Half-Life (series)

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Half-Life series
Orange lambdaThe text "Half-Life"
The series' logo, an orange lambda, is a prominent symbol throughout the series
Developer(s)Valve Corporation
Gearbox Software
Publisher(s)Sierra On-Line
Valve Corporation
Xbox 360
PlayStation 2
PlayStation 3
Shield Portable
Platform(s) of originWindows
First releaseHalf-Life
November 19, 1998
Latest releaseHalf-Life 2: Episode Two
October 10, 2007

Half-Life (stylized HλLF-LIFE) is a series of first-person shooter games developed and published by Valve. The major installments feature protagonist Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who battles an alien invasion. Two of these games, Half-Life and Half-Life 2, are full-length titles, while two more, Half-Life 2: Episode One and Half-Life 2: Episode Two, are shorter, episodic titles. A third episode, Half-Life 2: Episode Three, was scheduled for release by Christmas 2007, but is now described as vaporware.

The first game in the Portal series, set in the same universe as Half-Life, was released in 2007.


Timeline of release years
1999Half-Life: Opposing Force
2001Half-Life: Blue Shift
Half-Life: Decay
2004Half-Life 2
Half-Life 2: Deathmatch
2005Half-Life 2: Lost Coast
2006Half-Life 2: Episode One
2007Half-Life 2: Episode Two

The Half-Life series includes a core set of titles which carry the main storyline. These games were released in chronological order, either portraying the events of one game from the perspective of a different character, or following on from the events that are depicted in the previous title. As of May 2010, the main series consists of the original video game and its sequel, as well as three expansion packs and two episodic games. A third episodic game remains in development. In addition, several spin-off titles have been released. These vary in nature, consisting of an arcade game, technology demonstration, and a series of puzzle games. The original game and its expansions all use Valve's GoldSrc game engine, a heavily modified Quake engine. The later games accompanying the sequel all use Valve's proprietary Source engine.


Half-Life is the first game in the series, and was the debut title of Valve Software, released on November 19, 1998. Half-Life follows Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist, after the Black Mesa Research Facility accidentally causes a dimensional rift which allows the facility to be invaded by aliens. Freeman consequently attempts to survive the slaughter and resolve the situation. The game was originally published by Sierra Studios and released for Windows, although Gearbox Software would later port the game to PlayStation 2 in 2001.[1] Valve themselves later converted the game to use their Source engine.[2] Half-Life received critical acclaim upon release, critics hailing its overall presentation and numerous scripted sequences.[3] The game won over 50 Game of the Year awards[4] and its gameplay has influenced first-person shooters for years to come. Half-Life has since been regarded as one of the greatest games of all time.[5][6]

Half-Life was followed by an expansion pack, Half-Life: Opposing Force, on November 1, 1999.[7] Unlike Half-Life, Opposing Force was developed by Gearbox Software, although it was still published by Sierra Studios. Opposing Force was first announced as a mission pack for Half-Life in April 1999, and was released for the Windows version of the game.[8] The player no longer assumes the role of Gordon Freeman, but rather sees the later events of the first game from the perspective of a US Marine corporal, Adrian Shephard. Shephard is initially assigned to cover up the events at Black Mesa, but is soon left isolated and has to fight to survive against a new group of alien invaders and black operations units. Opposing Force was received favorably by critics,[9] many citing the game as being as influential on setting expansion pack standards as the original game had been in influencing the overall genre.[10][11][12] The game won the Computer Game of the Year Interactive Achievement Award of 2000 from the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.[13]

Gearbox went on to develop Half-Life: Blue Shift, Half-Life's second expansion pack. Like Opposing Force, Blue Shift was published by Sierra Entertainment. Announced in 2000, the game was initially developed as an add-on for a Dreamcast port of Half-Life;[14] however, the port was cancelled and Blue Shift was instead released for Windows on June 12, 2001.[15][16] Blue Shift puts the player in the position of Barney Calhoun, a security guard working at Black Mesa. The game takes place within the early parts of Half-Life, with Calhoun attempting to escape the facility with a small group of scientists. Blue Shift also includes a High Definition pack, which upgrades the quality of the models and textures in both Blue Shift and the preceding games in the series.[17] Critics gave Blue Shift a mixed but favorable reception,[18] praising the game's atmosphere and the inclusion of the High Definition pack, but criticizing the otherwise lack of new content and short length of the story.[19][20][21]

