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Half-Life is 20! Happy Birthday! We are all old!

Gordon's Tonic

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Goodness me, happy birthday Half-Life! 20 years old today. But are you still as fresh as the day you were born? I’ve been re-playing the game for the first time in many years to find out. And crikey, it’s a bit good.

Back in 2015, when Half-Life 2 had just turned a mere 10 years old, I went back to replay it and found myself enormously surprised by how much I’d forgotten. It wasn’t quite the magnificent game I’d remembered, buried in pacing issues, yet still very brilliant.

I forgive myself a little more easily when discovering just how much I’ve forgotten about the original Half-Life, what with the additional decade. But I’d assumed it would have aged to the point where it had become a bit of an anachronism in the 21st century. You know what? It really hasn’t. While it has its issues, it’s still a completely wonderful game to play. So I’m going to diverge off into a “what I’d forgotten” in a bit, but first I want to talk about what I’d remembered.

What I remember most clearly of all was the anticipation. 1998 was an incredible year for games, and even better for being excited about forthcoming games. And I remember reading those first previews, those first exclusive screenshots, in PC Gamer at the time. And the thing that most blew me away, had me scrubbing at my eyes cartoon style, was that it looked like a game set in the real world!

I remember seeing the shots of offices, with tables, coffee mugs, drinks machines and microwaves. And I’d never seen anything like it. Games, especially FPS games, were set in space! Or in hell! Or somewhere utterly dissimilar. Here I was looking at proper real-life places, mundanity filled with excitement, and it seemed so impossibly exciting.

Getting my hands on it, Half-Life immediately rewarded this excitement with what would become a notorious and genre-redefining opening sequence. Not only was there the monorail credits sequence, in which you saw glimpses of this underground workplace, glimpses of potential glitches and a possibly unhealthy working environment, but then when that was over… you just went to work!

It’s a section that feels almost trivial to play it now, with games having learned so much from Valve’s beginning. While still somehow so many don’t learn the lesson that the extraordinary is so much more thrilling when you’ve had a dose of the ordinary, it’s not unusual to have games give you a little peek at what the world might have been like before the baddies showed up. Yet it still does it as well as anywhere else. You mill about in corridors, watch people through windows, eventually follow instructions and pick up your special suit. You still try a few lockers, blow up the food in the microwave, and then when you’re ready, head into the lab where you’re assigned. And then, of course, it all goes wrong. There’s a resonance cascade (still no idea what one of those is), and the workplace is exploding, scientists are dying, and there are terrifying aliens all over the place.

What follows is an incredible series of increasingly elaborate set pieces, as Gordon Freeman accidentally stumbles his way from researcher to governmental enemy, simply because he refuses to die. Crowbar in hand, to play it today is to experience everything great about the FPS, in many ways better than the genre has offered for years. There’s just so much going on, so many surprises, challenges, dramatic changes in scenery and circumstance, tiny and detailed corridors, or vast open outdoor spaces battling helicopters and hulking alien brutes.

And it still looks incredible! Yes, blocky and dated and crude, but with such fantastic style. It possibly helps that gaming is in such a pixelly retro place just now, to see the artistic style at its very best. But honestly, like a 1920s cartoon still looks amazing in the era of CGI movies, Half-Life remains an aesthetic delight in the gaming future of RTX 2070s. The textures are unpleasantly blurry in places, but beyond this, it still successfully delivers senses of vertigo, horror, gore and scale as much as it ever did. Half-Life at 20 is, with some caveats laid out below, still a stunning videogame, and I’m very surprised to find myself arguing, holds up better in 2018 than Half-Life 2.

So let’s remember that which was forgotten:

Everything I’d Forgotten About Half-Life

Running around on 2% health

Obviously FPS games are experimenting with health again of late, having spent too many years with only “crouch to heal” as an option. Now, I like me some crouch to heal, but what it takes away is the daft pleasure of how much your experience of any level or sequence can change when you’ve minimal health left. Half-Life offers health very generously, but it also has extended areas where it’s harder to find, with such perfect timing. Getting into a scrape, and just making it through with 2% health left, can absolutely be addressed with a quickload and another try. But it’s so incredibly rewarding to just keep going, and scramble.

It so significantly changes my approach, having me desperately rushing between obstacles, deliberately not fighting something in order to just scrabble my way to the nearest door, frantically smashing crates in the hope of finding a few more percent to keep going. And then I’ll arrive at the wall units, and just drink that magical health elixir to my fill, and rush out emboldened and fighting once more. Cor, that’s good gaming.

Multiple routes

Over the last decade we’ve had the great pleasure of seeing FPS games get better at hiding their corridors. And indeed we’ve seen the genre move into ‘open worlds’, where the corridors are gone entirely. But Half-Life did it the olden way. You didn’t have to do everything just one way. You could find the lift and get upstairs that way, or you could discover a passage through an airvent and climb boxes. It doesn’t do it much, it wasn’t trying to be more, but it’s just enough that you feel a greater sense of freedom.

