This week, it's time for that game.
Well it’s the lull before pre-Christmas and the game release schedule officially has its mouth hanging open and a thin line of drool running into its Sippy cup, so at this point there’s only one thing I can do. Masturba- I mean retro review! "But of what?" I fretted. "I’ve done all the major games I really like... well except one. The 'Big One.'" But I can’t do that one; surely wasting five minutes of the internet’s time explaining why Half-Life was good would be like broadcasting a public information film about why you shouldn’t head-butt coat hooks.
But then I realised I was fifteen when Half-Life came out. My balls were still umming and errring over their commitment to the dropping agenda. I had few other games and I'd played it through so many times I could recite it from memory: Unforeseen Consequences; Office Complex; "We’ve Got Hostiles"; Blast Pit; Power Up; On A Rail; Apprehension; that’s enough of that. So was the game actually good or is this a case of being truncheoned with a disembodied horse cock for so long and so hard, that now it’s the only way we can wake up in the morning?
To answer this horribly phrased question, I powered through the game on Hard mode over the weekend, and, right off the bat, we see a few crow’s feet emerge when the first five minutes are spent on a train, unskippably going, "Ooh, look at all the crazy shit we've done with the Quake engine. Is that a big thumping laser machine being presided over by a dude with skeletal animation? I THINK IT BLOODY IS!" Which I remember being quite enthralling at the time, but then at that time rendering a card board box falling off a shelf would cream a PC gamer's jeans from gusset to knee, and in this age of giant phong-shaded monsters with ultra-realistic vapour particles steaming from their arm pits it does feel a bit quaint.
But this and the subsequent half-hour of wandering around the office exchanging pleasantries show a commitment to narrative pacing that you just don't see anymore. It’s like those 50's Sci-Fi B movies where you have to watch a dude in a white coat twiddle with blinky lights for half an hour before anything in a costume shows up to carry off a screaming woman, and which would never be made today because audiences might switch off if a CG monster hasn’t farted several screaming women at the camera by the time the opening credits are finished.
The thing about Half-Life is that most shooters at the time still had guns that floated 3' off the ground and gently spun like a barber's pole and nothing else ever felt so absorbingly real. So we can indirectly blame it for every monstrous thing done in the name of realism ever since, starting with its own multiplayer mod, Counter-Strike, game of choice for the first generation of realistic military shooter gutter cunts, who’s hate-filled whims now dictate half the fucking industry.
But at the same time Half-Life sits far enough back on the evolutionary border to feature the worst qualities of older shooters too. I forgot how much fucking jumping there is in this game, and how much navigating 6" ledges, neither of which work very well in 1st person, for, as we all know, you essentially control a perfectly rectangular man with snowshoes on his feet. And climbing up and down ladders is like cycling down a magnetic road in a suit of armor. Contextual button presses, all is forgiven; just let me detach from a fucking ladder without a 50-50 chance of leaping off into space and landing prostate-first on a dead scientist’s jagged moustache.
These are the mistakes that are made on the cutting edge, because it’s easy to slip and cut off your legs from the knees down. But Half-Life was also a tricord hat-wearing pioneer of interactive storytelling. Before this, story in action gaming was either in QuakeTown or the Metal Gear Solid District, an occasional text scroll between murder parades to check that you haven’t run off to burn down your school yet, or holding you down and barfing onto your face until you drown in exposition. But Half-Life showed that you can have a deep narrative without sacrificing gameplay, something games of today still have trouble grasping.
On the surface you are Gordon Freeman, a bearded mute who somehow managed to gesture his way through MIT and must escape from an underground research complex after aliens from another dimension invade and nick all the good parking spots. And if you want you can leave it at that, cleaning mashed headcrab guts off your armored suit nipples. But if you pay attention to the background details, you can find yourself in a far bigger story, involving conspiracy, an inter-dimensional conflict and a mysterious man in a blue suit with the ability to manipulate time and space. Presumably he worked for the accounts department.
Basically you decide your own level of immersion. When the soldiers you thought were the rescue team start executing scientists it would only have hurt the game to fade to cut scene and show Gordon Freeman shaking his little bearded fists in rage. There’s a reason why Freeman remains a beloved character despite having no personality; because he is whatever we want him to be. Maybe he’s shocked by the military cover up and staggered by the implications and his relative smallness against the organizations that now hunt him, or maybe he’s going, "Oh boy! I couldn’t wait for an excuse to return fire on those science-hating jockle cocks! I bet they voted against stem-cell research."
And at the same time, nothing is skimped in the all-important gameplay either. The combat style shifts in service of the story while retaining the same simple controls. You start off in survival horror mode, trying to escape the labs, fending off freshly teleported alien animals attacking anything orange and bearded out of sheer bewilderment. Then the heavily armed frat boys join the party and things get more flanky and tactic-y. Then the alien forces start to show signs of organized invasion when the alien soldiers appear, the government gets desperate enough to send in motherfucking ninjas, and you end up ducking back underground to take your place as king of the Bullsquids.
It was simultaneously action up the butt, and a well-crafted story about being a part of something far beyond your understanding. That’s why it always struck me as kinda weird that by the time of Half-Life 2, the human population regards Gordon Freeman as the new Jesus, 'cause all I remember him doing was get chased around failing to rescue his co-workers, and depending on my mood occasionally also shooting them in the knees to see if they do that little shaky leg animation that I think is cute and then he spends the intervening years locked in the accounts departments fridge. So all I can say is he either had a fucking good PR team working on his behalf or his beard releases a pheromone.
I close now reassured that Half-Life is indeed still good. Perhaps one could partly blame it for some of today’s shooter problems, like aggressive linearity and cut scenes, but that was just dipshits aping something popular without grasping the subtleties. You can’t blame Watchmen for all of the comics in the 90's being about angsty people shooting blood out of tit-mounted pouch guns, and pouch-mounted gun tits.
His name sounds a bit like 'Crowbar': Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Still you'd think you'd want to take your glasses off if you knew crabs were going to be leaping at your face all day
I hit the spot so reliably the ladies call me the G-Man
So the Escapist Expo is still in September and you should still totally come, but also in October, I've got a second novel coming out! It's called Jam, and you should preorder it from Amazon and tfaw.com . It's about an apocalypse, with jam in it!