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SummarySystem Shock meets Mario!
The GoodEverything was right until something went terribly wrong. Now the space station/research facility is infested with horrifying creatures. The nerdy, not very heroic hacker/scientist protagonist is alone. All that's left are crew logs/idiotic blabbering scientists. Dead bodies are around. The route to escape is not clear. It's not about blasting thousand monsters to pieces; the hero's arsenal is limited, and sometimes he has to run for his life, or outwit the foes...
Not much is original in Half-Life. Even the premise of "unlikely hero becomes an FPS star" was used before. Half-Life feels very much like a simplified System Shock with serious platformer issues. Just to avoid misunderstandings, I have to stress it: the biggest challenge and the most demanding gameplay element of Half-Life is jumping.
So, is Half-Life bad? No, not at all. It's a great action game, the most suspenseful, nerve-tickling one since Another World.
There is constant feeling of danger here, inevitability of failure. Trial-and-error gameplay? Sure, there is plenty of it. So what? Another World was also full of trial-and-error. Yes, it does mean that Half-Life is not a very intelligent game. But its strength is not in its intellectual challenge. Half-Life tells the story of a poor sucker who fights his way through devilish traps. This is what you feel when you're playing it: I'm afraid to make the next step. Because you never know what awaits you around the corner. Treacherous ground, smart enemies, gravity doing it's job when your foot slips off a platform: there is always suspense.
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: Half-Life 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 are always curious. 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 create an immersive, terrifying atmosphere. Fear is the feeling that will accompany you on your memorable journey. Not only things are happening; things are happening suddenly. Half-Life masterfully incorporates scripted events into its gameplay, instead of presenting them as mere cut scenes. 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, fear-inducing 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 quick-save feature. Slowly working your way through the challenges, saving when feeling confident - there is nothing overly frustrating about that. The amount of frustration in Half-Life is just right.
Beside its gameplay and atmosphere, Half-Life also boasted great production values. It had incredible graphics that look decent even today, twelve years after its release. It had top-notch sound effects, including genuinely scary monster sounds. And it had an awesome physics system that allowed great interactivity with the environment: pushing, pulling, breaking things was made to gameplay element, and sometimes the only solution to a problem; there were also cool little touches such as the possibility to buy soda cans. The levels were expertly designed, with attention to detail and realistic features that added to the immersion.
The BadI like Half-Life very much, and I think it is a great game. But forgive me if I'm not fanboyish enough to repeat all the words of praise this game has gotten, because I believe some of them are not well-deserved.
First, the story. Whenever someone nominates Half-Life as one of those "few games with a great story", I don't know whether I should laugh or cry. I mean, come on. Half-Life has awesome atmosphere and entertaining gameplay. But story? What story? 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 story-related happening in the game beside all those spectacular explosions and silly conversations with scientists and Barneys. The game has a good premise. But premise alone doesn't guarantee good story-telling. The problem here is not just lack of significant events, but also absence of any true emotion, attachment to anything that is going on beside the protagonist's fear. The NPCs are ridiculous, having no personality or any importance to the story. The foes are as impersonal as are the friends; there are no memorable villains, no plot twists, or anything of that sort in this game. Half-Life is about atmosphere and gameplay, while the story is totally forgettable.
Same applies to the praise I heard about Half-Life having challenging puzzles or even paving way for hybrids between shooters and other genres. The puzzles in Half-Life are either of the elementary "press the switch" kind, or are classic platformer challenges - where to jump, how to time your jumps, and so on. Half-Life is a challenging game, but definitely not because of its "puzzles". It has tough enemies and assorted action-based tasks, but this still doesn't make it an adventure or an RPG. For what it's worth, Half-Life is a great action game and nothing more.
How quickly they forget - that's what came to my mind when I thought of the fame surrounding Half-Life. Did anybody remember System Shock? A game that came out four years before Half-Life and that had everything Half-Life was wrongly praised for - good story-telling; intelligent solutions to problems; elements of adventure and RPG? That is not to say that System Shock completely obliterates the achievements of Half-Life; they are simply different games. But a game shouldn't get recognition for something it doesn't do, and that was done by another game before.
By the way, Strife is also a good example of a pre-Half-Life shooter that broke new ground in genre-merging. For some reason, its achievements were never recognized.
Yeah, I know it's unfair to blame Half-Life for all this. But I wanted to get this off my chest. I just have this thing with over-rated games. At least I'm now smart enough to enjoy Half-Life for what it is, without naively hoping for it to be everything its fans made out of it.