"THIS is what got all those Game of the Year nods in 1998? Wow."

1998 was an outstanding year in gaming, seeing the releases of games like Starcraft: Brood War, Grim Fandango, Metal Gear Solid, Xenogears, Resident Evil 2, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Final Fantasy Tactics, Fallout 2 and Spyro the Dragon, yet Half-Life garnered more critical acclaim than all the rest of 1998 put together even with Starcraft involved. More than 50 publications considered it the best game in a very stacked year, allowing Half-Life and Valve insane notoriety and influence and paving the way for Half-Life to release nearly 20 spinoff titles.

My question is.... why? Half-Life is not a bad game by any stretch, but it's not a very good one either. It had the potential to be great, but at the end of the day it's a glitchy mess that literally trips over its own two feet more often than it functions, and does more than a few things that FPS games should never ever do, namely terrible jumping puzzles, obtuse direction and enemies showing up via teleports on top of already being in the room. This is clearly a situation where the influence is valued more than the actual game.

First we'll discuss what Half-Life does well, which is quite a lot or else it wouldn't have gotten so famous in the first place.

You are Gordon Freeman, an MIT graduate in theoretical physics who is recently hired to work for Black Mesa, a research facility whose research is kept tight under wraps via compartmentalization. There is a 99% chance that whenever the words "research" and "compartmentalization" are used in the same sentence, something shady is going on. Go look up the Manhattan Project to see what I mean.

Sure enough, an experiment involving the resonance cascade goes awry and unleashes holy hell upon the Black Mesa compound. In theory, the resonance cascade was supposed to be able to open dimensional rifts and portals to allow people and objects to move from one place to another seamlessly. This is an obvious influence behind future Valve hit Portal, in which the entire game is basically made to insult Black Mesa's intelligence, "Yeah we invented resonance cascade portals just fine, you idiots, what's the problem?" The one issue is that the main capacitor for the cascade was an alien crystal from Xen, so naturally the entire thing blows up and aliens are invading the complex through portals opening all over the place. Well what did these idiot scientists think was going to happen? It's like those morons with the hadron supercollider; if there's a statistical chance you could destroy the planet, don't use it.

So now Gordon Freeman is stuck in Black Mesa, having to fight his way out amidst broken equipment, aliens, and the American government sending in the military to murder everyone in the facility to keep the entire project under wraps. And you know how Gordon Freeman handles this? He whips out a crowbar and beats the living s*** out of everything in sight, that's how. No diatribes or monologues about Freeman's imaginary personal life, no jilted former lover turning evil, and no mythical voodoo witch doctors having to chant spells to help him advance through doors that he could easily knock over. He stays perfectly silent for the ENTIRE game. His crowbar, your face, the end.

Which leads right into the next thing Half-Life does well, which is weapons. Lots and lots of very fun weapons, all of which are useful. This isn't Turok 2 or Goldeneye where half the stuff you get is useless. On top of the crowbar, you'll get a handgun, magnum, a machine gun that doubles as a grenade launcher, a shotgun, a crossbow that serves as the game's best sniping tool, a rocket launcher, grenades, trip mines, remote mines, two guns that shoot radiation at stuff and you'll even get two weapons where you throw miniature aliens at anything dumb enough to screw with you. You have both humans and aliens after you, so forget morals and kill them all. Well, except for the dumb security guards and scientists that routinely need to open doors for you but never do it, but we'll get to that. Ammo is around for your stuff, but it's juuuuust scarce enough to where you'll have to use your entire arsenal to get by. It all leads to a very fun FPS experience where when everything works (repeat: when everything works), you're having a blast. Above all, it takes quite a long time and all of the best weapons in the game before "go in with guns blazing" works. You have to use actual strategy to win rather than the methods seen in games like Quake and Doom, and enemies will do the same. They'll work as a team, throw grenades and projectiles and all the rest, and you'll have to outmaneuver them.

And therein lies the problem. For a game so focused on strategy and outthinking the enemy, Valve forgot to make sure the environments and atmosphere were all airtight. There are a LOT of glitches in this game, so many that you can't even rely on the autosave to help you since it'll save as you're falling to your death more often than help, so you'll have to save yourself. You can't really rely on quick save either, since you'll end up with a million files and lose track of what's what. So you're stuck exiting out and saving a lot, at least on your first time through the game where you don't know where everything is. I believe the correct term here is "breaking immersion".

There were three major glitches I saw on my playthrough of this game, and I'm sure there are a ton more I was fortunate enough not to see. The worst was getting stuck in place all the time -- on elevators, next to doors, on moving platforms, on the train tracks, and pretty much everywhere else that wasn't a large flat room, which led to tons of reloading. Sometimes this glitch randomly kills you because the game thinks you've been crushed to death by nothing, which is funny but still pretty dumb. A glitch similar to this were those alien launcher pads not actually launching me, which led to a lot of needless deaths and how the platforms basically randomly decide whether to work properly or not. Thankfully they're all at the tail end of the game, so it's not too bad.

The other dumb glitch is having to rely on AI, security guards or scientists depending on the type of code needed, to open doors for you. Half the time they bumble around like idiots and never open the door, which leads to a bunch of needless "load an earlier save and try again" crap, since loading a save too close to the AI in question doesn't solve the problem.

Lastly was after killing the final boss (a huge chore, by the way, since it's an absolutely terrible boss fight), the final scene didn't start so I had to kill it again and pray. No dice, so I had to kill the final boss over again from scratch. As a note, killing the boss requires those dumb launcher platforms that only randomly work. It's a great way to leave a final bad taste in your mouth at game's end, though the ending is definitely worth the hassle of getting to see it.

