Second Opinion: The Many Missteps Of Half Life 1


This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of.  This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of.  Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not.  Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad.  Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about.  Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.

So, in between the long response essays, the friendly agreements, and this guy, the most common comment I got on my video on why Half Life 2 is boring and bad is that “you’re right, Half Life 2 hasn’t aged well, but Half Life 1 is still a masterpiece.” A smart person would quit while they’re ahead, but lucky for you all, I’m not a smart person! Besides, the request I got said to do “Half Life”, not Half Life 2 specifically, and I would be remiss not to cover every aspect of this storied series.

However, those comments I got aren’t entirely wrong. While Half Life 2 was a middle-of-the-road shooter that came out at a time when we already had much better examples of the genre, hoping that its gimmicky physics engine and setpieces would make up for its lousy shooting, Half Life 1 was actually revolutionary. A lot of people might not know that it’s actually the game that necessitated the creation of the term “First Person Shooter.” Before then they were called “Doom clones”, but when Half Life came out everyone took a look at its realistic shooting and its commitment to storytelling and went, “We’re not sure what this is, but it sure as hell isn’t a Doom clone.” No two ways about it – Half Life was earth-shattering when it came out.

Furthermore, the game’s aged pretty well, and I like it a lot more than its sequel. However, I don’t love it. There’s still some iffy design decisions and problems that the game has, and just because it held an important place in history doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to talk about its flaws. Still, while last week was a reckoning against a game that doesn’t deserve half the praise it gets, this week is gonna be more of a friendly conversation about the missteps of a masterpiece. With that said, let’s get right into the negativity.

Man, the Half Life games are bad shooters, huh? I mean, even if you think they’re good games, you have to admit that the actual shooting is pretty crap. Even in Wolfenstein 3D enemies reacted when you hit them, and the guns felt and sounded like they packed a punch. In the original Half Life, there’s no reaction, no indication that you’re doing any damage – even the blood splatters are so tiny that they’re almost impossible to see. It feels like you’re chucking pillows at a brick wall for all the damage you’re doing, and you just keep doing so until the enemy falls down, with no idea of how long that’s going to take.

This makes the game quite simply not as fun to play, since unlike its sequel it’s mostly about a lonely Gordon shooting things in the dark, and it gets especially bad during boss battles. Oh, sure, people joke about how the Doom bosses had no more strategy than “shoot at it until it dies”, but (A) at least the satisfying thud of a rocket into the Cyberdemon and his subsequent roar of pain made it clear you were on the right track, and (B) at least you knew that’s what you were supposed to do. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who wasted ammo on the Gargantua and the Tentacle the first time they appeared, because yeah, the guns were having no visible effect, but what else was new? And by the time I got to the Gonarch I wasn’t even sure I was supposed to be shooting it, turning what should have been an awesome circle-strafing fight against a powerful and dangerous monster over difficult terrain into essentially confused poking.

Now, I’m sure that just like last week, people will be defending the crappy gunplay in the name of “realism”, but that argument doesn’t hold water, for a lot of reasons. First of all, “realism” doesn’t mean that everything has to be not fun – a real rocket launcher, shotgun, or even a revolver has some kick to it, and real-life human beings typically react to getting shot in the unprotected face. What’s more, you’re gonna make the argument for “realism” when this super-secret high-tech future base has a crossbow? And your arsenal also includes a lightning gun and a laser beam and other equally fantastical weapons, all of which feel just as weak as anything else?

This, in my opinion, is the biggest problem with Half Life. It has one foot in the future and one foot in the past, and as a result, it can commit neither to being a power fantasy nor to being a realistic thriller, which means it’s not great at being either. The story, which I’ll talk about more in a minute, is pure power fantasy – it’s about a nerdy, glasses-wearing scientist kicking the ass of jockish bullies, Earthly and otherwise. But even though you’re doing ostensibly cool things like killing a tentacle beast with the back end of a rocket or single-handedly destroying a tank, the floatiness of combat and frustration of figuring out what you’re supposed to be doing makes it feel so much less badass than similar feats in other games.

What’s more, the game switches between realism and unrealism, and it often chooses the wrong times to make the switch. I’m not even talking about stuff like the testicle spider. I’m talking about when the same aspect of the game switches back and forth between the two. One of the more annoying examples of this is the design of the Black Mesa facility. There are lots of parts of the game where the layout of the facility makes no sense, famously so. Like that absolutely essential lever that’s located in a field of electric death. How did regular employees open that door? And that’s fine when it’s a game like Resident Evil or Doom or something that’s clearly putting gameplay first, but the realistic nature of the game and design of its levels was a big selling point of Half Life, so much so that it devotes 15 minutes of its opening to showing how realistic its science facility is.

