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Most of the game is set in a remote desert area of New Mexico in the Black Mesa Research Facility, a fictional complex that bears many similarities to both the Los Alamos National Laboratory and Area 51, at some point during the 2000s. The game’s protagonist is the theoretical physicist Gordon Freeman, who holds a Ph.D. from MIT. Freeman becomes one of the survivors of an experiment at Black Mesa that goes horribly wrong, when an unexpected “resonance cascade”—a fictitious phenomenon—rips dimensionalseams, devastating the facility. Aliens from another dimension known as Xen subsequently enter the facility through these dimensional seams (an event known as the “Black Mesa incident”).
As Freeman tries to make his way out of the ruined facility, he soon discovers that he is caught between two sides: the hostile aliens and the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit, a U.S. Marine Corps special operations unit dispatched to cover up the incident by eliminating the organisms, as well as Dr. Freeman and the other surviving Black Mesa personnel to keep them from talking. Throughout the game, a mysterious figure known (but not actually referred to in-game) as the “G-Man” regularly appears and seems to be monitoring Freeman’s progress. Ultimately, Freeman uses the cooperation of surviving scientists and security officers to work his way towards the mysterious “Lambda Complex” of Black Mesa (signified with the Greek “λ” character), where a team of survivors teleports him to the alien world Xen to kill the Nihilanth, the gigantic entity keeping Xen’s side of the dimensional rift open.
The game’s plot was originally inspired by the video games Doom and Quake (both PC games produced by id Software), Stephen King’s short story/novella The Mist, and an episode of The Outer Limits called “The Borderland”. It was later developed by Valve’s in-house writer and author, Marc Laidlaw, who wrote the books Dad’s Nuke and The 37th Mandala.
Dr. Gordon Freeman arrives late for work at 8:47 am in the Black Mesa Research Facility, using the advanced Black Mesa train system that leads through the facility. He arrives at the Anomalous Materials Lab, his workplace, and is informed by the security officer that the scientists have a special experiment today, so he goes to the locker room and puts on the hazard suit. He goes to the lab’s lower levels, arriving at the Anti-Mass Chamber, where he is instructed that the specimen to be used that day is the rarest and also the most unstable specimen the lab has ever worked with. He is tasked with pushing the specimen into the scanning beam of the Anti-Mass Spectrometer for analysis. However, as soon as the specimen enters the beam, the spectrometer explodes, creating a sudden catastrophe called a “resonance cascade”, and opening a portal between Earth and a dimension called Xen. Freeman is apparently teleported to an alien planet and catches glimpses of various alien lifeforms, including a circle of Vortigaunts, shortly before blacking out.
Freeman awakens in the ruined test chamber and surveys the destroyed lab, strewn with the bodies of scientists and security personnel. Finding survivors, Freeman learns that communication to the outside is completely cut and is encouraged to head to the surface for help because of the protection afforded by his suit. His journey consists of sidestepping Black Mesa’s structural damage and defending himself against hostile Xen creatures, such as the parasitic headcrab which attaches itself to a human host before enslaving it. Other survivors claim a rescue team has been dispatched, only to discover that the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit sent in is killing both the organisms and the personnel there as part of a government cover-up of the catastrophe.
Freeman fights the Marines before reaching the surface of Black Mesa, where he learns that scientists from the Lambda Complex may have the means to resolve the problems created by the cascade. Gordon travels to the other end of the facility to assist them. However, Gordon encounters several hurdles throughout the facility, such as reactivating arocket engine test facility to destroy a giant creature of three tentacles, using an aged railway system in order to get to and launch a crucial satellite rocket, and fighting a group ofBlack Ops soldiers, before he is captured by Marines and dumped in a garbage compactor. Gordon escapes and makes his way to an older part of the facility where he discovers an extensive collection of specimens collected from Xen, long before the resonance cascade.
Reaching the surface once more, Gordon finds a war zone. Despite calling for reinforcements, the Marines are being overwhelmed by the aliens. Scaling cliffs and navigating destroyed buildings, Gordon reaches safety underground. The Marines begin to pull out of Black Mesa and airstrikes begin. Meanwhile, Gordon goes through underground water channels as aliens pick off the remaining Marines. He arrives at the Lambda Complex, where scientists developed the teleportation technology that allowed travel to Xen in the first place. After meeting the remaining personnel, Gordon is told the satellite he launched failed to reverse the effects of the resonance cascade because an immensely powerful being on the other side of the rift is keeping it open. Gordon must, therefore, kill this being to stop the Xenian invasion and the scientists activate the teleporter to send Gordon to Xen.
