This is actually quite a tough choice. Do I pick Fallout 2, with its incredible player interactions, or maybe Portal, with its humor and creative puzzle solving? Maybe I should pick Deus Ex (which you just reinstalled) or Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay, in all of its criminally underrated glory. There are many other choices but only two really stand out. I almost picked Counter Strike, as I probably have spent six months of my life playing that game, but no, it had to be the game that got me into PC Games. The game that has led to me building PCs. The game that helped shape my love of storytelling. That is right, the original Half-Life, which used a silent protagonist to build an incredible universe.
I remember the first time I saw Half-Life back in 1998. I was at a friendís house when he broke out the infamous line of a great friend. "I just got a new computer game and you have
to try it!" So I sat down, and my journey into Black Mesa began.
Half-Life was a revolution from every standpoint. And even better, it came from nowhere. It was not hyped anywhere near as much as other titles of that year, in fact, from my personal recollection, SiN was supposed to be the PC Shooter of the year, and during the early hype, was already being pushed as a game of the year, matching games like Fallout 2, Metal Gear Solid and Ocarina of Time. But then Half-Life dropped. I still remember the GamePro review glowing about how the game was a revolution and a must play. Still, I ignored it. I was a console kid. I didnít even think my computer could run games. But after trying it on my friends PC, I didnít care if I could run it. I made my mom stop on the way home and I bought the game. I didnít even check the specs. I knew my computer could run and do so online, but Half-Life seemed like something else entirely.
Luckily my computer could run it, and it ran Half-Life surprisingly well. And so my journey began for real. Now until this point, every shooter I had every played, in fact just about every first person game I had ever played was here is a gun, kill everything. Half-Life changed my life by making me Gordon Freeman. Valve created a way of immersing the player in the character. You are told your credentials and information, and then you're placed into the literal shoes (and shortly thereafter the HEV Suit) of Freeman, a simple scientist at the beginning of the game on his way to work. You didn't even begin with a gun! What kind of shooter had you start without a gun?
As Gordon, I got to explore Black Mesa and see it in itís day to day operation for a short while before the Resonance Cascade. What was so incredible was that I could walk around and talk to people. It was the first shooter I had played where not everyone was trying to kill me. And further, everyone had something unique to say. You got yelled at if you blew up the mac and cheese or pressed buttons you weren't supposed to press. The other characters, the NPCs, actually reacted to you, it was an incredible experience and truly immersive to find myself in a world where my actions had consequences. And this carried through the whole game. Your actions continued to have an effect on the environment, even after the opening of the game.
Just the fact that Valve took the time to build up a world for a shooter was impressive. It was not Doom or Quake, but rather, it really felt like I was Gordon Freeman. But then the Resonance Cascade hit. I was already impressed, but seeing the resonance cascade first hand, as everything that could go wrong went wrong, the visuals blew me away. Suddenly I was teleported from dimension to dimension, seeing all sorts of aliens and other freaky stuff. But even that wasn't as awesome as stumbling out of the test chamber and seeing a scientist giving CPR to a security guard, and further, the guard standing up. The fact that the game had AI Allies was another incredible thing. Sure in console games and other PC games you had other characters on you with missions, but due to the lack of a mission screen or anything that took you out of the eyes of Gordon, the security guards and Scientists actually felt like companions, stuck in this facility together. It also didn't hurt that they were competent.
But then the game goes on, and you donít have a gun. You meet one of the most iconic weapons of the gaming world. The always-helpful Crowbar, now, an old friend, but then it was a case of "Aliens are invading my secret base and I STILL donít have a gun!?" Luckily that didnít last long, but Valve's ability to pace the game so perfectly still resonates, and they followed this style of pacing perfectly in their other games, including Opposing Force, Half-Life 2 and Portal, and this progression has also influenced many other great games, including the Call of Duty series (where in one game you start with a clip of bullets, and no gun). Sure other games all have you earn better weapons as the game goes on, but few felt as well thought out as Half-Life. Further, few games have made their weapons have as much personality as Half-Life gave the Crowbar.
As the game progresses and the monsters get tougher, and you see that your actions still have consequences (such as calling an elevator and causing it to drop down and explode, killing the scientists inside), you soon encounter something else. Smart enemy AI. The soldiers were enemies unlike any other game I had played until that point. They gave each other covering fire. They moved. They flanked. The attempted to outsmart the player. They also had grenades. Sure, now it seems a bit simplistic, but at the time, it was uncanny. You had an AI enemy that was actually tactical. Further, it created an enemy that wasn't like the aliens you had fought who stood there and attacked or charged you. Valve had given us an enemy that was more mobile and required a whole new set of tactics. This would repeat again when they introduced the black ops troopers. Each enemy of Half-Life felt unique and each required a different strategy, from your basic head crab (dodge!) to the amazing Tentacle sequence (sneak!). They were so much more than the enemies in other shooters, who tended to boil down to strafe and shoot. Half-Life's enemies each felt unique. It was also something else when you stumbled upon soldiers fighting aliens.
Half-Life was one of the first games I ever played where it really felt like you were just a person in the world, rather then the one thing the world revolved around. From a story perspective, the ambiguity as to what was happening around the rest of the facility meant a lot. It was one thing to have cinemas tell you a story, and not a bad thing by any means. But Half-Life felt unique because it let the player figure out the story and what was going on from the bits and pieces it drip-fed to you. It almost reveled in the confusion going on at Black Mesa. Half-Life had a lot of respect for the player, as it trusted the player to figure out what was going on rather than spell it out and ruin some of the mystery behind Black Mesa.
These are just some of the reasons why Half-Life is one of my favorite games of all time. The quality of the game is astounding. The entire game was clearly lovingly crafted, and what is more impressive is that the quality is reflected through the entire game, from the opening tram all the way through Xen. It also played very well, in spite of itís early first person box puzzles and the platforming of Xen. Though the characters were never fleshed out at all, it really added to the atmosphere and made the G-Man stand out that much more. The shooting mechanics were incredibly solid, and it controlled very comfortably. The graphics at the time felt revolutionary, mainly because of the unique designs. Each area of Black Mesa felt different and new from the last, whether you were in the harrowing waste processing plant in the bowels of the facility, the enormous rocket test chamber or fighting soldiers on the dam.
All in all, Valve did something incredible with Half-Life. They changed a genre. They showed us that you could fully immerse a player in a character and still tell a story. Even if it was just that one manís story, it was still incredible. The excellent pacing, wonderful designs, great controls and clever scripting created a shooter that is still being emulated today, 13 years later. As much as I loved Deus Ex, Far Cry, Riddick and others, they likely wouldnít exist as we love them without Half-Life. The fact that Half-Life not only holds up, but holds up well is a testament to the 1998 games legacy, and for the reasons listed above, that is why Half-Life is my favorite PC game of all time.