Did you know that Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was announced for development ten years ago on May 22nd? No, not Half-Life 3, I mean Half-Life 2: Episode 3. The second episode was left on an immense cliffhanger and gamers are still waiting for Valve to deliver. Everyone can joke about the company being unable to count to three, but there’s a special place in the gamer community for Half-Life 3. It’s something of a legend nowadays—a myth in the lore of gaming.
That alone should tell you the impact of the Half-Life series on gamers, and it all started with the very first one on PC in 1998. At that point, Valve was two years into its life, having been the startup of former Microsoft employees Gabe Newell and Mark Harrington. They promised that their first game was going to be a bombshell, but I’m sure even they didn’t know how big it was going to be.
Released on November 8, 1998, Half-Life told the story of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a scientist working at a site called Black Mesa, which might as well be Area 51. Things quickly spiral out of control for the good doctor as one of his experiments causes a dimensional rift to tear open, linking the facility to an alien world where monsters start swarming the facility and causing chaos everywhere.
This is where the game truly begins. What was just another day at the office turns into a nightmare as Dr. Freeman tries to escape the deadly facility’s monsters while eventually evading the game’s equivalent of the U.S. Marines who are trying to kill everything and everyone to cover the incident up.
Half-Life was immensely impressive for its time, boasting some of the most gorgeous graphics out there back in 1998. Everything was bright, smooth, and as you can imagine given the circumstances, quite a bit bloody and gory. The environments were highly detailed, as were characters and monsters in the game.
Not only that, but Half-Life also made it a point to have spectacular moments that truly set it apart from games of the time. Where other games at the time were far less worried about anything other than “complete the objectives and exit the level ,” Half-Life made it a point to have set pieces that were sure to wow gamers. Scenes like the beginning with the dimensional rift opening, or with the plane crashing, were put in to shock gamers and immerse them in the insane world they had entered.
You may hear this and say “Oh yeah, well Uncharted is all about setpieces” or “big deal, the plane crash in Left 4 Dead is way more impressive” but keep in mind that Half-Life was doing it before the Backstreet Boys wanted it that way, before anyone had ever heard the booming cry of “SUPER! SMAAAAAAASH! BROTHEEEEERS!” and even before the Y2K bug had a chance to terrify people. Feeling old yet?
Half-Life wasn’t just all eye candy though. It had the gameplay to back up its graphical prowess, with a litany of weapons to choose from. You have your standard fare of pistol, shotgun, machine gun, magnum … but then there are some pretty unique weapons. A crossbow, an alien homing gun, and even some alien flesh-eating parasites are Dr. Freeman’s to use in combat among many more weapons. Of course, far be it from me to discuss Gordon Freeman’s arsenal without bringing up his legendary crowbar! This iconic melee weapon is very useful in killing enemies and solving puzzles, so be glad he keeps it handy!
That isn’t to say that combat was the only part of Half-Life. A solid portion of the game is also built around puzzle-solving and crossing dangerous terrain. Being a very intelligent scientist, Dr. Freeman must navigate the crumbling ruins of Black Mesa, carefully solving environmental puzzles so that he can cross gaps, avoid electrified water and in general, not end up in radioactive goop that has spilled everywhere. It’s a game that’s not afraid to slow down the action every now and then to challenge your mind rather than your trigger finger. Sadly, Half-Life continues to stand out in this department as it seems very little focus in shooters nowadays is put on puzzles. In that regard, this title may not be a complete trailblazer but Valve did take inspiration from their own puzzles and physics engine to craft a certain masterful first person puzzle series.
That being said, Half-Life was integral in refining and even inventing concepts for shooters that are still used even to this day. The movement speed is intensely fast, with the normal walk being most games’ sprint button at the time. This Doom-like game speed was leading the charge alongside games like Quake and Unreal, but Half-Life was using this speed in ways all its own. Most notably is the inclusion of the crouch jump, which is essentially a long jump that no game had done before. Where you could rocket boost in twitch shooters of the time, Half-Life took the physics of an exploit like that and integrated it without the need to hurt yourself. Such a simple maneuver can be seen in plenty of first person titles nowadays including nearly all Source engine-based games from Left 4 Dead to Portal (which makes sense as Valve made the engine), the Halo series, and other titles like Mirror’s Edge and its upcoming sequel Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. What seems essential for fast-paced movement nowadays started with little ol’ Half-Life back in 1998.
Another impressive aspect of the game and perhaps the one that is most influential is the distinct lack of chopped-up levels. Most games of the time would pull you out of the experience by ending a mission, taking you back to the level select screen and starting the next mission. Half-Life, conversely, has a completely connected world that you will never have to go to a menu to select. Sure, there are moments where the game will freeze gameplay for a split second and load the next area but that’s a small price to pay for overall immersion. In fact, the game is so boastful about this that the first five or ten minutes of the game is a monorail ride through the facility, to drive home the interconnected aspect of Black Mesa. At the time, it was pretty jaw-dropping to say the least and it’s no surprise that soon afterward, plenty of shooters like Turok 3 and System Shock 2 were touting full seamless environments to explore instead of segmented stages or levels.
Even today, the ideology of one large connected world has exploded into the open-world craze that seems to have taken over every genre, shooters included. Everything from the aforementioned Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst to the upcoming Ghost Recon: Wildlands. Doom 3 was a complete shift from the level-based gameplay of the first two and prided itself on having a fully explorable environment. Series as big and illustrious as Metroid Prime, Deus Ex, Borderlands, and Far Cry thrive on being wide open to explore, and they can thank Half-Life for the idea. Did Valve invent open-world gameplay? Of course not. However, nobody had really thought to apply those concepts to the shooter genre prior so credit where credit is due. Thanks, Black Mesa!
All of this came together back in 1998 to create a game that has clearly inspired plenty of games in its genre. Many games take note of Half-Life and use it as a base even today. That is, if they aren’t busy using Half-Life 2 which was almost, if not equally as impactful on the gaming community as the original.
So, will we ever see Half-Life 3 or even Half-Life 2: Episode 3? I can’t say I have the answers. Despite that, at least we know that Valve was responsible for a solid backbone that the rest of the industry could build on. Even if we never get those two fabled titles, we still got Half-Life and Half-Life 2, which both stand the test of time as some of the most influential titles in the shooter genre.