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Half-Life Alpha Dating From September 1997, Finds Its Way Online After 15 Years

Community & Projects Half-Life

The original Half-Life was first announced in early 1997, initially set for that year’s holiday season. But one very impressive E3 1997 showing later, and suddenly Half-Life was on everyone’s radar – expectations were ramping up, and suddenly, Valve were in the center of the gaming world’s attention. And so, later that year, close to their projected release date, Valve decided that a delay was in order. Once they’d attained it, a lot of the pressure was off, and the team at Valve spent began to intensely evaluate every aspect of the game, and all of the content they had created in one year of development.

And while there had been a considerable amount of progress, and the game itself was in very good shape, it just seemed like there was something missing – as Valve engineer Ken Birdwell stated in The Final Hours of Half-Life, the game simply wouldn’t have gone “over the edge anywhere“. To Valve, it seemed like Half-Life could be a lot more revolutionary and a lot more groundbreaking. Thus, in late 1997, an entire game’s worth of content and design was completely scrapped, and Half-Life underwent a complete redesign, fully from the ground up.

What gamers eventually got one year later in November of 1998, amounts to an entirely new game (in fact, according to Ken Birdwell, it really is a Half-Life 2 of sorts). But what happened to the Half-Life that never was – the “Half-Life 0” that Valve unceremoniously threw out the door?

Half-Life Alpha Dating From September 1997, Finds Its Way Online After 15 Years

One week ago, a Redditor known as JackalJayzer posted about a remarkable discovery he’d made – through a friend living in Bellevue, he had managed to get a hold of a disc containing… a full alpha preview version of Half-Life (intended for press consumption), dating from early September 1997 – several months before the complete game overhaul that came later that year.

And with the aid of a few other Redditors, he succeeded in extracting the contents of the disc as a single bin-cue image – which he posted up on Reddit less than a day ago. The Half-Life alpha build contained therein (labelled as “Half-Life Alpha v0.52“) is completely functional, and is even compatible with modern computers (just as long as you rename/remove “opengl32.dll” from the Half-Life folder, and then run the alpha using the “enginegl.exe” file in that same folder).

That said, you will get better results by playing the alpha using the engine’s software renderer – and while it’s not the most straightforward process, it is reasonably easy to set up (community member Marphy Black posted a guide explaining how to get the software renderer working, on the Facepunch forums). Playing the alpha build in software mode will properly render the game’s HUD, as well as various in-game particle effects which don’t seem to work in the hardware-accelerated renderer mode.

Overall, the alpha is very much playable, and surprisingly bug-free (that said, the huge amounts of z-fighting may have caused permanent damage to my retinas), but it’s evidently nowhere near complete. In fact, more than a few game levels are missing from this particular preview build – so don’t expect to get the integral experience from this thing!

That said, there are a few very interesting novelties and oddities in there: headcrab attacks used to be a one-hit-kill in this version of the game; military grunt soldiers would actually dodge your fire by side-stepping, and the grenades they fired from their underbarrel grenade launchers did not detonate on impact with the ground, but after a few seconds.And since the HEV suit hadn’t even been thought of at that point in development, Valve would have had the player search for radiation suits and radiation showers, in order to navigate the Reactor Lab (a far earlier rendition of the final game’s Lambda Reactor Complex).

In addition, there’s quite a few classic screenshots and promotional videos on the disc, as well as a few text documents – and among the various developer bios and instructions for the alpha build itself, is a full story synopsis for this original “Half-Life 0“:

The Portal Device is a dimension-spanning gate of unpredictable power, constructed in a decommissioned missile silo.  So far no one has ventured through the Portal, but there has been a steady flow of odd creatures coming to our world.  You are a weapons research scientist who has never touched a weapon—until now.

An accident in the Threshold’s power core fractures the local fabric of spacetime, and hordes of creatures begin spewing into our world through the fissures.  Monsters are everywhere, and your co-workers are dropping like flies.  You head for the surface but the usual routes are unpassable—damaged by the disaster and infested with monsters.  The silo security guards are in a state of primal terror and looking for someone to blame.  The obvious scapegoats are the scientists.  Namely, you.

