Monday, December 15, 2014


By now, every gamer out there knows and already has an opinion on this cult classic.

But allow me to review it for the sake of having the original Half-Life up here reviewed on my blog!

VGR: HλLF-LIFE aka simply Half-Life or HL
From Valve/Gearbox Software (ports)/Sierra Entertainment 
Played on PC
Also available on Mac, Linux, PS2 and Dreamcast (unreleased)

Type FPS
Year 1998

Created by then-young promising developers that would end up redefining the entire first person shooters genre, which we used to call DOOM-likes at the time (which was also why that term ended up being discarded around that same time). The Washington-based Valve Software studio, founded by longtime ex-Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mike Harrington in 1996.

Development on what would become Half-Life began as soon as the studio was launched, heralded to be their forefront title.

The game was originally codenamed or going to be titled Quiver (named after the military base from Stephen King's novel The Mist, a big part of the inspiration behind the game). It was set to take after the original Doom, not only because it was the granddaddy of the FPS genre but they thought taking as much from Doom as a huge influence could let them set focus on other aspects of the game such as storytelling or the game engine. It came naturally to simply take a pretty similar premise and expand upon it. Take what Doom used as an excuse to face demons during the invasion of a research facility and incorporate that directly into the level designs and the story structure. Their main object was to offer a new experience that would surprise and scare as much as the original Doom did in its day.

To do so, a story was written by Marc Laidlaw. And as for the music, a sountrack was specially composed for game by Kelly Bailey (who would go on to work on most of the series), he also did the rest of the in-game sounds which play a big part in crafting the atmosphere of the game.

They ran into some difficulty finding a publisher at the time, too many companies finding the project to be too ambitious for the time. They finally settled on a home for Half-Life at Sierra On-Line. Sierra was in fact looking for a 3D action games following their well-renowned success with a library most entirely comprised of 2D adventure games.

The game was then quickly announced to much success during an historic Electronic Entertainment Expo - E3, in 1997.

To develop the game, Valve had licensed the rights to use the Quake engine (the id Tech 2) from id Software to work on what would become Half-Life. They started working on the game design... but ended heavily modifying it to better suit this science-fiction/horror first person shooter. After incorporating a small team, the creators of the original Team Fortress mod for Quake, they had finally created their own Half-Life engine, now known as GoldSrc (Goldsource). Which would receive a long life of its own following the release of the game, until being finally replaced by its direct successor the Source engine in 2004. Most of the Quake engine's code was completely rewritten/modified by Valve and it ended up not using any of id's code. They had to do so specially regarding the AI in game, which was made from scratch for Half-Life.

Half-Life has a big emphasis on the story, despite its trademark mute main protagonists. You play as the role of scientist Gordon Freeman, who works at this secret underground facility where they've been experimenting with teleportation technology. That fateful day they end up opening the door for an alien invasion...

The story is set in this remote desert area in New Mexico, at the Black Mesa Research Facility inspired by things like Area 51.

It all begins with Freeman arriving late for work. After a quick look around the facility, the player is asked to put on the series' iconic hazard suit. Once arrived at the Anti-Mass Chamber, the experiment can begin... only an interdimensional rift is opened due to an unexpected incident, a "resonance cascade". Gordon finds himself teleported through several places and gets quick glimpses of some kind of weird worlds, including a first look at these alien beings, the Vortigaunts.

And soon the invasion begins. These alien creatures from another dimension make use of this "portal" to enter our world. They quickly overrun and take over the facility. And soon Gordon Freeman finds himself caught between two sides of a conflict, between these interdimensional creatures and the US military. Black Op Marines are dispatcher to cover the incident and contain the situation. And apparently people knew all about the aliens and were using the experiments from Black Mesa to bring more technology over.

Gordon's main purpose is to find the remaining survivors at first and find a way to exit the facility and put a stop to the invasion.

A giant tentacle creature also starts ripping apart the facility in what is no doubt one of the most iconic moments of the entire game, as more creatures are getting pulled over from another dimension into our world.

There's also the matter of the "G-Man". Through the story there's this mysterious figure that keeps popping up at several points through Gordon's journey. Who's either secretly working for the government or for some other higher power... The G-Man (unnamed in the game) seems to be monitoring your progress and appears to know what is going on or where it will be happening in any case.

