Release Date: October 31, 1998
Systems: PS2, PC(Reviewed)
Developer: Valve Software
Metacrtic Score: 96(PC)
The first game I ever played was “Metal Gear Solid” on the Sony Playstation. I remember thinking at the time that it was the greatest thing I ever experienced. When “MGS 4” was about to be released I went back and replayed the other games in the series. While ding so I found that replaying that first game wasn’t as enjoyable as I thought it would be. The game wasn’t band, but gaming landscape had changed, my expectations had changed, but “Metal Gear Solid” hadn’t nor would it.
Sixteen years ago “Half Life” was released, and a classic was born. But playing it for the first time, that story about “Metal Gear Solid” was weighing on my mind. So how did “Half-Life” hold up? Better than I ever could have hoped for. In fact, i’d say it more that holds up, it stands out as a true gem in an over saturated and frankly rather dull modern game scene.
You play as Gordon Freeman an M.I.T. graduate recently hired to the Black Mesa Research Facility. You are tasked with running an experiment on a new material when everything goes to hell. Whatever it was you were testing created a postal to another world or dimension and strange alien creatures are poring through to our world. From here your main mission is to get out alive.
The beauty of “Half-Life”s story is that that can be all there is too it if you want. If all you want is a mindless shooter, this will feed your craving. But if you want something more, there is plenty more as well. This first crystallized for me when I saw several of the head-crabs in captivity and used a prototype weapon to kill them. Now, does this mean Black Mesa meant for this to happen? Does this mean Black Mesa knew in advanced the horrors that were about to unravel? Does this mean you are one man caught in a conspiracy you have no way of truly understanding or just how far up it goes? It can, if you choose. You decide you’re own level of investment. Unlike a most of the games I played that tried this approach to story tell, “Half-Life” actually made me want to delve into it’s story. I couldn’t care less about the lore of “Demons Souls”, I only care about beating the challenge. Here however, I all ways wanted to know what was going to happen next just as much as I wanted to get past whatever part was frustrating me at the time.
The pacing also needs to be mentioned. The first few minuets of the game are spent on a train were you can do nothing butt look out at the scenery while having exposition dumped on you but it is done so well that I was never bothered by it. After that you spend some time simply wondering around the facility before any monsters even shows up. In poorer hands this could have killed the game before it really got going, but Valve is too good at making games and thus has you truly invested I the story before it even begins.
This expert level of pacing also shows itself in the overall tone of the game. At first the game is more akin to survival horror with dim, often flickering lights, few weapons and low ammo. But when the army shows up the game basically does a 180 and becomes more like a tactical shooter. The kind of tonal whiplash could have made the entire experience feel sloppy and incoherent, like having the action scenes from a Tarantino film spliced into “The Exorcist”, but it is so well executed that I didn’t really pick up on the change until I had stooped playing after one (rather long) session. While I’m not one of those who say this is how all video game storytelling should be done, I do wish more games would try this.
There is an episode of “Doctor Who” were The Doctor finds a scare in space and time that holds every day of his life pas,t present and future. “Half-Life” is gaming’s equivalent to that scare: while playing it you can clearly see gaming past and present and with any luck, our future as well. See, “Half-life” is very much a product of it’s times, and thus contained the best and worst parts of old school shooters. However, the game was so incredibly ahead of it’s time and has been such a huge influence on gaming that even now it’s influences can be seen, it’s just a shame one of the parts of the game that has been over looked was that it was also fun to play.
Lets start off with the good, because there is so much of it. As it is with most shooters or action heavy games you spend your time either in combat or figuring out some light puzzles as a breather. The combat here is simply fantastic. Early on in the game you gain access to a wide verity of weapons and each one of the is fun to use. Normally in games like this there is only one or two overpowered weapons I tend to use until they ran out of ammo, but here I found myself constantly switching back and forth. And for those of you who care about “ludonarrative dissonance”, yes, it is somewhat odd that a M.I.T. graduate can hold more that one heavy weapon at a time and use them all with little to no training. But if you really care about that then chance are you are a boring person and no one likes you.