In your flight to the surface, you acquire a device which means the difference between victory and annihilation—but you don’t realize whose victory, until too late.  As the Portal experiment’s first human subject, you are cast into the alien world to confront the ultimate horror…to cut off the invasion at its source.  In Half-Life, you won’t just go head-to-head with an alien boss—you will fight it from the inside out.

Intriguing, if a bit cheesy. You can tell the story wasn’t very well conceived, at that point in the game’s development. Certainly, Valve had some pretty good reasons to restart Half-Life’s development, and start fresh – placing a rewritten storyline before the game itself.

In any case, you can find a full virtual disc image of the preview disc here, on Google Drive! It is compatible with most virtual disc image programs, and all you’ll need to do is extract its contents (and believe it or not, Jayzer is auctioning off the original disc itself on eBay).

But if you’re not feeling up to the task, or concerned about the legality of all this, then have no fear, for Marphy Black has posted three videos: one showing a full walkthrough of the E3 1997 tech demos, the other is footage from an online 1v1 deathmatch session, and the last is a 38-minute montage of all 15 of the alpha’s in-game demo replays – as recorded and played by the Valve developers themselves, mere days before this alpha preview disc was distributed to the gaming press (the individual demos are being uploaded separately on YouTube by community member Lambda Core, just in case you’d rather watch them that way).

Let’s take a look:

Article Sources

Facepunch (via ValveTime)

22 Comments

  1. How do i run this?

    • Copy “Half-Life” folder from the disc image to your HDD/SSD and then:
      - To run in OpenGL mode (broken HUD and water color, but filtered textures), rename opengl32.dll in “Half-Life” folder and launch enginegl.exe.
      - To run in software rendering mode (pixelated textures, but the HUD is fully working and water color is correct), set display color depth to 16 bits in Windows settings and launch engine.exe.
      To play, type “map map_name_here” (without quotes) in the console (press Q) and press Enter. To see a list of available maps, check valve/maps folder.

  2. Man, *a lot* changed between this version and the final product. I should try this sometime. :)

  3. http://kotaku.com/5975340/alleged-screenshots-surface-of-a-long+cancelled-half-life-2-episode

  4. Now we are waiting 6 years more for the Half-Life 2 Beta, haha.

  5. I have the files but wont run it says dont have grapich card driver?

  6. It’s awesome that this still exist *-*

  7. Condoning piracy, are we?

    • That’s a bit of a preposterous accusation – surely you noticed how I explicitly specified that the legality of this is somewhat in question.
      Even so, this doesn’t really qualify as “piracy” in the slightest; not any more than the online distribution of the OEM-exclusive Half-Life: Day One, back in mid-1998 – in fact, even less so (and I can provide numerous similar examples)! And in any case, well over a day has passed since this unofficial release took place, and Valve does not seem to have taken any action against it.

  8. bravo, the best writeup so far. if you have any other questions about the alpha disk feel free to contact me. enjoy :)

  9. How do I get the use key to work? Couldn’t find it in the Controls options. [e] is useless.

  10. http://i.imgur.com/o38ve.png

    *chuckle*

    • 6000 polygons was really a lot back then. That was a stress test of skeletal animation. Valve expected that the animation would crash the game, but it didn’t. If it was done using vertex animation (similar to how Quake does animation), the game would crash because of lack of free memory. Computers had only some megabytes of RAM back then. For example, Half-Life requires 24 Mb of RAM. And if we assume that the robot animation had 30 frames (I don’t know the exact number) and 2 vertices for each triangle (vertices can be shared between triangles), with vertex animation, the robot animation would take 2*6000*12*30=4.12 megabytes. That’s really a lot for that time. Add size of the Windows stuff, map data and other models, and you’re out of memory. The explanation of the equation:
      2 – the number of vertices per polygon.
      6000 – the number of polygons.
      12 – size of vertex data for each polygon in frame (in Quake, it’s 4, but I’m sure Valve increased the precision for Half-Life).
      30 – the number of frames.

  11. Awesome :D I’ve always to play the unobtainable E3 1997 build of Half-Life we’ve occasionally been seeing on youtube ~

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