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SummaryIt's happening. Right here, right now
The GoodEver since the essence of first-person shooters was captured by Doom, the genre has been enjoying rapid growth. Many subsequent iterations were creative, trying to add something of their own to the bare-bones formula of their progenitor. Games like CyberMage and Strife inserted RPG-like touches, enriching gameplay. One game that went further than anyone else was System Shock with its groundbreaking free-form playing style.
Half-Life, the next important historical milestone of the genre, is in a way the exact opposite of Looking Glass' masterpiece in concept. While System Shock was about uncovering the past and gradually developing your own story through careful exploration and interaction, Half-Life is concerned with the present in the most direct way imaginable: it is a game full of events, things happening right in front of your eyes. What it loses in depth it gains in adrenaline-raising, cinematic action.
Another World did something comparable to platform games before, and Half-Life is similar in that it takes every situation and makes it as scripted as possible, making each segment feel unique and each challenge fresh and exciting. True, there is trial and error involved, and Another World was full of it as well. Half-Life is not an intelligent game; but its strength is not in intellectual challenge. It tells the story of a poor sucker who fights his way through devilish traps. You are afraid of your next step because you never know what awaits you around the corner. Treacherous ground, smart enemies, gravity doing its job when your foot slips off a platform: tension comes in buckets and never dies out.
Half-Life has some of the most cleverly designed levels and situations in a first-person shooter. Crawling through sewers, pushing crates, out-smarting deadly tentacles, blowing up tanks, swimming, jumping, shooting, bashing: the game is full of action. Something is happening all the time. You never feel you are being drawn through lazily designed, artificial locations, forced to participate in tiresome, repetitive tasks. Throughout the entire game, the developers throw more and more new and interesting situations at you. You can never relax, and you can't put down the game because of all those questions: what will happen next? What other tricks do they have up their sleeves? These are the markings of a great action title, and that's exactly what Half-Life is.
Half-Life manages to convey immersing, terrifying atmosphere. Fear is the feeling that accompanies you on your memorable journey. Not only things are happening; things are happening suddenly. The game masterfully incorporates scripted events into its gameplay instead of presenting them as mere cutscenes. Enemies pop out, fight each other, die; ceilings collapse; things are getting blown up; and at all times, you can move, you are in the middle of the events. It's just incredible and very, very entertaining.
Yes, Half-Life can be frustrating. But this is also part of the deal: a horror game cannot be too easy, otherwise the horror would not be properly experienced. All those moments - "Arrrrgh, I fell down again!" - "Where the hell is the exit to his place?!" - "Damn those zapping vortigaunts!!" - contribute to the suspenseful, nerve-tickling nature of the gameplay.
Half-Life is a hard game, and I liked it that way. I liked devilish enemies that would actually run for cover and even work together instead of blindly charging at me; I liked the abundance of traps and tricky situations; I even liked dying and restoring and dying again and restoring again. After all, Half-Life does have a quicksave feature. Slowly working your way through the challenges, saving when feeling confident - there is nothing overly frustrating about that. In my opinion, the amount of frustration in the game is just right, even in the later stages which took quite a beating from fans.
Besides its gameplay and atmosphere, Half-Life also boasts great production values. It has fantastic graphics and top-notch sound effects, including genuinely scary monster sounds. More importantly, it presents an awesome physics system that allows great interactivity with the environment: pushing, pulling, breaking things has become part of the gameplay, and sometimes the only solution to a problem. There are also cool little touches such as the possibility to buy soda cans, showing that Half-Life learned from Duke Nukem 3D; but the difference is that all those actions feel much more physical, even visceral in this game, and affect gameplay in deeper ways.
The BadWhenever someone nominates Half-Life for a prize in storytelling, I don't know whether I should laugh or cry. What story are we talking about? What does really happen in the game? An experiment goes wrong, aliens are out of control, the government wants to kill everyone involved. That's it. Believe me, there is hardly anything plot-advancing happening in the game besides spectacular explosions and silly conversations with scientists and Barneys. The problem here is not just lack of significant events, but also absence of any true emotion, attachment to anything that is going on besides the protagonist's fear. The NPCs are ridiculous, having no personality or any importance to the plot. The foes are as impersonal as are the friends; there are no memorable villains or anything of that sort in this game. Half-Life is all about atmosphere and gameplay, while its story is totally forgettable.
It can also be pointed out that while games like System Shock did a lot of work building bridges between genres, showing what wonders could be done with the FPS format, Half-Life is unapologetic in the narrowness of its goals: in order to be so intense and cinematic, it had to be linear and rely on tricks and gimmicks that could hardly ever become essential design elements. It also went a bit overboard with its reliance on jumping and obstacles you could overcome only after having failed several times.