This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Black Mesa.
Some day, indie games, you and I are going to have to draw up a little constitution and decide how long is too long to be in early fucking access. I made a vow to stop reviewing games that are still in oily excess because anything I criticise can get fixed before the final release and then my review just has to dangle there from the internet looking all wrong and stupid like a decent human being in a Republican controlled Senate. Plus it leads to situations like when I half-arsedly reviewed Fortnite while it was still in twirly axis, little realising it would soon become the world’s third most popular form of human communication.
But now I have a new problem, because sometimes games stay in early access the whole time they’re in the popular Zeitgeist so by the time I review it no one cares and have all moved onto John Madden’s Felching Simulator 2020. Black Mesa was announced fifteen years ago and been in early access for five. I assume they’ve been waiting until the kitschy retro factor kicks in since they missed the first chance to strike while the panty was wet. As a critic this has been a right pinecone up my perineum. Back when I first played Black Mesa in those wonderful days before all sense left the Earth I had tons of shit to critic about but they kept throwing up the early access card like a crucifix to a vampire.
“Hey, where are the Xen levels?” “EARLY ACCESS!” Hssssss. “Hey, the enemy soldiers seem a bit too accurate-” “EARLY ACCESS!” “Oh for fuck’s sake.” And now I’m roundly miffed to see that the release version of Black Mesa is really fucking polished. Which is all anyone should expect, since they’ve been polishing it for so fucking long there’s a six inch layer of crystallised Mr. Sheen around the thing. But let’s take a step back.
Black Mesa is a fan-made remake of the seminal 90’s PC shooter, narrative action game tentpole and all around ball of chunky cuddles Half-Life, made in the Half-Life 2 Source engine. You see, when Half-Life 2 came out Valve put out a version of Half-Life in the Source engine but it was just a copy paste of the assets, so some disappointed fellow said “Hey, wouldn’t it be great if this was an actual remake of Half-Life in the style of Half-Life 2 with fully updated graphics and level design?” And someone else said, “Yes, that would be great. Hop to it.” And thus was decided the next fifteen years of that poor fucker’s life. Now, my philosophy brain reminds me that I disapprove of this kind of thing.
Part of the value of art is as a capsule of the styles and attitudes of its era, dragging an old classic into the present and forcing it to chase new trends is a cycle that never stops, the Source engine is itself pretty old and crusty at this point and Black Mesa will now need to be remade again in Unreal Engine 4 with VR support and oh bollocks probably shouldn’t put the idea in their heads.
But on the other hand, my down-to-earth brain points out A) this is the fucking modern games industry we’re talking about, where they don’t even apply backwards compatability to their baseball caps, so in a few years this might well be the only way we CAN play Half-Life, and B) Black Mesa gives me lovely wobbly feelings in my tummy tum because Half-Life is my boo. If you want to know how Black Mesa would be for someone who’s never played the original then I haven’t got the least fucking idea, go to Timmy Tween Twitchstreamer and pay him a hundred bits to answer that question if he can stop sucking Mountain Dew from his mum’s titties for five seconds. I’m more familiar with the layout of Half-Life than I am with that of female genitalia, and Black Mesa follows it closely, so it’s all that lovely pacing and narrative gameplay but now with the beer goggles taken off.
Everything’s crisper, the guns are more satisfying, the characters have a little more character, the environments make a little more sense with not so many sewage runoff pipes outflowing inexplicably into people’s offices. I note we still haven’t solved the issue of everyone looking the same. The original Half-Life only had four different scientist models but they were very different, running a spectrum between Albert Einstein and Sidney Poitier.
Now it’s more like twelve very slight variations on the same face, and not just the scientists, the security guards and the soldiers have the same ones, and all with the same body type so it’s like the facility was taken over by a tribe of very generic Oompa-Loompas. See, there were notes of silliness in the original Half-Life that one forgave of a janky 90s shooter but which are thrown into sharp relief by a more modern, realistic tone. Obliging the player to press crouch while jumping in order to jump over slightly higher things is in retrospect a pretty janky workaround for an engine limitation, you’d expect some kind of mantling physics these days. And it suddenly seems odd that no one Gordon Freeman meets as he fights his way out of the doomed facility wants to come with him.
Quick, Gordon, rescue teams are meeting us on the surface, I’ll open this door for you. Let me know how it works out. What, me? No, I couldn’t possibly come too, there might be something you need to crouch under or a one foot high obstacle. It’s probably safest for me to hang out in this alien infested corridor, maybe stick my underpants on my head and try to live among the parasite monsters like Diane fuckin’ Fossey.
But let’s leave the bulk of the game to one side. After all, a remake of a good thing still being good doesn’t score any points ‘cos it had to copy its homework. The real challenge was the Xen levels. For most of the time Slack Mavis was in early access it just awkwardly stopped right after you jump into the portal to the alien realm and cut to credits after two or three seconds of the Doctor Who opening titles, because what the fuck do you do with Xen, the notoriously unpopular final chapter of an otherwise timeless classic?
You’ve got to at least try to make it good if you’re already committed to making changes, you can’t throw out the Einstein scientist and then preserve the pile of shit at the end for posterity. Black Mesa’s Xen is three or four times longer than the original, which I’m not sure is the solution I’d have gone for. “Oh, you don’t want your broccoli? Well here’s three times as much, bitch, and if you don’t learn to like it I’m going to start pushing it up your nose.”
I suppose having worked on it for years they wanted to prove they weren’t Duke Nukem Forevering that whole time, and that is most certainly proved. The cosmic vistas are spectacular, every inch of effort is on display, and while it is overlong and the quality has its dips, some bits are pretty forgettable and some chug along like the early morning hangover shits, there’s enough of a sense of wonder about it that I wasn’t unengaged. Trouble is, I don’t think it addresses the actual issue with Xen – we just spent umpteen hours tactically combatting our way through an ever-evolving narrative about a research facility disaster and military cover-up and this Metroid meets American McGee’s Alice bad acid trip at a children’s ball pit full of tricky platforming and bullet spongey bosses doesn’t feel like a payoff for what was set up.
And with its lurching shift of tone and handful of hitherto unused movement and puzzle mechanics Neo-Xen might as well be a different game altogether. In summary, Half-Life was a handsome, intelligent and smartly dressed man who was inexplicably wearing one bright green wellington boot. I don’t think the solution was to put on the other wellington boot.