As gaming evolves, the line between movies and interactive media continues to blur. The earliest incarnations of videogames offered up nothing in the way of plot or story, offered no resolutions (the games often went on forever), and featured no characters. As technology progressed, games became more sophisticated. They featured rudimentary stories, goals that led to a defined ending, and even characters with a bit of personality. Today's games have taken things even further, creating rich worlds, characters that arc and develop, cinematic scores, voices, cinematic camera angles, and gameplay that is supported by the story itself. Some of them even set up sequels.
Trying to gauge which game was the first to blur the line between game and movie is a daunting task (and one sure to inspire more than a few arguments). However, the game that tends to stand out as one of the first to do it effectively is Half-Life—a classic PC game that is now making its debut on the PlayStation 2 gaming console.
Half-Life, a sci-fi based first-person shooter (FPS) is the gaming equivalent of big-budget action film. Players take control of physicist Gordon Freeman, a new employee at the Black Mesa Research Facility. Strange things are going on at Black Mesa and things get really out of hand when an experiment opens up what appears to be an inter-dimensional doorway between Earth and another planet. Soon, alien monsters are killing off the research staff, and Gordon must figure out how to make his way to the surface of the Black Mesa facility. Unfortunately, he not only has to contend with aliens, he's also got to deal with a squad of government commandos sent to the facility to eliminate everyone.
What makes Half-Life so intriguing is the way it blends film elements into traditional FPS gameplay. Early titles in this genre were light on story (Doom, for example) and featured gameplay that revolved around finding keys and blasting everything in sight. Half-Life moves in a different direction (much like another highly touted PC game, Deus Ex), featuring no shortage of action, but with story that ties everything together and doles out the plot piece by piece as the player progresses through the game. Because of this, the story is an integral part of the game—the backbone that supports everything from the gameplay on through to the different scenarios Gordon will encounter. And while other games have attempted to mix cinema with gameplay, Half-Life is one of the few games to achieve the perfect balance—one element never overwhelms the other.
Yet, while Half-Life still stands as a classic game, the years between its initial PC release and conversion to the PlayStation 2 haven't been as kind as they could have been. For its time, Half-Life was a revolutionary game, one that captivated gamers for quite some awhile. However, now in the age of games like Halo, Half-Life is starting to look a little rough around the edges.
The game received a graphical makeover for the PlayStation 2 release, but that doesn't change the fact that it still looks old and a little blocky overall. Textures could use some work, character models have little in the way of variety, and many of the games locales are fairly redundant. In the game's defense, it does feature a smooth framerate that appears to run consistently in the neighborhood of 60 frames per second (frames per second refers to the number of frames of animation used in each movement—the higher the number, the smoother the character and game moves). Still, compared to a current FPS like Halo (with its amazing bump mapping and texture work), Half-Life isn't pretty.
Of course, gaming isnt all about pretty graphics—and this is Half-Life's saving grace. The game may be showing its age visually, but the gameplay still draws the player in and keeps him immersed in the game's environment. Half-Life features a broad based gameplay system that has Gordon not only blasting through countless enemies, but also features some stealth elements, puzzles, and instances where might isn't always the proper way to get through a situation. While its not as open-ended as Deus Ex, it does give the player more to do than the standard Doom-styled game.
During the course of his journey, Gordon will find a multitude of weapons, enhancements for his bio-suit, and assorted other odds and ends. He'll have to fight his way through certain spots, as well as do some platform-styled jumping. One of the biggest complaints about PC ports to console systems is that the controls are never as fluid on the console. The PC game utilizes a mouse and keyboard, while the console has to map all of the games commands to a controller with far fewer buttons. Deus Ex, which was also recently ported to the PlayStation 2, suffers greatly because the control is awful. Meanwhile, a game like Halo (which was developed with a console in mind) has one of the best control schemes I've ever encountered in a first person shooter. Half-Life falls somewhere in the middle in this category. The controls are much more responsive and intuitive than the ones in Deus Ex, but not quite as good as the ones found in Halo. At any rate, they're solid enough that the player wont find himself dying cheap deaths with any kind of regularity.
The PlayStation 2 version of the game also features a new mode called Decay. Decay is something of a side story to the main game, wherein two players can control two female employees of the Black Mesa Facility. The two women must work in unison to reach the surface and escape with their lives, making cooperation vital. Decay is an interesting addition, and works best when played with two players. Gamers can tackle it on their own, but they'll have to work both characters separately to get through the complex—and it's an incredibly difficult task.
Half-Life may be showing its age in this era of games like Halo, but that doesn't change the fact that the game is still one of the coolest FPSs around. While the graphics are starting to look dated, the gameplay is still as solid as it was when the game was first released on the PC. Add that in with the engrossing storyline and solid control, and you wind up with a game that's more than entertaining. The PC is still the best way to experience Half-Life's charms, but the PlayStation 2 version provides a nice alternative for those who prefer their games on a console.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation 2 version of the game.
According to ESRB, this game contains: Blood and Gore, Violence
Parents should note that Half-Life has received a Mature rating from the ESRB. The game is violent, gory, blood-filled, and a little scary at times. Gordon spends the majority of the game killing aliens, watching his coworkers be devoured, and taking out government forces with a variety of high powered weaponry. This isn't a game for the kids.
First Person Shooter fans will no doubt enjoy Half-Life. This is one of the revolutionary games in the genre, and is well worth playing for anyone who enjoys these kinds of games.
PC gamers will almost assuredly prefer the original version for the computer, particularly since it has more options for gameplay and a nicer control interface with the mouse and keyboard.
Console gamers who don't get to play a lot of PC games will certainly want to take the PlayStation 2 version for a spin, its not quite as good as the PC experience, but it is satisfying nonetheless.
Deaf and Hard of Hearing gamers should approach with caution—the game doesn't have subtitles.
A film critic by trade, specializing in Euro-horror, cult exploitation, and Asian action cinema, Mike has written reviews for a diverse group of print and online publications. He covers horror news, movies, books, and games at TheHorrorGeek.com and Horrorsquad.com and spent two seasons as The Horror Geek on Comedy Central's pop-culture game show, Beat the Geeks.
Mike's childhood was spent playing videogames any time he got a chance. His parents had a Pong console and his grandmother had an Atari 2600, where Mike cultivated his skills by playing hour upon hour of games like Space Invaders, Berserk, and Asteroids. From those early experiences Mike learned one thing: he loved games.
In 1999, Mike became a staff reviewer at Cinescape Magazine's website where he spent a year learning the craft of game criticism. After internal changes led to Mike leaving Cinescape in late 2000, he joined up with RPGFan in 2001 and spent several years writing reviews for them. Happy, but looking for an opportunity to expound on a wider variety of titles, Mike joined GameCritics.com and hopes to help Chi, Dale, and the rest of the GC staff bring a higher level of respect to the field of game criticism.