15 Great Games: Half-Life (1998)

Half-Life

This is cheating, right? I mean, putting Half-Life in any top games list is a bit like putting Michael Jordan in a list of best basketball players. However, there seems to be a preference for the sequel. This gives me a rare opportunity: instead of telling you why HL is great, which really everybody should know by now, I’ll tell you why I like it better than HL2.

One reason is that vehicular sequences are not present. People apparently liked the hovertank and the dune buggy thing, but I really prefer shooting aliens in the face. Half-Life is one such experience from start to finish, while HL2 and its episodes continuously break the action to make you feel cooler about yourself. The problem is that said sequences just aren’t very fun. They must have taken them straight from Halo, and the vehicle sequences in Halo aren’t very fun either. Except the Scorpion because, woah baby, look at those Wraiths getting blown up in seconds.

Zombies look a little like Shamblers from Quake, except a lot smaller and a lot less dangerous.
Zombies look a little like Shamblers from Quake, except a lot smaller and a lot less dangerous.

The AI, for reasons unknown, seems actually worse in the sequel. Half-Life was famous for its astounding enemy AI, those damn marines lobbing grenades to flunk you out and running to regroup. It seems standard today, but at the time it was impressive. So the Combine being unable to reach even that level of cleverness is a disappointment. Of course, looking at it today, it’s easy to see that the behavior in Half-Life was also mostly scripted and easy to abuse. Win some, lose some, but it wouldn’t be very fun if those guys could kick your butt repeatedly.

And Alyx? Oh yes, dear Alyx. Always patronising me, or asking me to open a door for her. I am Gordon Freeman! I have saved the world from alien invasion and possibly annihilation! Why don’t you open the door yourself? Actually, stay where you are, because i don’t need you! You’d just slow me down! Unfortunately things don’t go the way we want. Valve, probably knowing that the first game made you feel like a real badass, decided to stick you with a sidekick AND throw you in situations where you are forced to rely on said sidekick. It’s a punch in the gut really. Imagine if someone made a movie where Batman is dependant on Robin? Of course nobody would, because nobody cares about Robin.

Note: security guards in the game proper don't usually do nearly as well. Expect to see them die a lot. They do make good meatshields.
Note: security guards in the game proper don’t usually do this well. Expect to see them die a lot. They do make good meatshields.

I suppose I’m a bit hard on Half-Life 2, but in expanding the world, Valve made the player feel less powerful in the overall context of the story, something that is eventually brought to its logical extreme in the finale of Episode 2. At this point it seems unlikely that we’ll see Half-Life 3 during our lifetime, so why not stick to the original instead? Few games make you feel so involved and almighty as Half-Life did.

Playing today: it’s a 17 years old game by now, so you might have some trouble running it… ahah, just kidding. It’s Valve’s flagship franchise, and the Steam version runs properly on modern systems, supports true widescreen, and can be found for cheap just about every two months. There’s even a Source engine port, but it’s a little more buggy and doesn’t really improve anything consequential, so I’d stick to the game proper. And if you really hate PCs for some reason, you can even play the game on PS2 with native widescreen. It came out at about the same time as Halo, so it lacks the fine console tuning of Bungie’s shooter, but it’s a pretty decent conversion overall, and even uses higher-polygon models and a new intro for the tutorial level. You really can’t go wrong either way.

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