It’s taken me almost a year, but I’ve finally completed Half Life on the PC. The reason it took me so long to play was that I only played it in my ‘spare moments’, usually late at night, far apart from my more dedicated gaming time. That wasn’t something intentional, it was because the game wholly failed to grab me at all. It was really only the non-game factors that ever piqued my interest – mainly a desire to discover the story, and to see what all the fuss was about with this old game (1998). Now this review does a good job of placing the game in its historical context, but my problem is despite all the innovations to the FPS genre, that doesn’t mean this was a fun game to actually play through then, and it certainly isn’t now.
What absolutely kills this game is the save game mechanic. You can save at absolutely any point, anywhere, with an infinite amount of save slots, and you can even ‘quick save’ and ‘quick load’ almost instantaneously. Such a mechanic will kill any action orientated game, as all elements of suspense and worse, challenge, are ruined. Half Life basically devolves into a trial-and-error slog throughout. Any battle, no matter how ‘hard’, can easily be overcome not by any improvement in the player’s skill (although it will require a basic minimum), but by simply increasing the use of saving & restarts. The issue of checkpoints or setting the right challenge and difficultly level for the player has been sidestepped – it’s effectively set on an infinitely potentially easy challenge at all times, as determined by the player. But the player has very little idea of how hard or easy they are making it a lot of the time. How on earth is the player even supposed to guess what a “Normal” difficulty should be for this game?
Could anything be further from the ideal of an arcade challenge and hard-fun? In fact I recall when I started to play Half Life 2 in The Orange Box, I was shocked to discover such a mechanic, as I’d played through a good chunk of the game assuming only the in-game checkpoints that I was used to. But given ‘save anywhere, anytime’ any action game becomes an interactive movie more than a game; albeit one with potential frustration & repetition to progress through. Now perhaps there is some hidden ‘ideal’ in the game to only rely on the game’s built-in auto saves, and to attempt to never use the save states (in much the same way “one credit” play is often assumed in an arcade title for the real challenge level). But if this is so, why did the designers not build this into the actual game mechanics? At the very least score a player on the least use of save states or something of that ilk. But the trouble is that many parts of the game seem so obtuse in their design that without the assumed use of heavy repetition, the player really has little chance of passing them, and the game is so long, it is hardly reasonable to require the player to re-start the whole game like a true arcade title. For an example of this type of design, I did enjoy the high level of variety of the weapons in the game – in terms of feel and effectiveness in different conditions & vs different enemies, but the trouble was the game would give me little or no idea as to what the effectiveness conditions of the various weapons actually was. Couple this with random and unknown restocks of future ammunition for said weapons, and the player is clearly being guided by this design to use (& abuse) the trial and error method of play on offer by the save game mechanics.
Now of course the game offers more than shooting based challenges – there are also heavy platforming & manoeuvre sections. Platforming in a first person perspective is one of the most irritating and silly game mechanics I’ve ever come across. I have never been a huge fan of platform games anyway, but I’m aware of a few that managed to effectively translate this play mechanic in 3D environments (such as Mario 64, or even Gun Valkyrie), and they all did it by using a third-person perspective.
Lastly we come to the puzzle element in Half Life. Which mostly comes down to “where the **** do I go now?” or it’s close cousin “how do I get through this bit without X killing/damaging me?”. Now these are the only areas of the game where I actually became stuck a few times and found any real challenge in completing. However most of the time I was simply lost because I hadn’t played the game in a long time (usually due to being bored by it), and the game often gave very little indication of even the direction of progress (although some levels are indeed expertly arranged). However the solution to all of the times I got stuck was either trial and error on movement timing or a jump, or more often had a totally illogical solution which almost always involved moving your ‘disembodied hand & weapon floating camera’ along a 1 pixel wide ledge or pipe. These manoeuvres would be totally impossible in any game where you actually played a character that had any sense of scale and size, or even vaguely realistic physics to the placement of your character within the game environment. The trouble is that, given the save mechanic, these puzzle elements were pretty much the only challenging part of the game left to actually play. It did make me think that if you must design a game within the limiting restraints of a save mechanic like this, making something like Portal -where the action elements have been mostly stripped out in return for far more puzzle elements – is actually the logical way to go to improve it.
The story to Half Life was, by game standards, rather good – albeit very short and simple. And it is told in a fantastic method without recourse to dull non-interactive cut scenes, so I did enjoy that aspect of it. For me the two best things that came out of this experience was that I was introduced to Steam & I actually slowly found my FPS playing skills with keyboard and mouse control vastly improving as I went along. By the time I got through some of the latter action & platform heavy sections I was starting to actually enjoy playing with a mouse & keyboard, as for the first time I didn’t feel like I was battling the control scheme.
Half Life has of course won many awards, but none as coveted or as well deserved as the Agoner’s single turd.