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Half-Life Preview

Call it Duke Nukem with an intellect or Quake with a conscience, this 3-D shooter will blur the line between action and adventure


Call it with an intellect, or with a conscience (of a sort), Half-Life is a first-person computer game with enough consideration for plot and decision-making to admirably blur the lines between action and adventure gaming. Allow 's initial Half-Life press release to give the setup: "Assigned to a top-secret experiment at a decommissioned missile base, you've made an amazing breakthrough, an alarming discovery, and a stupid decision." Surrounded by dead ex-colleagues, homicidal xenomorphs and human military patrols that aren't any more fond of you than the invaders - not to mention the full-scale war being waged on the surface above between the latter two aforementioned groups - you must make your way solo through to the alien world, throw an Earth-style wrench into their extraterrestrial war-works, return home, and somehow make peace with your own violent race before you become just another plain brown folder in the X-Files.

Developed by (a Kirkland, Washington game company whose ranks include former creative contributors to Doom, Duke Nukem, Civilization, Zork Nemesis, and literally dozens of other titles), Half-Life boasts a living, dynamic environment, complete with a flourishing alien ecosystem that goes about its otherworldly business in real time whether you're around to see it or not: Strange creatures - not all of whom are your enemies or indeed necessarily dangerous - roam, flock, breed, and evolve (or mutate) by themselves, and if you decide to follow one at a discreet distance (rather than just blowing it away on sight, a practice so ingrained into long-time Dukers and Quakers that it'll probably be passed on to their children via DNA), you might just learn something about the large and complicated mess you're in. The world, in the words of Stephen King, moves on - damp walls grow mossy, predators and prey play out their natural roles, and small groups of creatures left unmolested grow to sizeable numbers. Special scripted sequences mean that those most devious and treacherous of animals - men - patrol, scheme, scratch their personal regions, argue, and murder, unaware you're watching and listening to them - unless you barge loudly into a room and make yourself known, of course. All this adds up to a sort of player affirmation, a pleasing sense that the world has a tangible scheme behind it, and that your actions or lack thereof can really make a difference; maybe if you hadn't vaporized that flock of birds (or whatever they were), the loud monstrosity currently yowling in the dark would have something to hunt besides you. Why cower behind that jeep, trying futilely to pick off that obviously bulletproof Blue Ugly by the far wall when you can simply fire up the jeep, drive right up to Alf over there and just run his extraterrestrial ass down? Half-Life's AI, too, may prove a rude wake-up call to first-person gamers - the creatures here want to live just as badly as you do; lone monsters who can grasp the notion that you have a gun and they don't will hightail it, maybe to hide, maybe to get all fifteen of his big brothers; human squads in particular adopt ruthless tactics against you, pinning you down with fire from half the group while the other half tries to sneak up behind you.

The Valve people went absolutely nuts on environment here: Engineered in 16-bit color, Half-Life supports a dazzling 65,535 colors without hardware enhancement. If you happen to pack the right graphics cards, of course, you'll be seeing over 16 million colors, and in either case the game has some truly fine lighting and visual effects, such as realistically-blending colored light sources (which can fuse to create white light), billowing/dissipating smoke, metallic surfaces that gleam in ambient light and reflect nearby images, translucent water and energy beams, and luminous force fields that cycle in and out, sometimes creating barriers, sometimes providing temporary bridges. Vehicles and most other tools serve some gameplay function, rather than just being eye candy or props. Valve's compound body and skeletal system means that monsters can be very complex, with up to 6,000 polygons, (compared to the couple-hundred poly range for monsters in traditional mesh-based games) and separate arm, leg and weapon-hand movements (running characters turning to look at you, drawing weapons, etc). Digital signal processing allows for sounds of gunshots, screams, explosions, and whatnot to realistically reflect the environment they take place in: high-end, tinny effects for confined spaces and hollow, booming reverberations for wide open spaces. Also, since one type of sound is simply altered for each situation, the overall scheme saves on drive space and memory.

In addition to all its unique gameplay elements, Half-Life sports a world that is one massive, continuous environment and not a succession of 'levels' or 'stages' - if you feel the need, you can retrace your steps through the 3-D world all the way back to the beginning. Half-Life might very well come as something of a relief for those who crave the first-person action game but want something more, a tippy-toe sojourn into the realm of the adventure game, where characters and environment really matter.

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