Half-Life: Dr. Freeman I presume?
When the first system wars started in the mid-eighties it was the titanic struggle between Commodore, Spectrum and everyone’s favourite underdog Amstrad (at least in the UK’s playgrounds and schools but that’s a feature for another dayâ€¦). By the late nineties the fight card read something like this: Nintendo, Sega and plucky newcomer Sony. Nintendo had the modern classics Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Super Mario 64, Sega was slowly losing ground with good but ultimately niche games like Daytona USA and Virtua Fighter while Sony was about to drop a bomb with Metal Gear Solid and then Final Fantasy VII.
‘break out the microscopes’
All the while this was happening PC owners where left on the sidelines to grumble and moan like the last kid to get picked for football. Sure they could try and boast about the unique genres that only graced its system like real-time strategy games or flight simulations but until the release of today’s exhibit from the Perfekt Past vault PC gamers never had an argument stopper that could compete with these games. That was until the release in 1998 of this, sure Zelda is good but we’ve got Half-Lifeâ€¦ argument over.
Sure there had been shooters before Half-Life like Doom, Duke Nukem 3D, Star Wars: Dark Forces and later fully 3D games like Quake but they all stuck to the by then firmly established formula. Dark Forces moved things along a little by having the first jumping and ducking mechanics and the little known Terminator: Future Shock created the now standard free-look mouse and keyboard control combination but Half-Life was the first of a new breed of smart first person shooters. Right that’s enough videogame history 101 lets break out the microscopes and dissect Valve’s opus.
‘no brainers like fractured bones’
The game begins with a mundane train ride to work with you taking the role of Gordon Freeman a research associate at the far from mundane Black Mesa complex, a decommissioned missile silo in New Mexico now used for all manor of military R&D. The train ride takes about five minutes during which time along with reading the developer credits you can move around the train and look out of the windows at the different areas in Black Mesa some of which you’ll pass back through as the game progresses this serves as a teaser of events to come with glimpses of an Apache attack helicopter and the strange near future technology that is prevalent in the complex.
Before to long Gordon gets to his destination, the sector C test labs where you will for the first time in the series get to step into the infamous HEV suit. The HEV or hazardous environment suit allows Gordon to keep track of his health status, suit power and even his weaponry with the onscreen HUD (heads up display) and hear a pleasant female voice that will when required inform you of environmental dangers such as high levels of radiation or low air supply when underwater and even no brainers like fractured bones when recovering from a fifty foot drop. With Gordon suited and booted you head down to the test chambers where Gordon’s PhD is out to good use by physically pushing a cart loaded with a crystal samples into a mass-spectrometer for study but in doing so begins a chain reaction that creates a resonance cascade and opens a portal to the alien world of Xen.
‘grab a hold of your cranium’
As you might imagine this isn’t a good thing and before long the entire complex has plunged into chaos with hostile Xen alien’s teleporting into Black Mesa intent on destroying everyone and everything. From the diminutive Headcrabs that will leap around trying to grab a hold of your cranium to the huge Gargantuas that can easily destroy you with a single stomp. If it’s not human it going to try to kill you and even if it is human be very careful.
Finding himself trapped underground and surrounded by danger from both the Xen invaders and the rapidly deteriorating complex, Gordon has no choice to fight his way out using whatever he can find be it a humble crowbar, machinegun, exotic Xen weaponry or some highly experimental weapons technology scavenged from one of the complexes many labs. Gordon isn’t alone though as from time to time he’ll find security guards who can provide extra firepower or even the odd friendly scientist who can open retinal locks, administer health restoring hypo shoots and provide clues about how to progress. Without the benefit of a HEV suit many of Gordon’s allies won’t last long as before long the first military strike teams start to arrive to contain the incident and show no mercy be it human or alien.
‘they’ll adapt and lay’
Unlike the enemies from Xen who are single mindedly suicidal in their lack of tactics the human soldiers will work as a team when possible. The soldiers will take cover, use suppression and flank manoeuvres, flush you from cover with grenades and even retreat when wounded making them shrewd and dangerous foes compared to the aliens and indeed first person shooter enemies in general. As the game progresses and you get wise to their tactics and improve your own arsenal of weapons they’ll adapt and lay elaborate ambushes for you even going so far as to use APCs and tanks against you and when that fails the Apaches start appearing.
