Yeah, yeah, yeah…I know that I haven’t completely went with my promises, but I get really lazy and forgetful then real life priorities get in my way. I was originally going to strictly follow the review schedule, but felt that it would be repetitive reviewing games of the same franchise within a short timeframe. HL:S was actually one of the more recent games I played – in fact, it was over the summer and early fall that I was still actively playing it! As with every Valve game except VR and FTP titles, I purchased the Valve Complete Pack back in December 2016 through Steam. I could’ve gotten into PC gaming earlier yet I was preoccupied with mobile gaming.
I’ll be reviewing the Source port of the original Half-Life, as opposed to the OG version on the GoldSource engine or Black Mesa, the fan remaster still in early access. I don’t know why Valve ported HL1 to Source engine other than to maybe test out its capabilities, and at first fans liked it only for a major update to Steam in 2013 to turn it into a buggy mess. HL:S released earlier than other ports like Counter-Strike: Source and Day of Defeat: Source, hence why the graphics are extremely barebones as those I mentioned use assets from HL2 and a modified (and virtually original) Source engine.
Let’s get over the worst and obvious aspect of HL:S – its shitty visuals. Even for 2003 standards, the game looks very bad as it literally looks like a slightly better variation of the original HL1. The only improvements that HL:S has over the original is increased bloom and lighting for players to see better as the GoldSource engine virtually has no bright lighting whatsoever, as well as “HD” models for characters and weapons (if you even consider them that). Everything from polygon count, map textures, particle/detail effects, and map props look exactly or barely better than its original.
Since there is next to no cosmetic upgrades, the game runs extremely well even on low end PC’s from the 2000s and Valve has updated it to work on Windows 10. With my laptop, I can run the game easily over 120fps at 1080p max settings though to avoid overheating, I play at 900p ultra and get 60fps locked with v-sync enabled. Sadly, many of the assets are broken thanks to Valve, so some characters and objects are floating or they are invisible. The flashlight and explosions can lower the framerate to console level though sadly that just seems to be a problem with Source engine.
The soundtrack is unchanged and for the better as the music in HL1 was phenomenal and people love it even to this day. It does have a 90s and techno/sci-fi vibe to it, though unlike most games at the time, music only plays during specific events like after killing a strong enemy or progressing through an important plot moment. Many of the compositions are catchy and pleasing; however, they’re too similar to one another so they can be forgetful and some are atmospheric. Sound effects are low quality in terms of the design and how it makes my ears bleed. They’re either too loud, unconvincing, or very hard to hear in comparison to other noises nearby.
I don’t know if this is just me and the silent minority, nonetheless Half-Life attempts to convey realism yet fails at this very task. Many of the assets like doors, crates, and switches are not in proportion to their real-life variations; either too big, too wide, too short, etc. Several of the map textures show almost no lighting or shadow effects, and if it does it’s static or the dynamic shaders is very limited (entire wall reflecting light bulb). Overall, Half-Life: Source looks like an average 64-bit game at best looking worse than titles like Ocarina of Time and Sonic Adventure from that generation.
You play as a scientist that is silent and apathetic to his environment, Gordon Freeman, a research associate working in Black Mesa research facility in New Mexico, USA. All seems to be normal as Gordon starts another day of work as he rides the tram throughout the transit system. He arrives to the appropriate sector, goes through security checkpoints, acquires his trademark HEV orange suit, and heads off to the test chamber to experiment with a new crystal sample. As Gordon makes his way deeper to the lab, he notices a strange man in a suit (later known as G-Man) and some few problems with the machines and concerns from co-workers.
Just as the experiment is running smoothly, the crystal appears in a cart for Gordon to push into the generator. The instant the two collide, all hell breaks loose as the scientists scream in pain, green light and electricity run rampant, and Gordon himself is teleported to various dimensions and places. When he wakes up, Mr. Freeman races his way back to the surface as other scientists and security guards are trying to. Machines, elevators, computers, and doors are all breaking down around him – crabesque creatures that seem to morph their victims into zombies appear out of thin air.
Eventually, Freeman does make his way close to the surface, calling for help from the outside and having others assist along the journey. Only for it to all be in vain as the military, specifically the marines, were called in to take out anybody that is aware of the top-secret project that caused this apocalypse. Gordon must fight not just the marines and aliens, but also black ops soldiers silencing the marines too. As you make your way throughout the enormous facility, taking detours by visiting hazardous and discontinued areas, Freeman gets ambushed and killed by two marines.