There are other glitches beyond this, but nothing really game-breaking. The coolest one I saw was being in the trash compactor. You're supposed to escape up through the debris and then walk along the top to the other side. Here, I escaped through the debris, watched all the garbage get crushed without the compactor moving, then walked along the top of an invisible wall to the other edge. That was pretty cool, and I'm sure other weird stuff like this is possible.

As a side note, having to use a keyboard to move instead of a second analog stick is absurd. WASD will never be as effective as dual analog, the end, and only hardcore PC elitists will say otherwise. Then again hardcore PC elitists are in denial of their system being in trouble, so there isn't much point in trying to reason with people that live so far outside reality. When you have to hold down a key to move while crouching, press another key to reload, press another key to use items and so on, you're left with an uncontrollable mess. Modern controllers > keyboard + mouse. People who live in the past instead of learning from it are doomed to repeat it, and the moment societies stop thinking they're smarter than George Santayana is the precise moment societies will stop destroying themselves. Not that this will ever happen because human beings are idiots, but moving on.

Beyond all that are a lot of random things that bring the game down, starting with how your health works. You have the base 100 that can be charged with health packs, med packs or random soda machines. Then you have Gordon's Hazardous Environment suit, which in theory offers an extra 100 health as a shield but only serves to give Valve an excuse to have realistic damage. As a rule, realistic damage in a video game never works. Just go and play Bushido Blade for 5 minutes or so for the prime example of this.

In English, this means you will take damage from everything in Half-Life, from that minor bit of steam from a pipe 10 feet away to a tiny bit of heat to a cold room and back again, and the worst of it is fall damage. Fall damage only really works when it's a minor nuisance, and is always best left to bottomless pits. Nearly dying from a 20 foot fall may add to realism, but it's almost always terrible in a video game. If I wanted realistic fall damage, I'd jump off the roof of my house. It's not what we play video games for. The only realistic damage that works well in Half-Life is from electricity, drowning, insta-death items like giant metal fans or being crushed, and radioactive material. Everything else could have been cut out with no loss to the game's functionality at all.

And perhaps the worst problem of all is the graphics. Everyone familiar with my gaming views knows my belief on this, which is that graphics do not matter at all to game design unless they get in the way. A giant reason why next-gen gaming sucks so much is because graphics are factored before gameplay. Well in Half-Life the graphics get in the way, and pretty badly at that. Specifically, the atmosphere gets in the way.

Graphically the game isn't very good, but that's fine. It's a PC game from 1998, and the vast majority of PC games from the 1990s didn't look very good. The problem is that because everything is so blocky and because the game gives you almost no hints on what to do or where to go, you can find yourself aimlessly wandering around doing nothing. The perfect comparison here would be like trying to play the original Metal Gear Solid as an FPS. It would never work out. There's a very specific part in the final level of Half-Life where the platforms on a wall look exactly like the wall itself, so getting to them is a major hassle.

The game is loaded with stuff like this, and the atmosphere itself gives you very little help at all. Some of the atmosphere is quite good, like "Surrender Freemen" or seeing the dead guys in HEV suits in the final level as gigantic "Oh, you thought you were the first?" kick in the nuts, also known as the part of the game where you finally realize something is very, very wrong here. But good atmosphere is also supposed to guide you, which Half-Life thoroughly fails at. Everyone brings up Xen as the example for this, to the point where tvtropes invented "XenSyndrome" (Side note: TV Tropes is a terrible web site, but even they can get something right if it's bad enough and Xen really is that bad), but there are others. There's one puzzle where you have to jump into a moving fan after going through hell and back to turn it on, and the fan blows you up to a ceiling where you can crowbar a vent shaft. Given how many insta-death gimps you'll have gone through to that point, who in their right mind would have thought to jump over a giant spinning fan of death? Half-Life is loaded to the hilt with stuff like this, which is a massive turnoff.

There is other stuff, but you get the idea by now. Half-Life is one of those games more fondly remembered for its influence and place in gaming than it is an actual game. And make no mistake here: Half-Life's influence on the FPS genre cannot be quantified. Every FPS that game out after Half-Life and even the games that include FPS sequences all borrow from Half-Life to some degree, be it with puzzle solving or having to kill enemies by doing things beyond shooting them through the skull, but that means nothing to the game at hand here.

The perfect comparisons here are the original Alone in the Dark for the PC or the early versions of Street Fighter 2. Every survival horror game following Alone in the Dark can look back at that abomination from 1992 at lessons learned, and I don't even need to explain how the original World Warrior was unplayable to arcade veterans. Even the follow-ups to the original Street Fighter 2 were bad for quite some time, but it paved the way for future fighters that actually knew what they were doing. Half-Life is in that same boat, even though Wolfenstein 3D holds the mantle for Token Bad First Attempt in the FPS genre. Half-Life tries a bunch of new things, messes a lot of them up, but games following all have a template to follow.

Half-Life is definitely a game worth playing, but it is not some glowing angel that can do wrong, and has a lot of legitimate and annoying problems. I'm sure if I played this for the first time in 1998 instead of 2011 I'd feel differently and be a part of the "you had to be there" group, but if I had wheels I'd be a bicycle. Half-Life is simply not that good.


Reviewer's Score: 5/10 | Originally Posted: 07/08/11

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


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