The third and final expansion for Half-Life was Half-Life: Decay. The game was again developed by Gearbox and published by Sierra. However, unlike previous titles, Decay is only available with the PlayStation 2 version of Half-Life.[22] Decay is unique within the Half-Life series as the only cooperative game—two players must work together to progress through the game.[23] Decay focuses on two of Freeman's colleagues, Gina Cross and Colette Green, as the two work with other scientists to counter the effects of the dimensional rift and ultimately attempt to close it. Released on November 14, 2001, Decay received a weak but overall positive reception from critics, many reviewers stating that it was fun to play through with a friend, but that the game's more puzzle-oriented gameplay detracted from the overall experience.[24][25][26] An unofficial Windows port of the game was released in September 2008.[27]

Half-Life 2[edit]

On November 16, 2004, Valve released Half-Life 2. The game had a six-year development cycle, which saw several delays and the leak of the game's source code. Half-Life 2 returns the player to the role of Gordon Freeman. Set twenty years after the original game,[28] Earth has been occupied by the Combine, a transdimensional race that exploited the events of the first game to invade. The G-Man inserts Freeman into City 17 in Eastern Europe to combat the Combine occupation. Half-Life 2 garnered near-unanimous positive reviews and received critical acclaim much like its predecessor, winning over 35 Game of the Year awards for 2004. Considered one of the greatest video games of all time, the game has been critically praised for its advances in computer animation, sound, narration, computer graphics, artificial intelligence, and physics. Half-Life 2 was the first title to use Valve's Steam content delivery system, a system that eventually led to Valve falling out with publisher Sierra Entertainment.

On October 27, 2005, Valve released Half-Life 2: Lost Coast, a short episode demonstrating high dynamic range rendering.[29] Consisting of a single map, Lost Coast was based on a cut segment of Half-Life 2.[30] The player, as Freeman, climbs a cliff to destroy a Combine artillery launcher in a monastery.[31]

Half-Life 2 episodes[edit]

In May 2006, Valve announced a trilogy of episodic games that would continue the Half-Life 2 story.[32] In a 2006 interview, Newell said that the episodic approach was chosen so Valve could release products more quickly after the six year-development of Half-Life 2. Newell said he considered the trilogy to be the first part of Half-Life 3.[33]

Half-Life 2: Episode One was released on June 1, 2006. The player controls Freeman as he and Alyx escape City 17 before a dark energy reactor core they damaged at the end of Half-Life 2 destroys it. It introduced several new graphical effects including new lighting features and more advanced facial animation. Episode One received a generally positive critical reaction, although the game's short length was a point of common criticism.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two was released for Windows, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on October 10, 2007 as part of The Orange Box, which also includes the games Portal, Team Fortress 2, Half-Life 2, and Episode One. The Orange Box was distributed digitally on Steam and at retail by Electronic Arts. Continuing Valve's strategy of orienting each episode around a theme or set of technologies, Episode Two focuses on expansive environments, travel and less linear play. As Gordon Freeman, the player travels with Alyx Vance from the ruins of City 17 into the surrounding countryside, pursued by Combine forces. Episode Two's new technologies and gameplay features were praised by reviewers; however, though it was significantly longer than Episode 1, the length was again a point of criticism.

