The wait is over. You have heard about, read about, dreamed about it, now you can devote your life to it. Half-Life, the newest kid on the FPS block has shown up with a bag full of goodies to keep your hard drive toasty this holiday season. I don't want to get gushy this early in the review, but I am seriously impressed this game. Half-Life all around awesome with its impressive graphics, artificial intelligence, and an intriguing (gasp) plot. Ok, now that all the "tellin-you-what-you-wanna-hear" is out of the way lets get down and dirty, Game Over style.
The Quake 2 engine never looked so good. Using technology licensed from iD Software, Sierra Studios have created a visual experience which is amazing and subtle at the same time. Drastic use of shadowing and light sourcing creates a truly scaring atmosphere. In game speech is accompanied by accurate mouth texture movements, a very impressive effect. Overall the graphics are not on par with the current 900-pound gorilla of graphics, Unreal. Even with the enhancements to the Q2 graphics engine, Half-Life cannot compete with Unreal's fire and sky effects. Another thing that erk'd me was the total lack of "tweaking" in graphic detail levels. I have to admit here that I do not have the Ultimate Gaming Rig, and on occasion I have to adjust settings to get things running smoothly on my 266. Half-Life gives no means to change any settings to improve frame-rate performance. It is possible that "tweaking" is possible via the various .cfg (configuration) files. In-game menu based performance settings is a must for today's games, and Sierra Studios should have known better.
The sound in Half-Life is all about subtle ambiance. Fluorescent lights buzz to life, cement hallways echo footsteps and expended shell-casings, motors and fans whir and hum continuously. Great care was taken to convey all the nuances of the various environments encountered in this game. The voice acting is well done, as it is basically your only guide to what the heck is going on in the game. With no direct text based means of discovering the next objective you have to listen carefully to what is happening around you; Nearby guards will drop hints, wounded scientists will direct you to exits, and security officers will advise on areas you should stay clear of. At various points in the game the music will kick in, but its fairly generic "action" music, and I found myself turning it off after five minutes.
Rather than write a plot summary or a five-page spoiler on level descriptions I will try to summarize the highs and lows of gameplay in Half-Life. Without going into heavy details let me just say that this the most ambitious and compelling FPS game ever. Not since the classic Doom ][ have I experienced a FPS as immersive as Half-Life. The story builds quickly and takes a number of very unexpected plot twists. However overall the level layouts are very conventional in regards to what we have seen before. Many of the levels are much of the same "find the button, open the door" that has become standard for first person shooters. A lot of the tasks and situations are similar to things that have previously been done in other games. I do not want to give away the story, so I will spare any further explanation. If you have played other FPS titles, you will see what I mean. I want to clarify that even though some of the tasks and aspects are similar, you will not be bored with this game. There is a difference between invention and innovation. Another recently released game, Trespasser is an excellent example of an inventive game. It broke new ground with its incredible realism and fresh approach to the FPS genre. And with that invention came new difficulties, such as high system requirements and an even harder to thing to obtain, an open mind to new gaming experiences. On the converse, Half-Life represents an innovation in the gaming world. It combines many successful and previously seen aspects of first person shooters into one truly spectacular game.
I do not want to paint the picture of a patchwork effort by Sierra Studios. Half-Life has its own inventions, particularly in regards to its incredibly clever AI. Like the box hype says, most creatures (mainly the ones that walk upright) are not on suicide missions. Often after taking a few shots enemies will run away or hide behind corners. The intelligence levels are scaleable, meaning the some enemies will exhibit more than others. I have been ambushed, feinted, and tricked by a variety of creatures, both human and non. On occasion I had to rethink my action strategies, and actually develop plans of attack. This new level of AI raises the bar for all future games that want to hype "incredible AI" on the back of the box.
Other new features in Half-Life include expanded character movements, including a long jump and pulling/pushing of objects. Also well done is the in-game weapon selection menu, which is broken down in a series of 5 columns, based on strength. Speaking of weapons, can I get an amen for the kick ass variety of killing tools in Half-Life. More than 15 weapons provide a great mix of both conventional (shotguns, rugers, crowbar) and experimental (laser flame thrower, alien launcher, bug grenades) armaments.
Multiplayer is very much the same as the weapon selection, loaded and ready for action. It's all here: skins, WON.net support, a built in Gamespy-ish server finder and more maps than you can shake a semi-automatic rifle at. The multiplayer level layout is nice and roomy, with battle space for 20+ gamers. The much hyped spray paint can is cool, but less so than expected. It allows you to tag a wall with a logo or image, which can be imported using bitmap images. However much like the weapons mod for Q2 it's a frill we could do without, but it's a nice addition overall.
Overall Half-Life weighs in big. Solid graphics, a fresh plot and superbly implemented multiplay make this game the title to beat for Best Game of the Year bragging rights. Both new comers and members of the Doom Generation like myself will get plenty of thrills out of this new face in the FPS crowd. It's atmosphere and unique style have changed the face of PC gaming. I guarantee playing it for five minutes will make you think twice about calling Half-Life "another Quake clone."
There are some games that are truly revolutionary in every way. Games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. The original Dune 2 and Grim Fandango. I am now proud to add Half-Life to that list. An absolutely amazing game from Valve studios, a division of Sierra On-line. Half-Life is the current leader in the overly large pack of 3d shooters and it leads by far. The graphics are stunning, the 3d sound incredible and the gameplay leaves me at a loss for words.
