory it’s very cool but the actual Xen chapters just blow ass chunks. The Xen world looks very alien and all but navigating it is just awful. There’s way too much platforming, ammo is not easy to come by, and you’re frequently attacked by these flying enemies called Alien Controllers that fire energy blasts and they’re just annoying to deal with. The world is split up into what I want to call these little islands or areas that you must navigate through and find the teleporter to teleport you to the next area. It just sucks and it doesn’t feel as well designed or connected as the Black Mesa facility did. I want to say the Xen areas feel rushed but the developers did do a good job at making me feel like I was in a hostile, unknown alien world and I’m guessing that was the intention. It’s just that the level design takes a serious shit compared to the rest of the game. Even the final boss fight kind of sucks. It’s just a shame the game has to end like this.
So do I think Half-Life is one of the greatest games ever made? Yeah. Even though I couldn’t get into it when I was younger, after finally playing it I can see why people love it so much. Besides the final chapters, the game has incredible level design, an amazing sense of immersion, and great set pieces that are truly memorable. A lot of my problems with it I equate with it’s age more than the technical aspects because it really is a solid game. Half-Life is a series with an incredible modding community so fans are still keeping this game alive. Even though Half-Life: Source was kind of a disappointment, the Black Mesa project which aims to truly give Half-Life an HD facelift, really shows how serious some fans are about it. It’s a first-person shooter that’s right up there with the best of them.