Half-Life, a bona-fide legacy within video-gaming; a name that’s synonymous with revolutionary FPS gameplay and worldwide critical and public acclaim. Originally named Quiver (a reference to ‘Project Arrowhead’ in Steven King’s influential novella The Mist), the game was the ambitious first project from developers Valve, formed in 1996 by ex-Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington. Intending to create a horror-influenced FPS (Doom was a massive inspiration), Valve licensed the Quake engine from id Software, heavily modified it and renamed it GoldSrc, then set to work on something incredible. After difficulty finding a publisher due to Valve’s fledgling status, Sierra On-Line finally signed on for a one-game deal. Half Life’s content was a well-kept secret, but hype arose and was instantly justified upon its release in 1998. To those that played it at the time of release, it was clear the game was something exceptional from the very start…
Half-Life’s introduction was so unique it was almost confusing; gamers used to being launched straight into an FPS with guns-blazing were presented with the exact opposite: a seemingly nonchalant day working in the local top-secret research facility. In a sequence that went on for some minutes, you, playing as Dr. Gordon Freeman, travelled into the subterranean Black Mesa Research Facility (influenced by Los Alamos National Laboratory and Area 51) via monorail, taking in its vast scale as the credits appeared onscreen. This type of introduction would, at the time, have been expected to be shown via some kind of nifty intro-movie/cut-scene, but instead, it all happened through Freeman’s eyes.
After you arrived at Black Mesa proper, you were free to roam sections of the complex before donning the integral, and seriously orange, HEV suit. The handy ‘use’ button allowed you to interact with the environment (charge your suit’s sheild, open doors, attempt the unfathomable, etc.) as well as NPCs themselves. Walking up to a fellow egg-head scientist or blue-clothed security-guy and hitting ‘use’ provoked a basic audio response from them, with them sometimes actually helping you and although Freeman himself stayed silent throughout, this was something new and special at the time.
Soon, Freeman’s talents as a theoretical physicist were put to the test as you were tasked with pushing a cart containing an unusual specimen into the beam of an ‘Anti-Mass Spectrometer’, and then….BOOM! Way to cause a dimension-tearing resonance cascade, Gordon! Once this happened, you were enveloped within an array of flashing energy and then promptly teleported to an alien dimension (Xen), given a few moments to cack yourself, silently wondering, what the shit was that?!, and then transported back into the ensuing chaos at Black Mesa. At that point it was clear to most gamers that Half-Life was going to be literally awesome.
Escaping back into the facility, you were caught in a tangible atmosphere created by intense visual and audio bombardment. The jarring alarm, the computerised voice (announcing such gems as “Attention – security personnel to Sector C, immediately”), and a whole cacophony of other disturbing noises plagued your unprepared ears from all directions. This was combined with visual bowel-churners such as lethally malfunctioning lab equipment, the gored carcasses of your former colleagues and inwardly teleporting extra-dimensional critters that mostly wanted to utterly kill you to death on sight. The chaos was brilliantly orchestrated by an unseen demonic conductor who seemed unable to resist mocking and terrifying you, as wherever you went, things only got worse. It was at this point that many a Freeman simply retreated to the nearest locker, cowered inside and started whispering to a periodic table that they’d wished they’d become a high-school physics teacher instead.
“The chaos was brilliantly orchestrated by an unseen demonic conductor who seemed unable to resist mocking and terrifying you”
Only minutes after the inter-dimensional fistula, you caused the deaths of some security guards by hitting a button and sending their elevator plummeting down the shaft as they cried out in collective terror. These instances of black comedy were a regular and welcome occurrence during the game as they provided moments of respite from the intensity. More horrific scenes often balanced things out, though, and one particular incident still haunts: a scientist being ‘head-crabbed’ in a chair whilst a flickering monitor showers him in a strobe effect – his convulsing body pulsating unbearably as the chilling original score sounds out. This was all terrible, unnerving and seemingly hopeless, but there was one thing Freeman omitted from his C.V. Not only was he a gaff-prone physicist, he also happened to be a one-man army of gun-toting badassery. How did he get a gun? With a dimension-saving crowbar, that’s how.
The crowbar was both an instrument of melee-based cranium-cracking and a highly useful tool with which to smash your way through windows and doors, unburden wooden crates from their solid form and generally get Freeman out of all types of scrapes. Your armoury was realistically looted from corpses and gradually came to consist of a handgun, shotgun, sub-machine gun with under-slung grenade launcher, a magnum revolver and a shoulder-mounted steerable rocket launcher. In addition to conventional ordnance, you also later had access to prototype weapons such as the tau cannon (laser assault rifle) and the gluon gun (sustained spiralling energy-beam), a long-range crossbow able to fire underwater and two alien weapons – the hivehand (hornet-firing gauntlet) and the snark/squeak grenade (flesh-hungry scuttling insectoids).
