They’re waiting for you Gordon, in the review chamber.
When I heard some band of misfits were re-making Half Life I was a bit sceptical. You couldn’t just rock up out of nowhere and remake one of the greatest games of all time; it’s sacrosanct surely? I was cautious, but ultimately if it was just a lick of paint with the Source engine then I suppose it could do no harm.
Then, of course, it was revealed that the developers were adding and tweaking to the original and making some design changes. Now as hate filled and divided as the gaming world is, surely we can agree that Half Life is a defining example of the medium which we enjoy so much? Throwing some lazy comparisons into the mix, it’s the Beatles of the videogame world, the Moby Dick. You don’t have to particularly enjoy the works themselves but you can at least appreciate how much they have defined the medium and proved popular and timeless amongst the masses.
So I was dead eager to get my greasy mitts on Black Mesa, and not just because I’m a moocher who likes free stuff. I even played Half Life: Source on Steam, partly as a warm up but also to better contrast Valve’s own effort against eight years worth of voluntary effort.
Taking the actual Half Life game aside for a second, Valve’s update was completely underwhelming and a slightly lazy effort on their part. It adds some ragdoll physics and improved lighting and water effects, but the graphical artifacts weren’t updated to their Half Life 2 counterparts so it felt very much like a stalled attempt, as though someone just decided that this wasn’t worth the effort when they realised how much work was involved.
So firstly – Black Mesa as a mod is very easy and hassle free to install, albeit the process was rather lengthy (notwithstanding the long download times which should have eased off by now). Once it was extracted with 7-Zip I was good to go, it even takes care of adding the game into your Steam library should you have one which was a nice touch.
I then fired it up and dived straight in. Going back to my lazy analogy, the opening tram section from Half Life is the video game equivalent of ‘Call me Ishmael’, an utterly memorable introduction to the world and the surroundings of Black Mesa and, arguably, never bettered.
That opening section is actually a great taster of exactly what you’ll find across the whole of the game. The original layout and locations are predominantly there, but there are differences and additions, both significant and small, which make the world feel more rounded and less boxy than the original. Thanks to the highly detailed textures and additional environmental objects, Black Mesa feels more tightly populated and less spartan, the team have done a fantastic job in breathing new life into the old place. In addition to this, the locations themselves have significantly expanded in terms of size and scale where appropriate, which can deliver an overwhelming sense of scale that you’d never quite get if you looked back at the original today.
One of the earliest and most significant example of these changes can be experienced fairly early on after the Resonance Cascade, the darker environments and fantastic Source lighting gives the tones of a survival horror title. When contrasted with the overly bright environments in Half Life, this interpretation falls more in line with the darker and grimier look and feel of Half Life 2 which is a good thing, you really feel like you could play them both back to back as a seamless experience.
I’ll make an overarching comment right now regarding the entirety of Black Mesa, the developers had two different paths in front of them. Either do a carbon copy remake with overhauled graphics (and that would have been good enough), or add their own twists and improvements and build upon Half Life as a foundation. They went with the latter and more dangerous option and it pays off handsomely. Not all the design decisions are entirely sensible, mind you. While the flashlight without the constantly draining battery and the ability to roll grenades as well as throw them are smart additions, the iron sights on the .357 Magnum aren’t really necessary when the gun is so accurate… even when firing from the hip (if anything, it makes aiming even harder).
The levels are a pleasant mixture of mostly old and something new… experienced Half Lifers won’t get easily lost but there has definitely been a concerted effort to look at the game subjectively and make changes where appropriate. Again, the opening stages of the game make a few significant changes which means that you can’t just read from history when playing Black Mesa, you do need to keep a sharp eye out for the unexpected and even having played the original several times I’ve found myself running around at the brink of death on numerous occasions.
Gameplay wise, it’s a solid experience overall but it’s not without glitches. I’ve been stuck to the environment on several occasions and had enemies shooting at me that simply weren’t there (a fresh reload solved this). Aiming and movement feel nice and fluid, the animations of the NPCs and Aliens are on par with those in Half Life 2, although it feels like the range of facial animations haven’t quite been explored enough.
The sound is an interesting thing, the harrowing screams of the zombies from Half Life 2 have been replaced with a more rabid and gurgled breathing which does just as good a job of ramping up the tension during those quieter and darker trawls through Black Mesa. The character voices closely resemble those featured in the original game, but lack any variety as a result. Some of the marine vocal work feels a little bit forced and unconvincing but otherwise it doesn’t detract from the overall game.
As for the original score for Black Mesa, Joel Nielsen gives an honest assessment of his work and his knowledge base on the webpage where you can download the entire album but overall it’s a solid effort that is used sparingly, as any Half Life soundtrack should be. Its weakest moments are during the heavier, crunchier guitar tracks (Questionable Ethics 1) but it shines best when it offers up haunting electronic soundscapes (Inbound) to accompany your descent and ascent through Black Mesa.
So – the verdict. You can argue that the Source Engine itself is a bit past it, but this update of Half Life, this re-imagining of a medium and genre defining classic is an incredible feat.
Eight years is a long wait, but this is a triple AAA delivery from a 40 strong team of volunteers. Their respect and love of the game shines through the amount of effort they have paid to make the game strikingly similar and boldly new at the same time. At no point did I wonder through thinking that anything was amiss or wrong (with the obvious exception of the Xen levels which will appear as a greatly expanded additional release). You could also argue that this update highlights the quality and robustness of Valve’s Source Engine too.
I’d like to point out that a recent tweet by the team has asked for no money and for all donations to go to charity. In my mind, Gabe Newell could do a lot worse than buying this title from them and adding it into the official Half Life release cannon.
I am thoroughly looking forward to see how the team interpret the Xen Levels, I only hope it isn’t quite as long a wait but even if it is, these guys have proved that it can be worth it.
Check out the gallery below for plenty more choice shots of my early playthrough.