In Half-Life, you play the part of scientist Gordon Freeman. A nerdy looking guy with a mean streak. You are supervising an experiment in the underground, government owned, Mesa Facility when the experiment goes terribly wrong. Surviving the blast thanks to your protective suit you awake to find the underground complex overrun with mutant scientists and odd creatures never before seen. Weaponless, you must rely on your brains for the first ten minutes until you find a crowbar. Half Life's story is unlike anything I have ever seen in the first person genre and it sucked me in. I could go on forever about the story but I have a deadline and don't want to ruin it for you.
Since Half Life is based on the Quake 2 engine I expected it to have a couple new features like fog or lens flares. I was surprised to find an incredibly changed engine. Quake 2 doesn't even compare. I played entirely in hardware mode and was amazed at the smoothness as well as the graphical detail. It is not equal to Unreal but then again Half Life runs about eight times as fast. The detail on the character models was the first thing I noticed. I could hardly discern any edges and they looked very organic. When the scientists and guards talk to you , they turn their head in your direction and it is possible to see their mouth move and I was amazed to see them make facial expressions as well. The aliens are very organic looking and very well detailed. Some of the Alien attacks are incredible to watch. The environment is incredibly interactive. Sparks and electrical bolts appear when you turn on the electricity and explosions look like the ones I made as a kid in my back yard. The damage effects are also unlike anything I have ever seen, including Unreal. When you shoot something or blow something up it leaves a mark on the environment. This is not a new feature by any means but the way Half Life does it is so cool. It is hard to tell that the blood stain wasn't actually painted onto the texture. The spots do not stand out like the corny blood spots in Shogo or Sin. Wet surfaces appear wet and slippery and the radioactive ooze glows a sickly green. Colored lighting is used liberally and to great effect. Steam effects are also used quite often and are very realistic. Realism is the main goal of Half Life's designers and the weapons fit well with this theme. The weapons are real life military weapons. Grenades, pistols, Ak-47's and a pump shotgun. There are several others but I have not gotten them yet and I have no desire to cheat. Each weapon reflects the surrounding light and the character holds them like a real gun. No longer is your character able to fire his weapon with one hand and secretly reload with the other. Animations are all very fluid and well done. Overall it is very obvious that lots of time has been put into revamping the Quake 2 engine and it has paid off ten-fold.
Half-Life is the first game with A3d support where I have actually been able to notice 3d sound. I could leave it at that but I have the feeling you want to know more. The sound effects are all very realistic and well recorded. The game also makes use of the environment to affect the sounds. If you shoot within a tunnel it is possible to hear the gun's report echo down the tunnel. Speech effects are well done and synch with the character's mouth movements perfectly. My only criticism is that the speech is somewhat corny and the acting could be a bit better. The fact that the speech integrates so well is a testament to the amount of effort that was obviously put into this shooter.
Right on par with Quake. Weapons are well balanced and there are several cool features that have never seen before. My favorite was the ability to spray paint my personal logo on the walls. It was cool to come across a bloodied body and see an opponents logo above it on the wall. Multiplayer is strictly TCP/IP only. Games can be played across a LAN or over the Internet. On my LAN I noticed no lag. Internet play is smooth on other Quake 2 engine games so I assume it would be with Half Life. I say I assume because I was unable to play due to the fact that my "evaluation copy" refused to authenticate with Sierra's won.net.
Gameplay in Half Life is truly revolutionary for the first person shooter genre. The most noticeable change is the fact that Half Life is one giant level. Instead of the game loading a huge level when you reach an elevator or pull a switch Half Life loads small little "level chunks". This is revolutionary because it allows you to return all the way to the beginning of the game if you so desire. Every blood splat, broken box and dead enemy is remembered and its as if you were actually there. This game flows more like an interactive movie than a game. Loading times between level chunks are quite short and a welcome break from the half hour loading times of more recent 3d shooters (Sin and Unreal). Enemy AI is incredible. I thought Sin was good but it does not compare at all. The aliens themselves are somewhat stupid and attack you straight on but it is my impression that this is what they are supposed to think like. The human soldier AI on the other hand is straight deadly. I play on easy mode when reviewing games so that I may progress through the game quickly and I was getting destroyed. Not only do the soldiers attempt to find the high ground but they also try to out flank you. If that doesn't work don't be surprised to be running from a couple of grenades that have been thrown your way. Unfortunately Half Life does not have location based damage like Sin or Unreal. This means that hitting your enemy in the foot is just as deadly as shooting them in their left eye. I did notice one time after I shot an enemy soldier in the leg him running away with his hand on his hip. Another cool thing the enemy soldiers do is crouch behind boxes and barrels. They also are the first enemies have seen run down stairs. I am truly impressed with the AI in Half Life. The puzzles in Half-Life are not overly difficult but they seem natural. When playing I often got the feeling that I was Gordan Freeman and I was in a "do or die" situation. Half-Life makes you look for the desperate way out of situations and the solution is never truly bizarre. The weapon system is also truly original. Each weapon is realistic but besides that Half Life also added weapon classes. So instead of ten different weapons there are fifteen or sixteen. What I mean by classes is that if you push '3' you can pick between the assault weapons: The shotgun and the Assault Rifle, pressing '5' allows you to access explosives etc... overall truly innovative gameplay.
Half Life is not fun, its suspenseful. This game is addictive. It is also very large, I have been playing for several hours and have yet to reach the surface. I also feel that Half-Life has very high replay value. Multiplayer is awesome, and more fun than anything else I have ever played except for Doom II which still is my favorite multi-player game.
One of the best games I have ever played. I hope that this is where the first person shooter genre is headed. I highly recommend grabbing Half Life and holding on to it, you will not be disappointed at all. Half-Life is the 3d shooter of 1998 and who knows, maybe even 1999.