Black Mesa

It’s not Half-Life’s birthday – Blocky Scientist doesn’t get a candle.

It says a lot about video games as both an art form and a medium in general that Black Mesa, fan remake of landmark first-person shooter Half-Life, was even thought of, much less made. In Hollywood, remakes have never really been popular, even in the drought of intellectual property that has afflicted the film industry in the past decade – the logic usually being “How much could you change the original while still repeating it?” from an artistic standpoint, and “Why would people pay to see this when they could just get the original?” from the marketing side.

In video game territory, though, remakes are a near-necessity at this point. The trend of shunning backwards compatibility will continue into the next decade (I’m exclusively a PC gamer, in case you didn’t know), so remaking old video games for newer formats is the only way anyone without an obsolete system can play them – and since games more often than not sell themselves on looks, updating the game’s visuals is practically a necessity. I will try to focus solely on the changes to Black Mesa, rather than rehashing the original.

Half-Life came out in 1998. Upon its release, the game was hailed as the height of realistic action horror. To quote an early ad for the game, “Things act, look, and sound like they do in the real world…it’s a game so real, so unpredictable, so alive, you’ll swear it has a pulse.” From a modern-day perspective, though, this realism doesn’t hold up at all – the revolutionary AI is embarrassingly easy to subvert, relatable everyman Gordon Freeman has the strength, speed and weaponry of 1990’s Superman, the otherworldly and fearsome monsters look like smudged papercraft figures, and the detailed, cohesive fantasy world is… well, still jim-dandy from a purely narrative perspective, but embarrassingly simple from almost every other one.

So, in terms of the technology disconnect, it’s like hiring Michael Bay and Bruce Willis to make a two-hour, CGI-filled blockbuster remake of Fred Ott’s Sneeze. The game industry is so dependent on the latest rendering technology that the 14 years separating the two games feels like a whole lot more.

We start with the famous opening sequence: mild-mannered scientist and player character Dr. Gordon Freeman, on his commute to work through a generic Area 51 substitute, the Black Mesa Research Facility. I’m a giant fan of the Half-Life series, but even I’m willing to admit that the ten-minute sequence can stretch on too long. Though it does a great job of both drawing you into the game’s world and showing off the graphical and artistic improvements, it just feels restrictive and repetitive after a while. I still enjoyed it overall – as a fan, it’s nice seeing remastered versions of moments like Barney Calhoun at the door, the leaking nuclear reactors, and the ridiculously long loading times between maps.

Ain’t modern technology grand, folks?

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the game’s music, which is pretty awesome. The best track plays over this opening commute – haunting and deep, hearkening back to the original version of the track while working with the unique sound design to set the tone.

As Gordon arrives at one of the facility’s numerous secret labs, he finally gets a chance to stretch his legs, and most people will use this to wander around,  playing with the physics engine and listening to grumpy scientists trading humorous arguments among each other. Now, anyone who’s read my works (Yay, self-promotion!) will know that I don’t shy away from pop-culture references, but I think they go a bit overboard here – there are references to everything from Office Space to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and while they are generally well done and feel natural, they do detract a bit from the timeless feel that the original Half-Life had. But this is a minor point. The expanded, better-lit and shinier lab is one of the high points for the mod team’s creative department.

But Black Mesa really isn’t about people, as we see here: Dr. Freeman conducts a spectrographic analysis on an anomalous mineral sample, along with lots of people with no names (And two people who very pointedly do have names to create continuity with the sequel, but that’s beside the point), including one man who assures you “We have complete confidence in you…nothing will go wrong.” Can you guess what happens next?

Death. Death happens. Lots of death.

After some strobe effects, Gordon wakes up to find the teleportation experiment has knocked out the power and killed almost everyone, meaning he has to escape the labyrinthine research base while battling armies of demons from hell – sorry, I meant ‘aliens from another dimension.’ This sequence of having to go back through your workplace in reverse, in darkness and under attack worked great in the original, and so is reproduced here almost verbatim. The only change is that you don’t have any weapons, and have to rely on deadly pieces of set dressing and a friendly security guard before you finally get your iconic crowbar. I can see that the mod team was trying to build up the atmosphere even more before finally letting you shoot some monsters.

