I remember most of the circumstances surrounding the first time I played Half-Life: Uplink. At the time, my family’s computer was nestled upstairs in a spare room for reasons I can’t recall, and I’d just acquired the latest PCXL magazine (rest in peace), which contained the demo, among others. I’d already read a little bit about Half-Life and the accolades it was beginning to amass, but there was nothing like experiencing a bit of it for myself.
I played a lot of demos in my teenage years, in part because it was fairly easy to convince my parents to buy me eight dollar magazines as opposed to fifty dollar full-length games, and each of those magazines generally contained hours of entertainment. Then again, my parents actively discouraged my gaming habit, so if they understood the kind of timesink they were enabling, they might not have been so acquiescent.
A few of those demos stand out. The first episode of Duke Nukem 3D, which I experienced (optimally, I think) at 13. Diablo, with its unsettling intro and truly terrifying encounter with the Butcher. Heroes of Might and Magic. Quake. Conquest of the New World, with a demo so long that I spent an entire evening not-quite-completing it.
But none of these had quite the same effect as Half-Life: Uplink. As I played through it today, I mostly remembered the events and layout of its maps, to the point where I felt a wave of deja vu hit when the NPCs started talking at me. I’m not sure if it’s because I played through it a bunch of times after that initial run, or just because it was so memorable to start with, but it wasn’t something I’d expected.
The demo itself is interesting because it’s not simply a slice of the main story. Instead of spoiling any of the experience of their superlative single-player campaign, Valve opted to build a little novella of a demo using the assets and scripting found in the real deal. It doesn’t last very long, but it has some fun moments involving marines rappelling in from an exploding roof, a half-finished burn-everything-and-bury-it job by said marines trying to destroy evidence, and a closing scripted encounter with one of the game’s most formidable foes.
Although the game looks terribly dated by today’s standards, the overall logic of the maps and the scripting and AI hold up very well. Just like I always have, I chose to play the demo on hard, and it had a consistent level of difficulty that had me constantly scrounging for health and (to a lesser extent) ammo, which is certainly the intended effect. I’ve read about Valve’s ability to control the player’s experience, and that was in full force here. At times, it felt more like survival horror as I made my way through the environment, hoping to survive long enough to get the next medpack or ammo pickup.
It definitely felt tuned to compensate for compulsive quicksaving, a habit I fell back into pretty quickly. I also found my muscle memory returning for Half-Life’s weapon selection system, despite having not played it or its sequel in many years. Enemies soaked up bullets and were generally hardy enough to withstand my frontal assaults, so I had to remember how to circle strafe and use corners effectively, since there were no chest-high walls or cover system to aid me. The AI still seems pretty smart after well over a decade, but its overall reaction time feels tuned to be just a little slow to allow the player to come back around a corner and get the drop on a marine or an alien that was previously staring right at you when you turned it.
Overall, I’m glad I took the time to replay HL:U. I like replaying games, to take off the rose-tinted glasses of the past and to judge them on their merits relative to today’s offerings. If all goes to plan, I’m going to start replaying some of the full-length games that were important to me growing up, writing about the experience as I go. Consider this a first taste.