The final act has Gordon locate and reach this mysterious  "λ" Lambda Complex located deeper into the mountains where Black Mesa is located. To bring the fight to these aliens. Gordon is then finally teleported to the world Xen to face the leader of this entire invasion - the Nihilanth! A gigantic alien entity that appears to have enslaved all these different alien races and is the one keeping the interdimensional rift open. From his appearance it seems to have been some kind of former slave or creature that has been experimented upon who is preparing for a war. The Nihilanth has been taking over these other different species to fight for him against an unknown bigger threat (which would be grandly played with and expanded upon in the later sequel).

The story is told entirely in-game, all through Gordon's eyes.

It might seem pretty simplistic in the great lines, but on purpose. It was actually directly inspired by id Software's own Doom and Quake series. It's your basic alien invasion cause by human experiments. Since they wanted to play with the genre, why change a winning formula? Half-Life also takes a lot from the Stephen King short story The Mist, it's almost an adaptation once you notice the similarities between the two. There's also some H. G. Wells's The War of the Worlds (in fact the design of the Vortigaunts is directly lifted from the Mor-Tax aliens in The War of the Worlds TV series).

When you get down to it, the gameplay basically takes cues from id's classic shooters, while improving upon what had already been established at the time.

The game consists of both shooting and solving puzzles.

The way the controls were assigned to both the keyboard and the mouse was revolutionary at the time and have since went on to become a staple of the genre on PC. It was truly innovative.

What was also new at the time was the implementation of scripted sequences seamlessly into the actual game, Half-Life didn't use cutscenes (or text documents scattered through the game) to further the plot like other titles used to back then. Half-Life entirely uses these scripted sequences to put you inside the premise as you witness the events of the story unfolding before your eye, through the first person point of view. For that alone it truly was a milestone in gaming. Gordon might never speak but that was a great device to have the player see this world through his eyes through the entire game.

Half-Life also doesn't feature any actual "levels". The environments you explore are continuously played through, from one setting into another. They're only divided into chapters in the titles that quickly pop up on screen following a few loading times, the experience is continuous with no break.

The game offers a few puzzles, nothing as "out there" as some survival horrors or adventure games used to. Most puzzles if not all are physic-based. Making you think how to use your environment to either kill enemies or open your path ahead.

There's a ton of nasty enemies you will encounter, all these aliens from Xen such as the series' most iconic creature the headcrabs, but also bullsquids, headcrab zombies and the enslaved Vortigaunts. The main enemy fodder being the zombies, humans turned monsters. But there's also several human enemies such as the above-mentioned marines and the black ops dispatched to contain the situation and kill all witnesses.

There's a few boss fights, most making you use your head and play with the environment to defeat these superior foes. So it's good to avoid direct confrontation whenever possible.

You can also get assisted a couple times by non-playable CPU-controlled characters such as guards or scientists that will help you get to new areas and further the plot. When you run into a guard you can ask him to join you as back-up.

The game features a huge collection of arsenal. Your weapons range from a very large and diverse array of guns and all sorts of other tools. Starting with Gordon Freeman's trusty crowbar, which is another iconic element from the franchise. The entire weaponry consists of several pistols to all kinds of shotguns and submachine guns as well a rocket launcher and the likes. But the game also makes a great use of the alien tech from Xen, there's a few organic guns and other sorts of parasites you can unleash or squirt at your enemies, but these only appear late in the game.

A first demo was made available for the public when "Half-Life: Day One" was distributed with a few graphic cards. This first contact with the series showed how positive the reaction was to Valve's idea. It consisted of a small part from the actual full game. But a second demo closer to the game's release made a lot more impression at the time (including on yours truly). Titled "Half-Life: Uplink", it was something unheard from (and still very uncommon to this day). It served more of a demonstration of the in-game universe and the gameplay, but instead of taking a part from the game it was made from scrapped material! Uplink actually used different elements that aren't found in the final game, set some time during story of the game but only using scrapped levels and elements (such as a portion hiding from the human foes in the shadows), cut content. And I always loved that personally, it's like a short prologue of things to come.

