As a relatively new company (compared to the likes of id and 3DRealms) you wouldn't expect Valve to be signed up by one of the biggest distributors before releasing even one game. However, Sierra (CUC, Cendant, whatever they are today) saw talent in these guys. Talent that could be used to craft a revolutionary new game that boasts a slight twist on what was available. But Valve did it.
...in the shape Half-Life. You play Gordon Freeman, a scientist who takes part in an experiment that all goes horribly pear-shaped, leaving hundreds dead and bringing more alien type life onto earth. Your job - to escape from the complex and prevent the aliens from killing your friends. Sounds simple, but it couldn't be more complex...
There are the aliens for a start. These guys aren't dumb. They'll follow you around, run for cover, run for friends. Whatever you learnt about the guys in Quake II you can forget - Half-Life has a life of its own. And as if that weren't enough, the Government has sent in some teams to help clear up the mess. 'Great!' you think, until you hear that not only are they trying to obliterate the aliens, but you and your buddies too.
"But mummy, what's the game like?"
Anyway, onto the game. You probably already know that Half-Life was built around a Quake I/Quake II combination (yes, it's true) allowing it to run fast on nearly any computer (unlike Unreal ;). With the addition of a 3D card and it looks beautiful - much in the same way as Quake II did. But this isn't just a Quake II TC, but an entirely new game. Valve seem to have taken what they liked about Quake, Quake II, Doom, Unreal and all the other FPS games, bundled them into one neat packaged, and formed a game out of that. As a result, they've created one of the most 'different' games ever. Half-Life.
Installation was rather simple. Pop in the CD, let AutoPlay do its stuff, press a few 'Next >>' buttons and voila! Half-Life is on your HD. Now why can't all installations be like that? Actually, there is one flaw in the plan - Sierra Utilities. Now, I don't have very fond memories of this particular piece of programming. Last time I installed a Sierra demo I was left with a great game, but upon installation the only access I had to Windows 95 was through 'Safe Mode'. You can guess I was a bit edgy about installing a program that could easily trash my HD, but I tried it, and it worked!
So, here I am, at my Win95 desktop with a Quake 3: Arena screenshot wallpaper staring at me. I click Start, Sierra, and Half-Life.
Within only a few moments (unlike Quake II) the Half-Life main menu was on my monitor. A few minutes later and I've completely customised every setting I want from controls to video acceleration. As a Quake II addict I naturally chose OpenGL acceleration for my TNT, at a resolution of 640x480. I would have gone higher, but I doubt my P2-233 would have made it. Not that a P2 isn't enough. It's fine, but for best gameplay at 800x600 or higher you really need a processor clocked at 300Mhz or (preferably) higher.
Like Heretic II, you have a choice of training before playing the game, although Valve prefers to call it a 'Hazard Course'. I didn't think I'd need it being the superb Quake II player I am (heh), but I jumped in anyway. It was actually very useful - a hologram guides you through each of the functions of your HEV suit, from long jumps to crouch jumps to target practise and even a lesson on how to drive trains. Everything you need before actually getting into the game.
Start the main game and you're presented with various skill settings - I chose Medium. Within a few seconds the game has loaded and you're presented with the most amazing intro you will ever have seen. So amazing, I'm not even going to tell you what it is - buy the game. You'll be severely impressed. It perfectly sets the mood for the game and immerses you.
From then on, the game is simply genius. You talk to scientists, get them to open doors for you, help them in their attempts to do something rather hazardous - which is where the game begins.
Amazing graphics, far beyond what you would expect from the Quake II engine, greet you as you are held captive in a chamber, rising the adrenaline to far beyond what you will have ever experienced before in a game of this genre. Sparks fly from the huge machine, seconds after, you find yourself on an alien world. A few seconds more, and it's pitch dark. All you can hear is your heart thumping as you await your destiny. Another flash and you're back where you left. However, things have changed. Explosions are everywhere, and as you walk out the door you can see that people have been wounded - a scientist tries to revive a dying guard, while other scientists are left in the corner of the corridor losing blood.
Put simply, the game is based upon surprise. Each level introduces you to something completely new - and this time, it's not just weapons. Helicopters circling round dams, and tanks with more than just a few pretty looks later face you - they kill too.
Actually, the weapons in the game are wonderful. If you thought every single idea for a weapon in a FPS had been taken, think again. Half-Life not only borrows from old games, but incorporates it's own ideas too. And they're not half bad. Who'd have thought a crowbar could be so much fun? And what about a machine gun that fires grenades too? A rocket launcher with the same power as that of a tank? Alien weapons - you get the chance to pick up an alien arm and use it as a way to kill by firing small energy sucking flies. Its innovation at it's best.
Okay, so maybe 14 or so new weapons isn't exactly groundbreaking stuff, but just wait until you get to play with them. Didn't you ever wonder how the Quake 2 guy could keep the chaingun going full tilt without needing to reload? Half-Life is different. Guns are limited as to how many they can fire before reloading, and you can reload at any time. For instance, that machine gun I mentioned earlier can have a total of 250 bullets, but only 50 can be in it at a time. Once they're gone you need to wait a few seconds for Gordon to reload it before firing it again.
