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Developer:
Valve Software
Publisher: Sierra Enterprises
Platform: PC
Release Date: 31 October, 1998

by Nimish Dubey




There are good games, great games…and then you have the ones that inspire awe – you know, the type you can’t mention without taking your hat off. Half-Life, I guess, comes in that last category.


To appreciate the impact of Half-Life, one has got to consider the era in which it was released (late 1998). Action games were seemingly much stuck in the “shoot the bad guys, load, shoot more bad guys” mode -- pretty exciting for some but getting to be just a bit monotonous. Storylines were getting weaker, special effects predictable and the presentation more or less static. In short, first person shooters did not seem to have changed a whole lot since Id hit the world with the Doom series (although Thief had added an element of stealth to the FPS mix).


Those were the times in which Half-Life was released and its impact was pretty close to apocalyptic. Here was a game in which the action almost never stopped (there is scarcely a cut scene in the entire game), with brilliant graphics and amazingly realistic gameplay. It would not be a lie to say that almost every major FPS game released in the years that have followed has borrowed something from Half-Life.


But enough of the eulogies and let’s get down to basics. The game comes on a single CD and installed with nary a hitch on my Compaq Presario 3311 AP (Athlon 1.4 Ghz, 256 MB RAM, nVidia GeForce 420 MX with 64 MB RAM). It was a trifle buggy to start with but once I patched it up (courtesy all the patches at Sierra), it played pretty smoothly.


Half-Life gets under way with you travelling in a train through the Black Mesa Federal Research Facility. The game’s credits roll by smoothly as the train makes its way into the mountains, going through tunnels and even dipping underground. As you go, a recorded message tells you about Black Mesa and its facilities. And it is during this trip that you realise why Half-Life is different – you can move back and forth in the train even as it travels! So even as the recorded message drones on in the background, you can stroll to the rear of the train and enjoy the scenery as it fades away or alternatively walk to the front and see what is coming up. The credits continue to roll and the volume of the message changes depending on your location.


As you disembark from the train, you discover your identity. You are Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at Black Mesa, and are required to help out in a key experiment. So you pour yourself into a hazmat suit and get started…and then watch in horror as all hell breaks loose. Something goes wrong with the experiment and Black Mesa is suddenly hit by an invasion of aliens and mutants who run amok slaughtering scientists and other personnel. You have to get out of the facility to survive.


Unlike other shooters which would have made Freeman batter and blow his way out of trouble, Half-Life advocates a mixture of stealth and violence. In many circumstances, Freeman has no option but to fight, but he seldom has enough ammunition and has little protection other than his suit (which needs to be recharged to keep it in prime condition). There are no exotic weapons to help him out either – most of the time, he has to rely on a revolver, a shotgun and a crowbar (now accorded legendary status). He does get some heavy weapons from time to time but with ammo being at a premium, he is better off avoiding head-on fights. The crowbar in fact turns out to be his most reliable weapon, conserving bullets by bashing aliens’ heads in. The result is a taut experience with Freeman dodging, rather than looking for, trouble. In between the fighting and the running, there are a few puzzles to be solved and some rather spectacular jumps to be made. Helping him along the way are trapped Black Mesa personnel who see him as their sole hope of getting out in one piece.


But as Freeman nears safety, along comes a twist in the tale. The military has been called in to control the situation at Black Mesa. And its instructions involve eliminating the facility altogether – aliens, mutants, scientists, personnel and all, including Dr. Freeman! So even as he escapes one enemy, Gordon runs smack into a new one – and a highly-trained and well-equipped one at that.


And this is where Half-Life reaches its apogee. As Freeman desperately tries to get to safety, battling the army on the one hand and the aliens on the other, the action is virtually non-stop. He uses an underground railway, travels across multiple conveyor belts, crawls on narrow mountain pathways, coordinates bombing raids by aircraft, swims underwater and even tussles with a helicopter (the most memorable sequence of the game, in my opinion ever so ’umble). It is also at this stage that you begin to understand just how good the enemy AI is. Unlike the aliens who adopt a simple “charge at sight” approach, the military is far more disciplined. If you do not take out a soldier quickly, it is a fair chance he will duck for cover and then lob a grenade at you! Groups of soldiers scatter in different directions when you attack, exposing you to fire from different directions. And there are a few snipers lurking around as well, ready to take you out even as you try to figure out why your life is ebbing away!


It’s all supremely addictive and thrilling stuff. And then…hang on while I head for cover from Half-Life fans…it all goes pear-shaped. It’s not as if the action stops. On the contrary it acquires, quite literally, a whole new dimension. What happens is that Gordon discovers that the only way to rectify matters is to travel to another world using a special portal, and fight and kill some strange alien monsters. Sure, it resulted in some great outer space shots and equally amazing stunts (like jumping onto a moving asteroid) but I was a bit distressed at the metamorphosis of Gordon Freeman from hunted to hunter. Honestly, it all stank of an attempt to drag the game a further hour or so and also took away one of the game’s strongest points – its closeness to reality. Mind you, the climax (my lips are sealed, sorry) is rather satisfying so my advice would be to grit your teeth and play the game to the end.


But even those mindless final hours cannot detract from the sheer quality of the game. Even today, the graphics seem outstanding and the enemy AI simply superb. Some of the special effects still give me the creeps – imagine seeing a long tongue come out of a ceiling, grab a person and then pull him up into a hideous mouth – and while the plot is more or less linear, it is packaged so immaculately that one is bound to head over to the game time and again for the sheer thrill of the experience.


Mind you, the game does have its problems. I found the sound extremely unsatisfactory. I often could not make out what the human characters were saying and as they seldom repeated their dialogues, this often left me with no other option but to reload the game and then glue my ear to the speaker (nope, there’s no way in which the text of the dialogue can be displayed). Another problem I had was that I often did not know what was happening and had to resort to trial and error (and shamefully, even to a walkthrough) to make my way forward. The stuff about travelling through portals had me totally in knots. Surely the developers could have made Gordon Freeman stumble across a written message sometimes!


But these are niggles ever so minor. The fact is that taken in its entirety, Half-Life is an amazing product -- path-breaking when it was released and every bit as exciting today.


It has inspired dozens of clones, given gamers all over the world several hours of entertainment, and…well, made me look at crowbars with new respect.


Now, how many games can claim to have done that?


Final rating: 80%


System requirements:
Pentium-133 or equivalent (Pentium-166 or equivalent recommended)
24 MB RAM ( 32 MB RAM recommended)
2X CD-ROM
2 MB VRAM
400 MB HDD
DirectX: DirectX v6.0




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