I remember the first, and only, time I played Half-Life. It was Christmas — I got it along with Starcraft (another disappointment), The Very Best of the Human League and A-ha’s glorious Scoundrel Days.
I had a horrendous allergic reaction to it. I absolutely hated it. The nonsensical story, that nasal suit voice, the lack of music… It basically managed to rub me up so completely the wrong way that I buried it, relegating it to the hidden DVD rack along with Neverwinter Nights and Invisible War. Yes, that bad.
But that was… oh, five years ago? Six? Seven? Maybe it’s time to give it another try. Will the hate disappear, be reinforced, or simply turn to abject apathy in the face of aging mediocrity?
Spoilers in here. Do I need a spoiler warning for a 15-year-old game?
I guess there was a big element of expectation the first time around. As Starcraft was hailed as the greatest RTS ever to have lived with the greatest story campaign in the history of mankind (nope), so Half-Life was hailed by everyone ever as the greatest FPS of all time (pfah). What a let-down.
Remember, at this point I was already well versed in Unreal Tournament and my first forays into singleplayer FPSes came long before at the hands of the glistening mod Operation: Na Pali — not to mention Deus Ex had already entrenched itself as my all-time favourite game. That’s a high bar for an entry point.
And, well, Half-Life is not a very good FPS, in the purest sense of running around and shooting bad guys and ignoring all the other bells and whistles. Movement is slippery, which doesn’t help in the frequent platformy bits, while all the weapons are painfully weak. Even the iconic crowbar, which should surely be able to one-hit a squishy little headcrab, feels pretty useless. (This is on medium difficulty.)
There are simpler flaws too, like the crosshairs being too small and indistinct. As a shooter, it just isn’t any fun.
The enemies don’t help either. Enemy variety is not particularly great, and there are two extremely annoying enemies that crop up far too often.
The first is the heavy bastard that shoots homing flies — no amount of movement or jumping will save you from taking a few hits, and these guys are too hardy to kill convincingly when they appear behind you at the least convenient moment. You can grenade or crossbow them from a distance, but if you’re in a tight spot then the shotgun is basically useless and it takes an entire 50-bullet machine gun clip to fell just one of them.
The second is that bloody flying split-open-head thing that is spammed to absolute bloody hell and back all throughout the Xen levels. They’re not particularly difficult to kill if you can actually land a hit (remember, effectively no crosshair), but their hails of fireballs make them a tiresome pain to deal with if there’s more than one in the room (and there always is). The weird architecture of the alien factories at that point doesn’t make life easy either, as any dodging can end up with you falling down a giant hole.
Of course you can’t go a review of Half-Life without mentioning the infamous Xen. The final sequence of the game consists of escaping from the dreary Black Mesa complex to the biological weirdness of this alien “borderworld”. Conceptually, I love it — it’s strange, exotic, somewhere exciting and new, a fitting reward for wading through the staid near-future-sci-fi levels of the rest of the game. It’s also a biological landscape in the way of coral or bone rather than lol-flesh-everywhere, so it wins points for not being repulsive-for-repulsiveness’-sake.
The reality sadly falls a bit short. Throw wonky gravity onto the already slippery movement and some even tougher jumping challenges between mobile floating platforms and you have a recipe for plain old disaster. Great concept, horrendous execution.
I still think the story is a bit annoying, but maybe I was a bit harsh on it the first time around. The potentially very noisy environmental effects and horrendous lack of subtitles means it’s easy to miss the “more nuanced” bits of dialogue with scientists and security guards, like the speculation of sabotage and the occasional hints about what the hell you’re actually supposed to be doing right now. Without those little tit-bits, it descends into irredeemable mince.
So the experiment is sabotaged and that lets the aliens invade, but they also randomly summon alien wild animals (and nipple-trampolines) along with their soldiers. Then the government tries to kill everyone, including you, even though they actually wanted you to go through and kill Nihilanth all along. And along the way you have to launch a rocket to save the world (the government don’t want you to launch it for some reason) and then nobody mentions it ever again.
Did I get that right?
There must be some light in this tunnel? Well, I guess you can see a few bits and pieces that would make their way into the truly masterful Deus Ex — directional damage and damage type indicators, the style of the industro-military architecture… Mix that with the RPG stats, skills and inventory management (and slower pace) of System Shock 2 and you’re not far off it.
But much as I can appreciate that the Beatles were a necessary rung on the ladder towards the future glory of pop music, I still think they suck donkey baws.
You know what? I still hate it. Sure, it has moments, flashes of potential and amusing set-pieces, but overall it’s simply a bad shooter with a confused plot.
Why did this set the world on fire?