|Every so often a game comes along that pushes
a certain genres bar a good bit higher, overshadowing all that went before it. This
doesnt happen all that often; though games often excel in one specific area, rarely
does one put all the little details together just right. Half-Life is such a game;
Valves designers got almost everythingand everything important--right. The
single player game is riveting--level design is just difficult enough and devilishly
clever, and the enemy AI is the best weve ever seen in a shooter. Graphics and sound
are outstanding, and the multiplayer actually works, something rare enough in first person
shooters this season. The game may be a year late, but youve got to hand it to the
guys at Valve for taking their time with their debut titlethe first time out of the
chute, and they come up with a game thats one of the best weve ever played.
In Half-Life you take the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a scientist at the Black-Mesa Research Facility. One of the great joys of Half-Life is that you play Just A Regular Guy. No Dukes or Blades here, just a geek with a gun and whatever wits you can manage to keep about you during this wild, wild, ride. Your adventure begins with a scientific experiment on some unknown radioactive sample; of course, things go wrongreally wrong, and certain unforeseen consequences rip a nasty hole in reality. The true adventure begins as you try to figure out what the hell happened while escaping the facility with your life.
The Valve team gave some serious thought to Half-Lifes level design; theyre seamlessly integrated into the plot of the story. Everything seems to be there for a reasonalthough there are a lot of boxes sitting around. And making ones way through a level depends upon a lot more than just the application of pressure to ones triggeryou have to solve problems in this game, and problems much more sophisticated than the usual hit the button and run like hell" puzzles found in most shooters. For example, on one level youll be confronted by a pretty impressive monster; the only way around it is by firing a rocket engine in a silo, but the fuel, oxygen, and power are shut off. In order to fire the engine, you have to turn on the fuel and oxygen pumps in the pumping facility and turn on the power in the generator facility. Sounds simple enough, but these seemingly easy tasks are complicated by a number of smaller puzzles you must solve just to get to the facilities themselves. Every time you think youve got it beat, another problem looms. The wonder of it is, these puzzles dont seem forced or tiresome, and when you finally blow that sucker up, the feeling of accomplishment is exhilarating. Half-Lifes levels also capture the same epic feel that Jedi Knight did; the games scale is sprawling, and it tends to make you feel a bit insignificant. The games realism factor is impressive as well; the towering structures, bleak outdoors scenes, and leaking radioactive waste make you feel like you actually are at a nuclear and biotechnology research facility somewhere in the arid Southwest.
This realism extends to the weapons youll wield. Itll take you a long time before you find any souped-up experimental lasers. Youll fight most of your battles with everyday stuffpistols, shotguns, sub-machinegunsbut the weapon youll find absolutely indispensable is your handy-dandy crowbar. You gotta love a game in which your most important tool is actually, well, a tool.
Another welcome innovation is Valves use of non-player characters. You dont just blow them up; in fact, NPCs are often vital to your efforts in the game. NPCs usually scientists--can provide you with keys, lock codes, and retinal scan patternsthese are essential for many puzzles, and if the NPC dies, youre stuck. The guards in the Black Mesa facility will also help you whack your human and alien opponents and even provide you with helpful information. If you wish, you can invite NPCs to tag along with you, or you can leave them behind to cover your rear.
The graphics in Half-Life are excellent; the creature models are especially cool. They look good, move realistically, and create pretty amazing effects. Some spit acid that sticks to the walls, others shoot lightning, and others use sonic attacks. Each of these creature attacks is accompanied by a extremely well done graphical event. As in the other latest 3D shooters, bullet holes appear when you shoot at objects and shooting structures can cause them to collapse. The people at Valve have implemented the Quake engine more innovatively than anyone else so far; the game includes cool lensflare effects, excellent explosions, and great death sequences.
The sound in Half-Life is also terrific. Half-Life is optimized for both EAX (SB Live) and A3D based cards and performs well with both. The developers clearly realized that the creepy environments in Half-Life needed some impressively creepy sound as well. The sound adds a great deal to the utter surprise youll feel when a head crab jumps you in a dark air shaft. Another great thing about the sound in Half-Life is that many times it warns you about upcoming danger. You can often hear the Special Forces guys stalking you; sometimes youll hear them in the distance talking to each other, other times youll be able to overhear them on a stolen radio. In either case, such eavesdropping will warn you of their location. Its cool to hear them saying, "I havent seem him yet sir, the coast is clear Wait, there he is! Get Him!" A good 3-D soundcard really adds to the experience.
Multiplayer in Half-Life is very good and has none of the major problems that other games, (like Sin), had. The level design is excellent and the weapons are powerful enough to make it fun, but weak enough to make it a challenge. The developers obviously did some tweaking on the weapons to make them balanced. Guns that are powerful have slow refire rates, while high rate-of-fire weapons deal smaller amounts of damage. We spent a couple hours deathmatching one on one, and even though the game wasnt as fast-paced as Quake, we had a good old time. The directional sound works very well in multiplayer and allows you to know when you are being followed.
The game, alas, does have a few problems. Sometimes when you change levels on an elevator the game will refuse to let you get off; its a good idea to save before going up to the penthouse. Theres also a weird loading bug where you get stuck to a wall or seam in the texture when loading between levels. Again, as long as you save the game, this bug should rarely cause a problem, but if it does occur the occurrences are few and far between. And frankly, one or two of the levels are less fun than others. A lot less fun, actually. When moving through the industrial section of the game, youll be confronted with a series of problems that consist mostly of jumping puzzles; by the time youre done with them, youre really in the mood to blow something up.
System requirements for Half-Life arent bad at all. The game runs well on a 233 Pentium II with 64 megs of RAM and a good 3-D accelerator, which was a relief after enduring the nasty requirements of SIN and Unreal. We were glad to see that Valve took the time to optimize their code for gamers who dont have unlimited budgets.
Overall, Half-Life was a joy to play. The parts (which are pretty impressive in and of themselves) add up to a totally engrossing whole that creates the willing suspension of disbelief so important to good stories and good games. No doubt about it; this is the best first-person shooter to date.--Rick Fehrenbacher, Jon Hall, Tom Monter, Al Wildey