Yes, that’s right, fans – I’m actually about to talk negatively about the opening of the original Half Life. First of all, it’s boring, if only from a gameplay perspective, and as I said I don’t like the fact that sometimes the map design is so dedicated to storytelling and atmosphere that it’s boring and sometimes it’s so dedicated to making gameplay interesting that the architecture is bizarre. If it was one or the other, I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

But more than that, the opening of the game is something that really doesn’t hold up these years later. Much has been made of the game’s atmospheric storytelling, especially in this section, but tell me – what story, exactly, does watching a few  tell? What information about the setting am I gleaning from this? Now, I know what you’re going to say – I’ve cut out the narration that’s happening over this, but if the only storytelling that’s happening is in the narration, than what difference is there between this and the Doom text wall, other than the fact that one can be quickly read and the other takes fifteen minutes and three loading screens to get through.

No, the real reason that train section exists is, like so many of the things the Half Life series does, to be an impressive gimmick. They were showing off how good the engine looked. The, uh, the Quake engine. Oh yeah.

And you’ll say to me “Of course it hasn’t aged well, but at the time it was revolutionary!” That, in my opinion, makes it bad design. To use a less controversial example, it’s like how the original Star Wars films will be remembered forever because they focused on characterization, storytelling, and artistry while the CGI-filled prequels are already starting to show their age. Basing something around looking pretty in any kind of technical medium is typically not a great call, especially if that prettiness comes from it looking “real.” ‘Cause it doesn’t, and now that it’s been a few years and all the polish has worn off we’re still left with this 15-minute Disney park ride where all we can do is laugh at how bad the animatronics look.

This is as good a time as any to get into the story itself. Now, again, at the time, the fact that this much story could exist in a PC shooter, let alone be told this well, was impressive in 1998. But the idea that it’s still one of the best stories in gaming is ridiculous. Here it is, in total: Gordon Freeman is a scientist working for an underground research facility that accidentally summons monsters into our world, and when everyone else in the facility dies he is the Only One Who Can Stop Them. When trying to escape, he’s excited to see some soldiers coming to help him until he learns that they have orders to kill any witnesses and Gordon once again is the Only One Who Can Stop Them. This continues until Gordon fights a giant fetus thing, stops the alien invasion, and is approached by a weird guy in a suit who’s been watching your progress since the beginning and offers you a nebulous job. Riveting. Really says a lot about the human condition, huh?

In this sense, the game really is little more than a Doom clone. I mean, can you honestly say that you haven’t heard this exact same story in a million other games? It was told a little more stylishly here, sure, but the only real difference between this game and Quake is that scientists will occasionally spout some canned dialogue at you and the action will pause to show you – not a cutscene! Oh, no, not a cutscene, cutscenes are terrible! But it is a long moment of dialogue during which you can’t play the game and you can’t proceed until it’s finished. It’s not a cutscene, though! Because a cutscene might have had dramatic lighting or camera angles or a skip button.

It’s not that Half Life has a terrible story, it’s just that if you still think contextless alien violence is the best gaming narratives have to offer, you’re a few decades behind.

And speaking of being decades behind, I’d like to close us out by talking about the absolute worst thing about Half Life, the one 1998 design philosophy that’s most shown its age: first-person platforming. We were so excited that Quake had finally given us a true 3D engine that we didn’t stop to think, “Hey, jumping onto platforms is really frustrating when you’re just a floating pair of hands, huh?” First-person platforming has never, ever been good, but I think it’s especially bad in Half Life. Part of that’s because there’s so much of it, ruining the flow of the game in the same way that Half Life 2’s setpieces and gravity gun bridge-building sections do. Part of that’s because of how crappy the engine is – even climbing a ladder is a huge pain in the ass, how do you expect me to leap gracefully onto this tiny patch of floating platform?

And part of that is because it really rises to prominence in the last third of the game, the sections taking place on the border world Xen. I’ll give them credit for at least making this section interactive – jumping past the alien grunts being built and similar bits of story is still more fun than the railroad you have to ride at the end of Half Life 2. But this should be the game’s finest hour, the big climax, the moment where you feel more powerful than ever, and instead it’s just frustrating. Even the final boss gets beaten through the power of jumping, making sure you’re not having as much fun as you could be right up until the very end.

Look, the Half Life games aren’t bad, and the first one’s a lot more fun than the second, even today. But both of them rely heavily on gimmicks. Cool gimmicks, sure, and revolutionary for their time, but gimmicks without much staying power. At the time, the idea that a game would devote its opening to telling a story was crazy, but now we have games like The Beginner’s Guide that do the same thing longer and better. At the time, jumping around a 3D world or fighting bosses with environmental features was really impressive, but now that that’s not a dazzling technological miracle we can see that doing so is really not all that fun. Half Life 1 deserves credit for being able to see the future long before anyone else could, but it still had one foot in the past, and in trying to do too many things, it ended up doing none of them particularly well.

Especially shooting.

I. Coleman
I Coleman believes that videogames are the most important, most fascinating, and most potentially world-changing entertainment medium today. When not saying dorky, embarrassing crap like that, I is a game designer, science fiction author, and former reviews editor for the now-defunct with years of experience writing for and about games.

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