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
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
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
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
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.
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.