It’s safe to say that while Half-Life wasn’t the first first-person-shooter, it was the first first-person-shooter. By which I mean Half-Life made everyone stop and think about how we do shooters, and reinvented the wheel, at a time when nobody knew the wheel needed reinventing. Back in 1998, we were a pitiful, primitive people, and before playing that Uplink demo and buying the Game of the Year edition, I hadn’t given most shooters much thought.
Previously, the FPS genre existed in a plane outside reality—maybe as a defense mechanism to distance the issue of killing virtual people in a first-person perspective. Weapons, health, and ammo were scattered around aimlessly throughout the levels, with the best ones stashed in hard-to-reach places. Power-ups, such as limited invulnerability, extra damage, invisibility, and the like, tended to hover a foot off the ground and rotate slowly. The enemies were all generic, faceless peons that mobbed you, hobbling towards you until they stopped to shoot mindlessly in your direction. The story—there was no story; I think Doom had a 13-kb text file that recapped what was going on. You’re on Mars, someone opened a gateway to hell, kill everything. Go. Find the Silver Key to get the Gold Key to get to the next level; rinse, wash, repeat.
Half-Life changed all that.
Instead of throwing gear across the map, Half-Life stashed them in (more) logical places—guard shacks, bunkers. Gone were power-ups. The AI was so advanced that the enemies would try and outgun you, throwing out commands, flushing you out with grenades, flanking you, providing covering fire. None of that key-hunting crap. The story was the masterstroke: from that first in-game cinematic tram ride into Black Mesa, you knew, Knew, that this was going to be a different game. There was an honest-to-God plot, with amazing cinematic sequences and epic encounters. You didn’t just face challenges you had to shoot—though the game did have a fascination with boss monsters—instead threw jumping puzzles at you, requiring you to navigate the alien-invaded complex to find a scientist to open doors. Non-player characters—namely the Barneys, the security guards named for their resemblance to one Barney Fife—weren’t just there to be shot. With their limitless supply of ammo, and ability to unlock doors and offer support, they were a valuable asset that carried on into one of the franchise’s recurring plot elements.
So what if, several playthroughs later, you Noclip’d your way out and saw through the mirage—the security guard is banging on a door to nowhere; those multi-layered office complexes have no stairs or doorways leading in or out, trapping their occupants in some hellish torture chamber open to passers-by on the tram. The introductory tram ride became a slow and painful excursion to ignore on successive playthroughs, a cinema tax to play the game. It was those first experiences with the game’s magic that made memories and sold Game of the Year editions. Half-Life is at the top 25—most top 10s—of every best game list for a reason. It earned those stripes. And its aftershocks are still felt in the best of today’s games.
It all feels so dated now. The Quake II engine did not age gracefully—revisit any of the exterior areas if you don’t believe me, or take a look at the pre-Blue Shift blocky characters. In fact, it already looked dated back in 1998, when Half-Life was the plucky underdog nobody expected to bring anything new to the table. Critics predicted games like SiN, Mortyr, and Blood II would be the year’s hot titles; instead, a little upstart company named Valve with its little game Half-Life sunk them when it appeared more or less out of the blue. (The game got plenty of publicity, but most of the shots that surfaced were for things that didn’t make the final cut—remember the chaingun soldiers, for example? And while it wasn’t shunned or ignored, nobody expected the first game from relative newcomers would reinvent the venerable shooter genre.)
Playing through Half-Life Source, I found the AI to be painfully simple—this impressed everyone ten years ago?—and the “logically placed” equipment often isn’t. But the story, the cinema, the balanced gameplay all held up well. I found that even though I’ve beat it countless times—aside from that horrible level involving a gazillion laser tripmines, a dozen headcrabs, and a nuclear missile that I always cheat my way past—one thing that Half-Life did that still impresses me most: the atmosphere. Much like Alien, it got its horror in my science fiction and got the balance right. Due to the limitations of its engine, the levels are cramped, confined, industrial hell. The set pieces are legendary; their influence on the sequel, and most shooters since, is palpable.
Half-Life is an odd duck. It looks and feels antiquated; the Source engine version added little more than realistic water and ragdoll physics, as if to point out how old and shoddy the 1997-era low-res textures surrounding you are. The game has a strong horror undertone, with a chaotic alien invasion and mobs of Marines under orders to cleanse the facility; it has a wonderfully claustrophobic atmosphere of running Black Mesa’s ventilation system and underground bunkers, until the game whisks you away to the baroque (if blocky) alien wonderland. Most of all, I noticed how little it resembled its sequel: the jumping puzzles, the horror and tension of the first game is replaced by the Orwellian occupation and better cinematic action set-pieces of its sequel. Up until you get to Ravenholm, and you see that Valve hasn’t forgotten how to make a tense horror sequence.