Review by kiriyama2

"Almost ten years after the fact it still is an excellent game"

One series of games stands out in my mind as a pillar of excellence. Every single entry in the series is enjoyable near on magnificence. Half-Life is without a doubt in my mind one of the best series to ever grace the medium of video games. The possible exceptions to its excellent lineage are the average PS2 port (with the benefit of hindsight I realize it‘s not that great), and the Xbox port of HL2. It is no small boast to say that if Half-Life didn't exist there wouldn't be the phenomenal Counter-Strike or Team Fortress games (or Day of Defeat for that matter). Remarkably the game has held up exceedingly well since when it was first released little more than a decade ago.

In Half-Life you play as silent protagonist du jour Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist at the Black Mesa laboratories somewhere in New Mexico. The game starts off with Freeman on a tram system that's taking him to the level three laboratory, and for some reason it just works. Sure you're doing nothing else but just standing there while a computer voice tells you all the day-to-day announcements about working at Black Mesa. I guess it's the games way of telling you that hey this is the only view you're gonna get, so there, but it just works for some reason. Shortly you arrive at the level three labs and you go jump into your Hazard Suit and sprint off to some of the labs further underground. Seems the scientists want you to go push some alien artifact into some large device, why this most certainly can't have any sort of negative repercussions right? Surely enough the experiments ends poorly and alien creatures from another dimension (or something, they're not clear on that), and it's up to ol' Gordon to save the day. Aiding in the cavalcade of enemies out to stop Gordon is the military, how or why they knew about the experiments is anyone's guess, but there it is, and they‘re there to kill the scientists who opened the doorway for this invasion. It's a pretty straightforward plot, you're a scientist and need to save the day, simple right? But something that I think is neat about it is the fact that you're always looking out through Gordon's eyes, it never breaks the immersion by showing Gordon in a cinematic or nothing of the sort (or in mirrors either actually). I realize stuff like that's been done time and again, but I still think it's interesting.

I can recognize how this game was considered one of the best looking games around back in the day. Tragically, the graphics aren't exactly beautiful these days. They still look good, I don't wish to say they aren't good, it's just that they haven't really withstood the test of time. The characters are rather jaggy, and the backgrounds are rather blurry. There is also the fact that every security guard, and most of the scientists all look similar to one another, there's only three scientist models. For the human soldiers there's only two different models. Which means counting the aliens, there's only about seven or eight different enemy types, and including bosses, there‘s about eleven models total. Not that that should be misconstrued as some sort of crack about how the game is any less fun as a result as this is immensely fun.

The audio is really especially well done in this game. I know that there's fundamentally just the same four voice actors throughout most of the game, but for some reason it works out really well. Each actor does a good job, an just sounds really good. The only problem with the audio was one specific type of enemy, and that's only because of the fact that its attack sound is a loud wail that is profoundly irritating. What little music there is in the game works out well in terms of it fits during specific segments of the game. Just prior to the experiments that lead to the invasion, some really fitting techno music starts playing. Or, for instance, some time after the military attack Black Mesa and you're going on the offensive a rousing piece of music starts. I've heard people bemoan the music, but I really don't understand why, it really does fit in tonally with the game.

One of the things that I feel is well designed about this game is the fact that Gordon moves at a decent clip throughout the game. In a portion of shooters, the people moved either too slow (even when running), or moved too fast. Sure this game does offer the tried and true run button, but even without it, he does move at a nice and solid pace.

Something that I've always found mildly amusing about this game (and indeed its expansions) is the fact that your surroundings always seem to be trying to kill you. To wit: after a lengthy gunfight with a number of enemy combatants you'll find yourself weakened, and in relatively low digits on your health meter. So you'll just continue along hoping to find a medkit, or a health station. When suddenly when your crawling through a tunnel it collapses underneath you and you'll get splattered against the floor. Or, you'll come across a room full with water, as an electrical wire sparks against the water. So you'll just upon a table, but not without being partially submerged in the water, and thus get electrocuted. Or, walking through a hall, an explosion going off and a pipe along the wall rupturing and melting you with steam or fire. It's somewhat of an annoyance, but I think it is entertaining that the environment tries to kill you.

