Half-Life is a platformer, and other things people didn't tell me about the 1998 classic

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nateandrews

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Edited By nateandrews
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One of the side effects of discussions about Half-Life Alyx this year has been a forced reexamining of the series on my part. That’s a long-winded way of saying that I had never played the first Half-Life game until now, and I felt I needed to correct that. It’s one of those gaps in my video game history that I always knew I’d address someday, especially considering that the first-person shooter is one of my favorite genres, and I love immersive storytelling in games.

So I played through Half-Life last week for the first time, 22 years late, and was surprised by a number of things. Here are those things:

The scientists are ridiculous

… in the best way. The way they look and talk is a perfect setup for every time one of them gets yanked through a vent, followed by their bloody bits comically shooting out. Every single time this happens it’s funny, and it was one of my favorite things in the game.

Many of its tricks still work

I got a kick out of messing with the computer and the alarm here
I got a kick out of messing with the computer and the alarm here

Half-Life pulls some neat little tricks with physics and scripted bits to create memorable moments. Early on in the game, after the experiment goes wrong, I was running through a hallway when a large mainframe on the wall exploded outwards, crashing down onto poor Gordon Freeman and splattering the physicist to pieces. In one of my personal favorites, I jumped down a vent shaft and saw a headcrab scuttle underneath a table I was about to land on. Upon landing, the legs collapsed and the tabletop crashed down onto the squealing headcrab, killing it instantly.

Even some moments that I knew were coming took me by surprise. I had seen enough Half-Life footage to know that I was going to fight some soldiers, but I was still taken aback the first time the military showed up and gunned down a scientist who thought he had finally been rescued. The ensuing gunfight felt like a scramble to defend myself as I realized I was now going to be fighting enemies that could shoot back.

What’s also impressive is how you can miss valuable ammunition and health pickups by not helping security guards around the facility. The best one of these is a guard early on who has his back turned to an approaching zombie. If you manage to save him before he’s taken, you get access to some much needed supplies.

The level design is pretty good

Finally getting this rocket to fire feels great
Finally getting this rocket to fire feels great

High praise, I know. But I enjoyed Half-Life's insistence on having you check every room for buttons to hit, systems to activate, or even just supplies to gather. I didn't often feel lost in the game, a testament to how well everything flows together--though the game doesn't always distinguish between doors that can and cannot be opened in a way that is consistent.

Some of the levels were quite memorable. Getting a rocket to fire to clear a tentacle monster, electrifying a big alien, reaching the surface for the first time, the bright green radioactive vats and spills, hopping across moving conveyor belts. Even though most of the game takes place in rather drab facility environments, the things you do in them often feel varied and interesting.

It’s a platformer

Seriously, though. First-person platforming is a bit maligned these days, and Half-Life is full of it! Crouch jumping, long jumping (we’ll get to that), running along pipes, crawling through vents, tiptoeing over desks to avoid electrified water, scurrying along ledges. I suppose the game deserves some credit for making most of this not incredibly annoying. At best it was a nice break from just holding W and shooting everything in sight. At worst, it was Xen.

The Xen levels aren't very good

Yuck
Yuck

Here’s a confession that hopefully won’t turn anyone away: I played through the back half of this game with god mode enabled. Heresy? Not the intended experience? I know, I know. But all I was interested in with this playthrough was seeing the game from start to finish. Some of the encounters and platforming sections in the back half are particularly nasty, and I wasn’t really keen on overcoming the challenges of Half-Life so much as I was interested in just getting to the credits and enjoying the little story vignettes that happen along the way. It was a solid way (for me) to experience this game.

Boy was I glad I broke that seal, because the platforming you have to perform in the Xen portion of the game is so immediately unpleasant that I literally noclip’d my way through it. Who thought the player would want to long jump across huge gaps onto moving platforms? Nonsense, I say. Sue me!

The final boss is the big baby from 2001: A Space Odyssey

Look at this guy
Look at this guy

What a ridiculous fight. But it’s actually kind of neat. There was no music and almost no sound effects, save for my own gunfire and some occasional deep-pitched humming from the large infant. The whole thing felt appropriately creepy and otherworldly. It was also total nonsense. Why is this massive toddler the final boss, and why is it named Nihilanth? The Half-Life wiki lets me know that this beastly juvenile has a backstory, which is just great. I like that.