With the HEV suit absorbing most of the bullet dmg, Gordon narrowly escapes death from a trash compactor and explores laboratories on the surface. Things get tougher with a higher presence of the army and encounters with higher-ranking alien soldiers and monsters lurking about. On the advice of some scientists, Freeman forces his way past it all to reach the Lambda complex, an area of Black Mesa containing teleporting technology that can potentially stop this catastrophe. Marines don’t make it easy for him since they introduce sand bags, barricades, tanks, and attack helicopters.
Xen is a dimensional world in between universes that contains many of the aliens enslaved by a creature known as the Ninhilanth. Once there, Gordon visits strange planet-like structures, defeats countless aliens including the mother of the headcrabs, and observes the slavery of the Vortigaunts. At last, Mr. Freeman fights the Ninhilanth one on one, using conventional military and prototype sci-fi weapons to take out the fetus monstrosity once and for all. Gordon then gets teleported elsewhere where he meets up with G-Man, and he admits he was manipulating events from the unknown, and offers Freeman a job, putting him in stasis for 20 years till HL2.
Honestly, the story might seem intriguing though sadly this is all observed and collected over a long period of time. In most of the game, you simply walk around, fight enemies, explore the areas, and talk to people to figure out what to do. Valve decided to be innovative by avoiding the use of cutscenes or still images for plot presentation, rather they opted for real time interaction and scripted events. This is actually a smart move as technology at the time didn’t allow for the cinematic stories we enjoy today. Unlike later iterations, HL:S lacks any meaningful events aside from the beginning and end as the revelations are presented strictly through character dialogue.
Aside from Gordon, G-Man, scientists, aliens, military, and security there are nobody. The Xen aliens include head crabs, Vortigaunts, flying manta rays, bullsquids, elite orc-like soldiers, and some tentacle octopus thingie. The characters just repeat the same lines, except G-Man and select allies (and the two marines that ambush Freeman) that convey important advice critical to game or story progression. Character development and realistic expression is non-existant as we only see each character briefly. Okay, and the limited technology didn’t really allow for fluid animations.
I honestly can’t agree with most of the Half-Life community and claim this is one of the most story rich games of all time. There have been games released around HL1’s time and slightly later, such as Ocarina of Time and Resident Evil, that have a more prominent and complex story with cinematic animations and deeper messaging. Perhaps if Gordon could actually speak or interact with characters more, HL would’ve been more immersive. Even in the gameplay, it doesn’t feel like progressing really gets you anywhere aside from going to point A to B based on what others say.
Amount of interactions are minimal and vague, and can even be avoided if you so choose to do so. Aside from some scripted events, everything else you have to piece it yourself by thinking outside the box or reading between the lines as they say. Relying on assumptions to quick conclusions is a bad thing and often times it can lead to messages totally unintended by the developers. I understand technology was primitive in the day, but having assets repeated over with little that is remarkable does not improve or even make up any sort of atmosphere within a game’s environment.
Mostly being a first-person shooter, players use a variety of guns, explosives, and other sci-fi based weapons (and the crowbar) to kill your enemies. There are also platforming and puzzle elements added, as you must solve specific puzzles in order to advance to the next area or to complete specific “story-critical” objectives. Since it is Valve’s first title and a late 90s game, the platforming is extremely mediocre made worst with first person. Collision detection, lack of first person model, and small/narrow platforms – which some can break or slippery, only worsen it.
As Freeman, you are a scientist and can have your fellow co-workers follow you to open specific doors or activate certain machines that you should be able to? Security guards can also follow you to give combat support and gain access to restricted areas; both can give you some advice while scientists can even heal you. Should you be low on health or suit energy, simply charge up to a nearby first-aid or HEV suit station. Ammo and weapons can be picked up randomly or after an enemy dies while enemies, turrets, explosives, and traps are laid out as obstacles.
It seems that the Source port is extremely sensitive with the mouse as I don’t have to use much effort in moving my hand or clicking to perform repetitive actions. For the GoldSource engine, it’s the opposite even with a higher sensitivity enabled (probably using older software or code from older OS). I don’t know why Valve included keybinds for controls that are never used in-game like looking up or down or swimming, and I’m not explaining which keys do what since on PC you can rebind them. Video settings include features like motion blur, colour correction, and multi-core rendering, as well as common options like texture/shader quality and anti-aliasing.
