Nowadays it’s not uncommon for popular games to see re-releases or remasterings on newer consoles, but not every touted titled gets that privilege. Thus it’s left to online platforms like Steam and GOG to keep these classic titles available for those of us who missed them the first time around, or perhaps wish to merely bask in the nostalgia. But this can be a double-edged sword, as not all games have aged as well as others. I’ve certainly had my fair share of disappointment when I boot up an older game only to find it nigh unplayable thanks to certain advancements in gaming tech since its release (more on that later). Thus was the inspiration for this review series. The (Un)Retro Review. Do the old classics hold up from the perspective of a modern gamer, to the extent that they can still be enjoyed today, or are they more akin to a museum display, important historically but best left untouched?
What better game to start with than the venerated Half-Life?
It’s always an interesting experience having played a sequel before getting to the first game in a series — and something I’ve done more than a few times. I’d already played Half-Life 2 & the ensuing Episodes long before picking up the original, so I already had a vague idea about the plot going in. Though not as much as I would’ve thought. Hell, Half-Life 2 might as well have been a standalone for all that the plot was directly referenced back.
As with the sequel, we take on the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, though “only” a theoretical physicist & not the Messianic figure he became during his absence between games. While helping with an experiment at the Black Mesa research facility, he survives a disastrous resonance cascade, whereupon a tear is ripped in space-time, allowing hostile alien creatures to invade. As if things aren’t bad enough, the government begins sending in soldiers to “clean up” the problem, ie. killing everyone in the facility. And for some bizarre reason they decide that chasing a lone scientist is a better usage of their resources than killing the invading forces. Thus it is left to Gordon to find a way to seal the portals.
Narrative: Historically, Half-Life is touted as revolutionizing the way story was presented in the FPS genre. And looking back at a timeline of games released before this, I could see their point. FPS games prior to this tended to have very little in the way of story presented during the actual game. Think your Dooms, Quakes, & Wolfensteins. You might get some brief backstory in the pamphlet that came with the game, or maybe some opening sequence, followed up an ending text blurb. Everything else was just action, and the player assuming they’re working to some end goal. And usually the end goal was little more than to kill the end boss, receive happy ending.
But Half-Life tried to do things differently by weaving the narrative into the action. And from a modern gamer’s perspective, it does a fine job of this. Obviously it’s done in the same way as Half-Life 2, where exposition happens in real-time. No cutscenes, just NPCs talking directly to you. But neither are these moments long-winded, taking you out of the game. I’ll give Valve credit in that a lot of the story is shown & not told. It shows a good understanding of how details in the environment can build upon the greater story going on outside the immediate area. The escalation, from accidental space-time ripping to taking out a dimensional space fetus, feels natural.
That being said, there were a few… odd points. From someone who played the sequel first, I kept asking myself which of the identical NPCs were the people Gordon teams up with in the second game. Am I to assume Dr. Kleiner & Dr. Vance are the white & black scientists who talk to Gordon outside the testing chamber at the beginning? The ones that look like every other white & black scientist? And which identical guard was Barney? Yes, I know there were some standalone expansions that might explain these things, but I’m merely documenting my experiences here.
Overall, Half-Life’s story is competently paced, engaging without removing players from the experience, & takes advantage of the gaming medium.
Mechanics: Mmm… if you follow me on Twitter, you might have some inkling as to my opinion on the gameplay side of Half-Life, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Firstly, I will say that despite my general ineptness at shooters, Half-Life’s combat handles well. Gordon has this great fluidness to him that makes maneuvering on the battlefield a breeze. I don’t know if Gordon is some track star, or if his HEV suit (which I kept wanting to call HVAC in-game) boosts his stamina, but the man can move — as evidenced by the constant squeaks his boots make on the floors. Adding to this are the fun variety of weapons that become available. Yeah, in the beginning you’re stuck with your more standard shotguns & pistols, but some of the later weapons are a lot of fun to mess around with. Though I didn’t always find them very useful. I don’t think I ever used the trigger mines or satchel bombs, & I have no idea what that alien arm gun-thing even did.
