Classic Game of the Week - Half-Life

At one time there was a question, and that question was who will be the Quake Killer. In 1998 the potential answers to that question included Sin, Requiem, Prey, Daikatana, Duke Nukem 4 — yes, it’s been that long — and a relative upstart on the FPS stage, Half Life. To be honest, the idea of a Quake Killer was becoming a little stale, and while first person shooters were the hottest market around, it was pretty obvious that no one was going to do it better than id.

Then, I took a tram ride through Black Mesa Research Facility, and that all changed.

A lot of people liked to imagine that eventually a video game might be able to put forth the kind of cinematic experience that seemed as deep and engaging as a film, but to date that was still something of a pipe dream. There had certainly been games to incorporate full motion video and other gimmicks to create a sense of magnitude, but no one had really done it organically in game until Half Life came along.

It’s a little difficult looking back to see how game-changing Valve’s opening salvo was, because we take for granted now the things that Half Life did with level design, AI and narrative. Even now I look back and am amazed at how seamlessly the apocalypse of Black Mesa took place, and how it slowly changed over the course of the game from teaming with scientists to becoming a war zone. Looking back, I remember iconic moments that include triggering the accident, my first firefight with the military that was supposed to be saving me, scaling a cliff-side while being hunted by an attack helicopter, and of course that opening tram ride.

It was a game for the ages.

Comments

THEY ARE WAITING FOR YOU GORDON... IN THE TEST CHAMBERRRRRRR.

Oh, oh, real cryptic choice for Classic Game of the Week. Really stretching our imaginations here. Why not go ahead and just declare Mozart as one of the best composers of all time? Heck, let's just settle this and make Citizen Kane a Classic Movie of the Week while we're at it?

Just kidding. I enjoy reading this feature. And I never played the first Half-Life so my cheeky dose of hater-ation stems from ignorance and left-out-ed-ness. Tidbits like this certainly keep me entertained as a reader and a gamer that still has some cracks to caulk in his backlog.

Zero points for taking cheap shots at that last sentence.

Funnily enough I'm playing this game for the first time right now. Because I had heard so much about the half-life series that seemed to indicate a detailed plot, I played the first five or so levels constantly expecting some kind of plot - well more of a plot then "Gordon go there, Gordon press that button, Gordon watch out for the-" I admit I felt a bit tricked when I realized I was playing a straight up FPS with nary a cut scene or character development.

Then in the Rails level, I came across a sandbag bunker with the graffitied words 'Surrender Freeman' and I began to get it a bit. It reminded me of the 'behind the wall' niches of Portal, tiny spaces that hinted at the deeper story. That seems to be Valve's point of expertise - hinting at plot, a G-man there, some graffiti here.

It's an interesting device although it lacks any kind of player agency. Some games attempt to put the story in the players hand, essentially combining gameplay and narrative. Dialogue trees are an example of this. Other games such a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time rest in that strange twilight realm where it's supposedly 'you' in the story, but when the story parts finally come along you don't get any hand it in. Half-Life is on the other side of the spectrum, the story is completely out of your hands except the bare-bones of the objective. Instead the story is around you, it's in the walls. "Don't worry about the story," half-life says, "It's over there, it's doing fine. Since we couldn't make you part of it anyways, why don't you go over there and shoot things."

This was the first game I played on my own computer. I bought it in 2000 when it had already been out for a few years. I am still disappointed with everything after the rocket launch towards the end but Half-Life 2 has more than made up for that.

Unquestionably in the "Best Game Ever" conversation.

It's so odd that this game came back into my thoughts just this morning and it ends up on CGOW. Get out of my brain, Elysium!

I said outloud this morning after waking up "They are waiting for you Gordon, In the test chamber" to my fiancee, which got me a blank stare.

Whilst we do take these various aspects half-life introduced for granted these days, it amazes me that a lot of new FPS's and games generally are still playing catch-up with it.

There goes our grant money!

The game is fine, but the fact that Elysium prefers it with ketchup and mayo is very disturbing.

Funnily enough I'm playing this game for the first time right now. Because I had heard so much about the half-life series that seemed to indicate a detailed plot, I played the first five or so levels constantly expecting some kind of plot - well more of a plot then "Gordon go there, Gordon press that button, Gordon watch out for the-" I admit I felt a bit tricked when I realized I was playing a straight up FPS with nary a cut scene or character development.

