Thursday, 21 November 2013

Half-Life



Dare I review this? Dare I sit there and look at this piece of work and do what nearly everyone else has done since the day it was released? Of course I do. It's not that I have the bollocks to do it, it's quite simply because it's a game that everyone should play at some point or another (if they haven't already, or even if they HAVE already) just to re-familiarise themselves with what a high standard of gaming should look like and should feel like to play.

Half-Life was very unlike most other games of the First Person Genre. The majority of games were (some still ARE) the simple affair of getting from point a to point b and kill anything that rises up in the way. Doing that in Half-Life will get you... barely out of the first room as your plot based exposition/conversation has to take place with an NPC for them to get the door to open. It's an odd situation when you're used to seeing ANYTHING move and trying to kill it.

For the controls, you have your now standard setup of forwards, back, left, right, use, jump mouse looking, shooting, alternate shooting and crouching. Nothing particularly fancy compared to games with going prone or using parkour to navigate levels like some hopped up prick on coke with springs up his arsehole. Yet the engine works well and the movement/control system is practically faultless, though it can take a little time to realise that sometimes you need to jump THEN crouch to get into some awkward spaces.

The game starts off with the player riding the monorail in a huge underground complex and in an odd twist, can do NOTHING for the first few minutes while you're being conveyed around a place that is showing off the engine's capabilities. Yet nothing is held in such a way to force you to look at the events taking place, in fact you could be watching one thing and miss something else just equally as awesome. Rather than some games that control a player’s vision and forces them to watch something they might necessarily NOT be looking at immediately, just for the designers to show off a complex special effect. It's jarring to the players to see and to watch what's going on while interrupting the flow of play. Not here, not in this game. You CAN miss the special effects and likely will.

While riding a fixed box for around 5 minutes, you'd think it'd be boring, but with so much eye candy to be shown, especially for the time, large areas showing off the detail with little slowdown, it makes for a rather grand opening and gives way to people being treated to a story without exposition, seeing into the world laid out at Black Mesa, the experiments being conducted, the machines being used, the size and scale laid out in multiple maps as well as the oddly hidden, and decidedly NOT ominous involvement of the military with a helicopter.

The action doesn't kick off until nearly 20minutes into the game (or 5 hours if you're that much of a prick acting slowly) and you shove a shopping trolley with a big gem into a bright light. Tits go up, shit goes down and you're suddenly teleporting back and forth between one reality and another before it all goes dark and some aliens are staring at you. Back to this world and all that glittered and was pure is now smashed, blown up (or blowing up) misfiring, malfunctioning and generally hazardous to your health.

Once outside it, you start to realise that you're going to need some of these survivors to help unlock doors and such to let you progress. In the meantime, you'll grab some guns and work your way through air vents and complexes in your journey back to the surface. Before long the military start killing anyone they find so your job gets harder while fighting back the gung-ho cover up attempt while at the top and running across the desert fighting tanks and helicopters.

Eventually you meet the group that could fix the problem and start to delve down into firing up the processes to begin hunting through the alien world and killing the problem at one of the sources (which we know is not the case thanks to the event that was Half-Life 2).

The whole time you're being attacked by aliens left and right, ninja assassins, marines, psychic dog beats, huge shark monsters, armour-plated aliens with bee guns, giant tumour carrying crab beasts, walking tanks with flame throwers, lightning blasting monsters and the almost cute, head crab creatures. The selection and variety of enemies and situations is vast and almost different in every situation, sometimes being shown things, sometimes alluding to future meetings.

The game tells a very rich and developing storyline told through varying guises of over hearing conversations, direct conversations, listening in on radio broadcasts, watching scenes of combat unfold around one's self whilst trying to sneak around the combat or plough through it with some big tanks firepower etc. Nearly every situation has multiple ways of defeating the enemy/traps until you get to the alien world where the game becomes intergalactic leapfrog time. Which is a shame, as the lack of cohesive plot seems to drop by this point and it almost seems like the alien levels were tacked on when the game should have jumped to the end point with the spooky G-Man, a character who has been following you around during the whole game and now finally presents himself to the player in the grand finale with the ultimatum of "join up or get fucked", in much more eloquent fashion than I've stated.

It brings about a rather disappointing end with too jarring a change not only pace and atmosphere, but also in style and game play, bringing in the long-jump mechanics into the fray when there's very little of the game left to play. But at this point, I'm nit-picking; it's a mild annoyance but a very memorable one while the rest of the game is a steady, solid progression from start to near-finish, then to go to pot very quickly unfortunately.

It doesn't take much to remember some of the more impressive moments, be it running from a Goliath, navigating train tracks to get from one depot to another, avoiding drowning by using barrels to raise a lift to jump across, going toe-to-toe with tanks, APCs and helicopters, avoiding collapsing buildings, utilising alien and experimental weaponry, and all in a way that is a lot more rewarding than just going from a to b.

Admittedly it looks a little dated given today’s standards of gaming, but as a blindingly powerful example of how to do a FPS shooter right with a rich with storyline, progression, scaling difficulty and not making the player feel like a rat in a maze, THIS is one of the longest running examples of how to do it that you would have hoped many others would have taken the time and consideration to sit down, make notes and study this gem.

It's not a perfect game however, not by a long shot and the flaws and bugs become more evident the longer that you play it. The AI can be fairly easily tricked and duped once you recognise the patterns of play they utilise and set pieces can be completely over looked/bypassed once you realise the tricks of the engines to make jumps that the designers never really accounted for. The Strafe Jump technique can be rather a large boost once momentum is on your side.

Aside from the game itself, it should be mentioned that the modding community took to Half Life like a duck to water, spawning some of the biggest and most profitable mods, eventually turned full games in their own right on the same engine (counter strike being a prime example and Team Fortress after their stint on Quake engine), while these have little impact on the review of the game itself, they still deserve a level of recognition from the starting point that Half Life gave them.

Dated, certainly. Flawed, in places. Fun, definitely and all the more reason I want to keep playing it.