Well, we’ve finally reached the number one spot: Half-Life. Not exactly as profound an experience as Earthbound, but it is likely the most impactful game ever made for PC. That’s a bold statement, but what we enjoy today throughout gaming can be traced back to this late-90’s classic. The intricate storytelling, the ability to mod the game, several modes of multiplayer – hell, you can say that Half-Life‘s success spawned the Steam platform. There were games doing all those things before Valve’s masterwork, but none of them did it as well as Half-Life.
What makes this game the greatest of all time is longevity and replay value. If you launch Steam and download the original Half-Life game and its subsequent expansions, what you’ll find is a large community of gamers still playing it. Jump into a Team Fortress Classic match and find skilled players still duking it out. Day of Defeat is still going strong, even though the Source version has been available for years. Folks are still modding Half-Life and doing speedruns through the game on Twitch. And this November, Half-Life will be sixteen years old. There are few PC games that capture the initial audience that Half-Life did when it came out in 1998, but the fact that a community still exists that supports this title more than fifteen years later is unheard of.
The story of Gordon Freeman and Black Mesa is one of the best in video game history. Coherent, enthralling, and teeming with captivating characters, many regard it as the greatest achievement in video game storytelling. It was one of the first times that I felt like the character in a FPS, and that was thanks to the lack of cutscenes to explain the story. There was no need to read the back cover of the game box or inspect the story section of the instruction booklet. Half-Life communicated the plot clearly from the moment you load into the environment. Even today, AAA games still don’t know how to do this properly and gamers are stuck in cutscenes, which I regard as a failure of imagination amongst developers and something gamers shouldn’t readily accept. They’re video games, not movies.
All first person shooters enjoying success today owe a debt of gratitude to Half-Life. I had been a consumer of all FPS products before the 1998 release of my favorite game of all time, but when Half-Life first booted up, it was as if those six years since Wolfenstein 3D never even happened. They were already ancient history because the team at Valve figured out the entire formula to what makes a great shooter. Sure, shooting mechanics are important, but if you don’t drop the player into a changing environment and offer an arsenal of weapons, then ultimately you’ve just made DOOM over again. Buttons could be pressed, areas unlocked, barrels blown up – it was as immersive and destructible environment as anyone had ever seen in gaming.
Half-Life is probably one of my most played games of all time and that was thanks to the multiplayer. Up until 1998, the best form of multiplayer available was Quake and that was thanks to probably the best version of online deathmatch ever. While Half-Life‘s deathmatch was good, no one could prepare themselves for what happened next when the community got ahold of the game’s code. Valve treated us to Team Fortress Classic, which is still one of my favorite online multiplayer games to play to this day, but then we got the most popular multiplayer title of all time: Counter-Strike. To think that this juggernaut started out as a mod of Half-Life is absolutely nutty, especially given that it is one of the most popular competitive games in the world right now. The success that the small community team behind Counter-Strike experienced led to others putting serious thought into their mods. Sven Co-Op, Earth’s Special Forces, They Hunger, Day of Defeat, Natural Selection, Wanted!, Firearms, Action Half-Life, The Trenches, The Battle Grounds. All of those mods could have been standalone games, and some of them were – that’s how great the modding community for Half-Life was, and praise to Valve for supporting them.
From fifth grade through my senior year in high school, there was only one game in my life: Half-Life. I played it non-stop and I’m sure my parents can attest to that. Before school, after school, and on the weekends, it consumed my life for years. That’s the mark of a truly great game: when you are still finding things to love about it a decade later. As life gets busier and busier, sometimes I reminisce about the simpler days of my youth, and my mind eventually wanders to days spent on Roger Wilco (for the uninitiated, that was like a super early version of TeamSpeak) playing competitive Day of Defeat with friends and clanmates. Nights of replaying the Half-Life singleplayer over and over for nothing more than experiencing the ending again. The love I feel for Half-Life is genuine and everlasting. Half-Life is the greatest video game of all time.
Now if you excuse me, I’m going to go play it again. And again. And again.