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Half-Life (PC)
MSRP: $39.99
Number of Players: 1 (includes multiplayer option)
Developer: Valve
Publisher: Sierra Studios

Rating:
*****
out of
*****

Many recent first-person shooters have taken the same re-treaded plot of Quake and Quake II and simply doled out something that we've all seen before, just with different graphics and a new box. Half-Life, the long-awaited first-person shooter from Sierra Studios and Valve, is not just another retread. At first glance, and especially after looking at the packaging, it might not appear much different than any other game based on the Quake II engine. After spending a few minutes with this game, though, you'll be hooked into its storyline and fighting to make excuses to keep playing.

You play the part of Gordon Freeman, a research physicist, who's been selected to participate in an experiment at a government lab. The game begins with an extended, movie-style intro that gives you an excellent introduction to the storyline and the game's setting. You're on a railcar that is entering a secret underground research facility called Black Mesa. During the introduction, you'll see automation moving things around, workers doing their jobs and security personnel roaming the facility. After the railcar stops, you discover that you're late for the experiment you're to participate in.

Before you can take part in the experiment, you have to find out where the lab is, find and put on a Hazardous Environment Suit, and, finally, then enter the test chamber. While you're doing all that, various characters that inhabit the facility will speak to you. By pressing the "USE" key, you can engage their attention and hear little snippets of conversation that reveal more clues to the game's storyline. There are scientists, security police and engineers to converse with. Most can't seem to be bothered, and they will tell you to leave them alone, but others will recognize you and talk directly to you. These exchanges are quite a change-of-pace and something I've not seen in a first person shooter before.

Of course, no game involving an experiment in a secret lab would have that experiment go smoothly. True-to-form, the experiment does go horribly wrong and causes a wide variety of alien life-forms to cross over from another dimension (or something) and over-run the base. Because your character is wearing the Hazardous Environment Suit, which acts like armor, he is protected from the initial results of the experiment. As chaos consumes the underground base, with aliens eating, mauling and shocking the base employees, you are selected to get help by finding your way up and out of the base.

The wonderful thing about Half-Life is that it doesn't just include a background scenario in the instruction manual and then plop the player down in the middle of the goings-on. The game takes the time to set everything up, immerse the player into the storyline, and then turn up the heat. Impatient players, who want to get right to the shooting and killing, may want to look elsewhere for their fun (or just skip the single-player game and go straight to the multiplayer action.)

Half-Life isn't all about hunting and killing. It's more concerned with developing an interesting background story, a movie-style setup, and an attention to detail that's been missing from first person shooters for too long. Sure, there's a lot of blood and guts in the game, but there is a lot of subtle humor and quite a few well-constructed puzzles too.

Included in the game options is a training ground for beginning players that teaches the basic moves, how to navigate different obstacles and how to interpret different sounds in the game. Even if you feel you can dive right in and get something out of the game, I recommend taking the extra 10 minutes or so required to run through the training lesson. It provides a wealth of information vital to solving a few of the more challenging areas of the game.

The graphics, especially with a 3D accelerator, are beautifully done. The game is based on a hybrid Quake II engine, which not only runs very smoothly, but improves on that game's color scheme by providing a vibrant palette of colors, not just brown and more brown. While there's little variation in the humans you come in contact with, the alien creatures are a widely varied collection of beasties. Ranging from small, jumping rat-like creatures to much larger and more violent monsters, there's little time to stop and admire them. Some of the creatures will attack you directly, by physically assaulting you, while others prefer to hurl bolts of electricity or globs of acid at you. In some cases, the base itself is the enemy, as machine gun emplacements with motion-sensor triggering mechanisms will mow down anything that moves in front of them.

However, the most challenging enemies are other humans. They're commandos sent by the government to make sure that word of the experiment's apparent failure never leaves the base. This means you're their target and they come prepared to fight it out using the same weapons you have access to, like machine guns, grenades and a much better sense of teamwork than your alien adversaries. They're formidable, but not invincible.

If you'd rather play against real humans, the game does include support for LAN and Internet games. Setting up and finding an Internet game was fast and easy using the included interface. I did need to update the game to get the multiplayer to work properly. Once the patch was applied, the game searched for current games online and allowed me to choose the fastest available game. Within approximately 2 minutes of downloading the patch, I was blasting players online. Still, unlike Quake or Quake II, Half-Life's single-player game intrigued me far more than the multiplayer game.

The game's control mechanism is fairly standard for a PC-based first person shooter. Moving the mouse allows the player's perspective to shift, as if the player were turning his head. The mouse button fires the selected weapon. The keyboard provides the movement and weapon selection options, as well as the ability to use items and converse with the inhabitants of the base. Of course, the keys may be remapped to better suit a player's needs. I just left them in their standard locations.

Sound effects provide clues to the location of enemies and potential plot points of the game. The voice acting for the various characters is absolutely dead-on. The scientists and security guards all have some rather interesting comments on the events taking place around the base. Weapons sound realistic enough, with the appropriate "shell-casings-hitting-the-floor" noises to accompany the rattle of gunfire. Many of the monsters have their own trademark growls and squeals too.

I can't remember a recent game that's sucked me in to its world as effectively as Half-Life has done, save for Resident Evil 2 on the PlayStation, and even that was almost a year ago. With its immersive storyline, great graphics and an attention to detail that has to be seen (and heard) to be believed, Half-Life has my vote for PC game of the year.

Half-Life requires a Pentium 133, 24 MB RAM, Super VGA video card with 16-bit color, 2X CD-ROM, 400 MB Hard Drive space and Windows 95. Recommended: Pentium 166 or faster, 32MB RAM, and 3D accelerator card.

It was reviewed on a Intel Pentium II 233, 32 MB RAM, 32X CD-ROM, Best Data Arcade FXII Voodoo 2 accelerator, AW35 PnP Soundcard, Logitech MouseMan mouse, and Windows 98.

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