Future and cancelled games[edit]

Half-Life 2: Episode Three[edit]

Half-Life 2: Episode Three concept art surfaced in 2008.[34][35][36] Valve reportedly worked with sign language and was working on a deaf character.[37][38][39] Valve released little information about Episode Three in the following years; though Valve still discussed Half-Life, there was no clarity on whether Episode Three would be coming, whether Valve was instead planning Half-Life 3, or if Valve had forgone the property to better support the popular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.[40] In March 2010, Newell spoke of "broadening the emotional palette" of the series, and how the next Half-Life game may return to "genuinely scaring the player".[41] In a 2011 interview with Develop magazine, he said: "We went through the episodes phase, and now we’re going towards shorter and even shorter cycles ... For me, 'entertainment as a service' is a clear distillation of the episodic content model."[42] By 2011, Episode Three was being described as vaporware.[43]

In a 2015 interview with Geoff Keighley, Newell said that due to Valve's management-free structure, it would only develop "a super classic kind of product" if a large number of employees began working on it together. He said this was unlikely as they would need to heed the lessons learned in supporting Portal 2.[40][44] In 2016 and 2017, three key writers for the Half-Life and Portal series, Marc Laidlaw, Erik Wolpaw, and Chet Faliszek, left Valve. Journalists took this, coupled with the commitment Valve was making to supporting Dota 2, Counter-Strike and Steam, as an indicator that the Half-Life series was no longer in development.[45]

On August 24, 2017, Laidlaw posted a short story, "Epistle 3", on his website. Laidlaw described the story as a "fanfic ... [a] snapshot of a dream I had many years ago".[46] Many journalists interpreted it as a summary of what could have been the plot for Half-Life 2: Episode Three. The story features characters with names similar to Half-Life characters, such as "Gertie Fremont" in place of Gordon Freeman. Substituting the characters with their Half-Life counterparts, the story sees Freeman and his allies travel to the Arctic to board the Borealis, a ship that travels erratically through time and space, where they "confront myriad versions" of themselves. They rig the ship to travel to the heart of the Combine empire and self-destruct, but the explosion is not sufficient to destroy the Combine's Dyson Sphere. Alyx is taken by the G-Man and Gordon is rescued by the Vortigaunts before he is sent to a beach.[47] After Laidlaw published the story, some players left negative reviews for Dota 2 on Steam, believing that Valve had forgone the Half-Life series in favor of Dota 2.[48] The story led to a number of fan efforts to recreate Episode Three.[49][50]

Return to Ravenholm[edit]

Return to Ravenholm, sometimes referred to as Half-Life 2: Episode Four, was under development by Arkane Studios. The episode would have featured the Half-Life location Ravenholm, a town infested with headcrabs and headcrab zombies. Valve canceled the project, deciding the premise was creatively constrained.[51][52][53]

Junction Point Studios episode[edit]

Another episode was under development by Junction Point Studios, a studio led by Warren Spector. According to Spector, the episode would have shown how Ravenholm became the town seen in Half-Life 2, allowing them to feature more of the character of Father Grigori; images of this setting appeared in early 2017.[54] The game included a "magnet gun", which fired projectiles that would magnetize the metal surface they contract, drawing objects and enemies towards it, and would have been used both for combat and puzzles.[55] Junction Point worked on it for a year, producing enough content to demonstrate one section of the game, and a vertical slice that demonstrated the mechanics of the magnet gun. Valve became uninterested in the project and Spector dropped it in favour of Disney's Epic Mickey.[56][57]

Related games[edit]

Portal series[edit]

The Portal series, which takes place in the same universe as the Half-Life games, is a series of puzzle games developed by Valve Corporation. The first game in the series, Portal, was initially released alongside Episode Two in The Orange Box on October 10, 2007. The player controls a test subject named Chell as she moves through the laboratories of Black Mesa's primary rival, Aperture Science, completing various tests with a device that allows her to create linked portals in physical space. In the later stages of the game, the player battles GLaDOS, a corrupt artificial intelligence computer that monitors her every move. The game is the spiritual successor to Narbacular Drop, with many of the same team members working on the game. Portal has been acclaimed as one of the most original games in 2007, receiving praise for its unique gameplay and darkly humorous story. An Xbox Live Arcade expansion was released on October 22, 2008, and its sequel, Portal 2, was released on April 19, 2011.