But, at long last, anywhere from a half-hour to an hour into the game, the monster massacre begins, and it’s a lot like the original. The drawback to remakes, again, is that there’s only so much you can mix up without changing or worsening the original, especially given the still-solid gunplay and enemies. The major wrinkle is movement – as I mentioned before, the original game had you blazing along at a sprinter’s pace as the default, whereas Black Mesa makes you go at a more conventional walking pace, with a dedicated sprint button. All well and good, until you have to go through one of the facility’s many gymnastic obstacle courses – one of the more unpopular aspects of Half-Life, but no less faithfully recreated, meaning that your jumps and timing are always about 50% slower than they need to be without taping down your shift key.

There are other changes – expanded conversations, weapon progression mixed up, enemy designs altered – but they don’t alter the overall feel or experience of the game, which goes from badly-lit survival horror to intense alien shootouts in detailed everyday environments. The real changes start coming around a third of the way in, when the military arrives, with orders to cover up the alien invasion by shooting anything that looks at them funny. Unfortunately, only about half the aliens even have eyes, which tells you everything you need to know about how equipped the soldiers are to deal with the situation – suffice it to say, I’ll let you choose your own quote from the second act of Aliens.

“He triiiied to kill me with a forklift!” Wait, hang on…

The problem is that in the original, the gameplay worked to advance the story. You came across several battles between human soldiers and alien forces, where the latter could be relied on to wipe out the former. In Black Mesa, the soldiers have the stopping power and perception of a seasoned Counter-Strike player, which means that whenever they actually fight with aliens onscreen, the soldiers are almost guaranteed to mow the aliens down – before moving on to you. Again, I can see why they made this change (in the original, despite some pretty advanced tactics, the marines were actually pretty easy to kill, and here they’re trying to show how absolutely outmatched a li’l old theoretical physicist you are), but it just doesn’t feel right to me, and the realism of it isn’t much consolation as you’re swiss-cheesed by the Brothers Jarhead for the tenth time.

Having encountered the military at every turn while trying to escape, Dr. Freeman goes back underground. The next couple of levels are slightly restructured copies of original Half-Life levels, with excellent visual design but few changes to the gameplay. It’s a sort of baseline for the game, which is fun and engaging, but nothing new.

Before long, Gordon gets stuck in a series of twisty tunnels, all alike. Here, seasoned players of the original game will notice several areas of Black Mesa have been significantly reduced. Detractors say that we miss out on a lot of good gameplay and set pieces, but I’m all for it – to be honest, if you’ve seen one murky concrete tunnel with a military installation at one end and a flock of wailing bug-dogs at the other, you’ve seen ‘em all.

Eventually, in another scene on the baseline I mentioned earlier, Gordon gets captured by the military, who transport him all the way up to the original Death Star’s trash compactor. Without an astro-mech droid to help him out, Gordon has to escape all by his lonesome and crawls through another heavily redesigned maze of air ducts and conveyor belts to Black Mesa’s evil secret labs – oh, didn’t you know? Since the facility is a place of science, and this is a horror game, every single scientist without a camera in his face needs an evil agenda and ethically bankrupt experiments, mwahaha HAAAA!

“I don’t care how bad Green Lantern was, I can still get work in Hollyw- No! Don’t lock me up! Noooooo!”

The evil labs are probably the mod’s most heavily redesigned area. The environments haven’t just gotten an HD upgrade, but an entirely new aesthetic that ties in with the redesigned benign labs while remaining visually distinct. As a plus, there are now some amusing minigames that divert without distracting. The gameplay has also been heavily altered – ramping up from a few scattered soldiers and captured groups of aliens to full-scale battles with entire platoons of soldiers in sprawling locations.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the sneak peek we get of what’s to come. Now, spoiler alert: This is not a complete recreation of the original game – the last quarter or so has been completely excised. This last quarter was a freaky-ass journey through an alien dimension called Xen, home of the aliens and their enigmatic leader, the final boss. The developers have big plans for Xen, and to that end have broken it off from Black Mesa to form a standalone game (Of course, the notorious eight-year wait for anything from these people might have had something to do with it). The content of the Xen redesign is a closely guarded secret, and so our only sneak peek comes in one of the evil labs, where a few low-level aliens are being observed in a dimly lit terrarium, made up mostly of dappled rock and glowing technicolor flowers. I know this is going to sound weird, but the style sort of reminds me of 2011’s indie darling Bastion.

