Rewind Review - Half-Life
You asked for it, and now RR-sama delivers. At the end of my Legend of Zelda Rewind Review I asked you - the readers - to suggest the next series for me to take on, and an overwhelming number of people suggested Half-Life. While others voted on the Star Wars: Dark Forces/Jedi Knight series, Half-Life won with over 76% of the vote. Considering Half-Life's almost cultist-level following, I can't imagine a better game to put under the Rewind Review lens.
So what are we waiting for? Cue the intro!
As with all Rewind Reviews, Half-Life will undergo a review process through the eyes of a modern critic. No nostalgia glasses, no excuses, no rationalizing hardware limitations, and no sparing myself from angry fans and readers. Nothing will excuse the game from anything that we - as modern gamers - would expect to see in the genre today.
Now let's play with some anomalous materials and cause a resonance cascade so we can whack headcrabs with a crowbar in Half-Life for PC!
NOTE: For the sake of this review, Half-Life 2's retcons will not be applied to the base material. If you want to complain about this, do so in the comments. This is a Rewind Review, and all games are studied as if they had been released now as-is.
For those who have never heard of the series, Half-Life is a first-person shooter based in a science facility known as Black Mesa. Players assume the role of Gordon Freeman (above), a character who has the personality of a plank of wood with a weapon hot-glued to it. I suppose it is to be expected of a silent protagonist, but even Link had his moments of being a person. Heck, the game itself admits that he's a rather lame character on paper when the intro states the following about his profile:
SUBJECT: Gordon Freeman - Male, age 27
EDUCATION: Ph.D., MIT, Theoretical Physics
POSITION: Research Associate
ASSIGNMENT: Anomalous Materials Laboratory
Clearance: Level 3
ADMINISTRATIVE SPONSOR: Classified
DISASTER RESPONSE PRIORITY: Discretionary
What does the above tell us about Gordon Freeman? Well, he's a well educated man. That's about it. The rest virtually confirms that Gordon is a nobody in terms of his position at Black Mesa. Despite his education, he's barely got a high-level clearance (as the game states there are at least 10 levels of research clearance), and in the case of a disaster he's on "discretionary" status - meaning he could be left for dead and no one would care. Essentially speaking, you play as a nobody in the grand scheme of things.
The story begins on this charming note, then proceeds to take you through what I can assume is a routine thing at Black Mesa. You get your HEV suit on, you go to the lab, and you basically push buttons for people. What isn't routine, however, is the anomalous material that you are told to push into the reactor. I'm not entirely sure what the workplace safety standards surrounding pushing a trolley into a giant beam are, but I'm pretty sure they aren't what it's like in Half-Life.
Considering the fact that the trolley pretty much slingshots into the core when you interact with it, I can't imagine the experiments at Black Mesa qualify under the term "safe working conditions"
That said, this event is responsible for the events that take place for the rest of the game. After a brief moment of cut-to-black flashes, as well as brief moments of being transported to Xen, Gordon wakes up - I assume - to see that Black Mesa has been completely and utterly destroyed. Almost everyone is dead, and the place is a complete mess after the resonance cascade happened.
After one of the scientists asks you to find help on the surface, you spend most of the game running around trying to get there. Seriously, that's all there is to the story. Sure, you have Black Ops groups and soldiers trying to gun you down, but otherwise there's little else to be said.
In fact, the only real story elements from this point forward are as follows:
- The Hazardous Environment Combat Unit throws Gordon into a trash compactor after disarming him
- The scientists tell Gordon that the satellite launch failed to stop the resonance cascade, so he has to go to Xen to kill whatever is keeping the portal between the worlds open
- G-Man talks to you at the end
I won't get into further detail because of spoilers, but let's just say that it's nothing particularly awe inspiring. To be frank, Metroid (NES) had a deeper story to it than this game did - and it didn't have the luxury of voice acting either. I'm going to suggest that you skip on this one if you're a story/plot lover, since it doesn't really give you much in this field.
I've never written this kind of section before, but I think now is as good of a time as any. Half-Life is what I would call a "passable shooter". In fact, the game reminds me a lot of Halo: Combat Evolved where the game can be pretty much summarized as: shoot until it's dead, and then push some buttons to move forward. There may be a wall or two to destroy, or maybe a scientist or security guard to escort, but otherwise there's not much else to do. It is a tedious and repetitive formula that gets boring fast, especially since there's little to no story elements to break up the action moving forward.
Gameplay gets repetitive as your only real options for progression are: shoot it until it's dead, or find a bigger gun before shooting it dead. Oh, and maybe you need to push a button for it to be dead. Real innovative...
