Half-Life is a game I’ve probably started a half-dozen times, yet never completed. It was one of the first video games I owned for a computer and I can still recall, quite vividly, when my mom bought it for me at a garage sale. Around this time – middle school – I had a burgeoning interest in video games, just as my enthusiasm for soccer waned. I had never heard of the game before but upon seeing the acclaim advertised on the big box Game of the Year Edition, I decided I needed to know about it.
Following an awkward period acquainting myself with mouse and keyboard controls, I assumed the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman and did my best to escape Black Mesa. At some point, struggling to overcome the odds, I burned out. Every now and then, as the years passed, I’d revisit the game, start a new save file, and proceed down the same path. Despite my inability to get very far, it’s remained on my to-do list ever since, especially considering its heralded status as a first-person shooter. Well, like I’ve done with many other games this year, I can finally mark it complete.
The version I played, the PlayStation 2 port, released November 11, 2001, nearly three years to day after the game’s original debut on the PC. It was ported by Gearbox Software, a studio whose first published works were the Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansion packs for Half-Life. With my limited knowledge regarding intricate details of the PC release, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of this port, but I can say it ran smoothly and had features that make it worthwhile. That said, after all these years, I was somewhat underwhelmed.
Gordon’s first day at the Black Mesa Research Facility started off innocuously: riding the tram, greeting fellow scientists and security guards. It was a relatively subdued start to a first-person shooter. Then, his day got flipped, turned upside down when a rift to another dimension was opened in his first experiment. He managed to survive but as I retraced his steps, I discovered that wasn’t the case for everyone. Besides the structural damage that was done to the facility, aggressive alien creatures were phasing into existence and attacking any humans they saw. Surviving scientists and guards provided guidance, putting their faith in me in the hopes of getting out alive.
Over the course of my playthrough, Gordon’s journey went from seeking the surface in an effort to call for help, to single-handedly eliminating the alien scourge and dealing with a newly opened portal to another dimension. On top of that, he had to fend off a U.S Marine Corps presence, sent in to eliminate any survivors and cover up the incident. Unlike many of the game’s peers, it was a seamless adventure; I was never kicked back to the menu to select the “next” stage. Instead, I encountered many brief load times as I transitioned from one environment to the next. As a result, the pace of gameplay was balanced between quiet moments navigating my surroundings, solving the occasional puzzle, and intense shootouts.
To my surprise, the default responsiveness of the controls was superb, and to my liking. Gordon moved around at a running pace, and aiming was equally quick, reminiscent of games like TimeSplitters and Unreal Tournament. It was hard to be accurate however, but a uniquely implemented lock-on mechanic assisted me. When my reticle passed over an enemy, I could press the circle button to lock-on to the enemy. I still had to position the reticle appropriately, but I could now strafe an enemy without “losing sight” of it, even between obstructions like walls. This was a different approach in comparison to auto-aim in other console-based first-person shooters, which graciously allow your bullets to hit a target if your reticle is merely near the enemy.
These favorable qualities were also present in Half-Life: Decay, the co-operative expansion exclusive to this release. This side story followed the exploits of Dr. Colette Green and Dr. Gina Cross, fellow scientists at Black Mesa, as they attempted to establish communication with the outside world after the disastrous experiment. Intriguingly, this expansion could be played alone, despite its emphasis as a co-operative campaign. In this instance, I would switch between each character by pressing the select button. Save for their ability to shoot at nearby enemies when I wasn’t controlling them, the doctors lacked artificial intelligence and I had to take control of them individually to solve puzzles. This was a weird setup which resulted in many frustrating deaths. Even with another player, the lack of a quick save feature and the doctors’ limited resilience made this expansion unnecessarily tough.
In addition to the co-operative expansion, there was also a competitive head-to-head mode. This mode was light on variables but had a decent amount of maps. Without the lock-on mechanic though, it was a challenge in and of itself to eliminate the opponent, let alone to do so upwards of fifty times! Disappointingly, there was no option to insert computer-controlled opponents either. This was strictly, and as advertised, head-to-head. Accordingly, the maps were tiny. It took a couple of seconds before my friend and I ran into each other the first time we played, catching us off guard. And yet, by finding nooks and crannies to hide in, and vertical vantage points to get the drop on each other, we managed to have fun.
Finally seeing Half-Life through to the end after all these years has given me some closure. It was fun remembering the sequences I’d experienced before, but it was even better to progress past those and see what happened to Gordon firsthand. The well-paced gameplay and fine-tuned controls made it easy for me to continue playing, especially at times when the limited narrative or confusion regarding my current objective didn’t. Ultimately, it all boiled down to one objective: survive. The same held true in the Decay co-op expansion. While it wasn’t entirely pleasant, the concurrent storyline and additional gameplay make it a worthwhile feature that enriches the PlayStation 2 port. I can’t say the same for the competitive multiplayer, but I did have fun with it. Who knows, maybe by the time Half-Life 3 comes out, if ever, I’ll have done my homework and played the intervening entries? Unlikely; we can’t all hope for that closure.