It’s glowy!

Seriously – look at that! Is it too much to ask to get Bastion’s resident stentorian stranger Logan Cunningham to narrate Xen? Imagine it…

“Big ol’ giant crab pops out of this here cave – I’m not gonna say what’s bouncing around under that business. Looks like you better run, Doc.”

But I’m getting away from myself here. Back in the game, Dr. Freeman emerges from the secret labs, escaping to the southwestern desert surrounding the facility, where Half-Life’s much-touted story starts to diverge from Black Mesa’s gameplay due to that problem with the soldiers I mentioned earlier. It is amusing to come across a radio yelling “We can’t deal with this! We are pulling out, and nuking the entire site from orbit!”, minutes after you see an entire herd of aliens get decimated by two soldiers.

Incidentally, that radio comes during the absolute worst sequence in the game, and the worst change from the original: A large section of gameplay is cut out so that two iconic moments from the original are shoved together, literally ten seconds apart. In Half-Life, soldiers heard you crawling around in an air vent and shot it to bits, dropping you into an ambush. After fighting your way out of the ambush you would go through a huge series of military-occupied hangars, a steam pipe, and a bombed-out building, before you encountered a twenty-foot armored boss monster in a parking garage to end the level.

In Black Mesa, though, the boss monster is standing just behind the soldiers who shoot at you, as if they somehow let the two-story, earth-shaking, fire-breathing beast get the drop on them!

My description really can’t do justice to how jarring it is – imagine they remade The Godfather, had the horse’s head scene, and immediately cut to Marlon Brando lamenting that John Calzale broke his heart.

Anyway, after that headscratching moment we have a glorified quick-time event boss fight, then a few more levels at the baseline as Gordon Freeman finally arrives at the Lambda Complex – the vaguely described place where everyone has been telling him to go. After some puzzle sections that feel very reminiscent of the ending of Portal (which is only fitting, I suppose, as it apparently takes place concurrently with Half-Life), we find the largest assembly of living, non-hostile humans since the aliens invaded – more scientists, who are repentant of their evil experiments, and are ready and willing to assist you in going to Xen and finding that final boss alien. They resupply your weapons and open up an interdimensional portal, using a machine  which is both gorgeously designed and absolute murder on your framerate – especially after a swarm of fetuses from the end of 2001 start teleporting in and shooting fireballs at you before you can escape. This serves as the final boss fight, and does make me nostalgic for the days before realism became the industry’s collective watchword, and crazy gigantic monster fights were the rule instead of the exception.

I’m really not sure whether or not I would want to live in a world where this was realistic.

Once you go through the portal to Xen, you get a gussied-up “work in progress” notice, some nice credits music, and a supreme feeling of anticlimax. I was hoping I would be able to review the game in full, but it’s been a year; this site isn’t called “When-the-last-part-comes-out Reviews”. Since I only have this, I’m judging it on its own, and on its own the ending is much too abrupt and leaves many loose ends hanging, in both story and gameplay.

Black Mesa changes an awful lot, and in my opinion the good changes far outweigh the bad – there’s a lot of gameplay improvements that I’m not mentioning here, the world feels much bigger and more cohesive, and the old fits in well with the new. And, in the end, it’s a Half-Life game, which is more than can be said of anything Valve Software have made since two-thousand-freaking-seven.

TWO THUMBS UP: The updated graphics, art and level design, the new story bits

THUMBS UP: Cutting the superfluous parts, the Source engine’s physics-heavy gameplay

THUMBS DOWN: The ending and non-existence of Xen, the imbalanced AI

TWO THUMBS DOWN: Cutting the non-superfluous parts

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  1. A guy on the forums remade the parts of Surface Tension that were cut. Apparently, they were cut in the first place because the developer working on them left the team before they were done.

  2. Anna

     /  December 25, 2013

    I really enjoy your reviews Adam! Keep it up.


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