Counter-Strike series[edit]

In April 2000, Valve acquired the rights to the fan-made mod Counter-Strike. After some cooperation between the original team and Valve's developers,[58] Valve sold the game in retail, retitled as Half-Life: Counter-Strike.[59] Set in various locations around the world with little connection to the events of the main Half-Life story, the game is a multiplayer shooter in which players assume the roles of members of combating teams of the governmental counter-terrorist forces and various terrorist militants opposing them. Due to originally being a mod of Half-Life, the game shared several assets with the 1998 title, including Black Mesa containers and scientists. It was bundled with Half-Life in many subsequent packages, including its remake (Counter-Strike: Source) being bundled with the second Half-Life game. Half-Life: Counter-Strike spawned its own series which gradually became separate from the main Half-Life games.

Third-party games[edit]

The success of the Half-Life series has spurred the creation of several spin-off games for Half-Life 2. Codename: Gordon is a two-dimensional Flash sidescroller shooter developed by Nuclearvision Entertainment, and was released over Valve's Steam online delivery system on May 16, 2004, as a promotional game for the then-upcoming Half-Life 2.[60][61] The developer has since gone bankrupt, but the game itself can still be installed via a direct link to Steam, despite not being listed in the store.[62] Codename: Gordon was well received by reviewers and the public, and attracted over 600,000 players in the first three weeks after its release. Reviewers praised the game for its gameplay and unique dialog style, but also criticized it for its improper optimization, and lack of opponent variety.

Characters from Half-Life have appeared in other titles. Peggle Extreme, a special edition of Peggle bundled with the PC version of The Orange Box features levels based on Half-Life 2, Team Fortress 2 and Portal. The headcrab is also an unlockable character in Super Meat Boy when bought on Steam. The Headcrab also appeared in an April Fools event in the MMO Vindictus as an event item along with the Crowbar, possibly due to the game being created on the Source Engine as well. In the game Magicka there is a playable character (after the addition of a DLC), which closely resembles the original zombie from the Half-Life universe, equipped with a crowbar. Gordon also appears in Renegade Ops and the headcrab is available as a pet in Torchlight 2.

Half-Life has also inspired a number of fan-made mods, some which have gained recognition on their own. Black Mesa is a fan remake of the original Half-Life using the Source engine, which has been approved by Valve.[63][64] Garry's Mod started as a sandbox mode using Half-Life 2 assets but since has become a commercial product and given users the ability to incorporate other assets.[65] Among notable fan-made campaigns includes Minerva, which was designed to extend the story from Half-Life 2.[66]



At the Black Mesa Research Facility, physicist Gordon Freeman is involved an experiment that accidentally opens a portal to another dimension, Xen. Fending off hostile aliens and US Marines sent to cover up the incident, he helps scientists launch a satellite rocket and travels through a portal to Xen, where he destroys the Nihilanth, an alien entity. He is forced into a contract by the mysterious G-Man, who has been watching his progress.

Half-Life 2[edit]

Twenty years later, Earth has been conquered by an advanced alien force, the Combine. G-Man awakens Gordon from stasis and sends him to City 17, where Freeman regroups with the human resistance, including former Black Mesa employees Barney Calhoun, Isaac Kleiner, and Eli Vance, along with Eli's daughter, Alyx. The Combine attack the main resistance base and take Eli prisoner. While evading Combine pursuit, Freeman and Alyx attempt to rescue her father and make their way into the Citadel, the Combine's base. They confront Wallace Breen, the Combine's puppet ruler, and destroy the dark energy reactor that powers the Combine's portals.

Episode One and Two[edit]

The destruction of the Citadel reactor has started a chain reaction that will destroy City 17. Freeman and Alyx work to slow the reaction and intercept a transmission that could cut off the combine permanently. They fight through the ruins of City 17 and eventually escape the city with their allies. The Citadel explosion creates a "superportal" which could allow the full Combine force onto Earth. In the mountains outside City 17, Gordon and Alyx regroup with the resistance, fend off a Combine attack, and launch a satellite and using the information contained in the combine transmission shut down the superportal. G-Man instructs Alyx to tell her father to "prepare for unforeseen consequences", shaking him. With the Combine defeated, Freeman and Alyx prepare to depart for the 'Borealis', an Aperture Science owned vessel involved in a portal related accident. Before they can leave a pair of Combine advisors attack Freeman, Alyx, and Eli. Eli is killed and his knowledge stolen before Dog intervenes and saves Freeman and Alyx. Freeman blacks out as Alyx weeps over her father.


