We’ve been blessed with an impressive selection of high quality first-person shooters of the last twenty years, from the early days of Doom to the more recent and seemingly inexhaustible Call of Duty instalments. Of the most seminal titles in this genre, Half Life shines as one of the most superbly engineered gaming experiences of its time. Moreover, it is a title that set a very high bar for future games in the genre to reach for; a bar that very few have even approached.
With the release of Half Life 2 and the continued episodic additions to the series, it can be tempting to return only to the second instalment which, thanks to the durability of the Source engine, has dated extremely well. To ignore the original Half Life, however, would be doing yourself a great disservice; Half Life features game play elements and an atmosphere all of its own.
Contrasting with the sweeping scale of Half Life 2 which takes place in a vast array of different locations, Half Life 1 is set almost entirely within the sprawling Black Mesa research facility and its ancillary structures. This has the effect of giving the game a very different feel to its sequel; the winding corridors and deep machinery of Black Mesa make for a closer and sometimes more interesting environment than the broader world of Half Life 2. Whether you’re dodging green lightning in the Black Mesa offices or crawling through the piping beneath the complex, Half Life 1 creates the sense of a massive and complicated maze of locals.
The narrative of Half Life was somewhat more expansive than other FPS games of the period, with the opening being quite brooding as Dr. Freeman enters Black Mesa, his place of work, and prepares to partake in the science taking place. After an experiment causes a dangerous “resonance cascade” to occur, the walls between Earth and another universe collapse allowing for an invasion of aliens from the neighbouring dimension Xen. Thus the chaos begins.
In terms of game play the combat is somewhat less militarily geared than Half Life 2. Rather than an organised force of enemies like the one players faced in Half life 2, the original game features a more varied set of feral creatures from Xen. These creatures quickly set up home in Black Mesa with acid spitting bullsquids lurking near pools of industrial waste and noisy houndeyes pouncing unwary players. Some of these enemies did recur in Half Life 2, such as the famous headcrab and the ceiling dwelling barnacle, but for the most part the variety of enemies on offer is unique to the original game.
While there are a wider array of alien entities in Half Life than its sequels, there is still an organised military force to face; human special ops. In fact, this particular group of enemies, sent in to terminate Freeman and anything else living in the facility, is part of what made the game so acclaimed; the combat AI was revolutionary for the time.
Another triumph of Half Life was the sound design. From the noises of the Black Mesa facility to the distinctive calls of the various creatures faced by Freeman throughout his adventure, the sound of Half Life is superb. Whether it’s the familiar and reassuring noise of the health dispenser or the nerve shredding “screee” of a leaping headcrab, Half Life is full of memorable sound work.
The visual side of Half Life has, sadly, past its prime. Anyone new to the game going back to try it out today may be put off by the dated graphics. My advice would be to push past this as the game play is more than worth enduring the angular effects. Those looking for something a little prettier may find what they want in the fan made “Black Mesa Project”, a mod designed to incorporate the original game into the more appealing Source engine. Unfortunately this is still a work in progress but keep your eyes on it as there is a lot of potential in the project.
Replaying Half Life today shows us just how much has changed in the first-person genre since the late 90s. The regenerating health made so popular by the likes of Halo and Call of Duty is not present; instead players must seek out health packs to replenish their health when it is depleted. It is somewhat tragic that this health system has fallen out of favour in recent years as the nature of health as a limited resource adds an edge of tension to an FPS. Another key resource difference is the way weapons work; instead of being limited to a couple of weapons Half Life allows the player to carry a vast arsenal of different tools of destruction. Again, ammunition is an issue for the more effective weapons and this adds an element of resource management to the game.
The game play environment is also noticeably different to modern games as it relies on a slightly less linear design. This isn’t to say that the game is non-linear by the traditional definition of the term but it does offer more potential to explore than modern “on rails” shooters do. Half Life represents many game play features that have become progressively rarer in recent years.
Half Life is a superb nugget of gaming history, one that should be enjoyed by any fan of the FPS genre. It offers a wide variety of enemies, a strong and exciting weapons collection and a fantastic environment to play with these toys in. As we wait with the patience of a saint for the release of Half Life 2: Episode 3 (or as many hope- Half Life 3), it’s certainly worth revisiting the game that started the saga.