A Brief History Of Half-Life, One Of Gaming’s Most Iconic Franchises

Prepare yourself for the launch of Half-Life: Alyx with this quick history lesson.

After a grueling four-month wait, Half-Life: Alyx launches on VR headsets tomorrow morning, offering VR players what’s being touted as the future of VR gaming. For long-time Half-Life fans, however, the launch of HL:A marks the end of a 13 year wait filled with heartbreak, despair, and disappointment.

So what better way to celebrate this momentous occasion than with a quick dive into the history of what could easily be considered one of gaming’s most iconic franchises?  

For those unfamiliar with the series, Half-Life centers around ass-kicking physicist Gordon Freeman who, alongside a team of scientists working out of a remote research facility referred to as the Black Mesa compound, inadvertently rip open a portal to an alien dimension known as Xen. The series—which consists of Half-Life, Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, Half-Life: Episode 1, and Half-Life 2: Episode Two—follows the adventures of Freeman as he attempts to quell the invading alien threat alongside a band of resistance fighters. 

When the original Half-Life launched on Steam in 1998, it revolutionized the FPS genre. Unlike other action games at the time, Half-Life told its story almost entirely from a first-person perspective. Instead of using cut-scene intermissions to advance its plot, Half-Life relied on scripted sequences planted strategically throughout the game. This included helicopter crashes, specific NPC deaths, certain enemy encounters, etc. While it may seem like a relatively common technique by today’s standards, this was considered an extremely bold approach at the time. 

Half-Life was met with praise by both players and critics who lauded the games unique combination of combat, puzzle-solving, and platforming elements. In peak 90’s fashion, Valve followed up two expansion packs: Half-Life: Blue Shift and Half-Life: Opposing Force. As opposed to continuing the story of Gordon Freeman, these two expansions instead retold the same story from the perspective of two different characters. Half-Life: Blue Shift had players playing the role of Barney Calhoun, a Black Mesa security guard, whereas Opposing Force had them stepping into the shoes of Adrien Shephard, one of the US Special Forces operatives sent in to squash the alien threat and destroy any evidence of the incident. 

Of course you can’t talk about OG Half-Life without talking about mods. Along with offering players one of the freshest campaigns in years, Valve also encouraged modders to create their own games and modifications, going so far as to include a level design tool called Worldcraft in the game software. This eventually lead to the creation of several iconic series, including Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Day of Defeat. With Valve having already confirmed support for community-built environments in Half-Life: Alyx, it’ll be interesting to see what independent creators come up with using this new suite of tools.

In 2004, Valve released their follow-up to Half-Life, Half-Life 2. Harnessing the power of Valves then-revolutionary Source engine, Half-Life 2 once again changed the gaming landscape, offering users a one-of-a-kind action adventure that’s still regarded by many to be the perfect video game. Taking place several years after the events of the original Half-Life, Half-Life 2 has players reprising their role as Gordon Freeman as they navigate City 17, a sprawling urban environment under a strict police state by a technologically-superior race of aliens. Aided by a group of resistance fighters, including former Black Mesa members Barney Calhoun, Dr. Eli Vance, his daughter Alyx Vance, and Dr. Klein, players were tasked with fighting their way through a variety of eclectic environments, each filled with their own unique obstacles. 

Similar to that of the original game, HL2 featured a heavy focus on both combat as well as puzzle-solving. Utilizing the power of the Source engine, HL2 set itself apart from its competitors with its unique use of physics-based gameplay. Many of the puzzles centered around players locating objects with certain physical properties. This includes creating a ramp to reach a certain ledge by stacking one end of a 2×4 with a handful of cement blocks, building a bridge made of buoyant objects to skip across a body of water, and operating a magnetic crane to move a dune buggy past a roadblock, just to name a few.

(Image Credit: Valve Corp.)

HL2 also introduced what has since become one of the most recognizable tools ever featured in a video game, the “Gravity Gun”. Featured roughly a quarter way into the story, the gravity gun allowed players to manipulate certain objects from a distance, essentially giving them telekinetic abilities. Players could use the device to reach inaccessible objects, trigger certain events from a distance, and even fire projectiles at enemies. The ladder proved to be one of the most popular use-cases among players, allowing them to grab and propel bricks, bottles, circular saw blades, and other makeshift projectiles at enemies. To no one’s surprise the game was met with praise by both consumers and critics. Somehow, Valve had managed to surpass player expectations, delivering a near perfect action adventure experience. 

Two years later, Valve followed up with the release of Half-Life 2: Episode 1. Shifting to an episodic format, HL2: E1 offered players a more intimate, albeit considerably shorter, take on the Half-Life experience. Taking place shortly after the events of Half-Life 2, Episode 1 focused on the relationship between Gordon and Alyx. This included the introduction of a new cooperative element which saw Alyx supporting the players actions throughout every step of the game. During one portion, for example, Gordon and Alyx find themselves fighting off waves of enemies in a dimly-lit underground environment. Here, players could use their flashlights to spot incoming enemies for Alyx to kill. 

Episode 2 follows suite with a similar array of enemies and physics-based puzzles. This time, however, Valve focused on providing players with larger, less linear environments to explore. Players continued their journey alongside Alyx, using various vehicles to traverse expansive environments.

Unfortunately, this is where the story ends. Plans for a third episode were in the works according to Valve’s Robin Walker, though the company eventually decided against a third installment; there’s even some leaked concept art. Instead, the company settled on a lower-stakes alternative: a prequel/sequel hybrid set before the events of Half-Life 2. And thus, Half-Life: Alyx was born.

When you sit back and think about it, Half-Life’s transition to VR makes complete sense. Valve has never been shy about its desire to revolutionize the video game experience. The Half-Life games are as much proof-of-concepts as they are full game releases. Each title represents a new step forward for gaming in terms of technology; whether it be the scripted sequences in Half-Life, the physics-based puzzle mechanics in Half-Life 2, or the co-operative AI and expansive environments in Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and Half-Life 2: Episode 2.

(Image Credit: Valve Corp.)

Based on the footage provided and the positive responses by those lucky enough to have already gone hands-on with the game, Half-Life: Alyx could very well be a catalyst for a whole new wave of mainstream VR gaming experiences.

Half-Life: Alyx launches on SteamVR-compatible headsets tomorrow at 10am PT/1pm ET for $53.99. Pre-load your copy now so you’re ready to rock.

Feature Image Credit: Valve Corp.

About the Scout

Former Writer (Kyle Melnick)

Send this to a friend