No Decay

The genre-defining Half-Life maintains its near perfection at twenty years old

Ian Obst, Online Editor

The first-person shooter genre is one of gaming’s most popular, easy to see thanks to the success of modern titles like the Battlefield and Call of Duty games. Games like these are defined by highly cinematic styles and massive fanbases. But at one point in time, the genre was very simple. Classics of the genre like Doom and Quake focused entirely on shooting, with no story to be heard of. It is a style that became stale quick, but it would not stay like that forever, thanks largely to the help of a scientist in an orange hazard suit.

Ian Obst
Zombified scientists are among the first enemies the player faces.

Half-Life, the first game from Valve Software, defined much of what the company would be known for: brilliant storytelling, perfect pacing, believable settings and variety in gameplay. Its 1998 release earned acclaim from critics and gamers alike, along with the success of games like The Orange Box. Twenty years have since passed, with Valve having more success with their Steam platform and technology than games. But even after all this time, Half-Life still holds its quality, with little aging and the only issues being in what felt wrong in the first place.

From its start, Half-Life sets itself apart from contemporaries. It does not start with charging into combat. It instead starts on a train, as protagonist Gordon Freeman finds himself late for work at the Black Mesa Research Facility on what seems to be an ordinary day. Things only go wrong after he suits up in the now iconic Hazardous Environment (HEV) Suit, when an experiment goes wrong, releasing aliens into the facility. Before long, the military gets involved to purge the staff, leaving the player to try and escape.

On the surface, the story in Half-Life is nothing special. The idea of an experiment gone wrong is nothing new; even Doom did the same setup in 1993. But it was the presentation that set it apart. Half-Life tells its story seamlessly, never leaving the perspective of Freeman. All events happen in-game, with almost every step of the journey being taken by the player. What also helps is what is hidden behind the curtain. Despite a generic setup, there is much more happening in Half-Life, associated commonly with the ever-present G-Man, who is seen observing Freeman several times throughout the campaign. It shows just how much Half-Life has hidden, leading to a perfect ending that leads into the sequel nicely.

Ian Obst
The G-Man, a suited figure the player can spot throughout Black Mesa, is key to Half-Life’s mystery.

What also made Half-Life shine back then, and still today, is its gameplay. Like the story, the gameplay feels nothing special when taken separately. But what it does is the idea of being the sum of its parts: always providing the player with something new. After building up with exploration and interaction, the first bit of actual combat feels more like survival horror, with limited supplies and small enemies. From there, it constantly gives the player new things to do, from weapons to try out to entire chapters with a new focus. One chapter has players destroy an alien growth in a rocket testing lab, while another has players navigating underground tunnels in a railcar. It all builds up to “Surface Tension”, the highlight of the game’s intense action. In what is ultimately a ten hour or longer game, there is a lot of variety and little to keep the player bored. Just when one section seems to be dragging on, it ends and leads into something new. What does kill this pacing is the final section of the game, set in the alien world of Xen. Not only is it focused heavily on the clumsy platforming, but the combat takes a heavy increase in difficulty, to the point of being almost unfair.

The only other issue that can come up with Half-Life is how dated parts of the presentation are. Elements like the level design, sound design and soundtrack from Kelly Bailey hold up really well. But the technical level of the graphics is truly dated. It runs on what Valve called the GoldSrc engine, which is just a modified version of the Quake engine. As such, models are ugly and textures are blurry. On the bright side, this does mean it runs flawlessly on modern computers, even in regards to higher resolutions. Even still, it does mean that the visuals do not hold up in quality.

But it is quite surprising that what sets Half-Life back the most is still a highly trivial detail. The barrier of the presentation is something for more modern gamers to pass, but those who do are rewarded with one of the best shooters gaming has to offer. The sequels did continue to keep this quality, and whether or not a Half-Life 3 will exist is still a mystery. But even still, the original Half-Life still maintains both its quality and the ideals of its original tagline: “Run. Think. Shoot. Live.”

Half-Life has been rated M for Mature by the ESRB. It is available on Steam for $9.99 for PC, Mac OS X, and Linux.