It will be hard for some--mainly those who haven't played the game--to put their finger on exactly what everyone is raving about. There's nothing exceptional about the engine--it's a heavily modified version of Id Software's Quake. Its genre, the first-person shooter, has nearly been beaten to death. Its design couldn't be simpler: get some guns, run, shoot, jump; no laborious cutscenes or misplaced RPG elements here.
The weapons aren't spectacular either, just your usual array of realistic modern firearms and a few alien gadgets with some new twists. The creatures in some respects are fairly standard, and many of the levels have been done before. Taken separately, no particular element in Half-Life shines above the rest, nothing makes or breaks the game.
No, the real secret is that Half-Life is truly the sum of its parts. It takes every element in this oh-so-predictable genre, re-examines it, improves it, and then meshes it with the rest to create a constantly surprising, internally consistent, and always entertaining game.Here are some examples. How many games have you played where health packs, armor, ammo and guns are simply lying around as if some Power-Up Santa Claus had emptied the contents of his pack on the floor? You can almost hear the level designers saying to themselves, "Okay, a health pack would be a good item to put in this otherwise empty room."
In Half-Life, weapons and ammo are taken from dead soldiers or other logical places, like a weapons locker. Armor isn't lying around in the form of glowing icons or leather helmets--instead, you're wearing a battery-powered hazard suit, but since it's a fairly standard bit of equipment in this secret base, power outlets are conveniently scattered throughout the complex. Doing this makes the game world feel all that much more real. The more real it feels, the more the player is sucked into the game. This is called suspension of disbelief, and while few game developers seem to be aware of it, Valve is and they make it work for them, over and over.
How many times have you shot at a monster only to have it either grimace at you blankly, perhaps firing off a few tepid shots, or slouch and drool while you pick off his comrades? Well, not here. The teams of soldiers you'll fight in Half-Life have to be the toughest, most convincing enemies yet seen in an action game. Where other opponents grunt incomprehensibly, these guys actually yell stuff relevant to the combat, such as "Fire in the Hole!" or "Look out!" as the grenades go flying. Then they actually try to get away from your grenades. And what's more, they also throw grenades at you.
Grenades might sound like a simple little thing to add to a game, and perhaps it is, but it adds such an extra dimension to the monsters' combat ability that it's almost like playing a whole new genre. Strafe, fire, strafe, fire just simply doesn't work every time. But in every other game, monsters either attack hand to hand, with area affects, or most commonly, with linear shots. It doesn't matter if they're shooting lasers, M-16s, or dollops of hot blue manna, it all comes in a straight line, and it all can be dodged. But change the angle of attack, and it's a whole new game. One little detail--one huge difference.
But that's just part of the appeal of Half-Life's enemies; unlike other games, they also cooperate. Teamwork, for monsters in other games, is if they all happen to be in the same room shooting in the same direction. Here, the infantry squads will split up, trying to hit you from several sides while one guy keeps you pinned or lobs grenades. It's surprising how entertaining well-implemented artificial intelligence can be, and it's probably worth it to play Half-Life just to fight its infantry. There could be a whole game based on nothing but fighting Half-Life's infantry.
Wait, there's more. How many times have you cleaned out one filthy, gory techno-dungeon, only to find yourself at a door that obviously leads to yet another, even filthier, techno-dungeon? How realistic is it to have obvious entrances and exits to levels--and what is a "level" anyway? An archaic holdover from Dungeons & Dragons? A convenient way of breaking up the game world so it can be loaded into memory?
Half-Life does away with the arbitrary concept of levels. Instead the world feels like a continuous whole, with small pauses and loads when you move from one area to another. This does create some problems when monsters are placed too close to the transition between mini-levels and you inadvertently strafe from one area to the other, accidentally triggering a load screen. But this problem aside, Half-Life's mini-levels create a more flowing and realistic game world, and so a more immersive one.
And freed from the stereotypical notion of levels, the designers were free to experiment with a wide variety of environments, logically linked and fun to explore. Every room isn't another corridor or another slime-filled dungeon. There are labs and warehouses, monorail stations and gun bunkers, missile silos and parking garages. The bulk of the action takes place in a deep underground military base called the Black Mesa Facility, but it is not confined there. You'll scale a canyon cliff and scamper through a military base. You'll ride weird monorails and climb through pipes full of waste. Virtually every location in Half-Life is interesting and unique.
This variety makes you want to keep playing Half-Life all the way through. How many times have you gotten half way through another game, only to say to yourself, "Eh, I've probably seen it all. If I keep playing, there will only be more monsters, with more guns, more hit points and more grubby levels." This is decidedly not the case with Half-Life.
Carefully crafted for the single player experience, every encounter in Half-Life is a new challenge, nearly every room throws out something you haven't seen before, every sound is a worrying cue that something horrible is about to happen. The sheer number of hand-scripted events and little scenes keeps the action moving, giving you a reason to keep playing, if only to see what could possibly happen next. I haven't had so much fun playing a game in years. I have not been frightened by a game in years. I have not dreaded corners like I have dreaded corners in this game in years. Half-Life is a superbly ambient game.
Is the game perfect? Of course not. Some of the elevators have a horrible sticking problem, and the ladders can be awkward to use. Occasionally the game chokes when a huge explosion happens. But these are minor problems.
Slightly more serious is the character of Gordon Freeman, who is rather flat and dry. I realize that the mood and feel Half-Life is very somber, very much in the mold of The X-Files, and a wisecracking Duke Nukem type wouldn't have worked. As a scientist and a specialist trained to deal with hazardous materials, Freeman is the right kind of character to serve as the story's alter ego, but his near total lack of personality--as far as I can recall, he never says anything in the game--leaves a little to be desired. Still, you could make a case that giving him a personality could actually detract from your ability to identify with the character. And certainly, the use of cut scenes or any of the other crude crutches of computer game storytelling would have detracted from the relentless pace of the game and the freedom and control you have over your character.
Internet play is more troubling. There's a built-in server list that works kind of like Gamespy, letting you find free servers quickly, which is a classy touch, but the matches themselves feel laggier than Quake. More to the point, it's obvious that Valve spent all its time and energy perfecting the single player experience, and so as far as deathmatches go, Half-Life's is just that, a standard deathmatch. But who cares? You shouldn't be buying this game to play deathmatch.
Really, my biggest problem with Half-Life was some of the level design, particularly in the middle stages of the game. Here the tension seriously sags, as you are forced to wander around some dreadful tunnels looking for switches in retro-gaming land, as jumping puzzles, switch hunts, and all the tedium of a dozen other games returns in force.
Pacing is important in an action game, since you want to break up the intense, heart-pounding shootouts with some stretches of creeping caution, even moments of relaxed calm. But in my view at least, too many of the middle levels rely on jumping puzzles, instant death traps, and almost sheer rote exploration via the save/load buttons.
However, once you get past the sewers, a seemingly interminable rail train puzzle, and the dreaded, obligatory underwater maze--once you fight your way back out into the open area where you have to mix it up with the camo guys again, the game perks up considerably, and some of the final levels in the military base are truly some of the greatest single player levels ever made.
Anyway, those are some of the things that make Half-Life tick. It questions genre elements and reworks them or discards them as appropriate in order to make a smoother, more engrossing game. It constantly presents you with variety, surprises, and new challenges to keep you hooked. It is a tour de force in game design, the definitive single player game in a first person shooter. Don't cheat yourself; play this game.
-- Jason Bates
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