I also enjoyed that, although always a shooter, the game wasn’t just combat. As with the sequel, there’s a lot of traversal & switching up the specifics of your current objective. Some of my favorite levels included “Blast Pit,” where you have to sneak around an alien claw monster to reach different power stations to fire up a rocket engine to kill it, “On A Rail,” where you drive around a little train, & “Surface Tension”, where you have to get around a bunch of trip mines or blow the whole place up. It adds a nice variety over just shooting people.
That being said… Y’know, I feel like Valve has a bad habit of being impressed by one new feature of their games & then add way too much of it. In Half-Life 2, they were so impressed by their gravity gun & physics engine that every citizens had to lock doors via see-saw puzzles. They also seem to like vehicles, given the entire levels in both games dedicated to some form on conveyance. But I’ll let that pass because I actually enjoyed those sections.
What I enjoyed significantly less, however, was the platforming. And I knew this was a common complaint going in. Most people will tell you first-person platforming is a pain in any game. But I don’t think it’s the perspective. I think the problem is one of the things Valve was proud of: the combat. You may recall me mentioning the fluidness of Gordon’s movements just a few paragraphs ago. Well, having slippery movement is good in fast combat, but unsurprisingly not so good for precision jumping. You end up quite literally not being able to stick the landing. Gordon seems to slide everywhere, including off the very platform I’m trying to land on. It got to the point that I aimed to ram into something just to stop myself. It didn’t help matters that, perhaps as a bad habit from other platformers, I tend to hit “back” to slow my jumps, which would for some reason cause Gordon to completely lose all forward momentum & fall. Does the HEV cancel gravity? Add to this the frustration of crouch jumping. I get that this might make sense from a realism perspective, in that a human would probably make a standing jump higher if they crouched first. But I did the long jump & hurdles in school track, & I know that’s bad form for jumping a distance, rocket pack be damned. It probably would’ve bothered me less if I could’ve found a decent button to map the crouch to. But no matter what I did, nothing made pushing W + random button + Spacebar feel anything but cumbersome. All that, especially when taking into account that the entire last level is one big jumping puzzle, & it does drag the experience down a bit.
Despite all that, Half-Life is overall a fun gaming experience. The combat, imagination & variety of scenarios is definitely where the game shines bright. But the insistence on jumping puzzles keeps it from being perfect.
Aesthetics: I mean, it is a 20 year-old game, so the presentation in some areas hasn’t aged well. Character models aren’t the greatest, although I really only found it noticeable on the human models. With the aliens & the industrial setting, it’s not quite as obvious. I expect machinery to be angular. And there’s quite a lot of detail when you take the time to look. Honestly, I never noticed in the sequel how disgusting the headcrabs’ teeth were. The sound design was okay as well. A lot of those sounds were familiar from the sequel. Is it odd to be reminded of something that was carried over to another game by the game you’re playing now?
Replay Value: Moderate. As I mentioned, there are a lot of little details that you’ll probably miss the first time through, so it’s definitely worth going back through to further immerse yourself in the game. While there’s technically no reason to play through again from a story perspective, Half-Life is well-constructed enough to stand up to multiple runs.
Overall Score: 4
Does Half-Life still stand up?
In my opinion, Half-Life deserves all the praise it receives, as well as a little criticism. Desite showing it’s age, & a few frustrations, it remains an enjoyable gaming experience that anyone can enjoy. If you are bothered by “old” games, there are some more modern fan updates I believe, that attempt to update the graphics & some of the more tedious mechanics. But the original Half-Life should be remembered for its flaws & all.
Fan-Made TrailerTitle: Half-Life
Console: PC, PS2, OS X
Publisher: Sierra Studios
Release Date: November 19, 1998