Go take granddaddy down a peg
I honestly don't know how everyone can be wrong about the exact same thing, but I suppose that's how you kill an American president back in the 1960's. I read over and over again that the best thing about Half-Life is the story. Well, it's a very average story: something goes wrong at a top secret facility and it's up to one guy to save the world from an alien invasion, even though the government tries to stop him. If you disagree, then what point could you make that would spoil the story? You can't , because the plot is paper thin. It's not like someone is someone's father, one someone is actually a ghost, or that someone you didn't think was a dude is actually a dude!! See, those are meaty stories, some with more meat on the bone than others.
Now, what it excels at is how to tell the story. By only using your protagonist's POV the entire story you are witness to how this common sci-fi story could play out practically in the real world. Gone are power-ups that spin around in mid-air. If you find weapons there is a reason why that weapon is there, as in being in a weapon lock up or near the body of a fallen soldier. Basically it's taking a movie and filling in all of the blanks when the camera isn't there to explain what happened. How did he get back to full health? Oh, he crawled around in back through the air ducts and so on. This idea of logic adds to the plausibility of the story, and thus our immersion into it.
Having every area bumped into smaller areas to facillitate numerous yet very short load times makes the game into basically one level that just continues on and on. But where Half-Life succeeds is in it's use of set pieces that punctuate the flow of this one, long level and makes the game memorable. So there isn't the dam level, or the commando assault on the surface level, or fighting the helicopter level; instead you remember it for the set piece and not a level, something that increases your immersion in this game greatly.
Immersion is important because the game attempts to let you experience all the things you'd ever wanted to do in games (or life, if you're really ambitious). Fight commandos, helicopters, tanks (I'm not sure, I finished the game half a lifetime ago), use homing RPG's... immersion makes the experience much more visceral, and therefore a much better gaming experience.
Another thing I found great about this game is how you identify with this guy, faceless save for the box art or any fan pic in which he is always holding the crowbar. By making him late in the beginning of the game and giving him the option of turning on the security alarm in the reception area makes him a guy like you and me; even though he works at a top secret government facility, it's crappy!
Even though it tells the story well it really doesn't make much sense. So who is this G-Man guy? Why is he always behind bulletproof glass? How can this Gordon Freeman guy be late for work in the beginning and in the end be taking down highly trained extremely dangerous army operatives? Doesn't it cost a fortune to run (and clean) Black Mesa? Isn't it so big that you can see it from outer space, let alone at the side of the oad that borders it?
For Half-Life to be true Gordon Freeman has to be running from one coincidence to another, and in the end it's just too many: in Half-Life one guy saw/caused the beginning of the invasion, keeps running into the mysterious G-man, and in the end travels to another dimension. See, if there were cut scenes and some invisable camera was watching secret proceedings that weren't privvy to common knowledge then you can accept that. This device hurts the believability of the game, and as such the story. In that case, how can the story "rock"?
The NPC's really weren't that thrilling (unlike DOOM3, there aren't any Asians around waiting to be turned into zombies). Really they're just there to spout some exposition and then open a door. Back in the day on planethalflife there was a section called the Scientist Killing Club; this inspired me to play through the game again, only this time I would try to kill as many "innocent" NPC's as I can. You know, once they open a door you can kill anyone you want. What kind of story is that? That just means the NPC's role in Half-Life are really not that important.
It is too bad about the last third on Xen. I would have appreciated a shorter but better game. I think this is a case of making it longer just to satisy the common consumer and also making it harder just because you are getting close to the end. 2D platformers are 2D because they work well in 2D. I think with a well-thought out first and second half you're bound to be let down at the end. By the way, I've done both choices, but for what? The game ends either way.
The Bottom Line
Half-Life is worth playing but not worth worshipping. Games matured a bit with Half-Life, but this is definitely not a "thinking man's shooter" by any account. In retrospect Half-Life doesn't deserve all of the acclaim it received for its time, but then people thought Half-Life had an amazing story because people hadn't ever been told a story that well through a FPS.
It's funny that the one game that influenced Half-Life the most, DOOM, will then rip it off Half-Life in DOOM3: arriving late, being witness to the "resonance cascade", jumping through portals, and even another monorail ride!
In truth, it was unicorn b lynx who got me really thinking about games and also prompted me to get involved on this site, so it's all your fault. Myself, I got tired of reading "pwns" and "rox!" and "suks!"