Steam Powered

By Matt Warner / March 29, 2008

There's relatively few series which I'll occasionally feel the need to just go back to and play through every single chapter just to refresh myself on them, but for whatever reason a couple of weeks ago I got it into my head to play through the entirety of the Half-Life series. To me, it's sort of a given that everyone owns these things and has played them, so I'm always a little surprised when someone says they haven't. It's like hearing someone say they haven't seen the Lord of the Rings movies. It usually immediately pegs you as old or hopelessly behind in terms of pop culture.

The most common story is that someone probably had them way back when but lost the discs, or never played one of the installments because they couldn't find it or whatever -- an excuse which, I admit, sort of applies to me too. I've got my original Half-Life disc floating around somewhere, but I'll be damned if I know where.

Luckily, in the past couple of years we've started to move away from physical distribution of -- well, I was going to say games, but really, with digital music, book and film downloads, it's pretty much everything. If it's something physical, like groceries for example, you can have it delivered, and more often than not the selection is impossibly huge. If it's something digital though? Like computer games?

There's pretty much no reason to use an actual disc to deliver content ever again: Use Steam.

Consoles have their own versions of digital distribution services as well, of course. If you're a 360 owner it's a given that you've used XBLA, Wii users have the Virtual Console, and PS3 folks have PSN and even Home. Clearly, this is an idea whose time has not only come, but arrived with relatively little fanfare and a very high acceptance rate... among console users.

PC gamers, however, are weirdly opposed to Steam in some subcultures, and I can't for the life of me figure out why, except for either collector's value or shelf appearance (which are sort of the same thing anyway). If it's shelf appearance you want, well, shit, you can still do that: Check me out.

For me, the nice bit about Steam is twofold. You can never lose the games, and you get them immediately. They can also install themselves while you are doing other things, which is nice.

Common misconceptions I might as well lay to rest: No, you do not have to be online to play the games (obviously you do have to be online to download them initially but I mean duh). You can burn backup copies of your games and then re-install them off your backups in case the internet shuts off forever tomorrow. Much like iTunes, you may delete and re-download your purchases as much as you wish. Basically, purchasing the game just gives you the right to download it at will from Valve's servers.

Generally, this is the part where ownership-rights freaks begin having grand mal seizures over the fact that they technically do not own the actual copies of the games, only the right to download and use them, which is admittedly true, so let me address them directly here: So?

You get to play the game at will, you can make as many hard copies as you want, and for all intents and purposes it is, indeed, your game. The only thing this prevents you from doing is selling your copy back to the store. I'm too lazy to actually wade through Apple's fine print and check, but I'd bet iTunes works on exactly the same principle. I know MMOs do the same thing. Actually, on that note, if it gets down to it, there's not much Valve could do to stop you from selling your account if you suddenly decide to give it all up, so yeah. All the pissing in the wind over ephemeral ownership rights is really just inhaling your own farts about either being a phenomenal cheapskate hypocrite (since you're likely cool with downloading games when you don't have to pay for them, legally or not) or an OCD box collector with no friends (in which case you'd fit right in with the Sealed Game Heaven crowd).

The damn thing is basically perfect, so stop being such a ponce and just use it.

Anyway, back to the Half-Life series. In all seriousness, the games rank as some of those must-have-played experiences for anyone making any moves towards being considered literate in gaming. Pretty much, if you've never gone through these games, you're missing a sizable chunk of the picture. So set aside a good solid weekend, and using the above-mentioned Steam service snag the games and take your shot at them.

If you're looking to just get the cream of the crop, then buy The Orange Box. That includes the better-realized chapters of the games to date, plus you get Portal and Team Fortress 2. Which you hopefully already know about.

If you wanna do what I did and get nice and cracked out on the whole thing, also buy the Half-Life 1 Anthology for an extra $15. It's the original Half-Life, plus the Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansion packs. The latter, while not made by Valve, are still considered story canon and fill in some interesting bits here and there -- and really, they're cheap as dirt so there's no compelling reason not to get them.

All this stuff will provide you with about as good of a series of single-player gaming sessions as you can probably expect, particularly if you're interested in the history of that singularly American creation, the much-maligned-for-various-reasons First Person Shooter. If you're one of those freaks who refuses to play anything that doesn't include a bunch of bug-eyed teenagers with angst problems saving the world using turn-based magic spells and an assload of other clich├ęs, then yeah, there may not be a whole lot for you here, but you're probably beyond help at this point anyway so whatever.

For the record, I'd only beaten the first Half-Life once before this, and that was when I first got it back in 1998. I'm pretty sure I cheated that time, too. I'd never played either expansion prior to this. Half-Life 2 and both extra episodes were completed on Normal when they first came out.

This time around all games will be finished on Hard, using a mouse and keyboard, with no cheats, mods, or other shenanigans present. So basically, this is how the games were meant to be played when they were developed. Expect the reviews soon.