Valve’s seminal first-person shooter may be good, but it’s far from the “best game ever” it so regularly gets touted as. It’s not even unambiguously the best 90’s shooter.
Straight away I’ll get the praise for Half-Life out of the way: it’s a good story, made by a good dev team, on solid engine architecture, and it’s generally – and most importantly – fun to play.
However, Half-Life, as well as it’s belated sequel, are so often held up as the absolute peak of digital gaming, and it really boggles me why. Even within the category of 1990’s FPSs, there’s better shooters both generally, and in each individual aspect for which Half-Life is typically lauded.
The natural first suggestion in finding the best retro shooter would be any of the most well known Build Engine titles: Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, or Shadow Warrior. Each of these three might be written off as slightly behind Half-Life technologically, as Build primarily uses 2D sprite enemies, but this trio of games all excel in providing fully room-over-room 3D environments, a great mix of highly mobile combat and environmental traversal puzzles, and a large roster of weapons which mixes grounded military hardware with a compliment of fantastic and unique sci-fi concept weapons.
Duke Nukem 3D sees a plot itself not that far removed from Half-Life: a sudden space alien invasion and infestation to be rebuffed by a lone hero willing to go to the alien world and back with his one-man arsenal strapped effortlessly to his back. Unlike Dr. Freeman however, Duke is quite the talker, and comes complete with a uber-macho personality and library of quippy remarks courtesy of VA industry legend Jon St. John.
In terms of surpassing the world of Xen and Black Mesa in immersive detail are the gothic Nineteenth Century vistas of Blood. The undead and remorseless gunslinger Caleb works his way through dozens and dozens of levels which flow into each other seamlessly, and each is hauntingly beautiful in every aspect of its design and implementation.
Shadow Warrior rivals, or possibly even exceeds, Half-Life in terms of creative engine complexity. The Build Engine in this has been converted to support fully off-the-rails ridable vehicles and dynamically reactive landscapes which makes Half-Life’s famous monorail opening and electric conveyer trams look lacking in comparison.
If you insist the Half-Life supplanter must use polygonal 3D sprites for whatever arbitrary reason, there’s plenty better there too. This period in gaming history gave way to a range of highly diverse 3D engines, all of which bring their own strengths to the comparison.
Unreal is an absolutely gorgeous fully 3D shooter which uses its engine to show off enormous sweeping views of alien landscapes, has a surprisingly clever story, and by far, the best 90’s vanilla deathmatching MP and bot support.
Dark Forces 2 is a highly cinematic, FMV supported, shooter officially licensed and set in the Star Wars universe on a propriety offshoot of the IdTech Engine, which effortlessly manages to capture the scale of Half-Life’s own lore.
If you’re reading this, no doubt you already know about Half-Life, but if you’re someone who thinks it’s the best because of XYZ reasons – I’m just letting you know there’s plenty of (wink wink) better retro shooters out there you could try if you haven’t already considered them.