Gaming Flashback: Half-Life
At this point we’re all probably a little too familiar with the meme of Half-Life 3 and it’s lack of existence. Valve time, Gaben, Episode 3 confirmed - the gag may have worn thin a long time ago, however its origin is born from a genuine place of longing by fans of one of video games most renowned series.
The original Half-Life was released on PC in 1998 – almost two decades ago at this point – at a time when PC gaming was nowhere near as accessible or as prominent as it is today. Which means that a lot of people out there are probably far more familiar with the Half-Life namesake, than they are of the actual game.
If you’re a part of the large number of people that are more familiar with the meme of Half-Life 3 than you are of the actual series, you might feel like you’re missing out on some grand piece of video game history. You might have even considered going back and playing through each game to see first hand, how and why this adoration was fostered.
If you are interested in going back and experiencing the Half-Life series for the first time almost twenty years after it’s inception, there’s a few things you need to know. For this article, we’ll begin by going through and looking at the original Half-Life, so stay tuned over the next few weeks as we come back and revisit Half-Life 2 and the episodes in a number of follow-up articles.
When the original Half-Life was released in 1998, it was praised for its immersive story telling and impressive world building. A lot of this was sold through the use of clever scripting and interesting level design that was the key to creating an immersive experience that combined a compelling narrative with engaging action. These nifty scripting techniques are a lot less impressive nowadays and the mechanics occurring behind the curtain are much more obvious, yet these moments are still effective and add a lot to the overall experience.
The clever world building and interesting level design is also still effective, even in a modern context. You still get a good sense of presence as you explore through the Black Mesa facility and its surrounds. The level structure and the design of the facility probably wouldn’t have ever been called ‘realistic’, even in 1998, but you could definitely still describe it as being believable. It’s still fun to make your way through this secret military research facility, solving engaging environmental puzzles and overcoming adversaries that are just as likely to be part of the environment as they are to be physical enemies.
Worth noting though, is that a lot of the puzzles in the game involve perilous, first-person platforming. The game was built on a modified Quake engine, so the movement speed is typical to that era of shooter – meaning that it’s fast, floaty and the momentum is something that will take a lot of getting used to. The game does feature a fairly generous auto-save system, and it is very easy to hardsave and quickload at any time, which is good because the first-person platforming is one of the more frustrating aspects of the game that doesn’t hold up so well.
On the other hand, Half-Life is a product of a time when cheat codes were still a thing, and the game features a robust console interface that allows you to modify almost anything to your liking. So if a platforming puzzle is giving you trouble, or you encounter some broken scripting, getting around the issue is a simple console command away. ‘Noclip’ became one of my best friends during some of the more grueling platforming challenges and makes some of the more egregious sections of the game a whole lot easier to tolerate.
To this day, the narrative of Half-Life remains one of the most unexpected video game stories that I’ve experienced. The unassuming boxart and screenshots are deceptive, and frankly the less you know about the narrative the better. However, you will probably need to visit a wiki to get the full picture when you’re done, as things don’t get explained all too well and you’ll probably have a lot of questions – questions you’ll want answers to because the story is still rather captivating, if a little esoteric.
Despite the undeniable rough spots that are inherent to older games, within the context of its age, the visuals of Half-Life are still totally serviceable and really aren’t all that bad. The texture design still holds up well enough that areas are still recognizable for what they’re designed to represent. You can still recognize when you’re in a lab or a cave or a bathroom, and things that are meant to look sciencey, still look sciencey - while things that are meant to look gross and weird, still look really gross and weird.
That being said, there are times when the older visuals aren’t so quaint and can actually be rather frustrating. The game often requires you to interact with the environment, pressing buttons to activate machinery and whatnot, and oftentimes, these activateable buttons that are vital to progression can be ignored entirely, often mistaken for aesthetic dressing, which can lead to frequent roadblocks in your progression.
The same mindset about the aging visuals can be applied to the sound design as well. Sound effects are tinny and often sound nothing like what they are supposed to represent, but they do get the job done. The voice acting is super low bit rate, yet still very effective and works well to drive the narrative - however hearing the same three voice actors represent dozens of different people gets annoying, and the lack of a subtitles option means you can often miss critical dialogue by being too far away from NPC’s.
It’s important to know that these knocks against the sound design don’t apply to the music. The music, is fantastic. The way it kicks in during significant moments is still extremely effective and is one of those things that you cant feel the full effect of by simply watching a YouTube video – you have to experience the way it triggers to match the gameplay or to emphasize a moment as it happens. The moment that you emerge out onto the cliff is burned into my memory as one of the greatest moments in video game music.
When it comes to the combat, Half-Life holds up okay. Laying into enemies with a shotgun is a timeless fun, yet the weapons have this tangible lack of impact that we’ve come accustomed to in modern First Person Shooters, that’s not so nice to live without.
There’s a good variety of weapons on offer, ranging from your standard magnum to a disembodied alien arm, and they’re all pretty fun to use. Each of the weapons feel different and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses, so there’s a good reason to mix things up a bit every now and then. Plus, this is where the world was introduced to the humble crowbar, the surprising all-rounder when it comes to monster slaying.
So all things considered, the original Half Life still holds up fairly well. The visuals and sound effects are undeniably dated, yet the world, atmosphere and storytelling are still top notch. The game is still a lot of fun to play through and is totally worth checking out if you have any interest in finding out for yourself, just where all this crazy Half-Life fanboyism began.
You can pick up Half Life on Steam for 10 bucks – or you can wait until sale time and grab Half-Life, Half-Life 2 and the episodes for under ten dollars. The games all run without a hitch on mid-range PC’s, and Mac and Linux versions are also available.