Updated: Aug 11
In the last article, we saw how Half-Life broke new ground stylistically and thematically to become the most immersive FPS of its generation. However, Half-Life’s influential innovation didn’t stop there.
Half-Life also introduced (or at least popularized) numerous gameplay mechanics which went on to be incorporated into almost every FPS game ever since. We will take a look at the most significant of these now.
Realistic Weapons, Ammo and Health Pickups.
As you probably noticed in the Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake articles, health and ammo pick-ups in pre-Half-Life FPS games were often out in the open in random locations, behind secret walls or even hovering off the ground whilst glowing, flashing, rotating and being generally conspicuous. This worked well for these games, which were aimed at speed and maximum carnage. Placing the weapons in easy to spot and easily accessible locations helped ensure that running out of ammo was rarely a concern.
The placing of pick-ups behind hidden doors, false walls or in secret areas was perhaps due to these being common tropes in the popular 2D games of the era. Remember, when the early FPS games hit the PC, the games running on the consoles and home computers of the day, such as the Genesis/Mega Drive, SNES and Amiga 500 / 600, were largely 2D affairs. Many of their games, such as Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog and James Pond 2: Robocod all made extensive use of hidden secrets.
These secret areas and bonus pickups in the early FPS games were great for gameplay but were not ideal for realism and immersivity. Half-Life, however, was different. Since it was aiming to create a believable sense of ‘place’, its health and weapon pickups were in logical and believable locations. For example, first aid kits were usually found at first aid stations, security offices, infirmaries and in military supply crates.
The placement of weapon pick-ups was logical too. The pistols and shotguns used by Black Mesa’s security guards were often found in the wall racks of security offices. Military hardware was frequently ‘liberated’ from the re-supply areas the HECU had set up to aid their ‘containment’ and ‘sanitization’ operations.
The bodies of fallen NPCs, both friendly and hostile, were also a source of ammo since they would drop their weapons upon death. Therefore, each enemy encounter could be viewed as an opportunity to restock your dwindling ammo supplies. This is assuming you didn’t expend more ammo defeating said enemies than you could scavenge from them afterwards of course.
This meant the best weapons to use for general combat were usually the weapons wielded by your opponents. Since they used the same ammo there was less chance of you running out.
The rarer, more effective weapons, which were not commonly used by your enemies, and who’s ammo supply was severely limited, should be saved for when you really needed them. A good example of this being the ‘Gluon gun’. Saving it for the Lambda Reactor Coolant System and Xen chapters would make these otherwise very challenging sections far easier.
Pick up placements such as these and scavenging fallen NPCs for ammo and loot are now commonplace in story-driven FPS games. This also includes many FPS-RPG hybrids such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R., Fallout 3 and BioShock.
3 – Way Fighting
We saw in the Doom article that some enemies in Doom, when hit by a projectile thrown by one of their NPC allies, would turn around and attack them instead. This would take some of the pressure off you, and in some enclosed spaces could lead to all-out free-for-all demon dust-ups. This saved you the hassle of having to fight them all yourself. These were arguably some of the best moments in the game, even if they did happen by accident.
Half-Life improved upon this mechanic by having separate enemy factions which were just as likely to attack each other as they were to attack you. In true Valve ‘invisible tutorial’ style, you are introduced to this by observing it from a position of safety before being involved in it yourself.
Player vs Bullsquid vs Headcrabs
Skip to the 26:44 mark to witness some hardcore Bullsquid-on-Headcrab action.
No, not that sort of action…
This is an early-game ‘teachable moment’, intended to teach the player a very important lesson; in Half-Life, ‘The-enemy-of-your-enemy-is-still-your-enemy’. The reason for this teachable moment becomes clear later in the game when the player becomes involved in intense ‘You-and-the-surviving-Black-Mesa-staff vs The-military vs The-forces-of-Xen combat.
This “Show-don’t-tell” philosophy of game design has become synonymous with later Valve games and has been adopted by other video game developers too.
