Review: Half-Life

- Shawn Trautman

When Half-Life first released for the PC in 1998, it was hailed as the best shooter, and perhaps best game of any genre, that had ever been made. Its sequels have been equally lauded, and gone on to create a whole culture of rabid fans, but how does the first game hold up after ten years? Good news - This really is one of the finest shooters I have ever played and a game that, once it took hold of me (which admittedly took a while), never let go. The shooting action, environmental puzzles and innovative storytelling all come together to form a great piece of game design that any serious gamer should experience. (Note: this review is for the PS2 version only, but apart from a new co-op mode that I did not try, this version is more or less identical to the PC original)

GAMEPLAY - Half-Life is a First Person Shooter (FPS), so everything plays out from that perspective (even the story segments, which I’ll get to in a bit), but the focus is not always on shooting. In fact, the first quarter of the game or so involves very little gunplay, first having you experience the world with no action, then switching to a crowbar, and finally to an underpowered pistol with very little ammo. This section of the game was more focused on setting up the story and having you solve a few puzzles to make it out of the office complex in which the game begins. It was also the weakest part of the game for me, and nearly caused me to abandon the game a few times.

That all changed with the arrival of human military enemies, who were so powerful and had such strong A.I. that each encounter was a totally new experience, and they were all challenging and fun. From this point on, the enemies, weapons and puzzles kept getting better and better.

After that first quarter, you move out of the cramped office area and start exploring more and more of the vast Black Mesa facility, and eventually beyond. At each turn, with each new room, is a brand new challenge. Sometimes it would be a new enemy, sometimes a brand new weapon, and sometimes a huge puzzle involving several moving parts in a number of different rooms. As the game wears on, the sheer variety of situations is really impressive. There are about a dozen weapons, all of which are useful and damn fun to use. You will also swim, ride mine carts, operate turrets and use tanks.

All of this works really well. By the end, I was playing for hours at a time and couldn’t seem to put the game down. I just couldn’t wait to see what would happen next, and the ability to save anywhere really led to that addictive “just one more room” mindset.

STORY - You play as Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist working at an underground research lab. You participate in an experiment that goes wrong, opening up a portal between this world and another dimension. This causes a catastrophe, killing many of the scientists working there, destroying much of the lab, and causing mutated creatures from the other dimension to pour into our world. You spend most of the rest of the game attempting to make it back to the surface to get help for the injured people still in the facility. I won’t spoil it, but the story gets a bit more complicated, as you attempt to find out what is going on, and you eventually even visit the alternate dimension.

The remarkable thing is that the story is told all with gameplay, and all from the first person perspective. In other words, there are no cutscenes or cinematics. Whatever story you experience comes from what other characters, mostly scientists, tell you directly. While this was a huge selling point and really innovative at the time, it didn’t always work for me. Maybe it was just because it was the PS2 port, but the volume of the NPC voices was incredibly low, such that by the time I realized a person was speaking to me, and I managed to turn the volume way up, I had missed most of what they had to say. Because of this, I often had no idea what was going on, plot-wise.

PRESENTATION - This is a PS2 port of a PC game. That tells you most of what you need to know about the visuals. It is a bit of a mixed bag. The enemies and NPCs look good, but not perfect. The facial animations are good, but they repeat often, and NPCs don’t always look at you when they’re talking to you. Some of the environments are better than others. The architecture is a bit blocky, but the lighting effects are nice, and the large variety of locations is pretty impressive.

The sound is pretty much the same - mixed - aside from the really annoying voice volume issue. The voice acting is pretty good, but repeats itself a lot. Some of the guns sound good, others not so much. 

CONCLUSION - These small audio and visual issues don’t detract from the final experience. This really is a ridiculously impressive game full of genius design choices, and is non-stop fun, with the exception of the first quarter or so. Anyone who considers themselves a serious gamer, or anyone interested in good game design owes it to themselves to give this game a try, but if you do, try to get past the first 4-5 hours or so, as that is when the game really starts to become what it is - a brilliant piece of game design. Steam users can find Half-Life for $9.99 U.S. 

Verdict: 94%