As for the question where Valve got the title "Half-Life". Besides a nice tie-in and connotation to video games and the health system in games, it actually ties directly into the entire theme of the game. The "half life" is actually the amount of time required for the quantity of an element to decay to half of its initial mass. The later sequels would continue following the same nomenclature. Plus the "lambda" logo became associated with the series, stylized in the game almost like an arm grabbing a crowbar.

A lot of thought was put into crafting every little detail of the game.

Such as the iconic training stage (I find myself using the term "iconic" a lot in this review, don't I?) which serves as the optional tutorial of the game (and unlike most games these days where they simply rehash the basic buttons every game uses, here it consists of navigating in your environment in relation to physics in-game as well as having you get familiar with Half-Life's own original features).

The entire game gives you this impression this is only the beginning of a much bigger adventure. Like you're auditioning for the G-Man. It's interesting how well this is integrated into the narrative. For example, the game won't let you kill important NPCs, and will end your session and give you a black screen that pops up telling how Gordon failed to meet G-Man's instruction.

What is more impressive is how Half-Life did for that era what no game had done before.

It made a huge lasting impact on gaming as a whole. Often imitated, never surpassed. At least, something truly unique since Doom. Most attempts at redoing "Half-Life" have often ended in derivative copies that only tried to imitate its success. Not its intents.

And fans attempt at remaking the game seem to miss the point entirely in my eyes. Giving it superior framerates and resolution is nice for replay value, but nothing like Half-Life every came out ever since.

It was a huge jump for these former Microsoft employees, which helped kick-start (no punt intended) Valve Software. Half-Life was a great scifi/horror FPS experience, mostly inspired by the work of Stephen King. Between Doom's science-fiction aspect and Aliens.After a nice tour to introduce us to this world, we get into a direct alien invasion. The stages were no longer designed like mazes, Valve instead opting for a more realistic more linear design. The story is set in motion, almost on rails. We get glimpses of this huge alien world right from the start.

The game almost seems to play with some ambiguous ideas. It gives us some doubts, is Gordon even really a hero? There's a struggle to escape Black Mesa. But we later discover some experimentations that have been held on the captive aliens and all these experimental weapons. Aside from the alien threat of these transdimensional creatures (the facehugger-like headcrabs, the innocent enslaved Vortigons), there's also this military force deployed to clean up the mess.

And finally, the last chapter leaves familiar human settings after all these hours for "Xen". To clean this entire mess that started with Gordon arriving 10 minutes at the beginning of the game, it's time to move to this alien landscape. Easily the most unfamiliar and strange part of the game, such a fascinating great finale!

As for G-Man's appearances, once you notice him it's like he turns up everywhere. Giving a strange mysterious nature to this passive observer? Or is he the cause of all this?

Half-Life was easily one of the finest best shooters since the original Doom.

Following its release, it would go on to get a huge positive reception. All critics alike worldwide praised Valve's game for both its quality and the visuals of the game, as much as its innovative gameplay as well. Thanks to the coherent insertion of the narrative directly into the gameplay itself. It might look and feel a bit date nowadays, but it remains every bit as impressive thanks to its great aesthetic.

Overall, Half-Life is a timeless classic. Easily one of the best and most influential FPS in ages right alongside the original Doom. It would inspire the design of first person shooters for a long while and became the new standard of FPS games on PC. For its narrative and controls alone. To a point you can clearly note what came before Half-Life and post its release.

Despite somewhat dated visuals, Half-Life would go to influence elements of most later shooters, including being a key inspiration behind new classics such as Doom 3, the FEAR series or even Bioshock for its cinematic experience approach to shooters.

Valve's long time partner since then Gearbox Software started working on porting the game to other systems such as Mac OS, they were also responsible for all the official expansion packs of the game as well and therefore just as much responsible for much of the Half-Life franchise. 

Their first work consider in the add-on/sidestory Opposing Force (more on this one below) telling the same story from another point of view. 

Following the great reception of Opposing Force, they moved into porting Half-Life to the Sega Dreamcast in 2000. Gearbox ended revamping the entire graphics of the game for the occasion, doubling the polygon count of all character models. The idea was to also offer Dreamcast players their own exclusive expansion, Blue Shift - another campaign following a security guard in his quest to escape Black Mesa. A short weeks prior to this port's release and thanks to the incoming end of the Dreamcast at time, Sierra had the game scrapped despite this DC version being basically done and available in a completed state (thankfully, this has been since then leaked on the net, and this version's a fully working game which I made a copy for myself, as pictured on the side). Meanwhile, Blue Shift would be saved and get a proper release on the PC, which included the high-definition pack updating the look of both Half-Life and Opposing Force in 2001.

