When Sierra Studios cancelled its Dreamcast port of Half-Life a few months ago, the collective groan of heartbroken console gamers was almost audible. After all, the game is largely regarded as not only one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time, but also as one of the greatest PC games in recent memory. While its loss was heartfelt, this story does have a silver lining. Gearbox, who was partly involved in the production of that console game, not only released the Dreamcast-specific enhancements and levels of Half-Life on the PC earlier this year as the expansion pack Blue Shift, but, as you read this, the developer is also putting the finishing touches on a PlayStation 2 port of the game. For those who haven't grasped the gravity of this situation, we'll make it simple: The first-person shooter that defined the genre on the PC exactly three years ago is on its way to the PlayStation 2. A few months ago, we
It's important to note that Half-Life for the PlayStation 2 is essentially three games in one. On the disc you'll find a conversion of the original PC game, a deathmatch mode, and a cooperative gameplay mode that's more commonly referred to as the Decay missions. Fans of the game will find some minor but not insignificant changes to the Half-Life port. Like the original PC version, Half-Life for the PlayStation 2 places you in the shoes of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a research associate at the Black Mesa Research Facility in New Mexico. As Freeman, you'll find yourself involved in an experiment gone wrong that opens a void into the alien world Xen, subsequently flooding Black Mesa with a horde of aliens that kills nearly everyone in the facility. The PlayStation 2 port remains true to its PC roots, but there are some additions that serve to separate the two versions of the game, not the least significant of which is a control scheme that goes a long way toward making a game designed for the PC feel great on a console.
The control layout is fairly straightforward. The left analog stick controls your directional movement while the right controls your aiming. The four shoulder buttons are for jumping, crouching, firing your weapon's primary mode of attack, and firing your weapon's secondary mode of attack, if applicable. The X, square, and triangle buttons are respectively your use, reload, and flashlight commands--none of which represent any new functionality. The circle button, however, is for a feature that's specific to the PlayStation 2 version of Half-Life. Your crosshair is surrounded by a diamond-shaped reticle that will track any enemy (and friendly) that comes close to the center of your screen. If you hit the circle button while this targeting feature is tracking something, you'll automatically lock on to whatever "it" is in a mode reminiscent of the Z-lock feature in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. When this happens, all your directional commands will be directly correlated with the position of your target, in effect allowing you to circle-strafe with ease. Since taking precise aim with the PlayStation 2 controller's analog stick is inherently more difficult than doing so with a mouse, this lock-on feature feels right at home with the game. The game features other simplified controls as well--jump crouching is done automatically by holding down the jump button, and long jumping is accomplished by double-tapping that key. Of course, for the purists, the game will have support for a USB mouse and keyboard.
Probably the most significant change to the PlayStation 2 port of Half-Life is the updated graphics. Even for its time, the visuals of the original Half-Life weren't exactly revolutionary, and they're downright dated today. Naturally, Gearbox set out to freshen up the graphics in order to make them acceptable by today's standards. And so, the developer took its Hi-Def, or high definition, pack from Blue Shift and enhanced it even further. The Hi-Def pack essentially replaced many of the original game's washed-out textures with larger, crisper ones, giving the environments an overall sharp look. The most noticeable changes that came with the Hi-Def pack, however, were the new 3D models for the weapons, characters, and other objects throughout Half-Life. Sound impressive? Consider this: the Hi-Def models in the PlayStation 2 version of Half-Life are about twice as detailed as their Blue Shift predecessors, and the end result is quite noticeable. Every one of the game's weapons, from the crowbar to the rocket launcher, now boasts brand-new higher-polygon-count models. The shotgun, for instance, now sounds a lot beefier and looks a lot more intimidating thanks to a large folding stock. In fact, some of the weapons have been altogether replaced. The landmark weapon of the game, the H&K MP5 SD6, is now a Colt M16A2, and the Glock 17 is now a Beretta M92F. Additionally, thanks to effects like facial animation, hand articulation, and eye tracking, the character models in the game will convey a sense of emotion that previous Half-Life games have failed to deliver.
