Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Review: Half Life

Fast action, maze-like areas full of aliens, predators and Nazis, and a whole host of secrets to find – that was your typical first person shooter back in the 90s. But then came a game that wanted to take that formula and work it into a different sort of beast. In 1998, Valve released Half Life and it garnered heaps of praise for the way it tackled storytelling and took the first person view in a more cinematic direction than just blowing aliens to bits. It's an idea that works really well when executed just right... and you know what, it is, but like a well cooked steak with no seasoning, it trips over a few other important things in order to get it right.

At Black Mesa, Gordon Freeman turns up to a testing room to check on the latest experiment. From there, it goes haywire and all of a sudden, the portal between Earth and Xen is open, and Black Mesa is taken over by aliens. The military show up... to kill everyone there. Not just the aliens, but also the scientists, Gordon Freeman and every little insect that happens to be around, in order to ensure that nothing about the situation is leaked to the public. From there, Gordon has to stop the alien invasion through any means necessary. It has a pretty good set up and as much as I'd like to rag on it not really progressing much in the traditional sense or that Gordon has little to no characterization, that's... kind of the point. You're Gordon Freeman, MIT graduate and future hero scientist. You're pressing all the buttons and turning all the valves to progress through the Black Mesa building while finding a way to swat the military away and stop aliens from taking over Earth. YOU are the one moving the story. Having said that, it really feels like they pissed away something that could've been cool just to be content with some B-grade alien shit.

Thankfully, Half Life's biggest accomplishment isn't what it says but how it says it. Instead of having cutscenes every so often to progress the story, it just has scientists and the odd Black Mesa guard tell you about stuff while keeping you in the game. What it essentially means is that you're in one big level and you're staying in that level until you quit out of the game to don your Stryper PJs and go to bed, or you finish the game. But yeah, the idea of having the story unfold without you needing to be transitioned into a cutscene was a big deal back in 1998 and it really undermines the fact that the story itself is very bare boned. Be aware that there will be some loading that'll stop you for a couple of seconds when you get to a new section, and if that kills your immersion, feel free to never ever purchase this game...

...actually, if you want real immersion killers, try the glitches. Now, depending on your computer's specs (as in what you're running, not necessarily how powerful your hardware is), you'll either run into a few minor glitches or a fair amount of bad glitches. The most common one is getting stuck behind corners and on small slopes in smaller spaces... or shit, I've found myself stuck on the corner of an L-shaped pathway! Then there's the fact that some chapters don't work entirely, like this one where you're meant to ride a platform to certain points... only it didn't *bleep*ing appear! I've had times when the ally AI wouldn't move, do what they're meant to do... or anything, really, not matter how many times I press the interact button.

Yes, you can reload a save file from before the glitch happens, but really, when this kind of shit happens, it takes you out of the experience because it feels less like you're exploring Black Mesa, and more like you're playing a subpar video game. I'm forgiving when it comes to the occasional loading bits because it's for a second or two and it saves you from having to experience a loooooong loading screen every time you launch the game; I can't forgive glitches because it tends to show me that the game lacks some polish in the more important areas. But like I said, it really does depend on your specs – if you don't run into glitches, great. I did, but the funny thing is, despite my bitching, it doesn't take too long to get back into it, unless the glitches are persistent. So... it all comes down to specs.

More often than not though, at least they get the visual atmosphere right. At times, you'll find yourself in dark corridors (of varying levels, of course) that'll make you wary of what's around the corner or what's up ahead (I mean yeah, you have a flashlight, but you can't be too sure, you know), and the alien world of Xen is just... wow. It's really easy to get sucked in despite the dated graphics – it really goes to show what a keen eye for lighting can really do for you. If there's anything negative I could say, it'd be that the models are blocky, but for a game made in 1998, that's a given. I have heard that the Source version looks better, but I've also heard that it's glitchier, so... just take the lesser of two evils here...

One thing that's both impressive and disappointing is the sound design. Where it's impressive is when it really draws you in – either through playing some music during the more exciting segments, or putting in some sound effects that sound like little bugs crawling through the ducts and big monsters walking around the corner. That's the kind of stuff that really gets you going. Where it's disappointing is how often it happens – that is to say, barely. You won't get much music or many sound effects, and while less is usually more when it comes to the more atmospheric games, when all I hear are footsteps for 80% of the game, it's not as atmospheric as it could've been if more sounds played at a few more instances.

So for all its atmospheric and immersing goodness, why does this game receive the score it has? Simple – it's a mostly dull experience. Really, the game isn't all that fun to play. I mean, it has its fun moments, like a few firefights against the bigger aliens, especially when you're low on health and ammo where it can get rather tense, but other than that, I don't know, it just felt like I kept on playing so that I can see what scripted event they come up with next, not because it's fun, and really, aren't games meant to be fun to play? Well, that's not really a fair question, so let me ask something else – should it ever feel like a firefight is a minor inconvenience? Not at all, it should feel like you're a *bleep*en badass for shooting up heaps of aliens and military men, the latter of which having fairly impressive AI.

Awww yeah, the AI for the humans in this game was *bleep*en titmilk! Given that at around the time, enemies would've charge at you when you came within a certain distance and that's it (and at times, it was very easy to exploit), the AI here would know when to throw grenades, run away or just stand there and try to pump you with lead, which would make them sound like they were lobotomized, but considering that they don't stagger when you shoot them, you'll need to be careful in how to take care of them before you end up dying. Sometimes, you'll find security guards who can fight with you, and they actually fight competently so you can rely on them... until you get to a point where they're like “nope, *bleep* you, I can't jump or be *bleep*ed enough to follow you from here on in”. It's nothing special nowadays because AI can be like this nowadays – plus there are more glitchy moments that I pointed out a while ago – but for it's time, yeah, it was actually quite impressive.

I think the biggest issue I've had was a good amount of the second third of the game. The first third mostly focused on fitting into the role with some combat here and there while the final third is a visual spectacle with the last two combat sections actually being more what I'd expect from a first person shooter (in other words, it was fast and exciting), but the second third just felt like a slog through mediocre firefights. It felt like they just threw shit at you and expected you to take it because hey, you're getting closer to your goal, closer to the heart of all that's happening. Really though, it got to a point where it felt less like I was Gordon and more like I was playing as Gordon in a mediocre first person shooter. Sure, the machine guns felt like machine guns, the pistols like pistols and the shotguns like shotguns, and there are a few cool weapons too (like a laser and a locust blaster of sorts), but once the whole “wow the AI is so good” thing dies down and you realize the aliens aren't that bright, you start to realize that most fights feel empty, with maybe a few enemies to shoot down, and it's never all that fast and frenetic. There is maybe one exciting moment involving a helicopter and the need to open up a door underwater without getting eaten by a fish – every other moment, sure, I was immersed, but I was also starting to get bored and the immersion was dying down, and since immersion was all it really had going for it... well, it's not a third I'd want to get involved in again.

Now don't get me wrong – Half Life isn't terrible. It gets immersion and atmosphere right more often than not, and that's what Half Life wanted to get right the most. HOWEVER, that doesn't mean that the other elements can be half assed. The AI might be good, but that doesn't make the game fun. The storytelling might be state of the art and excellent, but the story itself isn't good. I guess you could say that Half Life is best remembered for its influence, rather than the actual game – having said that, it is still worth trying out just to see where modern shooters got the idea from, and eh, you'll probably like it more than I did. Games that used this style later along the line learned how to make it fun, but for now, eh, it's an interesting idea that was once ripe to be expanded on... and then every modern shooter did just that.

7/10 (Good)

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