That’s not to say the Xen aliens stay the same throughout as many of the game’s impressive set pieces revolve around passing or destroying the unique alien life-forms that have taken up residence in Black Mesa after the resonance cascade. The best example is the ‘Blast Pit’ chapter that will have you sneaking through a missile silo avoiding a huge beastie that hunts by sound, forcing Gordon use his limited stock of grenades as decoys so he can reactivate the silos test rockets to incinerate it.
‘use the sewer’
The biggest danger is by far Black Mesa itself, as post cascade all that shiny technology starts to malfunction transforming every electronic door, lift and generator into a potential deathtrap. Even then Gordon has to avoid the labs and use the sewer or ventilation system to get around spinning fan blades or toxic waste make the tricky platforming areas as dangerous as going against a military strike team.
Provided Gordon survives long enough as makes it across Black Mesa to the Lambda complex (The ‘a’ in Half-Life is the symbol for Lambda, the radioactive decay constant which is used to work out the half-life of isotopes fact fans) he can then take the fight to Xen by using the complex’s teleporter to travel there and stop the invasion, or at least slow them down. The final Xen areas are very different to Black Mesa not only in visual terms with Xen itself being that it’s a bunch of floating rocks in space but also that it’s low gravity environment filled with exotic flora and fauna that take the place of medical stations and HEV dispensers when healing and charging your suit.
‘squib compared to the bulk’
Many, myself included consider the final act of Half-Life to be a damp squib compared to the bulk of the game set in Black Mesa compared to Xen and it’s over reliance on fiddly jumping and uninspired rocks in space area design. Thankfully if you want more Black Mesa larks then you can play one of the many expansion packs released after the game’s initial success both in sales and critical approval (fifty one games of the years wins!)
A year after the original release came Half-Life: Opposing Force developed outside Valve by Gearbox Software (The Brothers in Arms trilogy) this time you view the events at Black Mesa as one of the marines sent in contain the resonance cascade. The main character Adrian Shepard is similar to Gordon Freeman with his military HECU suit works much like the HEV suit although rather than copy Gordon’s weaponry entirely Shepard uses a wrench rather than a crowbar along with some unique weapons like the SAW heavy machine-gun, alien lightning gun and tame barnacle that Shepard can use like an organic grapple launcher to reach new areas and higher ground.
‘put down the fan community’
Originally created by Gearbox to tie in with the Dreamcast conversion, Half-Life: Blue Shift finely saw the light of day as an expansion pack on the PC (although the completed but unreleased Dreamcast version was leaked into the internet for download some time later) and had you playing as long time fan favourite security guard Barney Calhoun as he too struggled to escape Black Mesa after the resonance cascade. It was rather short in length compared to Opposing Force and lacked new content but had the added bonus of including a patch that upgraded the visuals of the original game replacing many of the character and enemy modes and even two of the weapons with the trusty MP5 becoming an M16 and the Glock pistol turning into a Beretta.
The Playstation 2 conversion had the co-op Half-Life: Decay mode that acted as a mini prequel to the events in Half-Life and until the conversion of Half-Life 2 on the original Xbox would be the only officially released Half-Life game not on it’s native home the PC. Despite these being the only official releases much of Half-Life’s success can be put down to the fan community that supported it with unofficial maps and even total conversions and entirely new games!
‘so it’s no harder’
Soon after Half-Life’s debut Valve released the Half-Life SDK or system development kit that let bedroom coders make their own maps filled with characters, enemies and items all found in the game and even add their own graphics or change the games AI. Half-Life itself was based on the Quake II software engine so in no time at all there was a huge collection of fan made material some of which would go on to become almost as popular as Half-Life itself.
Like what? Wellâ€¦ Counter-Strike, Day of Defeat and Team Fortress both began their lives as Half-Life mods and have since gone on to become huge franchises in their own rights but some lesser known mods like They Hunger, Poke646 or Natural Selection are all great games. To list all the mods and maps made would take hours, thankfully there’s still a strong development scene for Half-Life so it’s no harder than searching Google to find hundreds of free maps for one of the best games ever made.
‘shitty analogue sticks’
Playing Half-Life today is amazingly simple, you can find a copy of the game online for less than a few pounds in one of half a dozen or so different forms some with the different expansions and conversion games some without. You can download it from Steam along with the whole of Valve’s software catalogue or even try the console versions with the PS2 conversion working well although some may balk at the auto-aim lock-on feature to counteract the PS2’s shitty analogue stick controls.
So there we go a huge feature for a huge game that has inspired and enthralled hundreds of thousands to not only play a great first person shooter but make it yourself in an age where the bedroom coder is all but extinct.