Friday, June 24, 2011

On Half-Life

The Half-Life series of video games share a science fiction alternate history. Nearly all of the games are first-person shooters on the Goldsource or Source engines, and most are linear, narrative, single-player titles.

Valve Corporation is the developer, and partly the publisher and distributor, for the signature games of the series. Each of these games feature the player as the main protagonist, Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist initially employed by the Black Mesa Research Facility. Two of these games, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, are full length titles, while two more, Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, are shorter, episodic titles. A final episode, Half-Life 2: Episode Three, has been confirmed to be the next installment of the series.

This is a review that has been along time coming, so there's a lot of buildup. I've owned this game since they released a nice big box edition of it, way back when. Let's start right from the top.

Half-Life opens with an array of difficulty settings, ranging from easy to hard, naturally -with the option of going through a training scenario, if you're unfamiliar with the game's basic mechanics. This was a staple of all of the earliest Half-Life games, with Team Fortress being the single exception. It was later omitted from Counter-Strike, for whatever reason. Yeah. great idea. A multiplayer game of skill, heaven forbid someone should want some simple training beforehand, even if it was lamer than a three-legged dog on oil-slicked ice. Half-Life opens with the now-iconic trip down the tram, introducing you to the world of Black Mesa - robots, scientists, guards, and even that odd character in the suit that always seems to know where you are.

A little bungling around, some dialogue from a few scientists and you're in the test chamber, where you get to put your Ph.D to the test, climbing up a ladder and pushing a button. Introduce some strange crystalline material to the analysis stream, and it all goes straight to hell. Now you need to get the hell out of Black Mesa... And you're at the bottom of a physics complex that outdoes any I've seen from Hollywood that didn't involve moons that were actually space stations!

You gain your first weapon, the now-iconic steel crowbar, not long after escaping from the test chamber, and your first gun from one of the redshirts - ah, guards. You find your share and more of facehuggers, called headcrabs in this universe, for obvious reasons. You also see the strange man in the suit at odd moments, and no sign of him when you stand where he did.

Over the course of the game, you butt heads with the military, often trying to maneuver your way around numbers of them with not only handguns and rifles, but stationary cannons, tanks and the like. You can and should pick up the military hardware you can, since weight simply doesn't exist for that in Half-Life, wandering around with some semi-mystical pockets of infinite space, even allowing you to carry a RPG launcher, explosives, grenades and all the ammunition you can handle, to a point.

The game puts you through a few puzzles, some of them involving the peculiarities of teleportation, or trying to jump your way down from the sky, by way of rotating pedestals without turning into pizza but mostly just shooting your way through soldiers, aliens and yes, alien soldiers, dangerous environments, all the way to the Big Finish, which combines them all.

You take on and take down the Big Bad.... And the end is only the beginning. The ubiquitous man in the suit is revealed, and Freeman's association with the enigmatic G-Man begins, and the series takes off from there, beginning the transformation of just another first-person shooter into what stands as a game with a powerful story arc, characters and a fight against an alien invasion!


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