Calling Half-Life great is a gross understatement. It is The Godfather of video games. The reason why I call it that is simple: crime and gangster films were a-plenty until 1972, but the release of The Godfather changed the face and name of the genre, becoming the new benchmark for every major and minor crime film that followed. The first-person shooter genre was only in its fifth year and already a titan of a smasher emerged in the form of Half-Life. Originality and blockbuster-level success comes rarely in video gaming, even less when it’s your debut in the medium; but a couple of ex-Microsoft employees with a borrowed game engine defied all odds, conquered all impossibilities, and not only raised the bar by which all future first-person shooters are judged, but also quickly became the go-to name for a robust, reliable FPS. Half-Life’s release on the PC caused waves of gigantic proportions across the world. Never had anyone seen anything like it. Never had anyone felt so immersed in a first-person shooter ever before. If the previous first-person shooters had a following, Half-Life had an audience.
The introduction – a three-minute long train ride with a cool female voice addressing various issues and updates to the player – is easily among the greatest intros in video gaming, with it also being an example of cinematic experience in video games. In scripted pieces, the various robots, helicopters, scientists and guards go about their jobs, often coming in the way of the train, causing it to slow down a little or come to a complete halt. This feeling of a grandiose environment only confirms to the player that Half-Life is not just about the character; but also the world at large and that they play an equally important role in the in-universe as you. Plus, the introduction also gives you a valid reason to how you got there in the first-place. The others often start in media res, with you often wondering how in the heck you landed in that situation in the first place.
When the ride’s over, the still-impressive facial movements and motions are witnessed. Though a majority of them have only few lines and really don’t seem to be doing much other than walking around, the atmosphere is of a living, breathing, and most importantly, realistic world. Even if it’s one inhabitated with aliens. The interaction with fellow scientists and not-so-fellow guards feel for once honest and expected. They beg of you to leave them alone, give zero advice, alert you of your tardiness, or generally say a random word or two, before shooing you away like a bird. Many times they wouldn’t even look in your direction when addressing you, instead squinting on the corner they fear holds danger. The intelligent and working A.I. and their then-unprecedented facial movements still has me impressed… just as how they had done when I played it for the first time back in 1999.
Although the actual storyline gets set into motion when you trigger the resonance cascade, us players know Half-Life really gains flesh when Gordon Freeman picks up the crowbar just mere minutes after the accident. What follows after is an onslaught of headcrabs, Vortigaunts, houndeyes, zombies, bullsquids, and effectively eerie cameo appearances of the silent and ghost-like G-Man. When I first saw him standing on the top platform just when the first houndeye appeared, I was terrified beyond words. So emphatically spooky was his first appearance I forgot I was in a room full of enemies.
What separated Half-Life from the rest back in the day was its seamless, flowing narrative. You walked from one chapter into another without even realizing it. In Doom, you had to reach a checkpoint to clear that chapter, then your achievements would be tallied up. That’s not the case in Half-Life. There are no scores, no checkpoints and apart from few chapters resulting in blackouts, no loading screen to bog down the action nor a cutscene to pry your fingers off the keyboard. The action is always kinetic, and if the game has to slow down it is always justified. Hey, even Kratos needed to lay off some steam after countless violent deicides.
The story and the carnage is seen through Gordon Freeman’s eyes. Although the scientists and security guards have scripted dialogues that they keep repeating over, a few of them have ‘special’ lines that reveal more about the backstory of the chapter you’re currently in plus few suggestions on what to expect and how to deal with it. In the Questionable Ethics chapter, for example, a group of fellow scientists are trapped and are being hunted down by the rogue assault team plus a few Headcrabs and Houndeyes. When you take all of them out and ask one scientist to accompany you to the retinal scan as to open the door, he will reveal what happened thus far – meaning all the action that took place off-screen.
Having non-playable characters retell the (often) disastrous events that took place and then receiving a rebuttal in reply when asked to accompany Freeman, all give great deal of life to the atmosphere of the world. It is a continuous reminder that whatever that’s happening in out-of-reach areas or ‘on the other side of the fence’ are equal to whatever that’s happening in your line of sight, and are equally as ‘real’ and ‘happening’. It is a reminder, over and again, that not everything is revolving around Gordon Freeman. The point I’m trying to make is that the feeling Half-Life gives is as if the game randomly decided to make the first person it laid its eyes on as its protagonist… and it happened to be Gordon Freeman.
A puzzle game at heart, you will often find yourself flipping levers, turning on switches and devising a quick-plan involving boxes and trip-wires… often-times a combination of three and in that order. For every rational puzzle, you get an intense battle with the enemies, usually Vortigaunts, which, depending on their mood, either come running at you a la Serious Sam style or shoot lasers which cause devastating damage. But even more fearsome in my opinion are the Headcrabs.
Even before performing the resonance cascade, you can see them locked in glass chambers, making them the first enemy you see and encounter in the game. Heck, even before you pick up your trusty crowbar, they start attacking you. The Headcrabs have this tendency to jump right at your face, a la the Facehuggers in Alien. Their intent is to convert you into the zombified creatures you encounter several times in the game. Since many appear at one time, even one lonesome Headcrab is capable of decreasing your health by a huge amount. They’re small, they’re nifty, and definitely the most feared.
The one thing Half-Life excels in is the memorable scenes. The three-minute long introduction perfectly sets the mood and character of the game, but it’s just a taste for all the wonderful things to come. The first real bite granted to you I believe is when you’re in the first-quarter of the Unforeseen Circumstances – that’s like twenty-five minutes into the game. There’s a part where you have to take a freight elevator to a lower level. While slowly descending, a seemingly endless horde of Headcrabs rain upon you. Though many of them just slide off the elevator and into the water below, the shock of turning around and finding them falling on you by the truckload is damn scary. With only a crowbar to protect yourself (or a handgun if you haven’t run out of bullets) the crushing acknowledgement that a couple of deformed, mutated Mexican jumping beans are able to make you take a hypothetical crap is too pressurizing. Once the ride’s over, a lone Houndeye awaits you, but he’s no problem. In fact I found them cute (in that bizarre manner of course) and honestly felt bad about killing some of them, since they resemble no more than alien bulldogs without any heads…