Half-Life is a 1998 first-person shooter video game from Valve. It was their first game, and a highly ambitious one at that. It avoids the (Even in the 90s) omnipresent video game cliché of grunting space marines blowing up aliens for no good reason. Instead you control a highly-educated theoretical physicist working on a teleportation experiment.
Having typed that previous paragraph, I realize it appears that I copied it from that Wikipedia article. In truth, it’s due to the fact that Half-Life had such a profound effect on me when I first played it a year after its release. It was just so different. Coming only five years after Doom (Which also revitalized the first-person shooter genre), Half-Life immersed the player in its varied and imaginative environments. It also had puzzle-solving more complicated than “get the blue keycard to open the blue door”, unique enemies and allies (human, alien, and mechanical), and objectives more important than merely piling up a gigantic body count.
Oh, the environments. Ruined research labs, railroad lines, agoraphobic deserts, dams complete with alien shark-things, military bases, precarious cliffs, and a bizarre alien world consisting of organic floating globes with things living in them. Half-Life simply does not allow the player to get bored.
Combat is inspired by Doom’s instinctive immediate shooting. You are encouraged to use a variety of techniques for fighting enemies. And you must do this because your foes will do the same. Few enemies in this game will run directly towards the player in a suicidal rush. They will instead flank you, track you by sound, toss grenades to flush you out of hiding, and otherwise use the environment to their advantage. The artificial intelligence is still impressive fourteen years later and remains the most unique thing about Half-Life.
A particularly noteworthy set of foes are the female assassins, who appear in one short but memorable part late in the game. They will move quickly to escape your sight and attack you with irritating pea shooters from all directions, including above. The tactics mentioned in the previous paragraph are cranked up with these highly clever foes. I love it.
You have a generous 14 weapons to choose from in order to kill both inscrutable alien invaders and the special ops soldiers sent by corrupt government officials to hide all knowledge of Half-Life’s opening incident. You have multiple types of guns, a guidable rocket launcher (That is truly as dangerous as a real-life rocket launcher would be), tripwire mines that can be planted on any hard surface, alien insects that seek out enemies and blow themselves up, and more fun stuff. Even the measly crowbar you get near the beginning is useful throughout the game; it’s efficient for fighting headcrabs and their hosts without wasting ammo. The generic pistol shoots rapidly and more accurately than the automatic rifles. Every weapon will get some use for all of Half-Life’s entirety.
The music is unmelodic, terrifying, and energetic. Yet most of the time the game is silent. Music in most games and movies is just sonic wallpaper; it doesn’t do anything important, but it’s expected to be there for aesthetic purposes. But in Half-Life the music only appears when an important event occurs. This strengthens the effect of the music when it does occur, making for a jarring and powerful atmosphere. And while replaying the game it stuck out to me how great the sound is. Mechanical scrapes, alien howls, disturbing echoes. The Vortigaunts’ rambling and the Houndeyes’ howling still ring through my ears.
Half-Life has an optional training course available to teach the player the controls for moving and shooting. Note that it is optional; there are few things more irritating than a forced and unskippable tutorial in a video game you already understand how to control.
It’s possible to skirt Half-Life’s many challenges by abusing quicksaves, but if you fight the temptation to save scum, you will find a tightly paced and intense action game that keeps you enthralled through its entirety. The sticky controls on the ladders (leading to many fatal falls) is the only aspect I don’t like.
Then there’s the plot. The character of the G-Man is one I find particularly interesting. He is a tall, homely, shadowy man in a blue suit who monitors the player’s actions throughout the game. His purpose is unrevealed until the ending, yet his mere presence causes discomfort in the player’s mind due to his strange mannerisms. He talks in a jarred, stilted manner that hints that he’s not who he seems to be. (He’s totally an alien, by the way.) This makes him a much more worthwhile character than the usual huge ugly monster who takes a million shots to kill that you’d expect from a first-person shooter.
Much has been made of Half-Life’s mute protagonist, the scientist Gordon Freeman. This is noteworthy because the game has full voice acting for every character you meet… but not you. Yet every situation is tailored to present this as naturally as possible. It is said that Freeman doesn’t talk because it would ruin the player’s immersion—they like to imagine themselves as the protagonist of the story—but a more realistic reason is the fact that that hardware limitations have rendered most video game character mute until voice acting became possible in the 90s and Valve wanted to do something interesting with the tradition without breaking it entirely. By 1998 it was certainly possible to have a fully voiced game, which this game is. Well, almost.
And speaking of voices, I was one of the few people who liked Xen, the final area in Half-Life. They were unpopular with the general gaming public due to requiring awkward low-gravity jumping puzzles with an engine clearly not made for platforming. Despite this undeniable flaw, I found the world of Xen to be a strangely beautiful place where the aliens seem truly strange and different with its craggy atmosphere, healing pools, organic lights, and especially the final boss, the puzzling Nihilanth.
The Nihilanth is a classic video game boss: Invulnerable except for one small spot. To get to it, though, you have to jump through a lot of hoops. There are a series of teleporters that take you up to the soft gooey insides of its head. The whole time you’re doing this, it’s… talking to you. It seems that it wishes you no harm; it’s only defending itself and its people. It too is a victim of greater manipulations, as is Freeman himself. Its murder at your hands is a tragic and unnecessary disaster. A third party has been controlling everything all along. This is one of the aspects of Half-Life that make me love it even more.
Half-Life was a gigantic financial and critical success. Notice anything happening in this chart in 1998? Yeah. Half-Life was tremendously influential. It instantly catapulted Valve to video game superstardom and nerd worship. The internet said that Valve was invincible, could do no wrong—never mind that they had only one game under their belt. And for once, the internet was right. Though Steam had a bungled start that made me avoid it for years (It’s much better now, thanks for asking), I can’t think of a single Valve product that I don’t like. And Half-Life is their first and best.
Don’t get me wrong. This isn’t irrational fanboy worship. If Valve made a poor game, I would be calling for their head on a pike regardless of what praise was poured on them. But the fascinating thing is that they haven’t screwed up. They are consistently fantastic and appreciative of their fanbase. That is a true rarity in the gaming world.