I'm not sure that you can see with the sophistication of today's standards how big a deal HL was at the time. I do think it stands up as a fine game in its own right, but it is best consumed in the context of 1998 rather than 2008. After all, Valve itself has done a lot to continue advancing the genre, and while HL2 is probably a better stand alone game -- to mention nothing of Portal -- it isn't really the leap forward that HL1 was.

The game is fine, but the fact that Elysium prefers it with ketchup and mayo is very disturbing.

You will be first against the wall when the ketchup revolution comes.

Heh, we still play HL Deathmatch here at work. Still. Weekly.

Half-Life brought me back to gaming after a near-decade hiatus, and remains a touchstone gaming experience.

The moment at which it felt clearly cinematic was when you are crawling through that tube which suddenly becomes full of flames and then you have to rush to get underwater...look up and the flames are swirling above the water above you! Now this kind of thing is pretty standard. In 1998 though, it was mind-blowing for me.

I actually liked Gearbox's Opposing Force expansion better. Call me blasphemous, but I really enjoyed playing as a sort of faceless evil henchman. I also really enjoyed the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like nature of always crossing paths with Gordon. I felt it added a lot to the story. I hope Valve includes Adrian Shepard in future games.

Fantastic game and one of the most influential first person shooters of all time, but I'm always surprised at how many people are willing to forget the final moments in Xen, where the whole thing comes dangerously close to falling apart. As interesting as the setting and enemy design may be, I still feel like the last section of Half-Life plays like you're running into a brick wall at full speed: the dicey platforming elements almost make the whole area a non-starter and the descent into Standard Boss Battles A and B run counter to the virtues that made it such an amazing experience to that point.

OzymandiasAV wrote:

Fantastic game and one of the most influential first person shooters of all time, but I'm always surprised at how many people are willing to forget the final moments in Xen, where the whole thing comes dangerously close to falling apart. As interesting as the setting and enemy design may be, I still feel like the last section of Half-Life plays like you're running into a brick wall at full speed: the dicey platforming elements almost make the whole area a non-starter and the descent into Standard Boss Battles A and B run counter to the virtues that made it such an amazing experience to that point.

I don't think people are willing to forget as much as forgive. Sure, the Xen levels were goofy at best but the whole of the game more than made up for it. Personally, I didn't mind it as much; after playing a game so grounded in reality (well, as much as you can get running around and shooting aliens) to jump into this bizarre alien world was pretty wild.

It was one of the best games ever until the final act and the final boss. Then it went off the rails.

Ah yes, Half-Life. Still one of my favourite games ever. I didn't mind the end, maybe I just didn't know better.

I have the complete Half-Life collection sitting in Steam, bought for 3 dollars. I will get to it one day, never played Blue Shift or Opposing Force.

For some more insight into why Half-Life was so great and revolutionary, take a listen to the Retronauts podcast on it.

MisterStatic wrote:

The moment at which it felt clearly cinematic was when you are crawling through that tube which suddenly becomes full of flames and then you have to rush to get underwater...look up and the flames are swirling above the water above you! Now this kind of thing is pretty standard. In 1998 though, it was mind-blowing for me.

I think since around that time, or the first time I had a grenade explode in a small hallway, I've always wished that effect, where the blast expands 'further' in some dimensions due to contraints in other dimensions, would happen to all explosions in games. I still have yet to see this happen.

Drekk wrote:
OzymandiasAV wrote:

Fantastic game and one of the most influential first person shooters of all time, but I'm always surprised at how many people are willing to forget the final moments in Xen, where the whole thing comes dangerously close to falling apart. As interesting as the setting and enemy design may be, I still feel like the last section of Half-Life plays like you're running into a brick wall at full speed: the dicey platforming elements almost make the whole area a non-starter and the descent into Standard Boss Battles A and B run counter to the virtues that made it such an amazing experience to that point.

I don't think people are willing to forget as much as forgive. Sure, the Xen levels were goofy at best but the whole of the game more than made up for it. Personally, I didn't mind it as much; after playing a game so grounded in reality (well, as much as you can get running around and shooting aliens) to jump into this bizarre alien world was pretty wild.

