By Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford
The sounds in Half-Life are probably as good as I've ever heard in a computer game since Doom, they are seriously fantastic. From the ambient environmental sound effects to the various weapons, the game sounds great. The only tarnish in the sound department are the voice samples for the NPCs which border uncomfortably on being unprofessional, but I was lucky enough to hear the game with surround sound today, and it the whole thing sounded amazing.
Visually, Half-Life is a bit of a mixed bag, with quality ranging from really nice to average.
The engine itself, as mentioned earlier, looks great, with just the right mix of eye candy and frame rate (I played the game on a P2-333 w/Voodoo2 card and a ton of RAM), and Valve have managed to give Half-Life a look that is different enough to Quake that it doesn't look too much like a "mod" or a "TC".
The models vary in quality the most, although even at their best they don't make any serious attempts to dethrone Quake 2 in the model department. Some of them, however, such as the big four-legged boss early in episode 4, do come very close. Many of them suffer from poor animation or limited skin quality, but the overall effect of the models in the game is a positive one. A special commendation goes to the animation of the little blue one-eyed dog-alike critter; the way he leans heavily onto one side and shakes while he charges up is brilliant.
One other criticism is that the game could really have benefited from a lot more baddie types. There didn't seem to be enough new baddies introduced during the game, although I don't think the lack of variety had a negative effect on the gameplay. It just would have been nice to see a lot more variety.
The textures are generally nice, if not particularly adventurous, and the skins follow a similar path. It's true to say that art side of Half-Life is not its strength, although everything does work well in the context of the game.
Half-Lifeís environments are great, with lots of variety in style and plenty of surprises around each corner. There is some limited map interaction, although nothing like the amount seen in the recent Sin. The first 3 episodes are designed much like any other FPS game around, with lots of air-conditioning vents to crawl around in, conveyor belts to hitch a ride on, and plenty of crates to lay into with the crowbar.
The environments have that "real place" feel about them, you can generally work out the architectural purpose of any given room, and the various areas are very well designed to present a particular type of challenge depending on the needs of the game.
For example, there are many places that are designed specifically for the almost "deathmatch" style play against the soldiers, all of which work unbelievable well (although a number of map-change points have been placed too close to these small arenas so you find yourself crossing load points mid-battle). Then you have areas that are designed to test your manual dexterity, and others that intend to get you lost and have you find your own way out.
One aspect of these first three episodes that I really enjoyed, and a facet of Duke Nukem 3D that worked particularly well, was that the levels were designed to make you feel like you were going totally the wrong way, exploring areas that were almost hidden, when you were actually following a very specifically designed path. You get this near-perpetual feeling that you have broken away from the path the author had intended, only to have the next section of map load, as if to say "yep, this is the right way. "The environments of episode 4 are as different to the earlier episodes as you could possibly imagine, with layouts quite unlike any other game around (the most similar environments in another game I can think of are those in the new version of The Sentinel Returns). The focus here is a combination of the surreal, bizarre, and openness, with each map consisting of a single, large scale puzzle, generally in huge open-air areas. Additionally, using stealth rather than running around with guns ablaze is definitely the way to make progress which adds yet another facet to the gameplay. They've done very well to accomplish these large outdoor areas with the Quake engine, and while they aren't in the Unreal department, they do convey the intended openness.
The Half-Life weapons are a well balanced set, each with their own purpose and use in the game. I found myself strategically using just about every weapon on offer right through the game, rather than sticking with a favorite until it ran out of ammo, so, as with everything else in the game, they again appear to have got the balance just about perfect. Half-Life really is a case of the "total being better than the sum of its parts". Take each element of the game individually and you find itís well done, but not Earth-shattering (with the exception of the sound), and yet together you have what is arguably one of the best games ever created. The hype that had built up around Half-Life since earlier this year was enormous, yet it was different to the hype seen for other games; rather than being the result of a clever marketing campaign, Half-Life's interest was almost solely the result of firsthand impressions from shows such as E3. This wasn't concocted hype, it was the real reaction of gamers who liked what they saw coming.
As a result, it's perhaps not so surprising that Half-Life lived up to the hype. The perfect game? Not really. The best game you'll play this year? Without a doubt. The best game ever? To rationalize a path through that question thoroughly would take a whole article, so I'll leave that one up to you.
It hardly needs to be said, but for the sake of clarity: a must buy!
- Rowan "Sumaleth" Crawford is a regular contributor to loonygames, and a member of Team Impact.
|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.|