That’s Half-life

We all have bad days at work. You might accidentally fart in a meeting, drop a USB lead in a cup of water or perhaps even open an inter-dimensional portal to the Xen border world and let in all manner of hideous monsters that do not take kindly to you. Not even Jack Bauer can top that last one as far as bad days are concerned, but that is exactly what threw MIT graduate Gordon Freeman into the position of a hero.

The Half-life series, created by Valve Software, all started in 1998 with the release of the first game for the PC. As far as first person shooters go, it was revolutionary in the way it told the story. Up until that time most games advanced the narrative with cut scenes that the player would sit through, twiddling their thumbs and take in the information like some kind of super absorbent sponge with the ambition to become omnipotent.

Completely ripping up the rule book and stamping on convention’s toes, the first eight minutes or so of Half-life have you fully in control of Mr Freeman, but you are inside a tram on his commute to work. It was so unique in the way that you were seeing what was happening completely through Freeman’s eyes, not over his shoulder or from a cinematically placed camera. You are Gordon Freeman, this is happening to you. He is the vessel that you burrow deep inside of.

This introduction sequence itself was ground breaking. You would just look out the window of this tram and see the humungous Black Mesa Research Facility in motion, every person going about their daily jobs as you were heading to yours. Even when you get off the tram, the next fifteen minutes or so are you going through security, getting suited up and meeting Dr Kleiner for your first assignment. For a first person shooter to open with no shooting, combat or even as much as a civil argument was pretty much unheard of.

All this is done to help reinforce the point that you are no one special. You are not a soldier, a spy or even a cook who just happens to be ex-special forces. You are an average person, still wet behind the ears from a degree in theoretical physics running slightly late to work due to public transport.

A small complication

Things start to become the more standard first person shooter when something goes wrong during your first experiment of the day causing a resonance cascade. In English, that means a portal opened and all the nasties poured out of it. Suddenly being thrown in to a combat situation from doing a relatively everyday task is a bit unexpected we will admit, and weapons in a testing chamber tend to be scarce. This led to the rise in popularity of Half-life’s most well known improvised skull cracker, the now iconic crowbar.

Surgically removing parasites with a crowbar is truly a form of art

This is the point where the adventure really started with aliens being the first bits of bullet fodder, later followed by the army who are sent in to try and silence Freeman and his fellow colleagues. What the entire experience keeps consistent however is how the story unfolds. You remain in full control during every piece of dialogue which just adds to  the immersion. This style of keeping the player in control has been used very successfully ever since, with titles like Call of Duty pulling off the same trick with huge success.

The bulk of the game is made up of a combination of exploring, fighting, and puzzle solving as you try and escape the infested Black Mesa Research Facility with your rear firmly intact. If you find yourself lost there’s usually an air vent or series of boxes that can be moved or smashed to help you on your way. This is where the majority of the game’s puzzles come from. We aren’t talking Monkey Island here, more along the lines of manual labour in a box warehouse full of things that want you dead.

Other puzzles do present themselves such as how to cross a room filled with electrified water or radioactive goo, but also in the form of boss fights. One of the most memorable fights was against a tentacle creature in a blast pit. Each of the three tentacles was basically a massive beak attached to a nimble stalk that would violently try and seek out the player. Interestingly though it would only react to sound meaning you had to sneak around the edge of the pit, sometimes throwing grenades to cause noisy distractions.

It made for quite an interesting boss battle as the player was not intended to actively engage the creature. Instead, they had to sneak through the blast pit it occupied three or four times in order to fuel the rocket situated above before test firing the engines for a toasty climax. A lot of the bosses used this idea of getting the creature into a compromising position in order to finish it off, rather than just absorbing so much damage that its major arteries start transporting bullets around the body instead of blood.

Following the success of Half-life, two expansions for the game were developed by Gearbox, a company that has worked very close with Valve on many occasions. The very interesting thing about these is that they happened in the same space of time as the original game but from different perspectives.

Man vs helicopter, our generation's answer to David vs Goliath

In 1999 we were placed behind the face of Adrian Shephard, one of the marines sent in to contain Black Mesa and those inside it in Half-life: Opposing Force. The game starts with a similar scene to the first one, on board an aircraft that is en route to the facility. Mid flight however it is attacked and the next thing Shephard experiences is waking up in a medical bay with a new order. Escape.

It was a very similar affair to Half-life but at the same time it was very different, with new weapons and enemies to fight with. It was also fascinating to see some of the events from Half-life where you would occasionally see Gordon or the results of his actions from a distance that you can not interfere from.

Similarly in 2001, Gearbox released Half-life: Blue Shift which puts you square in the boots of Barney Calhoun, a security guard at Black Mesa and someone who becomes integral to the series later on. Again, it was a very familiar game that expanded on the story with even more crossover points, such as witnessing Freeman on his morning commute to work.

Raising the bar

A true sequel came in the form of 2004’s very long awaited Half-life 2 which was notorious for being delayed, especially after a source code leak in 2003. Just ahead of its launch Valve released their now infamous Steam digital distribution system which was designated as one of the main ways to get the game. One of the advantages of doing it this way was that those who pre-ordered the game were able to preload most of the game files that were unlocked and ready to play upon release, meaning there was no need for the optimistic trudge to a games retailer followed by the impatient rush home to install it.