Two men look in the same direction
Valve's co-founder Gabe Newell (right) with marketing director Doug Lombardi in 2007.

The video game development company behind the Half-Life series, Valve Corporation, was founded in 1996 in Kirkland, Washington by former Microsoft employees Mike Harrington and Gabe Newell. Valve began working on the first game of the series soon after the company's formation, and settled on a concept for a horror-themed 3D action game, using the Quake engine as licensed by id Software. The game was a hit at the 1997 E3 convention, where its animation system and artificial intelligence were demonstrated.[67] The game's success led to its first expansion pack, Half-Life: Opposing Force, which was developed by Gearbox Software, a then-new company based in Plano, Texas, and announced on April 15, 1999.[68] Gearbox founder Randy Pitchford said in an interview that he believed Valve gave them the opportunity to produce a sequel to Half-Life to allow Valve to focus on future titles.[69] The game was demonstrated at the 1999 E3 convention, where new locations, characters, and the story were revealed.[70]

The second Half-Life expansion pack, Half-Life: Blue Shift, was again developed by Gearbox Software and announced by its publisher, Sierra Entertainment, on August 30, 2000.[71] Sierra intended to release Blue Shift for the Dreamcast, and it was set to include higher detail models and textures[72] that were double the polygon count of the models from Half-Life.[73] However, after several months of delays, Sierra terminated development on the Dreamcast version of Blue Shift on June 16, 2001,[15] and the company instead released Blue Shift for the PC on June 12, 2001.[16] Afterward, Gearbox began working on a Half-Life game for the PlayStation 2. The game, titled Decay, was showcased at E3 2001, where Gearbox demonstrated the game's use of new model sets,[74] which were around twice as detailed as those in Blue Shift.[75]

For several years, Valve secretly worked on the sequel to the original Half-Life, titled Half-Life 2. For the game, Valve developed a new game engine called the Source engine, which handles the game's visual, audio, and artificial intelligence elements. The Source engine comes packaged with a heavily modified version of the Havok physics engine that allows for an extra dimension of interactivity in both single-player and online environments.[76] In the trilogy of episodic games that followed Half-Life 2, Valve made minor tweaks to the game's engine. In Half-Life 2: Episode One, Valve modified Alyx's AI to allow her to react to the player's actions because of her significant involvement in the game.[77] The game runs on an upgraded version of Valve's proprietary Source engine, and features both the engine's advanced lighting effects, and a new version of its facial animation/expression technology.[78]


On February 6, 2013, while speaking at the 2013 DICE conference about storytelling in games and film, J. J. Abrams and Gabe Newell announced that they had plans for a game and a film collaboration. Abrams said, "There's an idea we have for a game that we'd like to work with Valve on," while Newell said, "We're going to figure out if we can make a Portal movie or Half-Life movie together".[79][80] In an interview in March 2016, Abrams stated that while he has been working on many other projects since, he still has plans to direct these films in the future, with both films in the writing stage.[81]

Cultural influence and reception[edit]

A short film based upon Half-Life, titled Half-Life: Uplink, was developed by Cruise Control, a British marketing agency, and released on March 15, 1999. However, Sierra withdrew it from circulation after Sierra and Valve had failed to resolve licensing issues with Cruise Control over the film. The critical reception of the film was very poor. The film's plot was that of a journalist attempting to infiltrate the Black Mesa Research Facility and discover what was happening there.[82][83][84][85]

In early 2009, the Purchase Brothers, a Toronto-based film company, released a five-minute film based on Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life: Escape from City-17. The film combines live-action footage with 3D animation created using the Source SDK.[86] It was well received by Valve.[87] On August 25, 2010 they released a nearly 15-minute long sequel. In late 2010 a trailer for a Half-Life inspired independent short film entitled Beyond Black Mesa was released. Directed by Brian Curtin, it follows the character Adrian Shephard.[88] The full short film was released online on January 21, 2011.


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