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19 November 2013 @ 08:39 pm
A Half-Life Retrospective: "They're waiting for you, Gordon. In the test chamber."  
Half-Life is 15 Years Old Today

I missed out on the Half-Life bandwagon when it first came out. At that point, I think I was mostly playing Master of Magic or Diablo I or Civilization II as well as various Sierra adventure games, and I'm not even sure I knew about it until later. I had definitely heard about it before I went to university, but I had been trained by games like Doom, Blake Stone, Ken's Labyrinth, Rise of the Triad, Thor's Hammer, etc., etc., that FPSes were basically free and that I could get plenty of fun out of them without paying, so why would I buy one?

That attitude lasted me until I got a shiny new computer and moved away to university, into a dorm room in Hill House, and went through freshman orientation week with the other people on my floor. I don't remember his name, but one of the people who lived really close to my room eventually offered me a burned CD with the words "Half-Life" on it and told me to try it, and that I'd probably like it. So it took it back to my room, installed it later, and gave it a try.

I still remember the sense of anticipation I had on the train ride. How I felt walking about and watching the NPCs after the solitary experiences the other FPSes I had played were. I played a bit of Strife, which actually did have characters who weren't trying to shoot you the whole time in its hub area, but it wasn't like this. And then came unforeseen consequences:

I still get goosebumps when Gordon is stuck in the darkness between dimensions and the only sounds are his breathing and the beating of his heart.

From that moment on, I was hooked. Say what you like about Half-Life introducing the era of narrative-heavy shooters, but it certainly never went as far as the worst excesses of the modern era. One of the points of pride was that even during nominal cut-scenes, like the monorail ride at during the intro sequence, you still retain full control over Gordon. You can bounce around that monorail car like Tigger on speed if you want, and indeed I've done that several times, but that first time, I just took it all in. I even came to Xen without any preconceptions and actually liked it a lot, so I was really surprised when I heard about how much it was maligned. Maybe it was just that I managed to make an incredibly lucky jump where I missed a platform, flew around the island in some kind of crazy orbit and landed in a cave on the lower area, skipping the rest of the jumps and about half the level. :p

I remember the Blast Pit, and hearing that damn tentacle banging around while I slowly crept along trying to stay out of its notice. I remember the first time I saw a headcrab zombie and the sounds they made while I tried to dodge their hideous claws. I remember the soldiers killing scientists, and the black ops ninjas killing the soldiers, and the aliens killing everyone. I remember launching the satellite to stabilze the portal connection to Xen, and the desperate run through the portal to take the fight to the invading aliens and stop the foothold scenario from overwhelming the world.

And I still think the G-Man's real name starts with N and ends with yarlathotep.

After I beat the game, I went out on the web to learn more about it and discovered the fantastic mod scene for it. I downloaded Counter-Strike and played it during its early days, when there was a variety of popular map and game types and before everything was All Shooting, No AWP, de_dust all the time. I remember hiding under a bridge with the VIP we were escorting, trying to figure out where the terrorists were and where we should go, and not wanting to head up the ramp flanked by crates because it was open territory. I also remember coming back later and finding one server that seemed to end up the way I remember Counter-Strike ever after--the two sides would spawn, they would all charge into one corridor in the center of the map, guns and grenades blazing, and 90% of the players would die in the first 30 seconds. The remaining 10 minutes were the last few people hunting each other down. I was almost always one of those people, and occasionally the last one remaining, because really, who wants to sit around and do nothing for nine minutes? A lot of people, apparently.

I moved on to Team Fortress, where I loved playing the engineer because of the sentry gun and the EMP grenades, and I'm still a little annoyed that grenades aren't in Team Fortress 2. That was almost entirely 2Fort, but there I didn't mind it. After all, playing an engineer is all about camping, so a map designed for ridiculous stalemates played to my desire to hide and have my gun murder all those damn [OTHER_COLOR] guys perfectly.

I played a lot of generic Half-Life deathmatch against my friends, too, though the main memories I have are of a map that was an old gothic house, searching for each other amid the rooms and staircases, dropping snarks from balconies, mutually agreeing to ban the gluon gun because it was basically a death sentence for anyone it was turned on...

What I really loved playing, though, was Natural Selection. This was the first game I really played that had asymmetric sides, since Warcraft III didn't come out until 2002 (though I was in the beta--sort of): one side are the humans, who wear armor and use guns like you'd expect humans to, and the other side are aliens are half-based on the Zerg and half-based on the Xenomorphs. Aliens start out as Skulks and can evolve into different forms, whereas humans can get new equipment. Humans also have a commander that gives build and movement orders, whereas aliens are all autonomous and have a hive mind that lets any of them tell where humans are if any one of them can see the humans. What this meant was that most of the time, aliens were more likely to win because they were designed to work even when the players didn't talk to each other, but humans did really well with an effective commander.

The main moment I remember from my hours of Natural Selection was when I spawned into a game in progress where the humans were holed up in their starting room, which was heavily fortified. Wave after wave of aliens came pouring into the room, but the multiple turrets and humans with heavy machine guns always managed to hold them off until, finally the assault stopped. We stood around, looking nervously throughout the room, waiting for something. Then we heard a banging sound out in the hallway.

"Please don't let it be an Onos," someone said over voice chat.

A moment later, a three-meter tall, two-ton armored monster burst into the room, pulping one of the humans who was standing near a turret. As screams and yells of "ONOOS!!" filled the voice chat, we all started firing at the monster that was demolishing our turrets. Unfortunately, we were so intent on the Onos that we didn't think to pay attention to the rest of the aliens, and as more turrets fell, they flooded into the room and started attacking the humans. I didn't even have time to respawn before the teleporters were taken out and the match was over.

Next to Unreal Tournament 1999 (which I should also do a retrospective on at some point), Half-Life is the FPS that I spent the most time with, and one of the ones I have the fondest memories of. Even when the memory is getting pulped by a giant tentacle, or frantically running as uriany drops a ton of snarks down the tunnel I'm hiding in, or lying sideways on the floor watching an alien monster destroy the entire base. Next to Morrowind, it's one of my favorite games. There aren't many other games I've played that I've gotten as many hours of pure fun out of as Half-Life, and to this day a headcrab sits above my desk, perched on my metal skull, watching me.

There's a part of me that's still there in that test chamber, waiting for Freeman to show up for the experiment. A small part, after all these years, but I'm not sure it'll ever leave.
Current Mood: nostalgicnostalgic
Current Music: Half-Life 2: Episode 2 - Shu'ulathoi
q99q99 on November 20th, 2013 12:18 pm (UTC)
UT '99 was easily the FPS I played the most! (Doom II being the second)
dorchadasdorchadas on November 21st, 2013 12:47 am (UTC)
I played a ludicrous amount of UT. Then even more when I discovered all the mods out there. Mostly ChaosUT, but Dark Magic and the RPG mod got a lot of playtime too.
q99q99 on November 21st, 2013 10:00 pm (UTC)
I don't think I saw the RPG one, but I did play around with the other mods too ^^