Retro Gaming 1: Half-Life (part 2)

check out part 1 HERE

I can easily see how in 1998 this game was heralded as revolutionary. Much like it’s sequel, Half-Life introduced gameplay elements that were widely copied and implemented by other games. Half-Life presents a complete universe. From start to finish, you believe you’re in a hightech research complex where hell has broken loose. From the intercom to the sounds of shattering glass: everything either creeps you out or makes you run for your life. Where Half-Life 2 made you a messiah figure leading the human resistance against the evil Combine empire, Half-Life 1 is all about survival. Your goal is to stay alive and escape the deathtrap that is Black Mesa. You’re besieged from all sides: be it alien wildlife, invading Zen shocktroopers or HECU soldiers out to silence you. Sure, the character models for the guards and scientists are repetitive and the dialogue knows little variation, but remember that this is 1998. In an age where multigigabyte harddrives were the stuff of dreams it’s understandable that compromises had to be made. (Also if you think back to the release of  Oblivion in 2006, it too was heavily derided for it’s extremely limited voice cast. In many ways we really haven’t come that far)

Graphics are graphics: they age. Any game that chooses a realistic artstyle (which, apart from the alien abominations, Half-Life does) will age far more easily than deliberately stylised games. World of Warcraft technically looks like crap, but that doesn’t really bother anyone apart from the most hardcore geeks because of the wonderfully stylised and cartoony graphics. No game is immune to this. Well maybe Crysis is, but that’s besides the point. Quake II, Unreal, Sin,… all of them look pretty crappy today.

AI however is another matter entirely. Often the weak point in many games (from Daikatana wallwalkers to endless armies of motionless samurai in Dynasty Warriors), AI makes or brakes a game. Your game world may be incredibly engrossing, but if you see NPC’s jump of a cliff because their AI code couldn’t figure out to use the stairs, you pretty much lose all immersion.

Like many I’ve heard of the legendary tales of Half-Life’s enemy AI, but I never would have thought that it would be that good. In fact, the dirty little secret of Half-Life 2 is that its AI is worse than it’s predecessor. Sure the Combine feel real and menacing and a Strider is a true terror on the battlefield but if they ever had to fight the HECU marines they would be royally screwed. Never in my entire gaming ‘career’ have I experienced such tenacity as the enemies display in Half-Life. They duck around corners, call for backup, wait to attack until you reload, throw grenades when you’re in a fortified position, the list goes on. The different AI behaviours are also very well divided amongst Half-Life’s enemy menagerie. Bullsquids, houndeyes and headcrabs feel like zoo animals that were suddenly dropped in the middle of Times Square. They’re scared, territorial and ready to defend themselves. The alien invasion force that follows later in the game (Grunts, Vortigaunts and Gargantua) is far more determined. Far from just defending themselves, they’ve come here to take over and wage a full on war on any humans they find. Combine this with the incredible marine AI and this three-way conflict is a marvel to behold. Many times the best way to survive is to let everyone else spread mayhem and destruction while you shoot down any surviving stragglers. In short the AI is incredible. The only game that vaguely reminds me of this kind of artificial thinking is the original Halo, played on one of the higher difficulty levels.

Sadly all is not well in in Half-Life land. What in 1998 were acceptable annoyances, have often become blatantly irritating. Prime suspects are the many platforming elements and jumping puzzels. You often don’t realise it but nearly every seperate area has at least one of them.  Maybe it was the age in which the game was made or maybe it was due to the fact that this was Valve’s first attempt at a game, I don’t know. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against first-person platforming. Half-Life 2, though toned down, still has it’s share of platforming. Heck, games like Mirror’s Edge and Portal are the proof that first person platforming not only works but can turn out amazing. The problem is that if you don’t have a robust physics system (like Half-Life 2) or if you don’t build your game around it (like Mirror’s Edge) it can often be reduced to a total crapshoot. If you don’t hit that one pixel or texture just right, it’s over. Punishment for a missed jump usually results in death (be it being torn to pieces, dunking yourself in a vat of radioactive goo or falling in a flame filled fane). The ladder climbing in particular is so bad it’s funny. The innate finnickyness of Half-Life combined with the walking turret nature of Gordon Freeman (you never see your legs or chest, just a hand and a gun) make climbing ladders, if not done just right, a twitchy nightmare

In the end, having finished the game, I must say that I’ve had a grand old time. I was frightened, fascinated, bewildered and amazed all at the same time. While you don’t really NEED to play Half-Life to enjoy it’s sequels (unlike say The Legacy Of Kain series) I would really recommend that everyone (especially younger gamers who never played this game) ignore, if only briefly, the zombie slaughterfest of Left 4 Dead or the class-warfare of Team Fortress 2 and give the original masterpiece a whirl. It’s cheap, it’s on Steam and it has earned its title of timeless classic.

Now, on to Opposing Force!