When I was twelve my father tried out this game called Unreal Tournament 2003. He really enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as I did. I quickly fell in love with the fast paced competition, grew too good for the bots, and took my skills online, which became an addiction for years. During that time my father didn’t try to get me off the computer. He actually kept buying me more games to try out based off what his friends told him online. He wasn’t the most aware guy about the current gaming scene, but he did love his chat rooms, and his friends didn’t mind shooting him off recommendations for me.
One of his friends told him I might like CS, however he failed to tell my father what “CS” stood for. So my dad got that twisted and ended up buying me Starcraft. It was okay–I was never crazy about RTS–but my father instantly discovered the alien space marine war simulator wasn’t the shooter he was looking for. I ended up discovering myself that he had the letters reversed which led me to persuading my dad to buy me Counter-Strike at a local KMart. It came in this giant boxed set that included Half-Life, the two expansions Opposing Forces and Blue Shift, and Counter-Strike.
For a long time I played nothing but Counter-Strike and I sucked each and every game. It’s a tremendous far cry from shooters that I was used to–shooters I’d grow to prefer–which were all about running and gunning. I was much too impatient for the tactical, methodical nature of Counter-Strike’s semi-realistic portrayal of shooting humans in the face. I’ve bought every Counter-Strike since then and I never got good at any of them despite spending perhaps hundreds of hours in source.
Moving on to the second game I eventually tried….the unknown Half-Life.
Like my father I was completely unfamiliar with the gaming scene at the time, so I had never heard of Half-Life. When I played it I was swept up in the high octane pace of its sci-fi horror. I was instantly drawn in by the interesting level design, the compelling subject matter, and the atmospheric sound design.
Recently I played and completed Quake II. In beating the game, and thinking about its flaws, I realized I wanted to go back and replay Half-Life. And so I did.
Before I get to my review, here’s a little contextual history lesson. Around the time of Half-Life’s release, these FPS games came out:
Unreal, Turok II, and Thief.
Quake II had come out the year previous as did Goldeneye, Blood, and Shadow Warrior.
The next year will see System Shock II come out.
Perfect Dark and Deus Ex would come out in 2000.
Over the last two or so years I have played a lot of all of these games. I have just finished a playthrough of Quake II for review, and am actively replaying Quake for a let’s play. I return to DOOM all the time. I played many dozens of hours of Goldeneye as a child, and though I never played it I respect Thief and everything it brought to the table in FPS. At the time of this review I am playing Blood, which has quickly become a new favorite of mine in the (ultra specific) genre of 90’s FPS. I’m also doing a let’s play of the game’s first episode in the spirit of Hallow’s Wiener.
The thing about Half-Life is that it
A B S O L U T E L Y
D E S T R O Y S
these games! It’s no contest! The sheer polish and ambition alone is staggering. The fact that it works such flawless execution is fucking phenomenal. Played in context of its time period you really see why Half-Life has such a lasting legacy. It’s mind binding that this game came out of that time period. Even the games that play better, even the games that are doing more interesting things, can’t hold a candle because for everything these games do right, they always fuck something up.
Playing Half-Life, I’m constantly thinking to myself:
There are no flaws with this.
That’s rare in any period of time, and especially in a time where 3D is awful. Go back and play Ocarina of Time or Banjo Kazooie or Resident Evil 2, which are all notable releases from that same year (yes 1998 is remembered as one of the greatest years in video gaming). NONE of these games hold up as well as Half-Life does.
It even edges out games that come out this generation. I’ve come to wonder if developers have forgotten about Half-Life. That’s insane! Everyone’s playing Half-Life, right? Well then you know what I’m talking about!!
Review finished! 10/10. Perfect.
You ever start so high on a thing only to play half-way through it and drop it almost entirely?
Half-Life starts well–well, not really: the beginning of Half-Life is one of the worst things about the game. You have to sit through this boring ass segment that, maybe only lasts thirty or so minutes, but takes forever. You feel like you’ve aged fifteen damn years after sitting through that fucking train ride, watching the boring mundane scenery move around you, and then the walking through the lab–and I always fucking get lost and forget where I have to go–and then the boring as hell experiment that goes wrong. All of that is interesting the first time you play the game, and I get the feeling all these experiences I felt were meant to be felt because Valve wanted me to feel like I was Gordon Freeman just traveling his mundane travel to his mundane underground scientist job. I can’t really fault this game for having a terrible slow beginning.
But I also can.
After shit goes down you scramble around for a bit until finally getting Gordon’s infamous crowbar, and shortly after you also get a decent pistol. Everything is gravy: Perfect pacing, ingenious level design, and moody, chaotic atmosphere.
Until Surface Tension.
See, up until this point the game’s difficulty feels balanced. You’re never too powerful, but you always have enough tools to deal with the situation. Once you’re above ground, you’re contending with the hardest enemies in the game–helicopters, tanks, machine gunners, rocket gunners, and then heavy aliens that shoot bees out of their guns.