Unlike most games from the 90s, you do not have to go through a hubworld or travel in an extremely linear level. Rather, you can from chapter to chapter, which contain several levels and sometimes you may have to backtrack or pass by old areas (unlike in Portal lol). There are several major fights but nothing significant like boss battles, only several strong enemies, a horde of marines or aliens, and one big “boss” that can’t be killed with your own weapons. There are no extra lives or ways to permanently increase health (or passwords to skip levels) – you may save and load whenever you want, and dying respawns you back to the last manual or quick save.
Besides that, methods of travel include crawling through vents, swimming through sewers, riding rail-based vehicles, climbing ladders, riding elevators, and later on going through portals. It may seem diverse but they’re all just gimmicks or disguises of basic controls. The Source engine is vastly superior to the GoldSource, as I can see much better with dynamic and reflective lighting while the physics allow easier platforming. Playing in GoldSource showed me how slow and heavy characters would be and it stinked. Much like Counter-Strike, there is recoil but no weight added to the guns.
Other than the story mode, there’s a multiplayer mode called Death-Match which is its own expansion in the Source port. The servers are few and empty with maybe a few dozen players at most at any given time and is barebones. Difficulties range from easy, normal, and hard, with no differences besides stat boosts for enemies and less aiming accuracy for your guns. Valve included a VR mode but some people can’t get it to work and who would want to play a sub-par game with 64-bit graphics with a headset? Oddly, only the original HL1 actually has Steam Cloud support.
Just forgot despite it being in the name, the Source engine is Valve’s own engine unlike GoldSource that was a heavy modification of Quake. It has been updated and heavily modified itself multiple times over the years, with this one used for early ports the “beta” version as all future titles are adaptions of the one used for HL2 and Valve’s mods turned games like Left 4 Dead. Had Valve decided to release HL:S later, then graphically it would have looked better along with the physics. The bad graphics and bugs are why fans later made the now de facto remaster of HL1 Black Mesa.
Sadly, most of the weapons have very negative stats; either they are too inaccurate, have very little ammo, poor firing range, high recoil, or do very little damage. The enemies seem to have no issues at all and get even better with using them, which is as strange and unfair as the bots in CSS. Weapons consist of crowbar, M4 Carbine (MP5 in HL1), Spas Shotgun, crossbow, military grenades, two prototype energy beam cannons, alien that shoots its babies (I think), RPG, pistol, military laser-triggered bomb, and military remote-triggered bomb. Unfortunately, many of these weapons are also unoriginal, lack a sci-fi vibe, or very hard to replenish or find.
Enemies are not that diverse and are extremely easy to kill except for the marines and the Black Ops. Sometimes the military will use turrets or machine guns to kill you, and aliens will teleport in large numbers. Even with crates, walls, and other obstacles, it’s still hard to avoid being damaged as they have good accuracy and do high damage even on easy difficulty. Boss enemies that can’t be killed normally must be avoided completely or only killed with a machine that must be activated with generators. I did forget to mention some but they’re literally so forgettable so whatever.
There are literally no other NPC’s aside from scientists, security, aliens, and the military and those mentioned serve basic and often only one purpose. It’s sad that the supporting “cast” aren’t given more roles aside from providing health or combat support and vague or obvious advice to progress further. The community has overhyped that Half-Life is acclaimed for having a rich story with characters that aren’t brain dead useless idiots, since…both friend and foe are idiots only guided by scripts to seem smart. The AI in this game is one of the laziest designs ever, second only to Left 4 Dead (that’ll be expanded upon in a future review) and aided with unfair advantages.
Black Mesa is the only setting throughout the whole game, and damn is it so huge. Places range from stereotypical corridors, offices, and laboratories, to transit rail systems, sewage networks, and desert. What is total ass is how bland and boring the designs are, and how repetitive the layouts and textures become overtime. The more interesting areas are only seen once or are filled with annoying puzzles and/or enemies you’d avoid going there again despite the view. Each time you leave a “level” the game freezes for a few seconds and has to load the next area, rarely can result in crash or may disorient some players with the transition (loading is faster in original HL1).