And honestly, most data available shows that if a game is longer than 10-15 hours most people don't make it to the end. Alot of people played it and probably either never made it to Xen or wandered around a bit and went "this sucks" and went to play multiplayer.

I liked Xen...

Excellent choice, as the game that (coupled with Baldurs Gate) forced me to drop some hard earned cash building a gaming rig.

It was the AI and varied types of enemies that put it over the top for me. The first time I came into contact with the soldiers and ducked into a hallway, they made some comments about flanking me and flushing me out.. next thing I knew a grenade was lobbed into the small access point leading to my hiding spot.

That and the experience of firing a laser guided rocket launcher in a game.. Good times..

SuchStrings wrote:

Funnily enough I'm playing this game for the first time right now. Because I had heard so much about the half-life series that seemed to indicate a detailed plot, I played the first five or so levels constantly expecting some kind of plot - well more of a plot then "Gordon go there, Gordon press that button, Gordon watch out for the-" I admit I felt a bit tricked when I realized I was playing a straight up FPS with nary a cut scene or character development.

Then in the Rails level, I came across a sandbag bunker with the graffitied words 'Surrender Freeman' and I began to get it a bit. It reminded me of the 'behind the wall' niches of Portal, tiny spaces that hinted at the deeper story. That seems to be Valve's point of expertise - hinting at plot, a G-man there, some graffiti here.

It's an interesting device although it lacks any kind of player agency. Some games attempt to put the story in the players hand, essentially combining gameplay and narrative. Dialogue trees are an example of this. Other games such a Prince of Persia: Sands of Time rest in that strange twilight realm where it's supposedly 'you' in the story, but when the story parts finally come along you don't get any hand it in. Half-Life is on the other side of the spectrum, the story is completely out of your hands except the bare-bones of the objective. Instead the story is around you, it's in the walls. "Don't worry about the story," half-life says, "It's over there, it's doing fine. Since we couldn't make you part of it anyways, why don't you go over there and shoot things."

To understand what a leap forward Half-Life was, play any FPS from 1997 or earlier. Then play any FPS from 1999 or later. Virtually every difference comes straight from half-life.

Yes, but what is the hidden message of the giant murderous xeno-testicles and the ever elusive G-spot, I mean, G-man?

Does anyone do trip mines any more? Not motion or 'bad guy' sensors, but the ones with green lasers that shoot across to the other wall.

I cut my gaming teeth on Half-Life. Definitely my favorite game series. Valve is SO SLOW to put out new games and sequels, but they always make the wait worth it.

Almost finished...

I just completed Half life: Blue Shift in one sitting yesterday. Whilst I enjoyed the experience enough to sit down for three hours straight, I was somewhat disappointed in the game; the fact that it was not made by Valve is very noticeable, on the whole, the game lacks polish. And frankly, it is not in the same standing as the original Half life, which remains one of my favourite games. This weekend I am going to play through Opposing Fronts for the first time, I hope I will be more impressed. But if not, I will not be upset, as I only payed £1.50 for each.

Grubber788 wrote:

I actually liked Gearbox's Opposing Force expansion better. Call me blasphemous, but I really enjoyed playing as a sort of faceless evil henchman. I also really enjoyed the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like nature of always crossing paths with Gordon. I felt it added a lot to the story. I hope Valve includes Adrian Shepard in future games.

Yeah, Opposing Force was great. It was the first game I played that had AI squadmates, and I was just blown away.

JamieWil wrote:

I just completed Half life: Blue Shift in one sitting yesterday. Whilst I enjoyed the experience enough to sit down for three hours straight, I was somewhat disappointed in the game; the fact that it was not made by Valve is very noticeable, on the whole, the game lacks polish. And frankly, it is not in the same standing as the original Half life, which remains one of my favourite games. This weekend I am going to play through Opposing Fronts for the first time, I hope I will be more impressed. But if not, I will not be upset, as I only payed £1.50 for each.

Blue Shift was kind of lame. No new weapons, boring characters, short story. It was more like a Mod than a full expansion.

I didnt really like the original HL. I didnt understand what to do. This was the first game I played that was like a first person shooter, but also had a story line and you had to "interact" with things and people.

Or I could be I was never smart enough to use anything other than a crowbar, which meant my playing experience never lasted long.