A PlayStation 2 port followed shortly, featuring a final console-exclusive expansion titled Half-Life: Decay, a co-op campaign. Also developed and ported by Gearbox, released in 2001. This one was a huge overhaul of the same game that had been perfectly ported to the Dreamcast, certainly not for the best in the eyes of most fans. While it still retained the enhanced visuals of the character/weapons models, the game suffered some slightly altered geometry in the levels, not always for the best. The best feature of this PS2 version being easily the addition of this co-op expansion "Decay". It's a pretty basic but fun co-op storyline you can play via split-screen, as these two female scientists from Black Mesa. Since the gamepad gameplay was not the best for the time, its saving grace comes in the ability to plug in USB mouse and keyboard for much better suited controls. Decay remained exclusive to the PS2 version, though.

My PC copy of the game (pictured above) is titled Half-Life: Generation. It's basically the same as the titles Half-Life: Platinum Collection/Platinum Pack which combines the original HL, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Classic, Half-Life: Opposing Force (some later versions also included Blue Shift).

There's been several fanmade remakes, mods of the engine or simply conversions updating or porting the original Half-Life to the Source engine. Depending on their states, they are more or less playable from one version to another.

The engine itself went on having a long and prosper second life of its own, being used in so many games the following decade. Its most famous being Valve-developed port of the popular small title "Team Fortress Classic", as well as the definitive version of the popular indie-developed "Counter-Strike" and "Day of Defeat" (but the most successful one is by far Counter-Strike, which went on having its own standalone retail version and an entire life on its own, not bad for simple mod). These games turning out to become some of the most played multiplayer games for a decade.

Instead of working on a sequel, Valve would spend most of the following years working on an all-new proprietary engine which would become the basis for Half-Life 2's Source engine. They only went back to Half-Life when they found enough material for a worthy sequel, which would win as much attention and positive reaction from the public. It follows directly into the first game's ambiguous storyline and expand the narrative as mankind is caught in this interdimensional war and reduced to slavery.

I give it:
3 / 3 Quacks!

VGR: Half-Life: Opposing Force aka simply Opposing Force or OF
By Gearbox Software/Valve/Sierra Studios 
Type Expansion pack
Year 1999

Valve's collaborators at Gearbox Software would not only take duty over porting the original Half-Life to different system but also be the ones to develop two expansions for the game on the PC. The first one being Half-Life: Opposing Force in 1999, and the second one Half-Life: Blue Shift in 2001. All taking place during the same events of the main game. Opposing Force sees the player take control of a Marine containment unit during the incident of Black Mesa, adding several new weapons and previously unseen areas to the game.

Opposing Force has the player live through the same storyline through the perspective of Adrian Shephard, one of the Marines sent to Black Mesa to cover up the evidences.original 

This first expansion from Gearbox was developed under the same lead designer Randy Pitchford, retaining his role to allow Valve to pursue other ventures at the time.

Since the game is played from the point of view of a US Marine this time, Opposing Force is also much more action-oriented. It's a more aggressive episode from the perspective of one of the enemies from the original game.

The story begins as these soldiers are sent to put a stop and neutralize the Black Mesa Research Facility. But an accident shot their them to the ground. Quickly outnumbered, the game will this time have you fight as one of the soldiers. You get to witness some of the same events from a different point of view. When suddenly another alien race arrive on the scene, and then some black op units arrive on the scene....

These new foes go by the name of "Race X" and they appear to be in combat with the aliens from Xen.

The gameplay doesn't differ that much from the original game, although it puts much more emphasis on your firepower. There's several new weapons along the few returning guns from Half-Life.

This time the game gives you the ability to command small squads of soldiers, which is a nice welcomed addition. You will encounter not only guards and scientists but other marines too, now, which can assist you this time. There's even combat medics that can heal you.

What Gearbox really added was more expanded multiplayer elements and all these new environments for the deathmatches (as the original HL used), but they also added a capture the flag mode and all kinds of powerups.

