It has indeed been a very long time since Half-Life was first announced for the next generation consoles. As an acclaimed PC game developed by Valve Software, news came in late 1999 that the title would be making its way to Sega's Dreamcast. Development continued on for ages and screen shots along with upgrade announcements came at a steady pace. Then something strange started to happen. As the launch date approached, all fell quite from Valve/Gearbox and its publisher Sierra. Grumblings and rumors started to crop up all over the Net. The release date came and went with no comment. As the demise of Dreamcast became reality, the development was initially canned and then brought back to life as a Playstation 2 port. Therefore, we have waited with great anticipation for this title for some time. Fortunately the final product was well worth the wait. While portions of the game are a little dated, the overall experience remains intact and looks splendid on the PS2 thanks to a graphical upgrade from the original PC iteration.
The Half-Life engine was originally based in part on the Quake source code. Gearbox/Valve were able to pick apart the engine and use what they deemed necessary for their game. Unlike Quake, Half-Life does not suffer from major load times. This is a result of the developers ability to structure the game around chapters that used separate overlapping maps which shared some objects among them. All of this was utilized in the PC version and I am happy to report that the engine was further tweaked to take advantage of the superior graphical capabilities of the PS2. The game mostly maintains 60 frames per second refresh rate. A drop in rate sometimes occurs when a lot is going on at once and more often in the two-player cooperative mode. The environments have a variety of textures and design is tight. What really sets this game apart from other FPS titles is how the special effects bring the environments and action to a an all time high. Metallic and glass surfaces, translucent water, energy beams and forcefields that fade in and out are just a few examples. The character design, which was impressive on the PC, has been updated with four times the polygonal detail of the PC version. This includes retouched character textures, animation and facial expressions. What is really noticeable is the skeletal animation system which gives realistic movement. Even enemy design, animation and presence is delicious throughout the game. The weapon selection has been upgraded with new features and high polygon textures. Each weapon has its own unique use and sound effect. The effects are brilliant as they complement what you see on the screen. For example, many FPS have some sort of machine gun, but the sound effects often do not correspond with the action or sound hollow. In Half-Life when you use an automatic rifle, the sound is incredibly deafening yet precise as it would be in real life. The soundtrack is open and atmospheric much in the same vain as a top notch Sci-fi motion picture. The voice work is top notch and plays a vital role in furthering the solid storyline.
Perhaps one of the most impressive aspects about Half-Life is how a brilliant storyline drives the gameplay like nothing ever seen in an FPS before. Take a look at Red Faction and you can see how Half-Life influenced its development. The days of just running around blowing people and aliens away is over thanks in part to the hard work of Marc Laidlaw, the man responsible for the story and in-game dialogue among characters. Laidlaw is an acclaimed author of a series of cyberpunk novels and used this background in developing the plot for Half-Life by shaping the levels and major events into one comprehensive narrative. The story initially takes place in the Black Mesa Research Facility where things start out innocently but soon horrific experiments, trans dimensional horrors and betrayal by the government become central to the plot. The attention to a viable plot is very noticeable in the first 20 minutes of the game where not a single gunshot is fired. Instead the game opens up in a very cinematic nature as scientists are taken deep into the facility via a tram ride. This unusual beginning actually gives the player an indication as to the massive size of the facility and at what may lie ahead. As Gordon Freeman, a scientist at Black Mesa, you will unravel the mysteries and horrors that ensue. Controlling Gordon is made simple thanks to a number of options available to the player. Gearbox also saw it fit to include USB mouse and keyboard support which is regarded as the preferred way to play FPS titles. The weapon selection throughout the game is comprehensive. Everything you could imagine needing to take on enemies is here. Throughout the adventure, Gordon will have to use vehicles, operate machinery, call airstrikes, destroy tanks and helicopters and take on fleets of alien creatures and human special forces. The A.I. is unusually formidable. If soldiers hear you coming, you can rest assured that a grenade will be coming your way. Alien creatures seem to react to different stimuli. Some can locate you by sound while others will not attack you until they have more support to ensure victory. As a result your intelligence and patience is as important as your happy trigger finger. Lastly, Half-Life manages to be cinematic without having to use a thirdperson perspective or the now overused narrative interlude. Let's face it, MGS2 is great, but more interaction and less cinematics is more favorable.
The strength of Half-Life lies in its one-player mode. Going through once will take commitment as we logged in over 30 hours from beginning to end. At times, we thought it was never going to end as things start to get quite bizarre as the plot evolves. However, the traditional multiplayer deathmatch modes will provide additional hours of fun with friends or foes. Specific to the PS2 iteration is the addition of Half-Life: Decay. In Decay, the story begins with two female research associates setting up Gordon's experiment. When things go awry, you and a partner take control of the two associates and must get out of the facility via a different course than Gordon's. It is a great idea and you can even opt to do Decay solo. However, we found it quite difficult switching back and forth between characters, especially in places where both characters are needed to assist each other. Regardless, Half-Life offers many hours of fast paced gameplay.
Half-Life won over 50 Game of the Year awards in 1998, and is often topic of discussion among avid PC fans. It's success has finally spilled over to the Playstation 2. While some gamers may find Half-Life slightly dated, the fact remains that it is the best FPS currently available on the Playstation 2. Whether you are a FPS fan or new to interactive entertainment, be sure not to miss this one.