Have You Played? is an endless stream of game recommendations. One a day, every day of the year, perhaps for all time.
You read the headline and the tea spurts from your mouth. “Have I pla–!?” Half-Life! The gall of it! To suggest that not every PC owner has already experienced Valve’s formative first-person shooter. The frivolity of it! To give space to those who have might enjoy reminiscing or celebrating a game long loved but no longer frequently discussed.
I know – I’m just a mess about it myself.
But if I were to ever get round to writing about one of the games wot made me, Half-Life would have to be near the top of the list. Heck, here’s the closest I’ve come. I first played the game shortly after release in 1998, but didn’t get on with it till the next year when a friend played it, loved it, and wouldn’t stop talking about it. We ended up playing through its singleplayer in tandem, speaking on the phone each day to discuss our progress. ‘How did you get past that bit with the tentacle monsters?’; ‘Have you reached the bit with the air strikes yet?’; ‘That wobbly testicle alien that fires mini headcrabs at you is a bit rubbish, isn’t it?’.
When we’d beaten Xen’s floating spacebaby to death, we turned our attention to deathmatch, hosting our own listen servers on 56k modems and battling it out on the map CrossFire. I think even at the time I knew it was poorly suited to the mode when compared to the likes of Quake 2, but that map had a big button that nuked the entire level and killed everyone not safely tucked inside a fallout shelter.
I could hardly ask for more – but when I did, there was a modding community waiting for me. Exploring custom singleplayer and multiplayer maps allowed me to extend my time spent exploring Black Mesa, a place that possessed my adolescent brain. It also led eventually to writing about those maps and other mods for various Half-Life fan sites. It’s not far to go from there to here, my career and life owed to Vortigaunts and crowbars.
Strip away my personal connection with it and I think there’s plenty still left in Half-Life that makes it worth playing today. It’s a tight, schlocky escape movie, and its level design didn’t just establish principles for the next fifteen years of first-person shooters, it also set a benchmark in areas not all of which have since been surpassed. Here’s Alec explaining, back in 2008, why Half-Life 1 still holds up even in a post-Half-Life 2, post-everything else world.