Disclaimer: This is my first review, ever. Don't flame me!
Half Life is an FPS in which you take up the role of silent protagonist Gordon Freeman as he tries to escape from a lab.
The problem with Half-Life's storyline is that it is much, much too simple - and you never get the simplicity explained. While playing through it, I had the vague idea that I was a scientist, employed to do something which released aliens that I had to run away from. Then the military appear for no apparent reason - something about 'containment' - and before you know it, I'm going to the alien planet, right into the place I thought I was getting away from, before defeating a final boss for reasons still unknown to me. One of the main problems with this disorientating storyline is that it bleeds through into the gameplay - having no direction from the storyline, I felt I was aimlessly wandering from one linear air vent to another, having no idea where I was going, or indeed if I was going the right way.
I can't totally damn the storyline, because there are definitely good points - the G-Man arc, for instance, gave an air of mystery, and also giving you a chance to role-play (I was constantly trying to shoot him), followed by an amazing end sequence. So why was not knowing about G-Man better than not knowing about what was going on? It's because no one knew about G-Man. The storytelling, mostly being done by random soldiers and scientists, gets extremely frustrating - there where many times that I felt like pulling over a random person and yelling "WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?!" into his face, but the game just doesn't allow you to do that. This makes the scientists seem more clued up than you - worse, you feel like you should know more, as you worked in this place for God knows how many years!
But I digress. This game delivers in almost every way but the storytelling.
The atmosphere is one of the greatest I've ever experienced. The way that the short opening sequence, which is totally normal - there's even a person on the toilet - turns into the unspeakable horror that ensues, walls and floors covered in blood, people getting ripped apart by zombies and headcrabs - it's just plain creepy. This lessens as you go through the game, with many of the combine being replaced by the military, and the encounters becoming increasingly repetitive, but it still has its moments - the final stages on Xen are refreshingly surreal. It's also very easy to get immersed in the game, because of the lighting effects, creature noises, or whatever the hell it is that makes a game immersive. There are only 2 real problems with the atmosphere - because it's an old game (from 1998), the graphics are sub-par to say the least, and while I never particularly care about graphics, I must admit that they did detract a bit from the overall experience. The other problem is the lack of a soundtrack - this was minimal, and sometimes absent, the whole way through the game, when it would have made for a much better atmosphere overall if done correctly.
In terms of actual gameplay, it isn't exactly perfect, but it is pretty well done. The controls are pretty basic - WASD to move, SPACE to jump, click to fire, and R to reload. The real problem is in the weapon changing, which is frustrating to say the least. It revolves around a hotkey system, which is hard to use - so you mostly end up using the other method, the mouse scroll, which takes a long time to operate, as the weapons roster is extensive - not exactly ideal in a brawl. The actual weapons, although being reasonably generic, are actually very well balanced. The gradual increase from your trusty crowbar and a pistol to a whole array of deadly weapons is done perfectly - I particularly liked the twist half way through where you're thrown back to square one, with only the most basic weapons, relying on your skills alone. The weapons' ammo is done similarly well - weapons that one-shot enemies, like the magnum, have very few bullets scattered around, and basic weapons, like the SMG, have ammo littering the floors. The balance here is just right - restrictive, without being annoying. The only weapon which really doesn't seem useful at all is the Combine rocket launcher - it was meant to have lock-on missiles, but every time I fired it it failed to work. The combat itself is fun, too - mostly comprising of individual situations that you've got to shoot your way through, they are fast paced - and, due to the amount of cover, quite tactical as well. However, I would say that the main issue with the combat is the lack of tactics - weapons like the wall-mine and satchel pack rarely see any use, as there aren't many times when you can prepare for an assault.
I'll finish off this review by going over how the game is laid out. It comprises of multiple stages, most of which involve beating a mini-boss that you see at the start, and have to pull switches, find escape routes and generally work out what to do before frying it. The main problem with this is that it's never really obvious what you've got to do at any given point (partly down to the downright annoying storyline). This means that you can end up getting lost, falling down holes and backtracking before finally working out what you've got to do. I'm all for a challenge, but when there's only one solution, it helps to have some pointers. Last of all, this game doesn't know how to end. The amazing surrealism of the alien planet, Xen, is kind of dampened when you spend half a lifetime there, thanks to the long, confusing, and ultimately frustrating 'Interloper' stage. Don't get me wrong, the ending 'cinematic' is amazing, and well worth the struggle - but the lead-up just falls flat.
To wrap it up: Half-Life is a fun, albeit sometimes frustrating game, that is worth your time. The storyline may fall flat, but it's made up for by the great atmosphere, the fast-paced, tactical combat, and overall challenging gameplay.
Hey, not bad - for something that only cost £1.20.