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volume 1, issue 16

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Off the Shelf:
The Top Shelf






By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford

Title: Half-Life
Publisher: Sierra-On-Line
Developer: Valve Software
Average Price: $45


  may as well cut straight to the conclusion: Half-Life is a damn good game. Everyone knows that already so lets get it out of the way at the outset. Now we can look at the details of the game in comfort without that "conclusion" issue hanging over us the whole time. So...

Why is it a good game?

I suspect just about every game company with an interest in the first person shooter (FPS) genre will now be attempting to answer that question. It's actually a very important question because

Valve, with their first game, have taken the genre a number of large steps forward, a trick that even companies with a track record in the genre have been struggling with of late. How did they do it? Was it luck? A fluke? Or painstakingly planned? More importantly, can the reasons be written down on a piece of paper and later incorporated into other games?

The answers to those questions are, of course, not simple ones. You can't point at some feature of Half-Life and say "that is why it's a great game", nor can you point at any number of different elements; it's the whole game that makes it good - the interaction between all the elements rather than the elements themselves.

In terms of the game's design, Valve seems to have tossed the "classic" FPS game design out the window and approached things with a fresh view. A prime example is that the game isn't map based as other games are. Instead you could really consider it one long multi-load map (with the exception of the last episode, but more on that in a second).

The impact this new approach to level design has on the gameplay is extremely significant. For starters, the segments of map are actually very small compared to your typical FPS map which means that they load a lot quicker. I can't remember too many loads in the first 3 episodes taking longer than 5 seconds and many of them took much less than that. I was surprised how much this increased my enjoyment of the game, afterwards when I went and played some other FPS games I found the map loading to be incredibly annoying. This approach does have one major drawback however (if you can call it that); there are very few natural save points in the game! Whereas in other FPS games you'd finish a map, save the game then go do something else, Half-Life is almost completely devoid of these "go and see what real life is doing" points in the game and so it's very, very difficult to stop playing.

I've heard stories of people completing it in a single 13 hour session, and even my 4 day turn-around (on the hardest difficulty setting) seemed to go by frighteningly quickly. Make no mistake, Half-Life is an addictive game. The game itself is roughly divided into 4 episodes, although, again, these aren't episodes in the usual sense; the gameplay actually varies considerably between episodes; we're not just talking about a change of artwork and a few new baddies to contend with here, the play style really does change.

The opening episode plays out more like an interactive movie than your typical FPS, with exploration and interaction being the main drive. There are few things to shoot (or that shoot at you), and those that are around are none too difficult to take out. For the most part you are simply following the path which presents itself in front of you (although it's designed so that the path isn't obvious), with heavy use of non-player-character (NPC) interaction to build up a story (more on the cinematics later).

Depending on your bias for gameplay, this episode can vary between boredom for those that like a challenge and pure enjoyment for those who can get into the cinematic elements of the game. In preparing for this review I've heard examples of both responses, although the average response was more positive than negative.

The second episode introduces something never seen before; baddies that put up a fight! The first time you see a grenade lobbed up into your sniper position is the first really obvious taste you get of the much-touted AI in Half-Life, and for once the AI really does live up to it's hype.

These soldiers signify a very different shift in gameplay, with action and challenge being the main course on the menu. It actually takes some getting used to since all of the old tried and tested 'tricks' for killing baddies in a FPS game no longer work. Crouching behind a crate and popping your head up from time to time to take a shot isn't going to work because of the grenades. Retreating back into the preceding map to find health is dangerous too since they love to follow you. You also have to constantly watch your back since one of their favorite tactics is to circle around and outflank you while another of their buddies keeps your attention focused up front.

I think it would be accurate to call them bots; they don't play like deathmatch bots, nor do they act like humans in deathmatch. The AI is quite different to that deathmatch 'style', but in a good way; the deathmatch style AI of Unreal didn't work well in the game whereas the Half-Life approach has made them challenging while still making them feel like part of the game. It's a remarkable balance, and it's very hard to tell whether this was a planned result or something that was lucky enough to fall into place.

The first half of episode 3 is much like a more difficult subset of episode 2, but towards the end the gameplay makes another change towards more puzzle based challenges. Some of these challenges appear to be somewhat out of place, particularly the teleporter orientated ones, but the action elements were present throughout so it still manages to be an enjoyable combination.

The final episode sees a huge shift in gameplay, in fact it was almost a different game. The emphasis is heavily puzzle based - far more than the end of episode 3 - and this change in gameplay also sees the map approach revert back to a 'one map per puzzle' system (which is actually perfectly logical when you see the maps).

For some reason I found episode 4 to remind me heavily of Tomb Raider 2, with its puzzle orientated levels designs and the atmosphere it radiated. Even the final boss in Half-Life echoed many of the design qualities of the Tomb Raider 2 boss in terms of the way everything fits together. There were many differences, of course, but there was definitely a resemblance present (which is no bad thing in my opinion).

Half-Life even features a vehicle of sorts in the shape of trains, although the term 'train' is perhaps a little deceptive since these are more like a platform with a control box at one end . However, they are confined to "train tracks" which limits your interaction to a choice of speed (and the ability to change tracks in a couple of spots) rather than the all out freedom you might hope for when you hear the word "vehicle" mentioned. They're actually good fun, although seemed to play very little importance in the section of maps they were present in. I found myself completing most of the train areas on foot, and only went back to get the train at the end once I realized I needed it to finish the section. Ultimately, their inclusion was probably to add (yet more) variety to the gameplay and they broke up the action nicely indeed.

(Continued on Next Page)


Credits: Bargain Bin logo illustrated and is © 1998 Dan Zalkus. This edition of Top Shelf is © 1998 Rowan Crawford. All other content is © 1998 loonyboi productions. Unauthorized reproduction is a majorly hostile gesture.