Every year or so, GAF has a "Replay the Half-Life Series" thread. Last year, I played through Half-Life 2 and most of Episode 1. I don't really like Episode 1, but that's another blog post entirely, but needless to say I never made it to Episode 2. This year, I booted up Half-Life 1. I've been holding off replaying it in anticipation for Black Mesa Source, but since it looks like Black Mesa Source will probably miss their 2010 deadline (after also missing their 2009 deadline), I figured it was time I give it a go through again.
I also decided to play the game on Normal difficulty this time. Being sort of a wuss, I used to default to easy mode a lot, but nowadays easy mode has started to feel a little too easy. I've actually found myself craving more challenge - something I never thought I would do - and so I've been making a slow, concerted effort to play more games at harder difficulties. As such, I am used to playing Half-Life and being a one-man-army - blowing through the entire game as an unstoppable harbinger of death. Well, that's partially a lie - I haven't actually played Half-Life to 100% completion in over five years. I start new games a lot, usually make it to around "Blast Pit" (the area with the giant worms) and never get back to it. The added difficulty changed the game up enough that I actually managed to clear the whole thing this time around. When you can't just rush enemies and expect to survive, it's kind of interesting how easily Half-Life lets you play things stealthily. During the "Hazard Course" tutorial area, they specifically teach you that crouching down will make you nearly invisible to enemy detection, and it's shockingly effective. I found myself in quite a few scenarios where I was low on health, and sneaking around while crouched down ended up saving my life.
It also reminds me why I love Half-Life 1 more than Half-Life 2. Now, settle down - I don't mean that as a diss on Half-Life 2. HL2 is still an incredible game, one of the best in the industry, but it's also missing a lot of what made HL1 special. There's a genuine sense of action and reaction in Half-Life 1. There's a greater sense that you're part of a larger world - scientists cower when you fire weapons near them, and if you kill one of their buddies (accident or not), other scientists that witness the event will run in fear and refuse to trust you. If you manage not to be a jerk, you can recruit them to your cause so that they follow you around - but they are people, and they will only follow you so far until they become too afraid to continue. Scientists and security guards can be valuable assets, opening locked doors or providing covering fire during an intense shootout. Those things happen in Half-Life 1 because the Player has made a decision that enables them to happen. In Half-Life 2, scenes like that only happen because the storyline requires it. Rebels only follow the player around because they're at that part in the storyline - they automatically join the player when near, and dead comrades are eventually replaced with new ones without any input from the player. Half-Life 2's greater sense of having definable, named characters also removes HL1's sense of chaos. In Half-Life 1, the game's entire plot is relayed through a bunch of people who can only be referred to as "that guy over there". "That guy over there", who is apparently important to telling the story, can be recruited by the player, and can take damage. Most distressingly, he can also die. None of these actions have to happen, but they can (and sometimes do) happen. If a story-related character accidentally dies in Half-Life 2, the game simply fades to black and tells you words to the effect of "Game Over, please try again."
And the A.I.! Perhaps the Combine are technically more intelligent than the soldiers in Half-Life 1, but they're never given a chance to show it. Encounters in Half-Life 1 are set up so that Marines have a tactical advantage over the player. Soldiers actively seek out cover, attempt to flush out camping players with grenades, and organize themselves to flank targets for maximum efficiency. Most Combine soldiers, in comparison, seem relatively stationary - they rarely bother to take cover, and even when they try, there's not usually many available options to safely regroup. Half-Life 1 is full of crates and boxes of monstrous size, offering up plenty of stationary cover. Most of Half-Life 2's crates are generally of small size to make them easy to manage with the gravity gun, and there's not much else that's large enough to be worth hiding behind. As such, most Combine Soldiers have a grand total of two tactical options: Go towards the player or flee further down the same corridor that the player will eventually pass through anyway. Episode 2 tried to rectify this with a sequence where the player is pinned inside of an Inn, giving soldiers clearly defined cover points outside, but up until that moment, there wasn't a whole lot for them to work with.
None of this makes Half-Life 2 a bad game, it just makes one that is notably less dynamic than its predecessor. That's not to say HL2 doesn't have some benefits of its own - HL1 ends on a sour note with " Xen", an alien world full of some of the toughest creatures in the game and some absolutely brutal (and seriously out-of-place) platforming challenges. HL2's final Citadel assault is at first incredibly intense firefight before becoming almost tranquil, with an extremely lengthy tour through the ranks of the Combine war machine. HL2's last battle is confusing, until you finally learn the trick to it - unlike HL1's battle with the Nihilanth, which is aggravating and borderlines on being just plain silly. I may have forced myself to play the game on normal difficulty, but when it came time to brave the depths of Xen, I ended up just turning on God Mode for invincibility.
With HL1 out of the way, I fully expect Black Mesa Source to finally see release sometime in the next couple of weeks, just to spite me finally breaking down and playing the original game again.
Edit: If you're wondering where the models in my screenshots came from, hit up the Half-Life Improvement forums. Half-Life Improvement is a community dedicated to remodeling and retexturing Half-Life, Counter-Strike 1.6, and a handful of older games. All of the models in my screenshots came from there.