All the non-player characters like the "Barney" security guards and the scientists look significantly better, as do many of the enemies you'll encounter. The most dramatic change, though, is easily the head crab-infested scientist, whose chest cavity has been replaced with a sickening alien mouth that seems to pulsate with every breath that it draws. Even objects like the HEV recharge units and the medical care dispensers look a lot better and feature animating parts and telescoping arms. Coincidentally, all these changes were originally intended for the ill-fated Dreamcast version of Half-Life, but they've since made their way onto Blue Shift for the PC and the PlayStation 2 iteration. And even the foundational geometry--that is, the levels themselves--has been updated in this version. The famous hazard course, for example, now has an extra room where you'll be able to practice using the game's lock-on feature and a lighthearted intro where a scientist makes sure that you've signed all the necessary release forms before participating in the training course. A keen eye will note some other updated areas throughout the game as well. The game doesn't quite run at 60fps, although there's absolutely no slowdown, and the game still runs plenty fast.
Another addition to Half-Life PS2 are the deathmatch levels. The game has 10 such levels in all, and they're all modified versions of existing Half-Life locales like the Snark Pit, Stalkyard, and Data Core that allow two players to compete against each other on a split screen. These maps vary in size and complexity, and they all feature a certain amount of respawning weapons and items. You'll be able to set the frag and time limits beforehand, and you can choose to do battle as one of six characters from Half-Life, including Gordon Freeman, a soldier, a scientist, and a security guard.
While Half-Life fans will find all these new changes welcome additions to the game, it's the Decay levels that will have the largest appeal. Decay is essentially a group of nine successive levels that place you in the shoes of Dr. Collette Green and Dr. Gina Cross, two scientists who, like Gordon Freeman, are also working at the Black Mesa Research Facility. In fact, the Decay timeline takes place concurrently with that of the original Half-Life, and the first level will have the good doctors fetching Freeman the same anomalous materials that cause the rift that leads to Xen to inadvertently open. And while you never actually run across Freeman or the mysterious administrator in Decay, you will meet many familiar faces like scientists and security guards, and you will venture across many of the same areas that you explore in the original Half-Life as Dr. Freeman. You can expect to pass through the destroyed remains of the hazard course, for example. With the help of their boss, Dr. Keller, Cross and Green will take it upon themselves to close the door to the alien world. This involves escorting scientists to the surface, establishing contact with a satellite, powering up beacons, and keeping the swarms of invaders--both human and otherwise--at bay.
The appealing aspect of Decay is the fact that you control both Green and Cross together, and you switch between the two using the select button. This is certainly a rare gameplay aspect to find in a first-person shooter, and its implementation in the Half-Life universe is interesting to say the least. It also adds a level of strategy that most fans of the genre will find a little challenging at first. Each of the Decay levels is designed in such a manner that it will be impossible for you to complete without using Green and Cross to unblock doors, open gates, and grant computer access to each other, which means that the majority of these levels stress puzzle solving over all-out action, although there are still plenty of firefights against alien invaders and military special forces to go around. Making things even more challenging, if either Cross or Green should die, then the game is over, and you'll be forced to restart that level. And since you'll be only be able to save in between the Decay missions (you can quick save at any time in the Half-Life portion of the game), this might prove to be a little frustrating. Thankfully, when you're not controlling them, Cross and Green will be more than capable of defending themselves. While they won't actually move away from danger, they will automatically attack any nearby enemies on their own. Of course, you'll be better off switching to either character if they're under attack. To really experience Decay at its best, however, you'll want to grab a friend and play the game simultaneously via a split screen.
The Decay levels certainly don't make up the majority of Half-Life PS2, but they will be the game's biggest draw. Unfortunately, it won't take most experienced players more than four or five hours of gameplay to complete Decay's nine levels. Regardless, these levels offer fans of the game a side of Half-Life no one has seen, and besides, there's more to this game than just the Decay levels. Gearbox Software has gone to great lengths to ensure that this version of Half-Life is technically the best one of all, and while it obviously won't have nearly the same impact that the PC version did three years ago, from what we've seen, the game will certainly be enjoyable for fans of Half-Life who are looking for a new fix, as well as console gamers who are just now discovering this venerable game. You can expect this game on store shelves in late October, but in the meantime, we've got more coverage of Half-Life planned, so be sure to come back to GameSpot for the latest on this promising shooter.