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Has Half-Life Decayed? – (Un)Retro Review

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?

220px-Half-Life_Cover_Art

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.

20180828202417_1But 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.

Score: 5


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.

20180828203528_1I 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.

Score: 4


20180910204646_1Aesthetics: 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?

Score: 3


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.

Score: 3


Breakdown

Untitled

Overall Score: 4

Does Half-Life still stand up?
Absolutely.

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.

– GamerDame

Fan-Made Trailer
Title: Half-Life
Console: PC, PS2, OS X
Rating: M
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Sierra Studios
Release Date: November 19, 1998
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Filed under (Un)Retro, 4, FPS, PC, PS2, Reviews

F.E.A.R. the Classics

As I was downloading this game from Steam, I kept trying to remember the last time I played a first-person shooter.  And for the life of me, I can’t quite place it.  I know it hasn’t been anything during the modern console cycle.  I guess it would be Half-Life 2 & it’s continuations from The Orange Box back on the 360.  I did have a brief foray with E.Y.E. Divine Cybermancy a few months back, but everything outside shooting guns was so incomprehensible that I put it down before finishing the “tutorial” level.  Shooters have just never really been my thing.  I’ve enjoyed a few in my time, certainly.  Half-Life 2 was fun, as was Doom 3.  Though to be fair, I typically play Doom by running around with the chainsaw, so calling it a “shooter” might not be fair.

(Post script, I think technically the last FPS I played was Spec Ops: The Line.  But that game was so anti-shooter that my brain didn’t store it as such.)

FEAR_DVD_box_art

F.E.A.R. (FPS’s just love their acronyms, don’t they?) is a game released way back in 2007 & spawned several successful sequels.  In its initial outing, players take on the role of a character referred to as the Point Man, a new recruit to the First Encounter Assault Recon team.  In possibly the worst first day on the job, Point Man’s team is sent to retrieve an escaped psychic commander, but quickly finds themselves embroiled in a plot centering around the worst corporate ethics since the Umbrella Corp.  All the while, Point Man keeps having strange hallucinations about a little girl in red who seems to have a massive chip on her shoulders.

Although many games have since taken inspiration from F.E.A.R.’s unique selling points, it initially touted three key features to jazz up the standard shooting.  The first was actually intelligent enemy AI, making for a more challenging shooting experience.  The second was what we now call “bullet-time,” but which the game refers to as “reflexes.”  Essentially, Point Man’s can mentally slow down time, allowing for better strategies for taking on the AI.  And finally, it billed itself as a horror FPS, meaning from time to time scary things will happen.


20180724162013_1Narrative: It’s difficult to judge a game’s story over a decade after the fact, because it’s hard to say if things were clichéd back then, or if the game in question was merely one of the pioneers of the trope.  That being said, I feel like I can say that the concept of ethically questionable super soldiers running amuck was nothing new even back when F.E.A.R. first came out.  Monolith at least tried to do something interesting with it, & I have to say I think this was my first time hearing this particular combination of ethically & scientifically dubious plot points.  Armacham, the company behind such decisions, is only slightly beat out by Umbrella Corp in that at least they were smart enough to merely bury their bad decisions instead of trying to infect the entire city to cover it up.  And looking back, the game does do a good job of pacing out the revelations of just how f-ed up the experiments actually were.  We begin merely knowing that they lost control of their clone soldiers because the commander who psychically controlled them went mad & started eating people.  We already know they probably deserve their fate for their stupidity, & this feeling only increases as the game progresses.

There isn’t much in the way of characters to speak of.  Point Man is your classic silent protagonist, & everyone else is merely a voice in your ear.  I will say that it’s nice to play a shooter where everyone on my team is unequivocally the good guy.  No ham-fisted betrayals, not even counting that one guy who turned the security system on me, because he worked for Armacham so I automatically expected it.  And despite the constant contrivance of getting Point Man separated from the rest of his team, it always fits with character.  He is the Point Man after all, meaning he’s meant to be on the front line.  I also enjoyed having characters & enemies acknowledge my capabilities rather than treating me like some rookie that has to prove myself.

Overall, while clichéd now, the story in F.E.A.R. is competently strung together.  And I have to give Monolith credit for just going balls to the wall with how insane the evilness of Armacham was.

