I was told that this would be a chill experience, that it would be fun and a very distinct first-person shooter (FPS) than the others I have played.
Well, it was certainly distinct, but it was also the most stressful game that I have played to date.
Half-Life (1998) was the first release from Valve and, like many other games I have played, not the first of its kind. Gamezetera owner, Pierre Tessier says that what makes this game different was the incredible story, the amazing characters, and the fact that the game was very, very polished. It was the “ultimate” shooter game at the time.
You play as Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist and graduate of MIT who works at the fictional Black Mesa Research Facility. He has no superpowers and there is nothing special about him, which makes him a unique protagonist. Gordon never speaks, nor is he ever seen in the game at all, which further adds to the mystique of this everyman.
The beginning of this game is iconic. It starts with a company tram ride into the research facility, which is very chill and relaxed. You are just a guy going to work. There is a woman’s calm voice coming through the PA that rambles off the rules and regulations when aboard the tram, emergency protocols, and disembarkation procedures. Eventually, you end up at the entrance where Barney, the security guard, greets you by name.
You are stopped by another Barney (there are many replicas scattered throughout the game) at reception who also greets you by name. He informs you that “the system” is acting up and that you’ve been requested in the test chamber today.
You make your way to the lab after grabbing your hazmat suit and are informed by a scientist upon your arrival that you will be “deviating a bit from standard analysis procedures today” because of a “rare opportunity.” Something about “the purest sample we’ve seen yet.” The scientist standing beside him is more concerned about something going wrong, yet you are still ushered into the very large room laden with oversized scientific equipment.
You are instructed by another scientist to push a cart of some unidentified material into a laser beam, and quickly thereafter the scientist begins to audibly panic as a menacing green portal opens up that you assume shouldn’t be there.
This whole sequence takes about 15 minutes and is really well done. During my interview with Pierre, he said “you have to emphasize that it is not just the gameplay, but the story that made this game.” I will give credit where it is due: the story is very well written. This opening sequence is subtly humorous and does not reveal any hint of the chaos that is about to ensue. You are just a guy going to work.
The next chapter, called Unforeseen Consequences, opens and the research facility is now in disarray. The game does a really good job of making a clear distinction between the quotidian workday feel of the opening and the utter madness that ensues after the experiment goes awry.
And here is where the game lost me and I began to love to hate it.
As soon as you exit the chamber and wonder about the now structurally compromised facility, you are constantly bombarded by surprise ceiling beams falling on you, or a blast going off as you pass by a wall, or these creepy little dudes called Headcrabs that are lurking in every vent ready to leap on you from the darkness. Oh yeah, the facility is also now filled with combative alien species.
The military shows up to assist with diffusing the situation, but you soon realize that they are just mercilessly killing everyone. What are they trying to hide?
What I didn’t realize as I was playing the first few chapters was that the game was seamless. There were chapters, not levels, and there was only one cutscene. That one cutscene was the only time the plot was advanced without me being immersed in the gameplay. It is a dialogue-driven game that is triggered sequentially. I think this is why the pressure felt so relentless, there really wasn’t much downtime.
The other neat thing is that you move through the world naturally. There is no magical travel to the other side of town or an instantaneous helicopter ride to another portion of the map. You are just advancing through the research facility.
Well, until the last chapter, which I am told is universally hated. The chapter “Xen” breaks this rule and you are portaled to an alien world that rounds out the game in the strangest way. It was a tedious ending that seemed to take forever to complete and ended with the ugliest freak baddie I’ve seen to date. I cannot tell you how many hours it took to finally kill that guy, but it was more than I’d like to admit.
As for racial and cultural sensitivity, the only strike I have against this game is that there are no non-male scientists. I was happy to see racialized scientists scattered throughout the research facility, but this was a male-heavy game.
The gameplay itself also felt really good. The shooting was on point, and the movement was smooth, but I still struggled with ladders and climbing, and well, having to compensate for momentum when jumping onto platforms.
While playing this game, I was caught up in the constant assault on my senses. Many of the environmental sounds were awful, including the distinct and nauseating echo that was elicited from interacting with certain materials. Some of the alien creatures made horrid noises as well, but I did love the classic hums of the health kit and hazmat stations.
Sage Gamer (he who educates me on my pc gamer path) has told me that he is envious of my ability to be so drawn into games. He lost that a long time ago. The awful noises, the relentless jump scares, and the continuous gameplay all contributed to my loving to hate this game when I was playing it. But after writing this, I have to admit that it was actually an incredible game, I just got so wrapped up in the experience.