The game contains some fun references and inside jokes (such as having to activate "valves" and "gearboxes", a condition to defeat the "Pit Worm" boss batle). One of the game's most memorable moment strangely appears to be its training session, this time modeled after a Full Metal Jacket-style boot camp instead of the hazmat suit training course, and it evens give you the same type of drill instructor!

Finally, the game's name comes this time not only for the role you get to play as one of the enemies from the original game, but actually from the third law of Newton!

When it's all said and done, Opposing Force is a great expansion that offers enough new elements and more of the same experience to be a truly enjoyable addition. If a bit shorter.

Overall: While not a proper continuation, Opposing Force is a fun addition to the series.

It's easily one of the better examples of an expansion that actually expanded upon the original game.

It also received a fantastic reception, which was as surprising back then. Expansions don't usually get as much praise. It's only real issue being that it feels a bit shorter, which did not please everyone. It also made less of an impact considering how perfect the original Half-Life seemed.

I give this one a: 2.5 / 3 Score! 

VGR: Half-Life: Blue Shift or simply Blue Shift or HL: BS or also Half-Life: Guard Duty
By Gearbox Software/Valve/Sega/Sierra Studios
Type Expansion pack
Year 2001

Valve's collaborators at Gearbox Software would not only take duty over porting the original Half-Life to different system but also be the ones to develop two expansions for the game on the PC. The second one being Half-Life: Blue Shift in 2001. All taking place during the same events of the main game. Blue Shift being shorter but just as fun. In which you play as this security guard briefly glimpsed in the original game and greatly expanded upon in this new story (originally meant to be a bonus episode for the Dreamcast port).

Blue Shift offered a return to Black Mesa, this time as this previously unnamed security guard Gordon Freeman met right at the start of Half-Life named Barney Calhoun. Unlike Opposing Force, and because most of Gearbox's development time was put into porting Half-Life to the Dreamcast while updating the overall look of the game's content, Blue Shift offers very little actual new content (nether new enemies nor weapons).

The game was originally titled Half-Life: Guard Duty.

Once more, the story takes place during the same events of the original game, this time through the eyes of Barney. Barney was also caught in the events of the accident responsible for bringing the aliens of Xen on Earth. During the course of the game Barney ends up saving most of the equipment and data behind the research (and he would later be seen alive and well, and have a bigger role in the sequel).

Barney's role as a security guard in this game is to help and save as many people in the facility and help evacuate the premise.

This expansion expanded and retconnned a lot of little elements from the original game. For example the addition of the Black Mesa scientist and protagonist Dr Rosenberg's role in the events of the main game.

And in case you're wondering, Blue Shift also has a title with a double meaning. Not just because you're playing as this security guard (and originally exclusive Sega episode) but also named after the Doopler effect, the change in frequency of a wave (or other periodic event) for an observer moving relative to its source. Perfectly suited, don't you think?

Since it was original intended for the Dreamcast port of the game, Blue Shift contains a few allusions to Sega. The first and most apparent one being the emphasis on the color blue (Sega's and Sonic's trademark iconic color) and the game even credits Sega for a lot of elements at the end, despite the Dreamcast port never making it to retail release.

Overall: Blue Shift is another nice albeit slightly more forgettable expansion.

The game's biggest contribution to the series was actually the high definition pack which helped boost and upgrade the visuals, models and textures of the original game up to what was being made at the time.

Despite the Dreamcast port being canceled, if anything it was great to see some of it make it through.

At the time the game also received quite a lot of praise, even though it contains its fair share of little annoying issues. The principal one being how short it is and the fact that Blue Shift lacks any true new addition to the game (upgraded character models and textures aside).

It offers more of what was to expected from the series, Half-Life's unique blend of action and puzzle solving. There are a couple of more frustrating jumping segments.  Blue Shift also tries to give better interactions with the scientist, to make them better proper people this time (the NPCs always felt like clones through the facility before).

All in all, it's a worthy addition, it doesn't has as much to contribute but for the new segments and graphical overhaul alone it's a nice add-on to the first game.

Note that Blue Shift doesn't require a copy of Half-Life and works as a stand-alone expansion pack!

I give this one a: 2 / 3 Score! 

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