The enemy variation in the monster design was also very nice, but the human enemies are almost identical. I can’t complain too much as the human enemies did have much better A.I. And thus forced me to change my tactics when fighting them, but something as simple has having some enemies with a different load out would have gone far. But at least I was never short of assault rifle or shotgun ammo. Other than human grunts there are a few helicopters, but that does little to change my outlook.
You know what complements great combat? Exploration. See, once regenerating health became a huge part of many games’ mechanics having to have health kits and the like was no longer needed, and games got a whole lot more linear. Luckily for us, “Half-Life” came out well before this trend. While the game is in no way “open world” just knowing that looking around could result in more ammo or health kits or armor was always nice. Seeing my health in the red, my ammo down to just a few shots and having to weigh the risk and reward of going off the beaten path in hopes of finding something useful was just as entertaining as any of the shoot outs.
Unlike other shooters at the time, you are never swamped with enemies. This isn’t like “Serious Sam” “Doom” or “Duke Nukem” where you circle strafe around large groups of enemies in order to eliminate them. Even at it’s most hectic you still have to think somewhat tactically. If you simply run towards your opponent you are going to die. This is the part that feels more modern. And I have to say the contrast between these two styles really do complement each other perfectly. Every time you get hit that health is gone until you can find more, every time you miss that ammo is gone. This allows each monster or soldier to become a true threat. If you’re low on health you can’t just sit back and wait, you have to press on and find more. And if you’re low on ammo, you know you will find more at some point, but if you really need to restock you have to look for it, and if you can find yourself trying to fight off monsters that shoot lightning with a crowbar before you find the ammo you need.
Overall the combat gets an A+. Unfortunately not all the game play is as good. The game came out at a time when game designers just didn’t seem to understand that first person platforming just doesn’t play well. And sadly Valve’s insight into the future didn’t stop them from adding a crap load of platforming bits through out the game. I can honestly say that at least half of my deaths came from simply falling to my death because I over or under jumped. There is also a painful lack of tutorializing some mechanics. For example, the game allows you to “high jump” by crouching before you jump. This is something I didn’t need to do for until late in the game, so when I finally had to use this ability at first I didn’t even know this was an option. Then, when it came to the last boss, I had to look up a “lets play” to figure out how to beat it because the game literally doesn’t tell you anything. Now, i’m okay with less narrative hand holding, but at some point we do need to know at least part of what is expected of us. Lastly in my list of issues is that at one point, shortly after a section loaded the game crashed. Every time. After spending about an hour waiting for the program to respond I got the game to work, but I shouldn’t have had to. If I spend money on something, I shouldn’t have to wait for it to work. I’m not going to dock the game much more this, as i’m not sure if it was an issue with the game or my computer, but in the end it is something you should be aware of in advanced before you choose to buy the game.
Game Play: 3.75/5
Music and Sound:
Here we have something of a paradox. I’m sure when the game came out the music and sound was as good as any other game, but this is the part that aged the poorest. However, I didn’t really notice just how bad it as until one of my roommates pointed it out to me. And by then I was already so invested that I could simply ignore it. So here’s the question: how much can I mark something down when I know it’s bad, but it’s not bad enough to make me care? The voice acting wasn’t too bad, nor were the gun sounds, but some of the monster noises can really start to great on your nerves. When you add that to the repetitive N.P.C. Dialogue and this can be a game that is hard to listen too…if you’re not playing it. Again, it wasn’t until someone pulled me out of the experience before I noticed there were any issues. So, i’m not going to be to hard one the game, but know what you’re getting into before playing.
Overall Score: 4.25/5
Who is this game for:
I made a joke a few weeks ago to a friend of mine, saying that is you want to know what the next cutting edge idea in gaming will be, look at what Valve did ten years ago. Playing this I found that sentiment to be truer than I thought. If you have not played this, go. Now. It’s on Steam for about $10 so you have no real reason not to play it. This is a classic. This is a game that should be mandatory playing for anyone ho wants to make games to talk about them for a living. Now, there is an updated version called “Black Mesa” (i’m not sure if it’s a remake or patch) that I haven’t played, but it looks good and i’ve heard good things.