I suppose the one thing that Half-Life has on its competitors is an AI that isn't flat out stupid. However, since this is the first Half-Life title, the AI is far from superior to modern ones. Enemies tend to be smart enough to avoid traps (sometimes), and come around corners to shoot you instead of simply standing and waiting for you to arrive. It's nothing particularly special.
As for the allied AI, the scientists and security guards only know how to follow you. If they need to survive, well... hopefully you saved recently. These situations are particularly annoying later on in the game, as the AI can often follow you into danger. While this can be averted by telling the scientists or security guards to wait in their place, it gives me little to no assurance that they will survive since something could easily go after them by sheer coincidence if an enemy was following me and decided to get lost.
The scientists are the worst culprits as they are basically walking accidents waiting to happen. Their only benefit is that they do not walk straight into walls or traps - a common problem even with today's AI characters.
The game is simply outdated, and it shows. A lot of buttons, levers, and other interactable items blend in with the backgrounds with the exception of the recovery devices for your HEV suit. Enemy AIs aren't particularly intelligent as much as they are designed to follow you and shoot. If this is considered "intelligent AI", then you may as well mark down Super Mario Bros. as being ingenious for having Bowser shoot fireballs in your general direction.
What really hurts this game, however, is the engine itself. Without a proper physics engine, weapons don't fire or drop where you'd expect, they simply go where you aim. This is best seen in example with the grenades that don't roll, and instead roll a set distance. What's worse is the flashlight which just changes the texture in a given spot to what it would look like if there were lights on. This leads to only a select area where you can see while everything else is quite literally pitch black.
This is how flashlights work in Half-Life. If I pointed this upward a little bit then I would see the wall just above the last grate there. Yeah, it's pretty terrible...
In Half-Life Source and the Black Mesa mod most of these issues are addressed. However, this is the original game, and it is terrible. The game has not aged well at all, and if not for the fact that the game functions at the level of a basic first-person shooter then it would be virtually unplayable. In fact, if not for the intense nostalgia tied to it, I imagine this game wouldn't get a second glance as it offers little to nothing for the modern gamer.
As for other features of the game, interacting with objects is poorly executed. Whenever you grab onto an item, it tends to fling itself toward the direction you move (such as the aforementioned trolley). This can cause some frustrating scenes if you need to move an object to reach a higher area.
Weapons are poorly balanced, and most early game weapons are pointless after retrieving alien weapons later in the game. Enemies are poorly designed as weak points haven't been properly integrated into the game. Only the Apache Helicopter and the final boss have to be shot in a particular place to deal damage, but that is nothing special.
In the end, it's easier to come up with what's bad with the game nowadays as opposed to what it did well back in 1998.
Don't play the Dreamcast version of this game... ever. The controls are impractical at best, aiming is near impossible, and it suffers from all the issues presented here. There is literally no reason to ever play this. Please, spare yourselves.
I said this before in earlier reviews: 3D models do not age well. While things look okay at a distance (such as above) the real age of the game is apparent when not viewing an object up close. In fact, the images used in this article aren't a fair judge of the original game since most images found on the internet - or snapped by yours truly - use the high-resolution texture update. I can only shudder at what the game truly looks like by today's standards without this pack.
The game does have one redeeming factor in terms of presentation, and that is the music. While some soundtrack pieces can feel out of place depending on the situation, the music is generally pleasant to listen to - even to this day. However, it should be noted that the music does suffer from being composed on old soundboards that do show their age at some times, since you can clearly tell that the sounds are all synthesized.
I'll let you judge for yourself using the Youtube video below:
This game simply hasn't aged well at all. In terms of presentation, you'd best hope you are one of those crouch-hopping speed runners, as you will not want to "take in the scenery" unless you want to stare at what looks like a painted cardboard box. The plot is certainly nothing worth staying for, and the gameplay offers little to the modern gamer. There are simply so many better titles out there to choose from nowadays, and there is no reason to come back to this other than pure nostalgia.
Supposing that someone actually wanted to return to Half-Life as a means of catching up on the story for Half-Life 2 is absurd as well, since this game offers little in terms of story. In fact, so much of it is implied or referenced to in the sequel - other than that which is completely changed in retroactive continuity (retconned) - that there is no need to return.
The guy on the right was retconned to be Eli Vance. That's all you need to know to understand everything in Half-Life 2. Okay? Okay.
As such, I recommend this game to people who are simply nostalgia nuts, or are in desperate need of something to do. The game is playable, but just about nothing else is worth mentioning about it. As such, this game gets a 3/10.
What do you guys think? Am I being too harsh on the original Half-Life? Do you think that this rating or the review is unfair? Is there any redeeming qualities you can think of? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below and get the conversation flowing!
Reviews in this Series:
- Half-Life: Blue Shift
- Half-Life: Opposing Force
- Half-Life 2 trilogy (Special Collaboration with Youtube's "Unabridged Gamer")