Half-Life: The Mother of All Modern Shooters

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Half-Life’s impact on the world of first-person shooters is difficult to overstate. Even 19 years after its 1998 debut, the title continues to enjoy prestige that modern game developers would kill to have bestowed upon their own titles.

Half-Life changed the world when it released. It changed the design of first-person shooters and what people came to expect of them. The game, more than anyone realized, would set a new precedent for FPS development and its legacy can be felt today. Half-Life fans heartbroken that Half-Life 2: Episode Three will never release can take solace in that fact. If Half-Life’s influence in the world of games is any indication, the series is absolutely thriving, not dead.

Half-Life’s at-the-time groundbreaking design didn’t come from nowhere (certainly not a glorious revelation bestowed upon Gabe Newell). The game’s developers were all huge fans of the original Doom. In fact, Gabe Newell became convinced that video games were the future of entertainment after playing Doom, and the GoldSrc engine that Valve used to build Half-Life was a heavily modified version of id Software’s Quake Engine. With Half-Life, Valve hoped to transcend what Doom had pioneered by adding a narrative and compelling characters.

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Sure enough, Half-Life was called the best shooter since Doom when it hit store shelves in 1998. Critics fawned over the game’s cohesive narrative and the fact that the game had interactive objects in its environment; those may sound like basic things to compliment a game for in this day and age, but back then they were revolutionary concepts. That’s how deep Half-Life’s impact on the world of video games goes. Who knew that that microwave in the Black Mesa break room would go on to be so important?

Of course, Half-Life’s influence goes far beyond interacting with microwaves and following what would now be considered a pretty skeletal story. The game revolutionized the notion of first-person shooting. True enough, Doom had already pioneered that concept by letting players mow down hordes of demons from a first-person perspective, but Half-Life modified that concept into what it is today: staying behind cover, shooting at neat arrangements of enemies, and keeping the gun to one side of the screen instead of down the middle.

These innovations may not sound all that innovative on paper, but they took the world of shooters by storm when Half-Life launched and the game enjoyed near-universal acclaim because of them. It’s no surprise that other studios borrowed what Half-Life pioneered given how much praise the title was receiving. Some of the games that built upon what Half-Life pioneered went on to become legendary titles in their own right. One such example is Halo: Combat Evolved, which layered an at-the-time revolutionary health regeneration system onto the first-person shooting that Half-Life had given rise to. The result is a game that enjoys nearly as much prestige as Half-Life. Valve had clearly uncovered something golden.

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Half-Life’s influence has continued to the present day. Its shooter gameplay helped give rise to Halo, Halo’s gameplay gave rise to Call of Duty, so on and so forth. Onward and upward this forking went until today, when a plethora of first-person shooters in all sorts of sub-veins have saturated the contemporary gaming market. Though some shooters look markedly different from each other, they can all trace their heritage back to Half-Life, the common ancestor of all modern FPS games.

It’s worth wondering what shooters would be like today if Half-Life hadn’t released. If Half-Life hadn’t been around to pioneer the notions of shooting 3D enemies in constricting environments, where else might that notion have come from? Would shooters look different today if Half-Life had been an open-world title, or presented a different idea of how to shoot an enemy? It’s hard to know, but there’s no mistaking the title’s impact on modern gaming.

The kicker is that Half-Life is still a fun game to play even though its almost two decades old. Its gameplay, while a bit clunky by modern standards, has aged surprisingly well, and the game still packs lots of interesting level design and a tense atmosphere. Players should pick Half-Life up because it’s a genuinely fun game as much as to witness the birth of modern first-person shooters. It’s because of these reasons that Half-Life, while not the best game of the last 20 years, is perhaps the most important. So get out there, grab yourself a copy, and take a romp back through some living gaming history.