Xen is the dimensional rift that exists between universes, acting as the habitat for aliens that were escaping some unknown threat later revealed in HL2, only to be enslaved by the Ninhilanth. In particular, the Vortigaunts I keep mentioning were an intelligent species like humans that are good forced evil, hence the green wristbands. They play a vital role in future Half-Life games and yes side with humans becoming allies. Xen itself is a bottom of the barrel, unimaginative void filled with floating rocks and caves, the only unique feature are the shit ton of enemies, rare amount of supplies, strange plant life, and finally low gravity because outer space totally just has that.
The lack of any side missions, collectibles, game-modes, or non-linear progression honestly makes Half-Life in general a garbage experience. Sure, sometimes you can collect energy packs to boost your suit’s energy without charging and hidden areas reward you with ammo and health…and that’s it. Literally it feels like I’m playing an 80s style game, switched with 90s mechanics and graphics for “innovation”. All you do over and over are press this button, climb this ladder, crank this valve, kill enemies in enclosed space, go from point A to point B – lame!
I may seem being too harsh and pessimistic for Valve’s first title ported to Source; however, the community and critics at large put this on a pedestal. They kiss the asses of Gaben and his crew while hyping the shit out of this franchise, with some claiming it’s way better than Half-Life 2 (it’s not by the way) by a landslide. How people see HL1 as being innovative, visually appealing, and fun is beyond my logical comprehension. Okay sure, some issues I pointed out are caused by the massive bugs apparently caused by the major update I told you guys about earlier in this review.
Though I cannot remember all of them, here are just some of the major and minor bugs that either break the visuals or progression of HL:S itself. Many characters and items are either invisible, misplaced, or harmless; bad hit registration and collision detection resulting in unexpected (or no) damage and frozen in tight spaces; memory leaks causing crash to desktop; two chapters causing graphical mess entirely unless an option is disabled and so on. I won’t mention specific examples to prevent spoilers as HL:S is a short game and this is a review, not an encyclopedia.
Contrary to everything I wrote demonizing towards this game/port, Half-Life: Source is quite addicting and fun to play on repeated playthroughs. The predictable and linear levels with action-based sequences and simplistic puzzles turns this into a speed runner friendly masterpiece. Ironically it’s much like a multiplayer online game where you can easily hop in and out of specific game segments then leave when you get bored. The chapter system and quick save/load makes up for the difficulty spikes and frustrating enemies. With the developer console, you can even skip entire levels as to not repeat through those sections in the chapters you disliked.
The campaign can be beaten within 10 hours total and less than 5 on speed runs. Sadly there are no achievements, making the lack of collectibles and side missions contribute to my salty impression of this industry changer. I think Gearbox, the devs behind the expansion packs (later on to make the Borderlands series), wanted to port them to Source nonetheless never went through it. Half-Life doesn’t need to be played to enjoy or understand why everything occurs in the sequel, and strangely most of the lore taking place before the franchise is explained in HL2 too.
Overall, I’d have to be mixed towards Half-Life: Source, neither completely rejecting it nor accepting it for what the community told me it was. If you’ve played the big games from the late 90s then you aren’t really missing out, and playing series like Metroid Prime and Bioshock are very similar that it’s not that unique. Maybe if I tried the original Half-Life instead of Source, I’d be more positive though not favourable either. What I appreciate about this is that it’s just like any other console game I grew up with: story-driven, levels with enemies and platforming, and a general objective.
Many games on PC that are unique to the platform suffer from little or no story, repetitive multiplayer matches, and bad business practices. Valve is much like Nintendo but for adults, creating innovative (or at least imaginative) games that influence and forever change the gaming industry. Half-Life is their poster child and is what led to other franchises like Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, Portal, and Left 4 Dead. And originally the Source port was fine and free of the bugs it had before 2013. I wholeheartedly believe budget was the main limitation back in 1998.
If you’re not into shooters with a story and puzzles to solve, then please just stick to Battlefield or Fortnite. Otherwise, this is worth your while if you hate extremely old games on Windows 10 or can’t run Black Mesa. It’s best to purchase this with the Valve Complete Pack or another bundle during a holiday sale. Half-Life 1 may have not lived up to my expectations; nevertheless, as you’ll soon read in the future, HL2 definitley did and I hope you see it when it’s published. (I know I failed to publish reviews monthly and I blame myself for being lazy and not managing my time better.)