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Awesome storyline; intense, nonstop action; scary monsters, super creeps; atmospheric music and sound effects; inventive level design and weaponry.
Some multiplayer lag and weirdness; screen is awfully dark at times; tons of platform-style puzzles may frustrate some gamers.
First-person shooter fans, any gamer who thought they'd seen it all.
System Requirements: Windows 95/98/NT 4.0, Pentium 133, 24MB RAM, 2x CD-ROM, 640x480 SVGA high-color (16-bit) display, Windows-compatible sound card.
Multiplayer Support: LAN (2-8 players);Internet.
Developer: Valve Software
Publisher: Sierra On-Line
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If you were expecting the reasoned voices of CGW to douse the flames of the Half-Life hype, forget about it. We're about to make it worse. So let's get this over with up front, and then we'll calm down and get to the details.
Everything you've heard, everything you've hoped for - it's all true. Half-Life, Valve Software's highly anticipated first-person shooter, is not just one of the best games of the year. It's one of the best games of any year, an instant classic that is miles better than any of its immediate competition, and - in its single-player form - is the best shooter since the original Doom. Plus, despite the fact that it's "just" a shooter, Half-Life provides one of the best examples ever of how to present an interactive movie - and a great, scary movie at that.
Here Comes Your Man
Half-Life makes its brilliance apparent from the moment you boot the game. Instead of the usual lame cut-scene that looks nothing like the game you're about to play (remember Quake II?), you are thrust immediately into the gameworld. It's an illusion that's never shattered. No cut-scenes, no level "briefing" screens, no frag-count screens, no map. As in a real movie, the intention is to immerse you in the story. Other shooters have done this, too, of course - Jedi Knight and Bungie's Marathon series stand out as great examples - but no one before has carried it to this extreme, or pulled it off so well.
As the opening credits roll, you find yourself on a transit car, descending deeper and deeper into the cavernous Black Mesa Federal Research Facility and learning details of the game's storyline. You are Gordon Freeman, a 27-year-old Ph.D. in theoretical physics, now employed as a research associate at Black Mesa's "Anomalous Materials Laboratory." After you exit the tram, the many scientists roaming the halls urge you to make your way toward the lab to assist in some kind of classified experiment.
Once the experiment begins, however, catastrophe strikes, as a series of massive explosions signals the opening of a portal to an alien world. With the Research Facility now half destroyed and in utter chaos, you must make your way to the surface, avoiding the aliens who have transported in - as well as the government troops assigned to "contain" the problem.
Levels - at least as we've come to know them - don't really exist in Half-Life. Instead the game comprises a series of titled chapters, each of which groups a number of minilevels into one cohesive unit. As a result, rather than forcing you to wait minutes for a huge level to load, like some games we could mention (SiN) but won't (fallout 2), Half-Life loads just a portion of the chapter at a time, as you play it.
Aesthetically, it breaks the game into a number of settings, each one different from the next, each one offering a changing set of challenges and obstacles. In "On a Rail" you'll need to dodge a series of threats while riding a tram; in "Apprehension" you'll need to swim frantically through sunken rooms without drowning or getting eaten by giant alien fish; in Surface Tension, perhaps the game's best chapter, you'll have to fight an army of outrageously intelligent bad guys through a series of outdoor settings.
Thanks to creative level design, you almost never feel that you're doing the same thing twice.
Wave of Mutilation
Adding hugely to Half-Life's sense of terror are the aliens: a horrifying collection of gurgling grotesqueries. Particular favorites include the Houndeyes, whimpering, headless beasts that emit a destructive shock wave; the Barnacles, which hang from ceilings like rope and suck you up with ferocious speed if you get too close; and the Bullsquids, which spit caustic acid from long range.
But it's a testament to the game's creative genius that the creepiest, scariest monsters are also the tiniest and least fearsome in appearance: those infernal Headcrabs. Although they cause only minimal damage and are easily killed, they prove a constant menace, and every time one lunges at you unexpectedly from some hidden corner it is guaranteed to scare the crap out of you.
The aliens are scary, but the human enemies are your toughest opponents. The commandos and ninjalike assassins behave with such intelligence that at times you'll almost feel as if you're deathmatching with friends.
Half-Life provides a satisfying arsenal for your killing pleasure. Standard shoot-'em-up weapons, like the powerful .357 Magnum and the double-barreled shotgun, mix it up with cooler items like satchel charges and the crossbow, which offers a vitally important sniper scope and delivers a righteous, satisfying thunk as it hits its target. The most original weaponry are the two alien creations - the Hivehand, which fires a spray of bugs that track targets around corners; and the Snark, small living creatures that will attack anything they get near (including you, if you don't thrown them far enough).
Although Half-Life uses the Quake engine as its base, Valve reportedly rewrote about 70 percent of the code, and it shows. It might not be as "beautiful" as Unreal, but it is an awesome-looking game nevertheless, especially with 3D acceleration. The environment feels alive, thanks to a number of great scripted events that trigger as you approach them. The atmospheric sound effects and voice work are equally great and add to the feeling of being knee-deep in a living nightmare.
Overall, it's not one thing that makes Half-Life great, it's the sum of all the parts - the extraordinary attention to detail. There are sequences in the game, like those of a great horror movie, that you'll be dying to talk about with your friends, scenes that you'll remember years from now: watching the scientists plunging down the broken elevator, getting attacked by a Headcrab for the first time, avoiding the ferocious swipes of the three-tentacled monster, listening to the hushed footsteps of assassins as they ruthlessly hunt you down. We could go on and on.
You can find things to quibble about if you really want to - the screen is kind of dark at times, there's an awful lot of platform-style jumping, the multiplayer experience can be erratic - but who cares with a game this great? Simply put, this is the gaming event of the season, and if you care at all about games you don't want to miss it. Half-Life positively radiates with cool.
By Jeff Green
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