This review originally appeared in E66, Christmas 1998.
Half-Life is the PC game of the year, without question. It’s a game that PC owners can be proud of – as the epitome of all that is great about their chosen system – in the same way that N64 owners rightly point to GoldenEye as evidence of their own good taste. In fact, if the whole enterprise wasn’t going to set you back a grand, this game alone would be reason enough to own one. Few games induce such messianic fervour, but Half-Life is worthy because it transcends genre-defined boundaries of appeal, dissolving formula fatigue by provoking and preying upon the most primal human emotions to create an experience that is at once exciting, scary, startling and funny.
In blandly comparative terms, Half-Life is fundamentally a firstperson shooter, an offshoot of the seminal Quake and id’s adopt-an-engine scheme. But whereas, in recent times, id has been content to push the technology benchmark, Valve has concentrated on bench-pressing the gameplay. In doing so, it has chased away the reek of stale genre with innovation and a sense of pure drama.
Half-Life does not merely stick a shotgun in your hands and line up a procession of polygon-modelled automations for the slugging. Instead, the title creates an obsessively detailed, immersive world of seamless integrity, and uses every device at a game designer’s disposal to lure the player through it to the very end.
The action isn’t just dished up, it leaps out. Look down a shaft and a head-hugger will launch at your face. Walk down a corridor and the floor will cave in, or the ceiling will collapse showering you in monsters, or they’ll burst through a window, tear through a door, or abseil through the roof – anything, in fact, other than appear from an expected quarter like so much level padding. Anything that shocks, alarms or surprises is to be applauded, and with Half-Life Valve has taken the time to position every creature with Hitchcock-like deviousness.
Similarly the action is directed with masterly skill. Dying men breathe their last before you; victims undergo alien transmutations; voices babble for mercy in places you have to enter next; hapless boffins are dragged into vents where unseen horrors vomit their remains back at you; fixtures explode; and you’re invariably invited into cramped, poorly lit, ghoul–concealing apertures that prompt a ‘save game’ response. Not since Doom has a game provoked such an emotional reaction. And, because you’re constantly twisting on the end of drip-fed suspense, the action is all the more piquant on arrival.
Perhaps most excitingly of all, Valve has designed its monsters to exploit the ingrained instincts of seasoned gamers, challenging their mental, as well as their manual, dexterity to adapt to, and thrive in, a gaming environment that defies convention. This ethic is compounded in the tri-tentacled terror that appears about halfway through the game. It’s a glorious graphical achievement that you’re impulsively compelled to fill with lead. It hunts by sound. A simple device that, even many reloads later, is impossible not to admire.
So few designers ever bother to deviate from formula, that technological advances have long since outstripped gameplay. The action in most 3D games still occurs on an essentially 2D plane. But here, Valve introduces the roof-barnacle, a hair trigger tongue dangling lazily down from a set of ceiling-fixed teeth, which makes the player appreciate the full implications of 3D space, and thus hone the skill of looking ‘up’.
Throughout the game, the creatures demonstrate behavioural quirks that are a pleasure to behold. Initially, the creatures are deliberately shambling and bestial, prone to pack-hunting but not intelligent, because it suits the plot. Later, though, MENSA monsters and human Black Ops troops appear – characters that are generously endowed with the best AI yet seen in a PC game. Expertly parading their gamut of realistic animations, the death squads are capable of coordinated attack and intricate path-finding. Some will lay down suppressive fire, others move up by the numbers, while more will have scuttled out of sight, until they eventually burst out from a blind spot and attack from the rear. Fire back, and they’ll retreat, move and try to cut you off; stay still and they’ll flush you out with grenades. It’s an incredible achievement that goes someway to fulfilling the empty ‘realistic AI’ promises that appear mandatory for all game ads today.
Half-Life is a technical and artistic masterpiece. It delivers on so many levels that criticism seems churlish. Hardcore players could probably carve it up in a few days, but this is a game to be cherished. Wreathed in atmosphere, drenched with imagination, mined with surprise, Half-Life will devastate all who touch it.