Score: 3


Gameplay: I really had to change my mindset to get into F.E.A.R.’s combat.  Initially, I was annoyed by the shooting.  Being used to playing more narrative-focused games, I tend to view combat as an obstacle impeding me from what I really want in a game.  At first I found it boring.  Run down some hallways, enter an open room to have a firefight, rinse & repeat.  And while this pattern does persist throughout most of the runtime, I found something interesting happening about halfway through.  Something in my brain switched, & I realized that the entire purpose of a shooter is the combat.  Sounds obvious, I know.  But that merely shows how unaccustomed I am to the genre.

36210_full_2Once I realized that, & accepted that the combat was in big part the point of the game, I actually began to enjoy it.  No longer was it something to slog through, but relish.  And I have to say, despite being an older game, the combat in F.E.A.R. is still quite fun.  Two of the unique selling points I mentioned before play a huge part in that.  I haven’t played enough FPS’s to say definitively, but the AI did feel quite competent.  They don’t just sit behind cover, popping out occasionally for you to pick off.  They run around, try to get behind you, even toss grenades to flush you out.  It’s not perfect, & sometimes they’d still do stupid things like run around the corner to meet my shotgun.  But it made each encounter a little different.

Aiding in this, the bullet-time added an extra layer of fun & strategy to counter the AI.  Enemies too hard to flush out?  Pop into bullet-time & run out of cover to bring the shotgun blasting to them.  Or wait to line up a shot when they pop out.  Or detonate the grenade right over their heads.  The arsenal provided also lent to the enjoyment.  Of course you have your standard pistols & submachine guns.  But you’ve also got a gun called the Penetrator, a glorified nailgun that had the wonderful habit of pinning enemies to walls.  But my favorite, by far & away, was the laser gun that liquefied all the flesh off the target, leaving just a burnt skeleton, & had ridiculous sniping range.

But what about the third selling-point?  The horror.  Eh… I’ve heard other people describe it as it feeling like two separate games, & to some extent that’s true.  There’s almost an audible thud as the tone suddenly changes from shooter to horror.  In an open space with lots of pillars?  Get read for a shootout.  In abandoned offices with blood on the floor?  Expect something spooky.  It becomes predictable, & usually I didn’t find most of it scary.  Usually because I was looking the wrong way.

That being said, there were times when the atmosphere got to me.  Heavily influenced by Japanese horror, the game does understand the potency of quiet dread.  One standout moment was in one of the offices where I heard the phone ringing.  Having been conditioned at that point that voicemail is how the story moves along its plot, I followed the sound.  But rather than coming from any of the phones on the desk, it was coming from the ceiling.  Shooting at the tile sent a corpse falling on me.  Another good moment was after activating some control panel, the monitor showed the clone soldiers fighting before Alma (the creepy grudge girl) slowly rose into the camera’s view before it shut off.

20180730210343_1Thinking back on it, I feel that’s F.E.A.R.’s greatest strength.  It understands how to weave these moments into what you’re doing.  Both of those moments I just mentioned happened later in the game, & depended on you doing what you’d been programmed by the game to do.  And then they never happen again.  That monitor scene only happens once, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stop to watch each camera feed to see if something similar would happen.  Another example is when there are two scares on a ladder back-to-back.  It never happened before, & it never happens again, but you keep expecting it.  Tension is the essence of good horror, & in knowing that, I realize just how much thought Monolith gave to this game.

Overall, while at times predictable & repetitive, F.E.A.R. can be an enjoyable experience if you give yourself to the moment.  It knows what it wants to be, & shows more understanding of what makes a good experience than most.

Score: 4


Aesthetics: At the time, F.E.A.R. was touted as having an impressive game engine.  While the models themselves are slightly aged, I will say that overall it’s held up quite well.  In particular, the physics.  Combat feels appropriately chaotic at times thanks to dust flying up, making it hard to see.  And there was more than a few times I startled myself by knocking over some bottle, or was mesmerized by the lighting changing because I bumped a lamp.  Sound design is pretty good as well.  Nothing spectacular, but it did help lend to the atmosphere.

Score: 3


Replay Value: Low.  As much fun as it was, I consider F.E.A.R. a one-&-done game.  There is some type of multiplayer with it, but I haven’t tested it out to say if it has any staying power.

Score: 3


Breakdown

Untitled

Overall Score: 3

Last Word: Despite its age, F.E.A.R. is at least a competently made game.  Although it won’t leave much of a last impression, it’s fun while it lasts.

– GamerDame

Title: F.E.A.R.
Console: PC, 360, PS3
Rating: M
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher: Vivendi Universal Games, Warner Bros. Games
Release Date: October 17, 2005

 

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Filed under 3, PC, PS3, Reviews, Shooter, XBox 360