Entering the border world Xen, Gordon encounters organisms that had been brought into Black Mesa, as well as the remains of HEV-wearing researchers that came before him. He fights his way through Gonarch, the huge egg-laying headcrab, an alien camp and arrives at a massive alien factory, which is creating the Alien Grunt soldiers. After fighting his way through levitating creatures, he finds a giant portal and enters it. In a vast cave, Gordon confronts the Nihilanth, the entity maintaining the rift, and destroys it. The Nihilanth dies in an explosion, knocking Gordon unconscious.
Freeman awakens, stripped of his weapons, to find the G-Man, who has been watching over Gordon throughout. The G-Man praises Freeman’s actions in Xen. He explains that his “employers”, believing that Freeman has potential, have authorized him to offer Freeman a job. The player is then given a choice. If the offer is accepted, Freeman is congratulated by the G-Man and placed into stasis. If he refuses, he is teleported to a map full of enemies, and the game ends.
Valve, based in Kirkland, Washington, was founded in 1996 by former Microsoft employees Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell. For its first product, Valve settled on a concept for a horror 3D action game using the Quake engine licensed from id Software. Valve eventually modified 70% of the engine’s code, adding skeletal animation and Direct3Dsupport.
According to designer Harry Teasley, id Software’s 1993 first-person shooter, Doom was a major influence, and the team wanted Half-Life to “scare you like Doom did”. Newell said that “Half-Life in many ways was a reactionary response to the trivialization of the experience of the first-person genre. Many of us had fallen in love with video games because of the phenomenological possibilities of the field and felt like the industry was reducing the experiences to least common denominators rather than exploring those possibilities. Our hope was that building worlds and characters would be more compelling than building shooting galleries.”
The team had early difficulties with level design; in desperation, they eventually built a single level including every weapon, enemy, scripted event, and idea they had so far conceived. This level inspired the studio to continue development.
The project had the working title Quiver, after the Arrowhead military base from Stephen King’s novella The Mist, an early inspiration for the game.The name Half-Life was chosen because it was evocative of the theme, not clichéd, and had a corresponding visual symbol: the Greek letter λ (lower-case lambda), which represents the decay constantin the half-life equation.]
Valve struggled to find a publisher, as many believed the game was too ambitious for a first-time developer. Sierra On-Line signed Valve for a one-game deal as it was interested in making a 3D action game, especially one based on the Quake engine. Valve first showed Half-Life in early 1997; it was a success at Electronic Entertainment Expo that year, where Valve demonstrated the game’s animation and artificial intelligence.At E3 1998 it was given Game Critics Awards for “Best PC Game” and “Best Action Game”.
In August 1997, Valve hired science fiction author Marc Laidlaw to work on characters and level design.The soundtrack was composed by Kelly Bailey. Half-Life was originally planned for release in late 1997, to compete with Quake II, but Valve decided the game needed significant revision. The studio completely reworked the game’s artificial intelligence and levels in the year leading up to its release. The release date was delayed several times in 1998 before the game was finally released in November of that year.A few days prior to the release, the developers discovered an error in the source code. Developers fixed the error by adding corrections into a single line of the source code.
Valve released two demos for Half-Life. The first, Half-Life: Day One, contained the first fifth of the game and was distributed with certain graphic cards. The second demo, Half-Life: Uplink, was released on February 12, 1999, featuring heavily revised variations of levels cut during Half-Life‘s development phase.
Half-Life was ported to the PlayStation 2 by Gearbox Software and released in 2001. This version of the game had a significant overhaul in terms of both character models, weapons, and more advanced and extended levels and general map geometry, incorporated from work on a planned Dreamcast version. Also added in is a head-to-head play and a co-op expansion called Half-Life: Decay that allowed players to play as the two women scientists Dr. Cross and Dr. Green at Black Mesa. Another interesting feature allowed players to use a USB mouse and keyboard, a feature previously unused on the platform.
A version for Mac OS, ported by Logicware, was announced but never released. Captivation Digital Laboratories, Inc. was slated to develop a port to the Dreamcast, to be released near the end of 2000. The Dreamcast version revamped the graphics of the game with double the polygon count of the original models. Like Opposing Force for PC andDecay for PlayStation 2, the Dreamcast version was set to have its own exclusive expansion, Blue Shift. However, after many delays, the Dreamcast version was canceled in June 2001 due to “changing market conditions”. The Blue Shift expansion was then preserved and ported over to become Half-Life‘s second expansion for PC.
That year Sierra On-Line showed its PlayStation 2 port at E3 2001. This version was released in North America in late October of the same year, followed by a European release just a month later. Around the same time, Half-Life: Blue Shift, which was intended to be the Dreamcast-exclusive side story, was eventually released on Windows as the secondHalf-life Expansion Pack. It featured the “High Definition Pack”, upgraded models originally in the Dreamcast version, which overhauled the graphics of the original Half-Life andOpposing Force as well.
On January 29, 2013, Valve released beta versions of ports for OS X and Linux, and finalized them on February 14, 2013.