It seems I can never truly get away from my work. Sometimes I envy people who have jobs they don’t have to give a shit about, who can set them down for a week or two out of the year to go sit on a beach somewhere airing out their glistening flab. Me, even when I’m out of the country for a few days (at an expo, say, spending the nights getting taken out to dinner and the days signing everything that’s put under my nose), my work never truly goes away. It’s like it’s attached to me with a bungee cord, and even if I do fling it away from me with all my strength it’ll only smash back into me with greater force the moment I drop my guard.
No sooner had I gotten back from Escapist Expo a couple of weeks back that the promotions for my next novel Jam started ramping up, the audiobook for Mogworld got released on iTunes so I had to put out some promotional stuff for that, and then, of course, there was Black Mesa. It cheekily decided to finally release itself a day or two after I’d left Brisbane and I was only able to download it and have a crack after I’d gotten home and trimmed the overgrown pubic bush of work down a bit.
I remember reflecting when the release countdown started that it’s bloody typical how this only happened after I did a retro review of the original Half-Life. The same thing happened with Duke Nukem Forever. But I have to admit I’m still a little iffy on the concept of a from-the-ground-upwards remake. It’s like when they remade Psycho shot-for-shot in color. What’s the ruddy point? It’d be like rewriting the Canterbury Tales to be about a convoy of software salesmen on their way to a convention in North Malden. It’s iffy because these things exist not only to tell a specific story but to preserve the techniques and attitudes of the time in which they were created, allowing us to gain an insight into those times. He who forgets the past, to coin a phrase, might actually attempt to invade Siberia again.
And it’s important to the history of gaming to preserve the original Half-Life, ‘cos while it doesn’t look quite so HD anymore, it’s pretty crazy to think that they managed to do it with the Quake engine. And it might be a little quaint how it shows off boxy laser light shows like we’re supposed to be impressed when a modern triple-A game can put the same amount of tech into depicting a dog guiltily farting in the corner of the room, but we can’t appreciate that whole gradual path of improvement without having Half-Life in its appropriate context.
But that’s just me tokenly being a big whinging sod trying to ruin everyone’s fun, so having said all that, I’ll be damned if I didn’t have a pretty good time playing Black Mesa. It occurred to me while playing through that bit right at the start after the resonance cascade that the sequence was actually scary in a way the original hadn’t been since my first playthrough, perhaps hadn’t been at all. There’s nothing quite like the Source engine for creating a creepy blacked-out environment with sparks coming out of ruined electronics.
The skeletal map layout is all basically the same as I remember, but while it doesn’t feel like playing Half-Life for the first time all over again, there’re enough new bits and bobs to create a ramshackle, poor man’s version of that feeling. Like that bit where you emerge from a drainage pipe in the side of a massive cliff face with a spectacular view of the river valley, at which point I had to pause, eat a sandwich and appreciate the skybox for a bit.
For someone like me, who played Half-Life so many times I could write a complete step-by-step walkthrough right now without even having to double-check anything, the percentage of Black Mesa that was basically the same but with a fresh coat of paint flew past in a blur, and the ways it differed from the original stood out with all the more prominence. In some ways it was eerie, like revisiting your childhood town to find entire streets and housing estates you don’t recognize. I remember hearing that they were planning to add a few new physics puzzles in grand Source Engine tradition, and I was afraid that meant they’d throw in a few of those fucking seesaws, but thankfully not. The changes they have made to some of the puzzles just seem a bit, I dunno, fussy. Like that whole sequence where you have to power up the underground railway and electrify a giant alien seems to have just had a few additional button presses added for no particular reason. As for all the jumping puzzles, they’re still there, for better or worse, and if anything detaching from ladders has somehow become even less intuitive.
The difficulty also seems to have ramped up a fair bit, and not just because it’s not so familiar anymore. It seems like enemy numbers in many encounters have been significantly increased, the aliens have much shorter firing delays, and the bullsquid now sprays acid like a Catherine wheel. I don’t know if this is supposed to be some statement on how late-90’s shooters were too soft on us, but the helicopter boss fight after you first get the rocket launcher is now scrotum-twangingly difficult. The environments have been spread out a bit so there’s not as much cover, and the helicopter’s gatling gun minces you to burgermeat if you so much as contemplate poking your head out.
The changes that I do like, though, have successfully achieved the effect of making the Black Mesa Research Facility actually make physical sense, in more ways than one. Half-Life often bowed to game design over context and there were many features of the BMRF that defied logic. Pipes that outflowed directly into rooms, extended looping corridors that weren’t looping around anything, elevators activated only by buttons nowhere near the actual elevator, and for the most part Black Mesa has done an admirable job spackling in the cracks of consistency. On top of that, I’m impressed by the development of the characters. In the original Half-Life, random scientists and security guards existed only to spout the next lump of exposition to hustle you on your way, but now, while saying basically the same things, enough extra verbal cues and mannerisms are added to give a greater sense of distinct, believable characters.
In other words, Black Mesa has successfully recreated Half-Life (well, Half-Life up to the Xen bit, anyway) with the technology, tone and attitudes of Half-Life 2. Which I think was basically the plan, so well done everyone. I look forward to seeing how you redo the final Xen levels to be less crap, ‘cos I’m thinking that’s another eight-year job in itself.
Oh wait, were you expecting this column to follow up on my Guild Wars 2 review in some way? Oh yeah. Um. It’s alright. Check it out.
Yahtzee is a British-born, currently Australian-based writer and gamer with a sweet hat and a chip on his shoulder. When he isn’t talking very fast into a headset mic he also designs freeware adventure games. His personal site is www.fullyramblomatic.com.