Or if you’re me, you just feel anxiety that you didn’t pick the best way, and reload or circle around to see what would have happened the other, and spoil the magic for yourself because you’re a giant twit.

Moments of pathos

I think when we remember Half-Life, we remember jokes about Freeman’s mute ways, about how there were only three or four scientist skins and just the one Barney (who wasn’t even called Barney), about silly barks and fun gags. So when I came out of the opening explosion to find a scientist on his knees, attempting CPR on a dying Barney, it really shook me. This felt really, really real.

When did you even see CPR in a game? Other than in a cutscene showing the hateful movie version where the person wakes up, coughs a bit, and then carries on running. Proper hopeless CPR where you’re just desperately trying to keep someone not-dead long enough for a medic to be able to help? That’s what you see in Half-Life, and it really struck me hard. It’s quite the thing.

The terrible jumping

I’m not sure how I’d forgotten this, but I’d completely erased from my mind how awful the jumping is. It’s a colossal mess. Glitchy, fiddly, prone to not working just when you need it most, and all rendered even more awful by Gordon Freeman’s apparently travelling everywhere on rollerskates. You roll to a stop, which is ace when ‘skidding’ into a fight, but just rubbish when you’re trying to precariously balance on tiny platforms to reach a hole in a wall. Oh the cursing.

It gets even stupider with the mantling. Remember mantling? You had to crouch, then jump, and sort of be doing both and neither or something to be able to reach a platform. It never feels right, or at least it never feels like you’re doing it right. It’s so, so odd that it was such a big part of the game, when it was so hopelessly coded. And just imagine jumping off a ladder…

It feels awful killing Vortigaunts

Really awful! If you’ve played Half-Life 2 and beyond, you’ll know Vortigaunts are Gordon’s friends! They’re gentle aliens, on his side, ever-helpful and kind. Here they’re just trying to zap you and you’ve no choice but to kill them. And it never feels good!

My kid’s got a toy stuffed Vortigaunt in his room! This is awful!

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That the plant puzzle was great, not terrible

I remember hating it! I remember everyone hating it! This large circular chamber, on multiple floors, with a three-headed monstrous plant pecking its mighty plant-beaks at the platforms as you tried to run around. One hit killed you. It was brutal, and annoying, and apart from Xen, the bit everyone complained about.

Except no! Now, I’ve no idea how much was 21 year old me just not getting it for too long, but the whole section is marvellous. It’s a multi-part puzzle, with huge branching sections to complete in your own order, to enable a button that kills the bugger for you. All you need to do is stay quiet. And yeah, it’s stupid that you couldn’t get onto a ladder from crouch, and that for some reason this made noise, but it also meant you had those excellent heart-skippy moments of trying to scramble away as the mighty beaks began their terrifying pecking where you just were.

Then its eventual destruction is quite so satisfying! It’s one of my favourite bits in the game!

The entire train section

Less so the trains. Much as when I replayed HL2 I discovered just how ridiculously long the hovercraft section goes on, long, long after anyone wants it to be there, gosh Half-Life lets the trainlines overstay their welcome. Tracks lie in lengthy grey corridors, on which you ride an automated wooden platform, while avoiding obstacles, stopping to clear out areas, travel between floors, explode bombs, and so on. And hurrah! Except you do it sooooo much. Over and over. Gosh I was sick of the train section by the time it was finally over.

Watching the fights

Now, I hadn’t really forgotten that Half-Life had the soldiers and the aliens fight each other. That was just the most astonishing thing in 1998, to see your enemies turning on each other, letting you hold back and have them thin their own numbers before you stepped in. But I’d forgotten how good it is!

The AI is, honestly, better than most you see today. Soldiers run away when they’re nearly dead! Gosh, which recent game last thought of that? They move around instead of just bobbing up and down behind a wall! How can this be?! And it means the combat they have between themselves is interesting to watch. You feel like it could go either way, changing what you’ll need to be prepared for when you engage.

How long it is

I’d planned for this final entry to be a pithy comment on Xen, perhaps confirming it’s as bad as we all remember, or archly observing that it’s quite good. I’ve no idea. Because despite playing it over the weekend, and all day today, I’m still not there! This game is huge! FPS games used to be huge!

But I’m having such a good time with it. This is tremendous, and if you’re one of the many people who either forgot to be born until too recently, or just never did back then, this is one of very few games that really genuinely merits being played beyond its historical significance. It’s a hell of a lot of fun to play, and that’s without a collection of “even though”s and “for its time”s. It just is, right now, a brilliant game.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founding robots of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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