OUT OF THEIR GUNS!
(that’s pretty sick)
The game barely provides the player with enough health, nor does it provide enough explosives, with which these things are best fought. I found myself needing to reload past saves just to get through segments with more health, and because the rest of the game had been so well paced, I didn’t find myself compelled to do so because each roadblock hits me that much harder.
And then you run up against the real brick walls. I found the first half of Half-Life brilliantly showed me where to go amongst the chaos of flawlessly executed events. Unlike in Quake II, I never found myself stuck wandering around endlessly. I HATE getting lost in video games–especially in FPS games. FPS games can even be tricky to look up walkthroughs for because progress is so circumstantial that you could have to read the entire damn FAQ just to find where to go next. It was like fresh air flying through this game progress completely unhindered by level design diluted in poor planning and structural design. Everything just naturally made sense.
Until it didn’t.
Maybe it was my fault. There’s this segment that really put up a roadblock: I was outside killing aliens. Sniper nests were set up around this building that was completely locked. There were minefields to the left, so I didn’t want to go there. I circled around the right side of the building and only found that the other side of that minefield was more minefield. The only path forward was another locked door. There was nothing leading me through that minefield, but that’s where I had to go, so I shot grenades off exploding all the mines. Then I found a power generator spurting out electricity, which I had to blow up so I could climb the building, navigate through a maze of vents until I found the ventilation shaft I could drop down into, bringing me into that building. I didn’t even know that I had to go into that building: all indications pointed me forward, through the locked door that had even been trapped with a tripmine. But no: I had to go through a mineshaft, which the game warned me not to cross, then I had to solve a brand new puzzle that wasn’t explained, then I had to assume the path was hidden in some kind of ventilation maze that appeared more like level dressing, and then I had to guess that one shaft was okay to drop down into when all the others were not.
If this sounds confusing that’s because IT WAS CONFUSING.
I spent way too long running around, shooting at and trying to open locked doors just to find out that the solution had been on top of the building the whole time. It wasn’t a satisfying revelation, either. I felt stupid, but more so peeved that I had wasted all that time, and that I had felt the level design itself had made me waste my time.
And all video games waste your time, sure: but should they make you feel like you’ve wasted your time? Getting lost in Half-Life feels worse than getting lost in Quake II because the rest of the game was designed so freaking perfectly! It begins to feel as though they started losing their fucking minds! Like they had the ball, dribbled it perfectly to the goal weaving in and out, and right when they got to the hoop the ball fell to the floor and deflated. You pick up the flat basketball, and it liquifies. Into a puddle of piss.
What am I talking about again? Why am I here? Who are you? Why are you staring at me?
And look–I’m not going to say Half-Life deserves none of its praise, either from me earlier on in this review or from other people. It’s plainly obvious to see why this game is so well regarded, and how it became one of the most influential FPS of all time. Before this game, FPS hadn’t really tried narritive with such a strong scope. After this, games loved relishing in this event based level structure. You can almost say Half-Life was the entire reason we got boring linear single player FPS games–but I wouldn’t say that because Half-Life was never boring.
It just got to be a bit fucky. Like the developer had the ball, and then dropped it. They tried to pick it back up but it got slimey, as though covered in soap. Then it deflated. Then it fell off into a volcano. The volcano erupted, and sent the goey plastic into space. It floats in space forever. Some say you can see it through a telescope during certain weather conditions. But that’s bullshit. No one can see that well with a telescope. Especially since I’ve made all of this up.
Wow I sure am talking about balls a lot today huh?
s c o r e
Get out of my head, science!
There isn’t much more to talk about. The latter half of the game became brutally difficult to navigate such that I couldn’t even noclip my way around to fucking find said pathway, so I dropped the game entirely. It doesn’t help that, even as a kid, I remember the last level and boss encounter to be crocked full of heaping bullshit. Best to just avoid that altogether and move on to other games.
Like Blood, perhaps?
Ranking my Childhood!
Yeah! So, I initially spoke of my childhood interactions with Half-Life, thus I believe it deserves to be ranked on THE LIST OF ALL LISTS!
- Street Fighter II Turbo Hyper Fighting
- Super Street Fighter
- Quake II (PC)
- Tony Hawk Pro Skater (N64)
- Tetris 2
- Street Fighter II The World Warrior
- Street Fighter II Alpha
Even if I didn’t finish the game for this review, the glee I felt flying through the first half of this game made for an experience like no other this year. I can’t remember the last time I had felt so much nostalgia for those early levels. It’s one of those moments where, you don’t realize what’s coming next until is starts happening, and then you can remember how you felt when you first experienced those moments. That’s how memorable this campaign is, and the roughness of the latter half does nothing to tarnish the legacy of this game on its whole. At the time there was nothing like it. Today, barely anything comes close, yet you could trace aspects of every modern FPS back to Valve’s breakout masterpiece.
Stay tuned for more Captain Crunch as I explore the fuckery of bullets!
the bed forgotten Seth