Itâ€™s The Godfather, the War and Peace, the Sergeant Pepperâ€™s of First Person Shooters. Itâ€™s a game that has so dominated the genre that only its own sequel measures up â€“ and Iâ€™m not 100 per cent sure even that quite manages it. Half-Life makes even most of the other games on this list look like small fry.
Itâ€™s not flawless by any means. Everybody complains that the final alien section is weak and rather annoying. But Half-Life comes packed with so many great stand-out moments that you can easily ignore its miniscule shortcomings. Who can forget the initial panic as the experiment goes wrong? Or the subsequent scenes where headcrabs and zombies wreak havoc in Black Mesa? Who could not remember the classic tentacles from the pit encounter, those razor sharp claws tapping to investigate each and every noise? And how about the second where you realise that the black-ops troops arenâ€™t there to protect you, but to eliminate you and all the other witnesses? At its best, Half Life works because it realises that the story isnâ€™t there to support the gameplay, or vice versa: to work, the two have to be indivisible.
Whatâ€™s more, the game stands tall on a vast pile of technical achievements. It might have been based on the Quake engine but its rich, 16-bit colour graphics and powerful lighting effects seemed a vast step on from the muddy browns of Quake and Quake II. The AI was phenomenal, with the black ops troops setting the benchmark for years until F.E.A.R. came along to take the prize. And it got closer than any game since Ultima Underworld to having a cast of supporting characters who actually had a role to play in the drama.
And most of all, Half-Life seemed endlessly inventive. Itâ€™s not just that the game asked you to think as well as shoot â€“ when the firefights started, it also gave you interesting tools with which to deal out the damage. From the laser trip-mines to the crossbow, the ravenous snarks, the gauss gun and the hornet gun, it moved radically away from the classic pistol, shotgun, machine gun arsenal; a theme that would be taken on by its sequel with its pheromone grenades and gravity gun.
All of this would be enough to guarantee Half Life a place in any gaming hall of fame, but then you add in a slick multiplayer mode and â€“ above all else â€“ its vast potential for modification. Quake and Unreal bought us many great mods, but it was Half Life that bought us Counter Strike and Day of Defeat, plus several other classics. Half Life 2 â€“ every bit as essential â€“ is now carrying on the same good work, but somehow I canâ€™t quite regard it with the same affection. Is it just nostalgia, the fact of being first or just the more exhilarating pacing that gives the original Half Life the edge? Iâ€™m not sure, but it remains my favourite FPS of all time.