Review by JHarring

"The game of your dreams...and nightmares!"

I had let Half-Life slip under my radar for four years. Oh sure, I'd heard all the praise - Game of the Year, Best Game Ever, etc etc. I'd played numerous FPS's before; in fact I've even bought the retail version of Counter-Strike, only to put it aside after a couple of weeks like so many other also-rans. I'd even played the exclusive level in the demo a long time ago. Still nothing. It finally took a rather stale period in my video game days - Dynasty Warriors 4, Warcraft 3, Diablo 2 all growing old and tired - for me to finally bite the bullet and buy Half-Life. What's twenty dollars, after all? I've spent it in far worse ways.

Nothing could have prepared me for what I was about to play.

Half-Life is not only still one of the greatest FPS's ever to be created (it was first released in 1998), but a horror masterpiece as well. It's unnerving how an innocuous government facility with its homogeneous corridors and laboratories can suddenly feel so evil. There's plenty of jumpy moments (dozens of headcrabs strategically placed in dark air vents, practically invisible even with a flashlight, and perfectly timed scripted explosions of the environment) but the true success is the psychological tactics the game employs to make you realize how alone you are.

The 10-minute tram ride in the beginning with a droning female computer voice calmly talking about procedures is a perfect set-up as you first discover just how big this secret Area 51 is. Your fellow scientists and security guards populate the place, talking about computer crashes or slight discrepancies in experiments that seem harmless, but only add to your sense of dread as you know something will go wrong soon enough. In classic horror fashion, the science project goes horribly wrong (and YOU were its catalyst) causing out-of-control explosions and lightning until finally there is nothing but your heavy breathing in complete darkness.

And then suddenly you see something not of this world. You see some true aliens. And they see YOU.

Your flight instinct will suddenly kick in, only to discover that you CAN'T MOVE! THE MOUSE WON'T WORK! It's a nightmare that strikes you with panic as the aliens stare straight through your soul. And then, just as suddenly, the darkness is back. Your heavy breathing indicates you are still alive. Right?

The real world slowly fades back into view. Everything has gone wrong. Those same sterile government corridors are caked with blood and corpses. Dead and dying scientists are everywhere. Electricity discharges violently. Computers are destroyed. You have to get out of here...somehow.

But those aliens in your nightmare return. Only now, they're here to get you.

One of those headcrabs will crawl out of a vent into the same room as you, looking for something to latch onto. It's amusing to reflect back on this moment when you're far into the game, knowing that this single puny headcrab made you run away in fear as you were defenseless.

This first half-hour of the game remains one of the most powerful introductions in any game, on any platform. Soon enough, you start accumulating weapons, ammunition, and slightly more standard FPS conventions take over. But only just so.

Medipacks and armor recharges are located in logical places near dangerous areas of the facility. The facility itself is one big interconnected place broken up into areas (and loading points) that you can freely go back and forth through. Ammunition is collected from dead humans or crates in weapons storage rooms instead of in the middle of nowhere in particular. Storyline and plot points are relayed from the few surviving scientists and security guards while the game is still active instead of pausing for a ''cutscene''. This all adds to the immersiveness and realism of the experience and suspends your disbelief as you feel that this place really is feasible, not some fantasy dungeon.

There are so many memorable moments that will make you jump out of your seat, shock you with a new plot twist, or shout in triumph when you overcome what the game throws at you (perhaps all at the same time). These generally come from the game's scripted events that happen in real-time. Watch hapless scientists get eaten by vicious aliens. Watch aliens get eaten by other aliens. Discover that the military has arrived, seemingly to cover up the whole thing that is, by killing everyone in sight. Sneak by a giant tentacle - multiple times - that can't see but has super-sensitive hearing and massive talons ready to crush. Fall for a clever trap placed by the marines. Marvel at the unscripted artificial intelligence during battles with squads of soldiers - they throw grenades, they take cover, they outflank you, they win. Hear an infamous radio command that gives you sudden bursts of both hope and fear as you wonder what's going on. Foil an invincible behemoth by using the army's own power. Then, find out what's really beyond this massive facility.

Half-Life truly transcends the standards of FPS's, horror games, and game design to become an unforgettable experience. It's atmospheric enough already, with ambient noise and lighting, sparse music, and positional sound effects, but to really soil your drawers, play it with the lights out and the surround sound way up. You may wear out your quick-save button since you'll fear what's around the next corner like never before, and do you really want to go through that optional darkened air duct?

Reviewer's Rating:   5.0 - Flawless

Originally Posted: 06/03/03, Updated 06/03/03

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