Level Design Masterpieces 1: Lowlife


The Half Life series is one of the most popular game series or all time, the original Half Life is a PC gaming classic and the sequel was the highest rated game ever in PC Gamer magazine. Tons of people remember Half Life 1 & 2 and many people remember Half Life 2 Episode 2 due to the cliffhanger ending, but many people overlook Half Life 2 Episode 1 and that’s a shame. First a short history lesson, Half Life 2 came out in 2004 as a follow up to the 1998 shooter Half Life. Due to the long development cycle between Half Life 1 and 2 Valve decided to release the sequel to Half Life 2 in 3 episodic expansions packs. The idea was that Valve would be able to produce the episodes faster then a full game because they were smaller. Half Life 2 Episode 1 was released on June 1, 2006 and despite its short length it was widely considered a success.

Half Life 2 Episode 1 didn’t add a lot of mechanics to the Half Life formula, it added a new enemy type and gave the player an AI partner for the whole episode. The new enemy is a zombified version of one of the other enemies you face in the game. This zombie can take more damage then any of the other zombies and at low heath it will pull out a grenade and kamikaze charge. The other change to game play is adding Alex Vance as a permanent partner. Alex can assist in combat and open doors for the player, she can’t be killed so the player does not have to focus on protecting her.

WOW! Okay, finally its time to talk about the level itself! Lowlife is the third of five chapters in HL 2 EP 1, the first two chapters are used as quick refreshers on the controls and combat, so the third chapter is when they start to really test your combat skills. It’s important to know that at the start of this chapter the player only has the gravity gun ( a weapon that uses objects in the environment as projectiles) so they can’t just run and gun.

Walk through:

The chapter starts with the player moving through some rubble, they get a view of the tunnel they are about to pass through and attentive players will notice zombies on the ground waiting to rise up and attack the player. As the player enters the tunnel the first wave of zombies gets up and attacks.


First zombie encounter

As the player moves down the tunnel they encounter a few more zombies, there are also mines on the ground that the player can use against the zombies. In one of the more well lit areas a zombie will stand up right next to a mine and the mine explodes. This shows the players that the mines can be dangerous but can also be used in combat. Before exiting this area there are also zombies on fire showing the player that fire can kill zombies (this becomes very important later). The next room is pitch black and the player must use their flashlight to find a vent, there is a audio que from Alex prompting the player to turn on their flashlight and explore the vent. This ensures the player knows that they have a flashlight and knows to look for vents (which is a big part of exploring Half Life levels). All of this early teaching is to ensure that players who might be rusty or new know everything they need to. This is done organically without feeling forced. When moving through the vents the player finds a flair that can be picked up with the gravity gun, the flares can be used to create light and set enemies on fire. When the player exits the vent they have to fight an enemy  and the hope is that the player will throw the flare at the zombie setting it on fire and learning that flares can be used in combat.

The player then encounters the first puzzle, there is a locked door and the player has to shoot the lock off but they need a gun since the gravity gun can’t break the lock. As shown below the player uses the gravity gun to grab weapons that are out of reach, the player can use these weapons to break the lock.


Lock and Load

The player progresses down another tunnel fighting zombies on the way. The area is very dark so the player must use their flashlight sparingly, but light can be generated by setting zombies on fire. At the end of the tunnel the player encounters a locked door, on the other side of the door the players can see the new zombie enemy. This is the first time the player has ever seen this enemy and the game teaches the player that this zombie can kamikaze by using the explosion to open the locked door. The player then fights through another tunnel fighting more zombies, the kamikaze zombies start showing up along with regular zombies to increase the challenge. The player then enters a room with a hole in the floor and a broken car. The player must hold a button to open the door to the next area but when they start to open the door they are attacked by giant bugs called antlions. The antlions endlessly spawn from the hole in the floor and the player must use the gravity gun to block the hole. This teaches the player how to stop antlions from spawning, which is essential to a puzzle later in the level.


Enemies spawn until the hole is plugged

The player advances down another tunnel and ends up in a parking garage. This area is the next puzzle in the chapter. The parking garage has multiple floors and each floor has a hole that spawns antlions. In the last area the player learned that they can cover the antlion spawns and this area tests the player on what they just learned. This is one of my favorite set pieces in episode one and this area really shows off the excellent combat in the Half Life series. The parking garage is full of both antlions and zombies so the player has to prioritize what they want to fight. The zombies are slower but deal more damage and the antlions are fast and weak but they endlessly spawn. The cars that the player needs to block the holes get progressively farther from the holes so as the player gets closer to their goal they need to work harder to succeed. This is a good way to slowly increase the difficulty of a combat encounter as well as raise the tension.

Once the player is out of the garage they engage in some very close quarters combat with a few zombies before entering the final set piece of the chapter. The player enters a large room that is totally dark except for a light by an elevator.


This looks promising

When the player tries to use the elevator the only light in the room goes out. The player must search the dark room for a circuit box to restore power to the elevator. As the player searches the room they will find lots of zombie bodies but very few enemies, this combined with limited flashlight creates a very tense atmosphere. The chapter culminates when the power to the elevator is turned on, the player must get back to the elevator while being swarmed by an endless supply of zombies. The area is still pitch black and it is very easy to get turned around. The players best bet is to start setting zombies on fire so there is more light to see where to go. Once the player get back to the elevator (the lone light in the entire room) the can escape the underground and the chapter is complete!


The Lowlife chapter has two of my favorite set pieces in the Half Life series. This chapter is a great example of how to use lights to guide the player. The majority of this chapter is very dark and the areas where the player has to go are often lit. This shows the player where to go without leading them by the nose. Light is also used in combat since the areas are very dark and setting enemies on fire can help the player see better. The difficulty slowly ramps up in this chapter as more enemies get added as the player progresses. I feel, this level is a nod to Ravenholm from Half Life 2 since almost all the enemies are zombies and it takes place in a dark environment. The player also only has a pistol, shotgun and gravity gun and with the limited ammo provided the player has to use the gravity gun wisely to compensate for the lack of ammo (like Ravemholm). Lowlife is an awesome example of level design and I think its something that anyone who enjoys shooters should experience. That’s all for now, I would love to hear if you agree or disagree with me and let me know if there is a level you would like to see me discuss.

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