Sci-fi author Robert A. Heinlein once pointed out that "there ain't no such thing as a free lunch."
That's definitely the case with the Half-Life series, which you can currently get for free on Steam. To help players get ready for the launch of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve's upcoming VR game, the company is offering most of the Half-Life series for free until March.
Acquiring the games isn't hard, but remember: If you don't want to pay for them, you'll have to finish before Valve's grace period expires.
First things first: You can play seven games for free. They are:
- Half-Life: Opposing Force
- Half-Life: Blue Shift
- Half-Life 2
- Half-Life 2: Episode 1
- Half-Life 2: Episode 2
- Team Fortress Classic
To get the games, simply open the Steam client, navigate to the game you want to play, and press "Play Game." You'll then have to download and install it; the rest is pretty straightforward.
In case you've never played them, all Half-Life games are first-person shooters with a good variety of physics-based puzzles sprinkled in.
The first game is about a physicist who must fight off an alien invasion. Opposing Force tells the same story, from the perspective of military operatives called in to cover the whole thing up. Blue Shift offers a third perspective, as you take control of one of the security guards at the ill-fated lab.
Half-Life 2 is probably the high point of the series, moving the story forward by two decades and pitting protagonist Gordon Freeman against both aliens and a hostile fascist regime that's taken over Earth. Episodes 1 and 2 continue the story — but then leave it on a cliffhanger, which we hope that Half-Life: Alyx will help resolve.
Team Fortress Classic is the great granddaddy of role-based multiplayer shooters, and it's worth playing as an historical curiosity, if nothing else.
To buy all of these games together usually costs about $50, and playing through all of them will take a good two- or three-dozen hours. Bear the time commitment in mind if you're planning to run through the whole series, as the "play-for-free" deal does have an expiration date: March 2020. That's when Half-Life: Alyx is coming out, at which point Valve will (probably) make the games pay-to-play again.
The good news is that there's no hard date for Half-Life: Alyx, and the Steam client currently promises "two months" before the promotion expires. If you want to keep playing after that, you'll have to shell out some money — but at that point, you may be ready to move onto Half-Life Alyx, which costs $60 and requires a VR headset.