So this blog started life as a stupid concept of ripping off one of the ideas of the BBC show I’ve never seen Star Wars. The concept being you set yourself the task to do something you haven’t done before and you believe is either culturally relevant or would have a meaningful impact.
Now the truth is I have technically played Halflife 1 before but I didn’t play very much of it. I played the PS2 version (which for real Hardcore Half Life fans actually has an extra Co-op game mode and story that has never been on any other platform to date). Now I never actually got very far into the game and yet I own Halflife 2 on three platforms, I’ve finished the game maybe 7 times now. So in a fairly recent Steam sale I picked up Half Life and finally I decided to play it. This is not Black Mesa Source, this is not even Half Life Source, this is simply vanilla Half Life with no HD textures or improvements.
Well I’ve finished it and I have to say, it really doesn’t hold up. I’m not joking there’s a very apparent reason for the remakes. I’m not someone who never played any FPS games from the olden times of video gaming. I played Goldeneye 64, I played some of Turok I have even played Wolfenstein 3D on the SNES. So whe I played Half Life I expected something to really warrant the great praise it received and the standing it seemed to have. What I found was a game that did attempt some different ideas but also fell into many of the problems of the FPS genre’s past making it feel very archaic.
So let’s start with the graphics. This isn’t an objection to a lot of it. The model work in many places is fantastic for the time with very detailed models rather than the square headed 3D characters of the past. However this is almost entirely ruined by some of the environments and the textures in some places look stretched and distorted while others seem to fit the items perfectly.
In places you’re having to jump about between platforms and the problems become worse as the platforms you have to jump to in some areas are textured exactly the same as the wall they’re next to making it difficult to tell quite where the platforms are. That’s right the problem is so severe that it actually impacts gameplay.
^It's easier to see the platforms in this example but it shows the problem of them blending in a bit too well too.
So let’s now talk about gameplay. Half Life has three main gameplay types. Initially there is obviously the shooting element, then there are the odd puzzle style element to overcome and finally there is the first person platforming. Yes that’s right you can pretty much lay the blame for every game throwing out terrible first person platforming at the feet of Half life. A lot of the problems with the first person plat forming in Half Life can be laid at the feet of the pre source physics engine which will seemingly stop all momentum if you so much as scrape an object. What this amounts to is while you should be able to easily leap onto certain boxes you have to very quickly master the lost art of video game crouch jumping, if you ever want to climb on boxes that is. There’s even that most despised of modern game things, forced stealth sections. Only two sections but if you mess up it’s almost instant death.
Now I played the game on easy because I know a problem with older FPS games (and still one some modern games have) are bullet spongy enemies and the harder the difficulty the more spongy they were. Even playing on easy had me getting bored with just how bullet spongy certain enemies were (mainly the human military), the situation got s bad I quickly abandoned the assault rifle unless I also had grenades for it as the weapon was pointlessly slow at killing enemies and hard on ammo.
Even playing on easy I died a lot from honestly cheap deaths and the game quickly changing its own established rules. To give you a couple of example on one section I died multiple times on a section where unknown to me as you walked past a section of wall part of the top was blasted open and a sniper hidden in a sniper nest was revealed behind you after you’d just passed there. The game even at times spawns in enemies behind you and infront of you at the same time. The worst offender though has to be the sections with laser trip mines; initially you run into these and will quickly discover that grenades or good shooting with the pistol, so when you come to a warehouse corridor full of them you’ve been taught throughout the game to just destroy them. So I did just that and died. OK I thought maybe I was just too close, so I tried again making sure I was a good distance away only to die again. You see the whole warehouse is wired to blow if just one of the mines trips but the game doesn’t tell you this it waits for you to screw up and you have to figure it out. Changing the rules like this becomes unfortunately common such as in the end game areas of Xen where some areas have normal gravity and fall damage while others will not penalise you at all. Or when a solider places a satchel charge in the pipe you’re in an instead of merely huge explosion it fills the pipe with a huge fireball.
The inconsistency even goes to the enemy AI as it seems like it’s entirely random if they’ll be alerted to you. I had one incident where I walked right up behind the enemy and they never saw me yet in another instance I was two floor above an enemy facing the other direction to me only for him to spectacularly throw a grenade over his shoulder behind himself at me.
Next we come to the game balance which honestly is all over the place seemingly with some section seeing me top up all of 5 health and leave the dispenser not needing any more and other sections seeing me desperately search the level for any kind of HP items on all of 10 health. This issue with the health is made worse by the games auto save system meaning in some situations you might screw up and only scrape through on 10 health and then the game saves and you then have to try to fight through the next area on next to no health and hope to survive. You’ll find most games spread their auto saves or checkpoints out now such that you get at least some health given to you before it saves or creates a checkpoint to avoid you being placed in a scenario where it could be impossible to carry on. I never ended up in quite such a no win scenario but I can see how it would be possible to have your health too low to be able to carry on due to the game taking cheap sometimes unavoidable hits on you.
