Home > Old games > Half-life and Valve’s Steam

Half-life and Valve’s Steam

About two weeks ago I’ve read my favourite news site and saw a small advertising article saying that due to 10th anniversary of Half-life the Valve company sells the original Half-life game for 1$. This proposal seemed very attractive to me. I’ve liked Half-life back then it was released, but I’ve lost my disk (probably gave it to someone and forgot). For a long time I wanted my Half-life back without paying for it again. And Valve’s proposal was an excellent opportunity to own a game again almost for free.

The game was available for sale only for limited time and only through Valve’s online platform called “Steam”. I’ve heard about Steam before, but I’ve never had a chance to use it. Here in Russia we don’t usually use online shops because of difficulties with online payment. However, I’ve decided to try. I’ve downloaded Steam client software and created a Steam account. Fortunatelly, a payment using a credit card worked smoothly, and soon I saw a “Half-life” in a list of owned games. The next step whould be to download a game.

I was quite interested in Steam because in the past I was involved in a project of digital software delivery. That project was not very succesful because it was focused on securing a delivery channel to prevent illegal copying of a software. It is obvious that such system required a sophisticated protocol, but is still vulnerable to unauthorized copying once a program is downloaded. Valve has solved a problem by adding online activation in software which is downloaded. That’s why their system succeded: they are both game developers and game distributors. Of course, online activation is not convenient because computer must be online, but Valve made some improvements to reduce inconvenience.

I have two PCs. One has a good online connection, another is more suitable for games. I’ve created Steam account using “gaming” PC. Then I’ve installed Steam also on “online” PC, and, since my ownership data are stored on Steam servers, I’ve started downloading Half-life. Download process was quite quick. Then, I’ve used Steam’s “backup/restore” feature to move downloaded files from “online” PC to “gaming” PC, and could play right away. Although Steam is not very responsive application, it is quite convenient. I will explain in another article how Steam works in detail, and now I’m going to describe Half-life.

Half-life is often described as “cinematic shooter”. It starts as “cinematic”, with protagonist, seen from first-person perspective, travels by small tram inside huge high-tech recearch center to his workplace. This part is just one impressive sequence of special effects made using game engine, so you can rotate your head and look freely. When your tram arrives, a degree of interactivity increases so you can go where you want, talk with AI-controlled actors such as security guards and scientists, use switches to turn off the lights. The game keeps entertaining you by letting you observe everyday life in advanced recearch facility with much attention paid to details. Scientists discuss, argue and complain, security guards greet you. To advance the plot you should take part in experiment, which will go very wrong. Experiment failure leads to two dangerous consequences: base equipment breaks and alien life forms teleport to various places of the base.

Now you need to escape from infested base, so game is no longer a “sci-fi quest” but rather a “survival horror quest”. You need to solve several navigational puzzles, like climbing a lift shaft, crouching to avoid being cut by laser, ask a collegue to open a door, cooperate with security guard to fight zombies. However, soon you’ll obtain a pistol and game changes genre once more, turning into “survival horror shooter”.

Authors of “Half-life” often stated that their main inspiration was “Doom”. Authors of “Doom”, in turn, say they were inspired by movies “Aliens” and “Evil dead”. Main theme of “Doom” is horror, and it is achieved by having two kinds of enemies: zombies posessed by evil spirits and aliens from another dimension. Creators of “Doom” unified those kinds of monsters by making this another dimension a “hell”, which also increased horror element. Thus, “Doom” mixes elemens of sci-fi, supernatural horror and monster horror. “Half-life” abandons supernatural element of “Doom” and remains pure sci-fi, but they wanted to keep zombies as an important element of horror. This was solved by a following way. There is an alien creature called “headcrab”. Headcrabs are small and hard to notice, and they attack by jumping very quickly from a distance with a screaming sound, so they are themselves a frightening enemies. They can attach to heads of dead humans turning them into zombies. Usage of human bodies as hosts by aliens in “Half-life” makes it close to “Aliens”.

Most of the time “Half-life” continues as “survival horror shooter” with player fighting aliens and avoiding environmental obstacles. It turns out that failed experiment has lead to large-scale alien invasion of Earth. To contain a situation government has sent a special marine forces who will kill not only aliens but also all base personel including you, so at some points a game is becoming a “military shooter”. You travel through huge base to “lambda complex”, learning on the way that this research facility performed experiments with interdimensional travel for some time. Last part of the game is an assault on alien’s homeworld called “Xen” because it is the only way to stop invasion of Earth.

Technically “Half-life” was not a breakthrough. It used a modified Quake engine with additions such as:

  • Static colour lights
  • Transparent textures (used for glass and grids)
  • Moving objects (like boxes and barrels)
  • Dynamic textures (used for computer panels, for example)
  • Light coronas
  • Skeletal animation
  • Destructable objects

These features could be considered not as radical improvements but rather as engine hacks. Greatest achievement of Valve is that they were able to use the engine to create realistically looking environment in modern-day settings while keeping acceptable performance. Other contemporary games like Quake 2, Jedi Knight, Hexen 2 and Unreal chose futuristic or medieval architecture so their level design whouldn’t look too abstract, but they’ve failed to achieve a mood.

Half-life uses lots of hacks to increase a performance. Levels are long and twisting corridors which reduces an amount of visible poligons. They use goraund shading so some surfaces whould look as curves. Ladders are just textures with transparency. These hacks are not noticeable by casual player, levels look realistic and game plays smooth.

Great degree of immersion is achieved not only by realistic level design, but also by realistic gameplay. In other contemporary FPSes monsters are trigger-based: they are standing still and waiting for you to approach. To add an action element monsters sometimes reside in hidden room which opens when you walk into some area. Half-life uses a trick which is consistent with the plot: monsters teleport close to you. You can have allies, and also can participate in monster in-fighting. Having friendly characters seems to me as a very important part of game’s atmosphere, and is a great factor of player’s motivation to advance: you move in hope to find help, and you got it.

The game is large, but not repetitive. This is achieved by creative level design, different gameplay styles on different parts, spectacular special effects to reward you for a progress. A doze of black humor helps the mood not to become too dark.

To summarize all said, Half-life is a most immersive shooter since Doom. Unlike Quake or Unreal, it’s strength is not a technology, but the content.

Since I’ve played this game second time, it was not difficult for me to complete. My favourite weapon is a Magnum pistol. Sometimes game is quite hard. In Xen there are lots of hidden caves with ammo and health.

That’s all for now.

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