The advancement of a secondary fire button, similar to that of Unreal, couldn't be more fun. Remember that the machine gun can fire grenades? You do it through the secondary fire button (I bound it to the wheel button on my IntelliMouse). The crossbow also offers a sniper mode through the secondary function, and doing the same on the handgun causes it to fire twice as fast as normally. Use it on the shotgun and you fire two shells instead of one. I never really thought Unreal used this function as well as it could, and now Half-Life has proved that. It's a perfect example.
The intuitive interface form choosing weapons is worth a mention. Most, if not all, FPS game usually have a number key bound to each weapon, effectively limiting them to 10. Half-Life has at least 14 weapons. How do you access them all? Well, first I'll tell you that you only actually need to use 5 keys to access the weapons. You see, each key has its own category. Key 1 deals with the crowbar, 2 with handguns, 3 with machine type things and so on... You just press the button a few times to cycle to your preferred weapon and press fire to select it. Simple. It may seem a slow way of doing it, but after a few levels it becomes second nature.
Aha, the levels, maps, units, whatever you want to call them. Astounding is all I can say. Although Quake and Quake II were themed, they never really gave a good impression as to where the player really was. Half-Life improves upon that. In Half-Life you know exactly where you are, whether it's a research lab, the desert, the side of a mountain, underground - anywhere. Half-Life is one of the few games that actually makes you think you have gone somewhere, something that I felt Quake II lacked. Each level is intricately linked with the next. Now, this requires a bit of description. Remember in Quake or Quake II how you were greeted with the console in-between levels? You knew exactly where levels started and ended, the only way between them being somewhat unbelievable corridors with single doors.
Half-Life is different. In Half-Life you never really change map or level, but position. For instance, you may be in a room with a table in the corner and a scientist sitting at a computer. One side of the room has a door. You walk up to it. It opens. In front of you, you can see a corridor leading left. You edge forward and for only a second or two the word 'Loading...' appears in the centre of the screen, so you can still see where you are. Then it disappears and you are in exactly the same place. Look behind you and the room you were just in is still there, exactly the same as before. Turn back round and you continue with the game. You know exactly where you are because everything is identical as it were before.
What had actually happened was a level change like that in Quake, but it was secretly hidden. It's this that immerses you into the game as there is nothing to draw your attention away from thinking you really are there (like the console in Quake, for example).
The textures and sounds of the game really do deserve a mention. The move to 16-bit textures (as opposed to Wolf3s Doom, Quake and Quake II's 8-bit (256 colour) palettes) allows a huge variety of textures to be created and used creatively without being limited to a collection of 256 colours. It's this move that has no doubt helped Half-Life look so beautiful, yet so varied and creative. If you do get Half-Life (it would be a Sin not to) have a play around with Worldcraft and check out the collection of textures. They're all so detailed and look so amazingly wonderful with their 65k palettes, far better than that of Quake II. The sounds in Half-Life are a great improvement upon Quake II. They're so real. And with the addition of a complete sound system like A3D, the game is totally immersive, and very scary when playing late at night, volume turned up, in a dark room on a 21inch monitor. Aliens sound like aliens, and reloading sounds like a reload. One amazing advancement over Quake II is the way that sounds work in the game. If you're in a confined space then you hear echos of weapons reloading as if you were in a confined space. Depending on where you are and what is around you, sounds change. This advancement makes the game so much more real - which is what makes Half-Life so good - it's so real. Unofruntately, the characters voices aren't so good- it seems that all the scientists and guards in the entire game are all derived from one of three or so people...
You'll notice how I haven't mentioned your opposition. Now, while I could ramble on about all the enemies you'll meet, that would ruin the surprise for when you do buy the game. What I will tell you is that the enemies are completely different from what you will have seen before. You're attacked by not only odd alien creatures, but the government as well.
Okay, maybe I will spoil part of the surprise, but chances are, none of this will be new to you. Throughout the game you are attacked by humans, just like yourself. Every played Rainbow Six? You know those guys you control in those cool camo suits? You get to kill them in Half-Life. In fact, this enemy could be what makes the game so immersive - not only are you attacked by them, but left victim to their traps and weaponry that they leave about. For instance, you may walk round a corner only to be greeted by a sentry gun (happened to me once while playing - made me jump out of my seat!), or be on a train just to find a plethora of tripmines (those things that stick on walls and emit a laser - exploding when the laser beam is broken) ahead.
The Artificial Intelligence in Half-Life is an amazing improvement from what you will have experienced before. The government guys set up ambushes, and if they need to reload their gun, will do by running for cover and doing it there. Get to close, and not only will they shoot you, but kick you while doing it. They'll run back for help, throw grenades at you even if you are round a corner and you can't see them. Sometimes you'll be about to look over a ledge and see a grenade heading your way - completely unprovoked with no warning. The enemies really do seem to each have their own personalities.
For example, throughout the games you encounter ambushes. If you're near a radio, then you also hear the enemy communicating with each other too. Listen out - you can often tell their next move just by careful listening...
Overall, Half-Life can be described in 4 simple words.
The best game ever.
If you haven't got Half-Life by now, put it on your Christmas list. If you can't do that, buy it yourself. Put simply, Half-Life is a work of genius that no one can ignore. This is one game you can't miss this Christmas, sitting up there with the best in the world, earning an amazing 98 FPS.