Half-Life, Revisited

I first played Half-Life in 1998 and played it again over the last month for a series of livestreams on Twitch. It's been 19 years since the game was released, and what I experienced in 2017 made me reassess the game. It's a chaotic, if sometimes sloppy, masterpiece.

Half-Life follows Gordon Freeman, a physicist who works at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. The formative first person shooter pushed a genre known for shootouts into a paradigm that melded seamless story and great gunplay.

The game opens with a tram ride into the complex. This intro subdued and helps players identify with Gordon. Then the shooting kicks in.

Half-Life both subverts and embraces first person shooter tropes from the 1990s. Gordon is deliberately not a space marine, but a nerdy everyman.

Levels are not just abstract corridors or puzzle boxes with keys to find; they are detailed approximations of real space. They're office complexes, flooded basements, and cafeterias. Black Mesa feels like a place you might find in the real world.

But Half-Life is also a natural extension of games like 1996's Quake. Half-Life's engine, GoldSrc, is a modified version of the Quake engine. The newer game's various subversions are constructed into a sly gameplay package of circle-strafing a shotgun blasts.

Replaying Half-Life, it's clear that the first third of the game is the most successful. Navigating through destroyed labs and offices offers a crash course in intelligent level design.

Half-Life's levels are complex mazes, but one of the game's greatest tricks is making everything seem natural and navigable. Early levels are jammed with enemies that have upset Black Mesa's domesticity. Gordon battles the likes of small but damaging headcrabs and lightning-zapping vortigaunts.

Encounters never feel unfair, as each enemy telegraphs their attacks nicely. Battles are wonderful combination of dodging and shooting.

Half-Life's smartest decision is introducing military soldiers as enemies, slightly after players have grown accustomed to fighting aliens. These soldiers shift the gameplay remarkably. Preceding enemies had tells that allowed you to avoid attacks.

The soldiers have hitscan weapons that damage the player instantly. They work together as a group to pressure the player. They will attempt pincer movements or toss grenades at players hiding in cover.

This is common practice in games today. It was novel then but also still manages to be exciting. Half-Life's soldiers provide such a dramatic change to how players handle gunfights that it alters the rest of the game. Their arrival in the chapter "We've Got Hostiles" is one of the most important and shocking moments in first person shooters. It impresses to this day.

Half-Life's navigation puzzles mostly don't hold up. They range from simple platforming segments to an elaborate sequence full of conveyor belts, fire, and smashing machinery. The game's best environmental puzzle-solving comes early in "Blast Pit," a mission that asks players to reconnect fuel lines so that they can incinerate a monster using a test rocket.

Following this, numerous levels try different gimmicks that stumble. "On A Rail" is an awkward sequence that involves riding a tram and changing tracks to move through a maze. "Lambda Core" is packed with portals so insidiously disorientating that it almost kills all the game's previously built up goodwill.

These sequences figure heavy into the Half-Life's second act, dragging the quality down with convoluted scenario design.

The last third of the game drops players into the alien dimension Xen, a bizarre world of fleshy growths and low gravity. Contrary to popular opinion that paints the game's final segment as notoriously unbearable, Xen succeeds by taking away anything familiar.

Enemies are tougher, navigation shifts to a focus on vertical movement up alien towers, and the mood is wonderfully hostile. While it is occasionally difficult to know your next step, Xen offers surprising battles and locations that help Half-Life rebound from its disappointing middle.

Xen's weak point is the final boss. Taking down the massive Nihilanth is far too complicated and messy for an actual climax. The battle involves destroying crystals that protect the creature, while dodging enemies and portals that drop the player into punishing rooms.

These spaces often contain mini-bosses or elaborate platforming puzzles that artificially extend the battle. What might have been a dramatic finale ends on a long, flat note, the final moments of the game marred by uncharacteristically outdated design.

It is a boss fight that exists exclusively because there had to be a big boss fight.

Half-Life isn't as consistently great as I remembered. The middle of the game is a twisting slog of hallways, puzzles, and gunfights that never quite mesh. But the first handful of levels are some of the best ever put into an FPS.

It fizzles out slightly by the end but the imaginative level design and exciting shooting is still captivating nearly 20 years later.


Comments

    It's a chaotic, if sometimes sloppy, masterpiece.

    And that is where I stopped reading.

      C'mon. You gotta admit it is a little sloppy. The movement is crazy slippery and there's a lot of platforming puzzles that are a real exercise in frustration because of this.

      Love the game though. My nr 1 game for a looooong time. Bought it in 98 and played through many times.

      Sloppy isn't really the right word here. In terms of the actual level designers, it's clear the most talented ones did the earlier parts, whereas some of the latter sections definitely have more of a talented but ultimately amateur feel. Compare the complexity of the intro sections offices and test chambers to areas of the sandy desert for example (atleast until the on a cliff section, which is fantastic). There's definitely a more primitive feel to the architecture when comparing the start to the middle.

      The levels still work fine though, and for those without a "beast" computer at the time, it certainly ran better in those areas. It may have even been intentional as those sections seem to focus more on firefights than puzzle solving, thus making the need for smooth frames more nessecary.

      That said, I think sloppy is a word that should never be used to describe half-life, because it was - and still is - a masterpiece and utter classic of the fps genre. So many things we take for granted in games these days were invented by HL, and it was leaps and bounds ahead of what the competition - quake 2, unreal etc - was doing at the time.

      Perhaps the remake, Black Mesa, would have been a better fit for the author, as that fixes much of what was attributed to their idea of "sloppy".

      Last edited 18/09/17 11:03 pm

      How can you not look at it with modern eyes and see that it has low points? It is messy in places. Some of the set pieces don't sit well. Xen is a good idea that was poorly implemented. First person jumping puzzles...

    I really enjoyed watching this play through on Twitch. I've had access to Half-life a good few times over the years, but never finished it (I think I didn't get too far past Blast Pit). After watching this, I've added the Half-life bundle to my Steam Wishlist, will pick it up next sale.

    Finally, someone who gives Xen it's due. I think I agree with pretty much all of this, and I say that as someone who still to this day considers the original Half-Life their favourite game. It was excellent, but it wasn't perfect.

    Sloppy is a word you could use I guess. I'd probably go with unpolished instead, as even the games rougher sections were at least on par if not better than the usual quality of shooters from that era. And I mean, there were a lot of good 90s shooters. I could be wrong though, I'm certainly biased. I love this game.

    I think Half-Life might have been one of the first shooters I ever played, certainly the first one I finished. I remember it just sucking me in and making me feel like I was really there; stuck under a few miles of solid rock and concrete, alone and afraid. I remember how relieved I felt when I finally made it to the surface access only to be knocked out and to then swiftly learn that being top-side was no safer.

    I think that initial experience of being so drawn into the game that I just wanted to escape the facility and survive is the reason why I so much prefer Blue Shift over Opposing Force. You weren't there to be a hero, there wasn't any arbitrary big bad to kill, you were just trying to get out alive.

    Speaking of boss fights, the Nihilanth I liked. It felt like during the course of the game it had become apparent that I couldn't escape what was happening and had to deal with it instead. While the Nihilanth fight was a little frustrating, unintuitive and and poorly paced, I had managed to slay an alien god. One that was seemingly responsible for all I'd endured. Which was pretty satisfying. The Gene Worm however felt entirely arbitrary and anti-climactic. Opposing Force certainly had it's merits though.

    Anyway I could prattle on about Half-Life and it's expansions for hours. Best I leave it there. Good read as usual Heather.

    Last edited 19/09/17 1:22 pm

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