Black Mesa is a thing that exists, and it’s better

I feel like I’ve heard whispers of Black Mesa for a very long time, which makes sense for a project that technically began in 2005. I decided to play it after finishing the original game, not the other way around, figuring that I wasn’t likely to play the 1998 Half-Life if I went through the remake first. That was a good decision, because seeing all of the levels and encounters reimagined in a more modern engine and with better physics has been a treat. I’m about halfway through, so I can’t speak to what the redesigned Xen level is like. But I’m definitely curious to see what that’s all about.

So

Do I like Half-Life? Tough to say. I enjoyed those small moments, like the goofy scientists being torn apart in vents and headcrabs being squished under tables, more than the package as a whole. And that’s probably good enough.

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wollywoo

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Nice writeup. HL1 is a classic. It's hard to overstate the influence it's had on video games since then. There was nothing like it at the time. The idea of having the whole game set in one big, but mostly linear, inter-connected world was very refreshing, and its clever level design lead you through its various challenges with subtle but clear signposting while making you feel like *you* were discovering your own way out. That was a stroke of genius and that design has become routine today. Not to mention the scary (or hilarious) scripted moments that kept surprising you throughout.

The game isn't perfect. I personally stopped playing some time after getting to the surface when it stopped being a horror game and turned into a more generic action shooter - I never even saw Xen. It also wasn't great looking even at its time compared to the more impressive Unreal series. There were also many places where the game was frustrating, and I only got through by save-scumming every three seconds or so, which isn't very fun.

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sombre

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The first time I played, I got halfway through, fell off an elevator in a platforming section, quick saved in mid air, and when I tried to load, I was just endlessly falling. I had to restart the entire game

It was good enough that I played it again though.

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mikewhy

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Black Mesa's Xen is night and day compared to the original. Still has a couple of parts that drag on, but it was very much worth the wait.

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I'm a massive Half Life fan and this is a great write up, i don't disagree with your critiques at all.
I want to echo how insanely influential it was at the time, i was 9 when it came out and didn't play it right away because the demo was too scary, a couple years later after becoming a CS addict and having to install Half Life to do so i finally played it and was floored, of course by that time i'd played a few other shooters that were influenced by it, but i knew HL was where that style of campaign began and years later it still did things better.

I like that you brought up platforming because while the action was good for the time it's the physics of HL that i'm most fond of, the momentum, air control and responsiveness of moving around makes me feel at home more than any other game. I played hundreds of hours of "jump maps" in CS which only became a thing because of how great the physics are, consequently i've never sided with people who dislike first person platforming :P.

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Another game from the time i have to mention is Gunman Chronicles, initially a HL mod that became its own game published by Sierra i absolutely adored it, and i think it's entirely due to the HL engine and physics that i liked it so much, i don't know if others feel the same but for me it's a hidden gem.

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goosemunch

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I'm glad there's still some appreciation for this game after all these years. It's impossible to overstate how mind-blowing HL1 was back when it came out. It'd be a lie to say that there were no other games trying to innovate in the genre, but they all adhered to certain formula and nothing was surprising.

The pipe you're in collapsing and falling on the table, or crawling inside an air duct and the soldiers hearing you and shooting through it? It's easy to see through the tricks for the scripted events that they are now, but no other FPS was doing stuff like that back then and it was very effective at taking away all the safe space and making the entire world feel unpredictable. I think that's the reason why this was the first FPS I genuinely felt scared playing despite being a die-hard fan of the genre since 1992 and thought I had seen everything.

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#9  Edited By ToughShed

Xen is notoriously bad to everyone if you look into the response to the game. And the platforming is forgotten by most.

Coming to it now, its impossible to capture the feel at release of playing it. I can't tell you how blown away I was with the tram ride on release. It is one of my top "mind blown" moments you used to get in games that have pretty much ceased as technology changes have become more minor vs the bigger leaps.

And seeing those scientists go down like flies in those silly animations was so cool at the time too.

I also found the Merc segments so intense and real feeling when they came out. How they programmed the AI really worked I think, and they very intelligently limited what they had to do in specific situations.

If you want more on the game, I really like the podcast Game Dev Club and their shows on the game were really interesting talking about programing aspects to the game and they had two of the developers on their last episodes in the series for very good interviews. The game was really the product of a number of very smart guys who were modders. Pretty cool.

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nateandrews

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@wollywoo:Well-put. Those fights on the surface were surprisingly intense. The human enemies were strangely bullet spongey so it could be a bit of a grind, even when I was cheating.

