Thursday, November 20, 2008


Half-Life (PC)
There were a number of good games in between, but the first person shooter genre didn't truly move forward until Half-Life's release in 1998. While Doom wasn't the first FPS, it did create the template for the genre which was followed slavishly for close to five years. With Half-Life, the genre took its first steps toward progress; often referred to at the time as "the thinking man's shooter", Half-Life emphasized cinematic storytelling, immersion in a game world, scripted set-piece action sequences, and puzzles that made great use of the possibility of a 3D game space, this last bit still a relatively new invention. It was telling that when id Software got around to making Doom 3, the result was something much closer to Half-Life than Doom 1 or 2, right down to the 'extra-dimensional beings invading a scientific research facility while you try to survive as an faceless hero' scenario.
Valve slashed the price on the original Half-Life to $.98 on their Steam download service to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the game, and so I'm taking it as the opportunity to revisit the game as I'm sure many are. What strikes me now in returning to it is just what I spoke of above: Half-Life was a groundbreaking game for the FPS genre in almost every way. It told a fantastic story not by cutscenes but by allowing the player to experience the 'story' firsthand. I wrote about the ability of games to tell a story in a different way with my post on Shadow of the Colossus, that by focusing on embedding the story somehow in the game world, it makes the 'narrative' an interactive process rather than a passive one. When other characters talk to me, I can completely ignore them or wait and see what they do. When scripted sequences take place--a scientist dragged into an air vent by an unseen creature--it's possible I don't even see them, merely hearing them while my attention is focused elsewhere.
Though I'm only a few hours into the game, I did finish it when it was originally released, and the various 'puzzles' throughout the game are the other huge innovation of the game. These aren't puzzles in the traditional FPS sense, where you're searching for keycards to unlock doors so you can go shoot more monsters. In fact, when you need doors unlocked, you usually have to find (and keep alive) the scientists or security personnel pictured above so they can do it for you. The 'puzzles' of Half-Life are just as often closer to a Mario-style platformer than they are simple key hunts. You interact with the environment, trying to find paths or hidden areas by moving objects around. The (in)famous crowbar of Half-Life isn't just a clever replacement for the fist/knife ammo conserving weapon of previous FPS's; it's a multi-tool for smashing crates, busting through doors and grates, and manipulating the environment. The game does a lot of things to make the world believable and immersive--seamless movement between 'sections' of the game, for starters--but all the obstacles you face seem like natural products of a disastrous event instead of artificial conceits to test the player's acquired skills and firepower.
The 'shooting' part of the FPS aspect of Half-Life may not get as much attention as the 'first person' part, but to me it's just as crucial. Combat in Half-Life feels far more visceral and 'real' than games that came before despite the familiarity of fighting aliens yet again. Two things are in the game's favor. The first is that none of the shooting seems dull or arbitrary. Though ambushes and 'aliens warping in out of nowhere' do happen, they just don't feel scripted somehow. Perhaps because the story sets up that these aliens are extra-dimensional beings and can apparently warp at will...?? In any case, killing them is always exciting and realistic because they don't soak up huge amounts of damage like the demons of Doom. Each one does take the same number of shots to off for the most part, but it's never an absurd amount; they may be aliens, but they aren't gods. The second thing that makes the combat exciting is the sheer imagination of the alien design. Sure, the headcrabs are inspired by the facehuggers of the Alien film series, but they've become iconic enemies in their own right. The rest of the beings are 'alien' in the literal sense of the word: they're unfamiliar and strange. The first encounter with those little guys who attack with sonic screams is always unnerving, especially once you see them 'blink' their 'eyes', eyes that are more akin to a flesh-like beehive than anything else. One of the most memorable experiences in the game is figuring out how to take down the tentacle creature with the blast rockets in a huge silo-like structure. By trial and error, you figure out that it is blind but can hear you. This is one of the examples of how Half-Life is such a brilliant game. If this were another FPS, you would just unleash your heavy weaponry until it dies. But if I recall correctly, you can't actually kill it with weapons, you have to 'solve the puzzle' so to speak.
This is the requisite paragraph where I sum up my feelings about the game and say "its graphics may have dated, but it's still an essential, important title." But that doesn't seem appropriate or fair to the game somehow. Anyway, the highest praise I can give Half-Life is that I couldn't stop playing it last night ("I'll just get to the next loading screen...") and while writing this entry all I wanted to do is go play it. Assuming you read this in time, you'd be stupid not to get this game for $.98 even if you hate FPS's or think you do.

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