Review by Hicks233
"Not a bad game, does require looking past the extra wrapping however."
Half-Life is an awkward title to review particularly given the reputation that it has as well as the difference in perception now as compared to when it was first released. Handily though in this case my opinion hasn't changed a great deal in all that time.
Half-Life has a highly regarded reputation, very highly regarded, the thing is. I'm not sure why. At its best it is a slowly paced, generally uninvolving shooter with disappointing shooting, an over reliance on platforming and a bland B-Movie storyline. Perhaps it is unfair to try and sum it up so succinctly though so each of these things deserves to be more thoroughly explored.
In terms of presentation Half-Life is consistent. That's a good thing. Locations while being repetitive are believable with enough details to not be devoid of character. On release having multi-coloured lighting under software rendering, without a big performance drop was another plus. The issue is that not a great deal is done with that lighting. It is possible to make interestingly lit and atmospheric locations using the resources in Half-Life. They just weren't in Half-Life. Character models and textures are varied and each enemy has its own distinct look. Environments are generally shades of grey with the occasional dash of colour in the later levels. When you get outside the Black Mesa complex then the colour palette become a little more varied with the surrounding desert locales. Even then though it does lack much to distinguish itself. Particularly in terms of architecture.
Dull but consistent is a theme that runs through much of Half-Life. In terms of how audio is presented it is generally disappointing. Playback is at a low quality and between the whining voices of the scientists and weapon effects more comparable to tin cans dropping onto the ground you're left hoping that ambient sound and music will be interesting. The ambient SFX aren't too bad but are underused. A shame when the environmental effects where different room types give different reverb and echo worked relatively well. Incidental SFX be it HEV suit functions, interactive world items, movement etc. are all mostly of a low and dull quality. Music goes the route of ambient pieces which tend to blend into sameness and unfortunately have a tendency to grow irritating.
Half-Life received a great deal of praise for its more cinematic style with scripted sequences featuring quite heavily throughout. Seeing these for the first time they were something new and interesting. On subsequent viewings however the charm quickly dissipated and you were left wondering, just when will the player actually get to do something? This is where Half-Life to me falls down heavily. What you get to do is largely walk/run around, spend a disproportionate amount of time in platforming sections and undertaking environmental based puzzles that are quite clever and well integrated. Unfortunately being a first person shooter you do tend to need shooting sections that are responsive and satisfying. With a node based system for AI opponents to move round levels more intelligently it's puzzling why the pacing of the game has you spend relatively little time actually fighting and when you do - it is so woefully dull.
It's worth noting that recently a version of Half-Life has been released which was intended as a Dreamcast port that has been made compatible to run on pc. The damage amounts that weapons will do and general responsiveness during combat have been adjusted and it makes a massive improvement. In the original PC release of Half-Life you'll seemingly spend an age firing at opponents til they succumb. Locational damage does help a little but not enough. The lack of impact or sensory reward from the weapons leaves a generally hollow feeling to the combat throughout. Not to mention that it'll sound like you're throwing tin cans at your enemies, with just as much effect and impact of those same cans.
When you're not fighting or jumping around you are likely to be saddled with another unfortunate thought out inclusion. Leading round security guards and scientists. If the grating voice acting wasn't bad enough the pathfinding issues can leave you tearing your hair out. Escort sections don't have a particularly good reputation to begin with so making them necessary to access new areas quite as frequently as they were included was bound to cause some teeth grating. Half-Life set out to include lots of new ideas and features that were implemented with varying degrees of success be it turret based static weapons, the physical puzzles, use of NPC's to access areas or maybe the trams you could control and adjust the routes of. They just forgot to base them round a solid shooting experience.
The narrative despite being promoted surprisingly heavily is round about Sci Fi B Movie level where it makes the mistake of using a silent protagonist. One where we find out about his background and qualifications during the lengthy intro sequence but is reduced to a mute who pushes trollies into energy beams. Not quite sure if you can get a doctorate in trolley pushing but Dr Gordon Freeman evidently does have one on top of the Theoretical Physics doctorate. There's no reason to care about or what happens to Freeman, no reason to really know his name apart from ease of use, nor the other NPC's that you'll encounter. They are more frequently a hindrance than a help. When I find myself wanting to shoot the NPC's that I'm supposed to be protecting then there's something not right with the presentation of those characters and the lack of emotional involvement with them. If you do however then you'll get a critical failure message spoil sports.
Going for a cinematic and engaging feel in the game presentation but playing a silent and distinctly bland protagonist feel completely at odds with each other and come across as a wasted opportunity. Particularly when you remember that games are a participatory medium, there's no reason to try to emulate film. There are good moments of interaction between NPC's that you can oversee, particularly in the early levels. It's just puzzling why the experience for the player is so stale.
Movement and control are consistent, fluid and effective even the occasional lurching momentum on interrupted movement. The odd fascination with platforming does give you two new additions in the form of the duck jump and the long jump. Nice ideas but I'd have happily have traded them for some solid shooting mechanics or a more involving narrative. Something that we now regard as a given feature as reloads and alternate fire modes. Something we take for granted now were more an exception to the rule at the time of Half-Life's release. That extra sense of realism and variety owed a lot to why I played Half-Life back when it was released. Problem is these are things that have been done so much better in subsequent titles. When Half-Life's box of tricks turns out empty you're left with a generally hollow and dull experience.
It could be argued that Half-Life came out at just the right time, introduced enough new ideas regardless of the level of development and inclusion that they showed to standout and offered variety in a genre that was at the risk of stagnating. Perhaps the desire for players to become the scientist as opposed to the more cliched roles of grizzled space marine, wise cracking hero or amoral criminal had a part in Half-Life's success. Without any depth to the character however I'm puzzled as to why this was the case.
Half-Life's basic mechanics are average at best, the sprinkles of extra features and methods of interaction may have served as an adequate distraction on release but now they just make the average nature of the experience all the more apparent.
One of the true successes of Half-Life however is the vibrant mod community that it spawned. Of particular note for Single Players are Cry of Fear and Paranoia both trying fresh mechanics and approaches on top of solid FPS experiences.
DRM issues? CD check on the original release. Some mods will require integration of Half-Life into the Steam platform which will require an online connection.
A word to describe Half-Life?
Back on release? Good.
That works out by GFAQ's scale as 6/10. Half-Life isn't a bad game. It's just a hollow and bland experience that plods along once the fancy packaging has been removed and its core mechanics revealed.
Reviewer's Rating: 3.0 - Fair
Originally Posted: 04/23/12
Game Release: Half-Life (EU, 12/31/98)
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