One thing modern PC FPS players will see as an absolute crime against nature is Half Life has a limited degree of aim assist, I couldn’t find how to turn it off in the options but trust me it’s needed for later parts as the game throws small very harmful mite like enemies at you and later on baby headcrabs which aren’t as lethal as the mites but still slowly whittle your health away. These smaller enemies are a real issue as the game seemingly isn’t accurate enough to support being able to finely target them and as such when close your crosshair will automatically move over them for you (which still only gives you a 50 50 chance of actually hitting the things). The control issues extent slightly further to the plat forming actions as by default you’re sprinting and have to actually hold down shift to move slower and allow more precise movements. If this were a modern FPS auto sprint would be much appreciated but not in Half Life’s blend of shooting and plat forming
A lot of times the game is a little unclear on quite where you’re meant to go or what to do, such as times when you’re expected to exploit the world geometry to get round certain areas in one case I had to refer to a guide to find out I was expected to crawl through a barely visible hole in one of the walls.
Very often Half Life tried to create large cinematic moments but forgets to tell the player so the attempt to create an epic cool moment is quickly lost when the player goes “Ok so where am I meant to go and what should I be doing here ?” My normal tactic was run but in some cases I was expected to stand and fight or to run in a specific direction so often I ended up having to go back and one way or another repeat the event.
The level design is fairly varied but again the lack of direction can be a fair problem. Despite being someone who explores levels quite thoroughly I never got the crossbow in the early section in the shark cage for example.
Oh and one thing I need to point out is at points in Half Life you have to wait for characters to open doors for you. Yeh, you know that thing heavily mocked in many of today’s FPS games.
Even now, years on Half Life has some game breaking bugs. During my play through alone I got stuck in the geometry at least 8 times and was forced to reload a save. I even found a way to get stuck in game such that I couldn’t kill the enemies but they slowly killed me or being trapped between moving objects and seemingly invisible walls unable to escape death. Oh and one incident of physics glitching with the NPC animations causing one characters head to be bouncing round like mad on his neck.
So now onto the story. Half Life does one thing well and that’s the idea of world building. However it doesn’t do story very well as the game seems to lurch horribly from plot point to plot point: Something something samples in anti mass spectrometer ; omething something resonance cascade ; something something dimensional breech ; something something military cover up; something something launch a satellite; something something Lambda complex; something something reactor; something something kill the very powerful being.
The world building is great with the idea of Black Mesa the secret test facility developing experimental technology and discovering the other world of Xen, sending survey teams for samples and specimens only for them to be taken as specimens themselves. The idea of the shadowy Gman and only adds to this.
The problem is the main story itself really does have issues as I only found out why the military were hunting freeman really when I overheard one solider tell the other “Well all I know is he’s killed a lot of my friends so I want him dead”. I’m still not quite sure why I had to launch a satellite.
In terms of deeper meaning and theme to the story of Half Life 1 it’s pretty hard to pick out much. With a bit of divining for meaning I guess you could say the game comments upon the dangers unregulated science could pose to the world as being published in 1998 it was merely a year after Dolly the Sheep was created and the 3 years after the 1995 discovery of the first extra solar planet. It might even be said to be a commentary upon the fermilab top quark experiments. Another meaning and theme you could also suggest is the dangers of military / governmental interference in science trying to fix things with the potential issues the human genome project face and the start of companies trying to copyright sections of genetic code. Unfortunately again this is digging far deeper than is ever really commented upon in the game and mostly the story of Half Life 1 just come off as an excuse to shoot things. The idea of a greater more expansive plot sounds good but Half Life 1 doesn’t hold up well story wise on it’s own.
Honestly I wouldn’t say Half Life 1 is worth a play, not the standard version, maybe the source version or Black Mesa version which upgrades the engine further to source 2.0 and redesigns many of the levels. Half Life 1 had and tried some new ideas at the time unfortunately most of them were very rough or poorly implemented and going back it really does show just how far FPS games have come since then. It seems rather unfortunate that what I take to be the legacy of Half Life 1 in the FPS genre is what today constitutes the worst aspects: plat forming and jumping puzzles, auto aim, waiting for characters to open doors for you, forced stealth sections and deliberate attempts to create cinematic experiences. Instead of ideas present in Half Life such as : Playable cutscenes and alternative approaches to levels and situations.
Half Life 2 I’d say still stands up far better today both in terms of gameplay and story with my experience being only ever being frustrated or stuck on one section (fighting off the combine siege in a prison by setting up and relying on turrets). Half Life 2 corrects much of the mistakes of Half Life 1, keeping more consistent rules and abandoning cheap tricks such as hard to spot snipers and unavoidable damage. It even has a better story with multiple more fleshed our character and better balance to the game giving you just enough health pick ups to keep patched up and not near dead but not so many you feel you’re constantly leaving them either.
Half Life 1 vanilla really does just look like an unfortunate relic of the past and shows why Video Games are one of the few mediums where vast modernisations and updates can actually vastly improve games and their relevance.
So with that I hand this rather insane rather problematic idea out to the C-blogs. Pick a game that is meant to have some significance in gaming’s past be it technological or cultural and play it, see if it holds up for you today or if it just shows how far gaming and progressed past it.