Interior design fuels quite a heated arguement

Half-life 2 was the amazing sequel everyone wanted it to be, adding so many new environments and weapons whilst still keeping close to its original roots and basking in the glow of superb graphics. Very rarely do sequels deliver (we’re looking at you Deus Ex) but HL2 managed to grab the delivery boy by the balls and insist on being the shining beacon of gaming that it became, even out doing bacon sandwiches in the first week of its release (probably).

The game is set 20 years after the events of the original Half-life in City 17, one of the remaining human populated areas after an invasion by the Combine, a multi-dimensional empire, who took control of the planet in seven hours.

The main thing to strike you about HL2 is how much more character interaction there is. You still sit snugly in the brain of Gordon Freeman, but more characters are there to help you now rather than just being vulnerable distractions. Many times throughout the game you fight alongside very competent AI combatants who can hold their own, as well as being given objectives by old faces from HL1. The objective of the game is also a bit more complex than simply ‘escape’ as you are now trying to defeat the Combine as part of the human resistance.

The way the story is told by increased face time with other characters was a nice touch, and the player no longer felt as isolated as they did in HL1. This time you felt as part of something, that you weren’t just fighting for yourself, but you were saving people and you could actually see that you were helping. It really added to the feeling of heroism in HL2.

The buffed up physics engine is very noticeable as everything seems to be affected by it, which is made even more fun by the addition of the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator, or Gravity Gun for short. The brilliant thing about this weapon is that you can weaponise virtually anything, being able to pull objects towards you, such as radiators, before propelling them towards unfortunate souls who get knocked down on impact. As well as being ludicrously fun, it also meant that if you were ever short on ammo, something heavy nearby could probably be used in the meantime before you stocked up again.

Holding something so close with that big a warning is ill advised

Half-life 2 certainly ended on a cliffhanger that kept players in suspense until June 2006 where HL2: Episode One (formerly known as HL2: Aftermath) came along to fill in the blanks and add new content. Calling it Episode One was part of Valve’s rather ambitious plan to release new parts to the HL2 saga as three episodes so that there was not a six year wait until the next Freeman fix like there was between HL1 and HL2.

Rather frustratingly however, the ‘regular’ updates through episodic gaming still take a very lengthy amount of time, with Valve’s usual expected release date of ‘when it’s done’. This led to what the community has rather affectionately started to dub as ‘Valve Time’, the formula for working out when a game is released by taking the latest date given by Valve and adding at least six months to it.

As far as additional content was concerned, Episode One didn’t seem to add a great deal, with one new enemy type and flares being the only new additions. The environments were very similar to the last half of HL2 and the ending was a bit underwhelming, like finding out your box of chocolates didn’t have another layer under it as you had hoped.

It was Episode 2, released just over a year later, that was the instalment to get excited about again. Whereas the gameplay was still instantly familiar, there were now some very new locations, more fun enemies to fight and even a new car. It also advances the story a lot more, revealing a few more twists and getting really gripping with a lot more edge of your seat moments than the previous episode.

Unforseen consequences

Aside from the crowbars, aliens and science gone wrong, there is another force that has remained consistent throughout the series and has yet to be explained in any great depth at all. It is the ultimate mystery of Half-life which makes less sense than an episode of Lost, but is infinitely more interesting. Who is the elusive GMan?

He's not a very happy bunny

To put it short, he is an absolute bastard. All through the original Half-life and the expansions he can be seen often when the player was in a moment of dire peril, just watching from behind bullet proof glass. Again, In Half-life 2 he can be seen casually strolling and just staring at the player in a rather menacing fashion just out of harm’s way with very little explanation.

Without giving too much away, the GMan is very interested in Gordon Freeman and the unique set of skills he seems to be in possession of. He is the reason Gordon ends up in City 17 and he seems to represent other as yet unknown parties. He is possibly the best kept secret at Valve and should anything ever happen to their HQ; there had better be a backup of who he is in a bank vault somewhere.

What lies in the future for our silent protagonist and his beard? Well, not much has been revealed as of yet, apart from that Episode 3 is being worked on. Episode 2 hints that some of it might take place in Antarctica and concept art has revealed a ship trapped in the ice called The Borealis. The really interesting thing about this ship though is that it belongs to Aperture Science, Black Mesa’s rival and leader in portal research which has already been expanded on a little bit by the smash game Portal.

One thing that is for sure though is that the Half-life series has a lot of life left in it. With such a caring developer and devoted fan base, the series could go anywhere. If you want to read up on what exactly happens in the whole series then there is a very handy timeline that explains the facts quite clearly, that may be a bit foggy from the games. I would mention that there are of course spoilers mentioned in the timeline, but that’s a bit like saying there are fish in the sea or dead things in the Thames.

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Written by Anthony H

Anthony has been playing games for far too much of his life, starting with the MS-DOS classic Mario is Missing. Since then his tastes have evolved to include just about anything, but his soft spot lies with shooters and the odd strategy game. Anthony will inspire you with his prose, uplift you with his wit and lie to you in his biography.

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