You assume the role of theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman, who's a half-hour late for work at the Black Mesa Compound, a top-secret military complex similar to the U.S.'s Cheyenne Mountain. The game begins as Gordon takes the transit train to work, in one of the most enveloping intro sequences ever achieved--it's just like a ride at Epcot Center. The train chugs its way deep into the mesa, giving you an intriguing view of nuclear warheads, toxic spills, and scientists making their daily rounds.
Once you make it into the compound and begin exploring your surroundings, you'll notice that you don't have a gun. In fact, everything seems normal for the first half-hour of gameplay; Gordon is simply another suit-and-tie government researcher, and it's just another day at the office. After locating his HEV (Hazardous Environment Suit), Gordon chats with several scientists about the daily experiment, and heads into the test chamber to earn his paycheck.
And then the crapola hits the fan. In a botched attempt to create a "resonance cascade," Gordon is partly responsible for opening an interdimensional gate to somewhere--where the denizens are anything but friendly. After a delightfully disorienting disaster sequence, Gordon gains consciousness in the ruins of the test chamber, his comrades slaughtered by the extraterrestrial horrors that jumped through the gate and spread to every corner of the Black Mesa.
What follows is a harrowing experience as Gordon tries to find a way out of the Black Mesa Compound. A skeleton crew of scientists and security guards have survived the initial onslaught; if you can coax them out of hiding, they'll assist you by opening doors, healing wounds, or joining you in a firefight. The AI for these NPCs is incredible, and really adds to the richness and complexity of the game.
As Half-Life progresses, the scientists keep hinting about the Lambda lab, where a disaster response team is ready to counterattack. A team of U.S. Rangers, also known as "cleaners", have been given orders to execute everything on site, including "innocent" scientists who now know far too much. These guys are absolute professionals, conforming to military squad tactics, scouting for recon, and tossing grenades as they shout orders to each other in an attempt to cleanse the facility.
Graphically, you couldn't ask for much more. Half-Life features all the eye-candy you'd expect, with vivid 16-bit textures, colored lighting that looks better than Quake II, and chrome-mapping that gives characters an amazing sheen. The skeletal animation system used in the game is the way to gothe movement is nearly flawless, right down to the swiveling of the characters' heads.
The only weak link in Half-Life's armor lies in its multiplayer mode. Despite the fact that Valve used chunks of John Carmack's QuakeWorld architecture, latency is a problem from time to time, and the entire experience just seems slow and plodding at times.
That minor complaint aside, Half-Life is an unprecedented triumph of design, content, and execution. This is the missing link between the standard 3D shooter and the next level of gamingand, by far, the most significant action title since System Shock. Anyone in the industry who's creating a 3D game should take a long, hard look at Half-Life; there will be a test in the months to come.