Player vs HECU vs Xen in Half-Life
This three-way-fighting mechanic would go on to become common in many games, such as the ‘COG vs Locust vs Lambent’ conflicts in Gears of War, the UNSC vs Covenant vs Flood battles in Halo, the USCM vs Xenomorphs vs Predators clashes of the three Aliens vs Predator games and the complicated faction relations and mutant behaviours of the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. franchise.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Half-Life was not the first video game to include three-way-fighting. Indeed, the early ‘90s ‘God Sims’ and strategy war games such as Mega-Lo-Mania often featured it. However, it was rarely seen outside of these somewhat niche genres, and it took the success of Half-Life to bring it into the mainstream.
Another mechanic that Half-Life popularized was NPC allies. This was an evolution of the escort quest sections of GoldenEye 007. Although Gordon Freeman had to face the aftermath of the Resonance Cascade largely by himself, there were occasions where Black Mesa staff would accompany and assist you.
This assistance came in many forms, including healing your injuries (i.e. raising your HP), opening security doors you lack sufficient clearance to open yourself, and providing fire support during combat. The Opposing Force expansion pack took this mechanic a step further, with small squads assisting you at specific sections.
What’s more, these companions could be controlled to an extent, although this was limited to ordering them to follow you or to stay put in a location. Even this limited control was useful for preventing them from rushing into combat situations they had no chance of surviving.
Although these sections were relatively short-lived - often due to the NPCs being so short-lived themselves - they were a welcome respite from the crushing isolation you experienced throughout much of the game.
The video below is another excellent example of "Show, don’t tell" game design. The first few minutes of the chapter 'Unforeseen Consequences' - which begins just after the Resonance Cascade disaster - cryptically shows that the reason for your survival is the hazard suit you are wearing, some scientists possess first aid training and can thus heal you, Xen organisms can teleport in, NPCs can be instructed to follow you, other friendly NPCs can open security doors and armed friendly NPCs can assist in combat. All these mechanics will feature prominently in later parts of the game.
Setting Traps and Using Indirect Weapons
Dr Gordon Freeman was probably smarter than most FPS protagonists - he was, after all, a research scientist with a PhD. Being such a smart combatant, he was frequently able to tip the scales in his favour and avoid stand-up fights completely by using the environment and his enemy’s weapons against them.
A superb example of this is his ability to steal HECU’s laser trip mines and place them at choke points, then luring their original owners to their death by baiting them to chase him. Judicious jumping over or ducking under the laser he just set kept him safe whilst they blundered straight into it, detonating the mine and thus springing the trap.
This is an evolution of the sticky mines used in GoldenEye 007. Half-Life arguably makes better use of traps, and for me at least this was the most satisfying way to deal with the HECU marines. It is also arguably the most effective tactic to use against the infuriating Black Op Assassins, as you can see in the video below.
Half-Life - Defeating Black Op Assassins With Tripmines
They outnumber you, jump all over the place and turn invisible. You can lay traps for them. Seems fair to me.
Other HECU weapons could be turned against their original owners too. Sactual charges could be thrown down stairwells and lift shafts to defeat unseen enemies whilst you remained safely out of sight. Grenades could be thrown from behind cover or bounced around corners, all to devastating results. These mechanics would go on to be adopted by several later FPS titles, such as the tree traps of Far Cry Instincts Predator, the sticky mines of Deus Ex and the IEDs of Far Cry 2 (Which we saw used in a previous Exclusively Games article). Liberal use of grenades - by both the player and NPCs - would also feature prominently in some future FPS titles, including one that will be the focus of a later article in the series.
Tree Traps in Far Cry Instincts: Predator
How to unleash your inner Rambo…
That concludes our look at Half-Life, a landmark FPS and a truly great video game. It is beginning to show its age, however. If you would like to experience Half-Life but on a modern game engine, with vastly improved graphics, sound, and physics, then the recently released remake Black Mesa might just be your cup of tea.
In the next episode, we will concentrate on a game with graphics so far ahead of the curve that they were promoted as 'Unreal'. See you all then.
What are your thoughts? What other gameplay mechanics did Half-Life introduce or popularize that we could have included? What do you feel Half-Life got right, or what it could have done better? As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at email@example.com
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