The gunplay in this game does feel well-implemented, even though it is just fundamentally you point a cursor at an enemy and holding it down until it's dead. But it just works here, and also there's the fact that every weapon, barring the crowbar, revolver, and hand grenades have an alternate fire mode of some variety. Granted for the pistol it's just a rapid fire, and the crossbow gets a hideously inaccurate scope. I just like how with the shotgun I can fire off both barrels at once, and kill most anything that way. I also find it satisfying that I can hurl an explosive with the machine gun and still rain down lead death upon aliens and soldiers without missing a beat. For want of a better phrase, the shooting in this game just feels solid.

One thing that I've heard numerous people decry is the fact that this game is really linear. I don't see what the problem is, it just ensures that you're never really at a loss for what you have to do next. There are never really any moments in the game where you just wander around the area wondering what you're supposed to be doing. It's all pretty straight forward. The only times that the game doesn't really give you any hints as to what to do is during the boss fights (which even then, it gives you some idea what to do). And also during the last area of the game on the Xen homeworld. Speaking of boss fights, there's this one point later in the game where you come across a huge alien (called a Gargantua, humorously enough) whose invulnerable to pretty much all weapon fire, even this spiffy laser cannon a scientist gives you. So you have to run away from the creature, and find an artillery map where you plot out where the Garg is so you can blow it to smithereens. While it's not the most thrilling of boss battles, it is pretty entertaining.

However, even though I love this game there are a few things that really annoy the hell out of me. The over abundance of jumping puzzles for example. It's something that has always, and will continue to annoy me about this series. The game seems content to present you with platforms you have to jump to over yawning chasms, that lead to either an irradiated death, or simply falling into nothingness. The situation gets exacerbated during the last areas of the game. When running around the alien homeworld there are numerous launch pads that send you flying into the air, and if you don't aim and pivot yourself just so, you'll be taking a large amount of damage upon landing. Or, you'll fall short of your intended platform and proceed to splatter the ground with your theoretical physicist internal organs. I know that dying as a result of falling from a great height is nothing new in gaming, but it's just a bit extravagant.

Another thing that annoys me a bit about this game is that the you're presented with numerous situations where whatever you try to do almost invariably lead to your death. Before you go to the alien world Xen you stumble upon a warehouse where the military have placed an absurd number of explosives around. To make things worse they are armed with laser trip wires, and if so much as a hair touches it the entire place goes up in a fiery explosion. Or, you'll be running along a hallway with nary a piece of cover when suddenly the doors slide open and there'll be a machine gun nest with almost no way to breach it, but for a small opening. One other gripe I have is the fact that pushing and pulling things in this game is far too touchy. You can be pushing along a wooden crate when suddenly it'll just fly off and through a mine's laser and cause you to blow up. Another complaint is the fact that you are sometimes required to escort some scientists or security guards. Which is fine, escort missions, while amazingly annoying, are a staple of gaming. However, these people get stuck on everything and anything and often times just flat out refuse to follow you. Another thing is the fact that you can be shooting it out with some soldiers, and if you accidentally peg a security guard, or shoot too closely to him, he'll turn on you and try to kill you. Which I suppose is neat that they'll actually defend themselves, but they shouldn't turn just because you fired off your gun near his head.

For all of my complaints however, this game really is outstanding. It is a masterfully designed game, and is also one of the most entertaining games that I have ever played. One of the only damning problems the game has (other than those complaints I mentioned) is the fact that the game isn't too long. It is just a tad too short in my opinion. However such as it is, it certainly is an auspicious start for one of gaming's finest franchises, and certainly well worth playing time and again. If you can find a copy of the game there should really be no reason not to buy it.


Reviewer's Score: 8/10 | Originally Posted: 07/24/08

Game Release: Half-Life (US, 10/31/98)


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