Black Mesa. Xen. The G-Man. Gordon Freeman. Half-Life.
The Half-Life series is one that barely needs an introduction – all you need to see is a quick flash of the Lambda symbol, and instantly the memories and recollections of Gordon Freeman’s journey through the last several generations of gaming flashes by. It brings back that first time through the opening tram ride, the first time through the Black Mesa Research Facility, and the eventual beginnings of its outerdimensional struggles, and the beginning of one of gaming’s most revered series.
On November 19th, 2013, Half-Life celebrated its 15th birthday, along with the start of Gordon Freeman’s journey through the multiple entries and side stories that followed in the series: one which, for a long time, I had never had the chance to start from the very beginning.
Having jumped into the Half-Life series with Half-Life 2, I had found the lack of knowledge or backstory into the second game not to be a big concern – even though I easily missed plenty of easter eggs or insight into the game’s story by not having played the first game, it still played extremely well-informed and easily kept me along for the ride (and, after about five or six playthroughs now of Half-Life 2, still remains one of my all-time favorite games). Yet, in celebration of the series’ 15th birthday, I figured it was time to see just exactly where Gordon got started in the first place.
While playing through the original (non-Source) edition of the game was certainly a challenge given that 15 years often never helps an aging title, Half-Life still holds up remarkably well, and in the latest edition of Late to the Game, we’ll take a look back to see just how far Gordon Freeman and Half-Life have come in 15 years, and where we can look forward to him going next.
At least while everyone is waiting (with baited breath and anticipation) for Half-Life 3.
Half-Life came in the middle of turbulent and exhilirating times in gaming, and especially for the PC – 1998 already had the likes of StarCraft restablishing the RTS genre, and came just a few years after Diablo and WarCraft locked down huge PC communities and followings around them. Doom and Quake had formed the early beginnings of the shooter genre, and yet Half-Life still managed to bring something new, and monumental, to both shooters and PC games of the time – a trait that’s apparent even now, 15 years later.
Sure, Half-Life has obviously been upstaged graphically and technically in over a decade and a half – it’s only inevitable when compared to the titles of today like BioShock Infinite, or The Last of Us. Yet, both of those titles and numerous others, especially with the incredible focus and innovations in storytelling that gaming has seen within the last decade, owe a tremendous amount of credit to Valve’s pioneering efforts that were put forth in Half-Life, and for defining many of the best told stories for years to come.
Booting up and playing through the game for the first time was definitely both a nice throwback and a challenge – as much as Half-Life was visionary for its focus on bringing a compelling narrative and focus to its shooter-oriented gameplay, 15 years of change in graphical fidelity and art has definitely not been kind to the blocky arms and stiff animations of Half-Life by today’s standards. But, even easier to get past than that is the legacy of the game and how its opening encounters in Black Mesa were a turning point for gaming. While graphically Half-Life may be well-aged, its attention to a carefully-crafted and unique story made it leap easily ahead of its competition, at the time.
Where in Half-Life 2 I mildly chuckled at Barney’s insistence at getting Gordon “that beer I owed you,” or pondered in curiosity of all the talk of “the Black Mesa incident,” seeing the realizations and impact that the events of Half-Life had in its following installment (and even beyond into Episode One and Episode Two) both enlightened me and made my appreciation for Half-Life 2 even more profound. As I started out riding the train in the opening and recalled the opening subway train ride of Half-Life 2, playing through Half-Life even so long after I had first played its sequel didn’t make me at all feel like I was missing vital information or a piece of the overall puzzle. Instead, it augmented my understanding, and appreciation, of the Half-Life universe and its world far more, even with its simple roots. Compared to Half-Life 2, the storyline and plot of Half-Life is fairly straight-forward. But, when compared to Doom or Quake at its time, it’s easy to see how Half-Life‘s weaving narrative threads and imagery (such as the quietly-menacing G-Man) were monumental to where games have come in telling stories, as opposed to just providing exciting gameplay experiences and being more than just a typical “shooter.”
But, overall Half-Life‘s age is nothing to scoff at – even in my first playthrough well after its debut, Gordon’s rendezvous through the Black Mesa facility, all the way to his climactic battle against the Nihilanth in Xen, was captivating and fun the whole way through. While at times difficult in the way that many games of its era were for brutally unforgiving challenges and some tricky segments, even in its early stages it’s clear to see the level of immersion and detail in Half-Life that would be so prominent and impressive to follow in Half-Life 2. The sounds (and screams) of Black Mesa’s scientists running for their lives from the Xen invaders; the snarls and tapping of headcrabs scrambling through the vents. Half-Life‘s setting in the Black Mesa facility felt remarkably realized with a great sense of place: for the time that I spent inside its walls and corriders, the fear of encountering the unknown and watching out for Xen’s horrible creatures was present around every corner, and made the experience of playing through Half-Life that much more impressive and engaging.
Half-Life brought a lot to the table when it first released: it brought the start of one of the most well-respected franchises of gaming, a slew of some of the most popular mods to PC gaming that I can personally attest of sinking countless hours into (Natural Selection, Counter-Strike), and one of the few protagonist heroes that can stand toe-to-toe with gaming’s icons – and not even saying a single word doing it. While right now Gordon Freeman may be taking some well-deserved rest, leaving fans anticipating Half-Life 3 more and more by the day (or for the long-gestating fan-made Black Mesa remake heading to Steam in the near future), playing through the original Half-Life for the first time made me ready to pick up a crowbar and wait for Freeman to “rise and shine” once more.