Publisher: Sierra Entertainment | Developer: Valve Software
The fall of 1998 saw a wave of famous (and infamous) games hit PCs. There were high-profile sequels, such as Fallout 2 and Railroad Tycoon II; games that were saddled by bugs, like SiN and Trespasser; and a few games that are already enshrined in GameSpot's Greatest Games of All Time, like Thief: The Dark Project, Grim Fandango, and Starcraft: Brood War. But for most people who were playing computer games at the time, one name stands above the rest: Half-Life.
It's difficult to appreciate this now, but Half-Life was really something of a sleeper hit when it arrived. People paid attention to it before it was released, especially after its showings at E3, but in the face of all the competition, this debut game from a couple of ex-Microsoft employees flew under most people's radar until just before its release. But when it finally did hit shelves just before Thanksgiving, it was immediately recognized as one of the best games of the year, and has since been recognized as one of the greatest games of all time.
Half-Life tells the story of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist (and lab gofer) at the Black Mesa facility in New Mexico. Part of his work revolves around experiments with "anomalous" materials. During a scene that all Half-Life fans remember well, Gordon and his team cause a "resonance cascade" as part of an experiment, which sunders the dimensional fabric and allows aliens from a dimension known only as Xen to infiltrate the facility and begin killing the inhabitants. As Gordon, you have to fight your way through the aliens, as well as through Marines who have been sent to cover up the incident, until you find a way to shut down the dimensional rifts and, hopefully, prevent a full-scale alien invasion.
What made Half-Life such a remarkable game was the intensely focused way it told the story. Instead of requiring you to read pages of text or sit through prerendered cutscenes, the game immediately plopped you into the shoes of Freeman and told the entire story through his eyes in real time. The only story you saw, you saw directly from Freeman's point of view; other events were transpiring in Black Mesa at the time that were later revealed in the subsequent expansion packs, Opposing Force and Blue Shift.
Besides this novel approach to telling its story, Half-Life is also famous for its pioneering use of scripted events. Scripted events are fairly commonplace now, but at the time, Half-Life broke new ground with the dense array of throwaway details that gave the world a sense of being lived in. As you traveled around, you'd see scientists in closed-off rooms attempting to fight off headcrabs, security guards getting pulled into air ducts, or the corpses of fallen Marines being dragged into cracks in the walls by the less pleasant alien invaders. The density of these events really helped create a believable world that lived and breathed--Gordon was just one of its inhabitants.
On top of all this, Half-Life also had some of the best pure shooting action of its time, thanks to its well-designed and unique weapons, fantastic enemy artificial intelligence, memorable foes (including the iconic headcrabs), and a good deal of challenge. In addition to that, the game's presentation greatly helped to support the illusion that Black Mesa was a real place--especially the extremely short loading times and mostly seamless transitions between levels.
Half-Life ended up one of the most successful shooters of all time, with more than 8 million copies sold across multiple platforms. This was due, at least in part, to the somewhat absurd number of collections and packages that its publishers had put onto shelves, including Half-Life: Platinum, Half-Life: Generation, and Half-Life: Platinum Collection 2. While its sequel, Half-Life 2, is arguably a more impressive game in terms of the world that game creates, the original Half-Life had an undeniable impact on the first-person shooter genre. It's definitely one of GameSpot's Greatest Games of All Time.
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The Mods of Our Lives
Although Half-Life was popular in its own right as a single-player game, Valve's support for mods has helped ensure that the game is still one of the most popular online action games around, even almost nine years after it first came out. (Half-Life 2 usually runs neck and neck with it, with all other games running well behind these two.) Many of the creators of Half-Life's most popular mods have gone on to work at Valve proper, and many of those mods have gone on to see polished, commercial releases. Here's a short list of the more notable ones, but there are hundreds (if not thousands) of other mods of various popularities that have been developed for the game.
Counter-Strike: Half-Life is in the odd position of being added to GameSpot's list of greatest games after one of its own mods, but then, Counter-Strike is an oddly successful game. When it was developed by a pair of college students and released in beta form in 1999, this antiterrorism-themed twitch shooter quickly became one of the most popular online games of any genre, and has since been released commercially, in the form of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero for the PC and Counter-Strike for the original Xbox, as well as in a full port to Half-Life 2's Source engine.
Team Fortress Classic: Another team-based multiplayer game, Team Fortress was originally released as a mod for Quake in 1996, then ported as a mod for Half-Life after Valve employed the original developers. Team Fortress was one of the first multiplayer games to have a class system, allowing individual players to play a different role in their team's success depending on their choice of class, such as sniper or medic. Team Fortress 2, long supposed to be vaporware after its initial unveiling way back in 1999, will be released alongside Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
Sven Co-op: One of the oldest mods still in current development, Sven Co-op lets multiple players band together to take on new enemies, use new weapons, solve puzzles, and attempt to accomplish specific objectives. Sven takes the original Half-Life gameplay and ratchets up the difficulty, and also adds a score-based component that lets players quantify their skills. Like the other mods listed here, a version of Sven Co-op is currently being developed for the Source engine of Half-Life 2.