@sombre: Ha! I had a similar moment that inspired me to enable god mode for the first time. I was at a part where I'm fairly certain I had to drop onto a platform and take a bit of fall damage to proceed. The problem was I only had 10 health and the drop was hitting me for 12 or so. I had no way of proceeding, at least none that I could see, so I cheated my way onto the platform until I could find some health. But then I thought, "oh, I kinda wanna keep this on..."

@mikewhy: I saw a comment saying that they overindulge a bit in the Xen remake, which has me a bit more excited to see it. It's really neat seeing the slight redesigns that certain levels have in Black Mesa, like On a Rail.

@cikame: I'm not a big hater of first person platforming myself. It actually feels really good in Half-Life, especially when you find ways to cheese ladder descents by freefalling and catching a rung at the last second. Speeds things up a lot!

@goosemunch: Playing through Half-Life was a lot of me going "ah, I see why that was really cool when this came out," and most of those moments are still pretty rad! Being flattened by that mainframe because I was just moving too quickly made me realize that the game world could hurt me out of nowhere just as much as an enemy. Immediately made the whole thing feel a bit more dangerous.

@toughshed: I'll check that podcast out! Seems like it covers a lot of what stuck out to me about the game. Thanks for the recommendation!

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BaneFireLord

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I just played Black Mesa, not having previously played any Half Life games, and was really taken aback by the platforming despite overall loving the game. I suppose it shouldn't have been much of a surprise considering what kind of game Portal is, but suddenly having to do things like pixel perfect jumping to avoid setting off a bunch of explosives was jarring and kinda momentum killing.

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mikewhy

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@banefirelord: yeah, it's definitely jarring and a product of its era.

@nateandrews: I'm interested in your take, cause my POV is influenced from playing so much of the original over the years. So Black Mesa's take comes as a huge improvement to me, but it's all relative to the original.

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Never really had a "gaming pc" for the most part, so I actually played Half-Life for the first time on the PS2. Still was a lot of fun.

I'd love to see how the recent remake is compared to the original.

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ToughShed

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@nateandrews: Game Dev Club is a really good podcast. I recomend any series on a game you like. Personally I like its because as developers they can provide insight and aim that can teach me a thing or two about how games tick, limitations of the time and hardware, and all sorts of things. Some of their interview episodes are really great too. I loved the Fallout ones.

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Half Life was one of my first games, and I absolutely loved it. It had what I would call a real ALONE vibe to it. You, except for the occasional Barney or Scientist, were totally dependent on your own wits. Not only against enemies, but the environmental puzzles and correct platforming. And over all, it was the loneliness aspect of the game that appealed to me most, though everything else seemed to click in place, also.

I actually liked the Xen level, rather purely for the phosphorescent coloring they did with the alien conveyor belts and such. I was and still am a real fucking hippie.

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nateandrews

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@mightyduck: My first experience with Half-Life was the Xbox 360 version of Half-Life 2 in The Orange Box. Really enjoyed it! Probably gonna run through that again after finishing Black Mesa. Haven't played 2 in ages.

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Junkerman

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Half Life is one of the best games ever made... right up until Xen. I dont think it takes away its much deserved accolades but I never finished vanilla Half-Life Xen levels.

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nateandrews

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@mikewhy: I just wrapped up the Xen remake and wow, that was super impressive! Instantly became my favorite part of Black Mesa. Really loved the soundtrack and visual design. It was pretty stunning to look at.

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mikewhy

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@nateandrews: That's great! I'm glad to hear it stands on its own when compared to other modern games. I just reached Xen last night on my current play through and like you said, wow! They knocked it out of the park with the environment design.

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nateandrews

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@mikewhy: Yeah! They really did a great job giving Xen its own ecology and otherworldly atmosphere. Feels like exploring the depths of the ocean, but in space.

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#22  Edited By Ravey

I think Half-Life was a pretty big shift in terms of first-person platforming. Quake had almost zero platforming; there are maybe ten jumps total in Quake. Most of them are secrets, and all of them are basic, inconsequential, non-punitive. Well, except for the difficulty select area, but that's almost the joke. If a player can reach hard mode, then they can execute any of the jumps in Quake.

The first-person platforming continuum sort of goes like this... Jumping Flash, Half-Life, Metroid Prime, Portal, Mirror's Edge, Titanfall 2, Doom Eternal. Some other games had the occasional (usually annoying) bit of platforming, but most had very little.

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wollywoo

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@ravey Hey hey now, don't forget Metroid Prime.

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Ravey

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#24  Edited By Ravey

@wollywoo: Mmm. Never heard of it. Robbit Mon Dieu! Looks like a Jumping Flash clone and one of those darned waggle games! I'll take your word for it, though.

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