This impressive array of firepower was used on the denizens of Xen such as the aforementioned headcrabs (parasitic face-hugger homage), headcrab zombies, charging bullsquids, dog-like houndeyes, tough-as-granite grunts and mind-blast firing vortigaunts. This interstellar freakshow were at times harsh adversaries, both physically and mentally – the artificial intelligence of the game’s enemies was a level up from what had come before, and gamers felt the difference. This fact was never truer than when facing off against the other faction of enemies: good old human beings. In a pessimistic stroke of genius, after talk amongst the survivors of an impending rescue – the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit (HECU) were dispatched to wipe out anything and anyone who’d witnessed the reality-bending cock-up. The tactics and skills employed by the squads of HECU marines were advanced for the time – they were a well-oiled and merciless unit, intent on flushing you out (”Fire-in-the-hole”) and peppering your science-appreciating ass with lead. You were often required to engage in odds-defying fire-fights that sometimes rivalled those of Hollywood action-films. Indeed, the action was often of such a quality that players could easily feel as if they were shooting it out within a John Woo-esque scene of chaotic ultraviolence, especially as the thumping soundtrack always kicked in at the precise moment your adrenals went into overload. Later, once you’d dispatched nearly an entire platoon of grunts (who had understandably grown to detest you to the point of spray-painting the walls with anti-Freeman graffiti), deadly light-footed black-ops assassins were sent in to take you down as you cut a devastating swathe through the top-secret facility.
“Especially as the thumping soundtrack always kicked in at the precise moment your adrenals went into overload”
Black Mesa was not only an almost unfathomably massive place, it was a constant presence and as much a character within the game as any other NPC, if not more so; an overbearing, light devouring leviathan of a lab if ever there was one. At times, one would genuinely wonder whether or not Freeman would ever see the light of day again, or if the entire game would take place in what was fast becoming a state-of-the-art technological sarcophagus. It certainly didn’t help that a shady suit-wearing individual (Gman) seemed to be casually observing as you desperately clawed for your life without even offering an iota of help. Unlike many maps in other FPS games that attempted to recreate realistic locations, Black Mesa felt realistic - like a fully-functional hub of activity where hundreds of other stories were occurring alongside your own. Half-Life didn’t have ‘levels’ in the traditional sense, but instead used named chapters that flowed freely (save for brief loading times) and allowed constant progression through the world.
One chapter opened with the distant clanging of xenomorphic-beaks on cold-steel, creating a sound so haunting and unnerving that it drove you to slay the originator with added zeal. This boss-like creature could only be dealt with by the manipulation of the environment, and this was the case for many areas of the game. The locations were many, with the environment changing from claustrophobic lab networks, to HECU strongholds and the unforgettable maze of the freight monorail network. Physics based puzzles littered the chapters and were a welcome change from the tiresome ‘find a key/card to get through the special door’ of so many other FPS games of the era. Once you finally reached the surface and advanced from quality set-piece to quality set-piece whilst battling the prevailing alien-hordes and increased military firepower (helicopters, air-strikes) the plot thickened and Freeman was eventually teleported to Xen itself to take out the arch-fiend Nihilanth, a hovering Lovecraftian being responsible for maintaining the portal between Xen and Earth. Although the suitably crazy Xen section was arguably too long, fairly annoying and somewhat unremarkable, it did redeem itself by featuring a massive arachnid-like headcrab named Gonarch, who possessed a set of absolutely massive space-gonads.
Half-Life is one of the most critically acclaimed titles of all time, and received deserved adoration upon its release. The game still ranks besides fellow classic System Shock 2 (a game Half-Life thoroughly eclipsed upon release) as one of the finest examples of horror science-fiction in any medium. It’s hard to fully appreciate and understand unless one played it at the time of release, but Half-Life was a total gaming tour-de-force – a uniquely immersive FPS that had a definite cinematic feel. It set a precedent in the FPS genre (in both single player and multiplayer) that wasn’t matched until the equally, if not more, incredible sequel was released some six years later. Half-Life was challenging in terms of gameplay, its plot was gripping and the entire concept was masterfully realised by Valve, who managed to create a genuine instant classic with their very first game.