Since I was still in nappies around the time Half Life came out, I never got the chance to play it while it was still impressive. I picked up the PS2 release some years later, but could never really get into it, mainly due to shooters having moved on a long way by then. When I heard about Black Mesa, the fan-made Source engine remake of the original game, it was an opportunity to play Half Life as if it were brand new.
It turns out Half Life is pretty fun. From an introductory sequence on board a train to three way battles between aliens, soldiers and superpowered scientist Gordon Freeman, it’s a genuinely impressive labour of love to behold. Using the 2007 version of Source means it has it fair share of issues, like long, flow-breaking loading screens and physics that lead to the occasional breakdancing enemy, but it still retains a level of polish you’ll rarely see outside of triple A gaming. Or Poland.
The gameplay for the most part mirrors that of its sequel, which would make sense since it’s built on the same engine and uses many of the same resources. It’s a fast-paced, reasonably linear shooter without the regenerating health and iron sights which have so blighted games since the Modern Warfare craze began. It’s interesting to see a game without any cutscenes, since it makes the experience a little more personal than watching Gordon carry out moves you could only dream of actually performing on a gang of headcrabs in third person. No – you get to do them yourself, and the game is improved for it.
The controversial decision to bring iron sights to the game only applies to one gun (the one you’ll be using at long range for most of the game) so it’s quite forgivable. The lack of sights does make for some difficult aiming on the higher difficulties, but there’s an auto aim available if you’re not great with precision. Shooting around the levels while spraying submachine gun bullets is quite cathartic, especially when massacring a horde of zombies or some hapless military mooks, and at those points the game actually feels quite easy.
Where it’s not so forgiving is in environmental hazards. At various points during the game you’ll be required to make quite difficult jumps in first person, and while they have been improved since the original game, an irritating jumping mechanic that requires a jump/crouch combination to climb onto anything will quickly lead to Dr. Freeman becoming Dr. Freefall. There are also sections in which you have to jump into toxic waste or electrified water, which causes a curiously low amount of damage considering Gordon doesn’t see fit to wear a safety helmet.
Black Mesa looks about as good as it can for being fan produced. The visual design is usually very conducive to understanding the puzzles (with important objects coloured red) and character models are nice and detailed. The conversations scientists and security guards will engage in as they traverse the facility with you are fairly realistic and give a nice sense of life to them; there are far too many games with NPCs who act like robots and if there’s one thing Half Life does well it’s characterisation.
The sound isn’t universally brilliant. The soundtrack is great, and the shuffling of an enemy creeping up on you is one of the scariest things you’ll ever experience, but the voices are a little strangely mixed and you’ll occasionally find some sounds too quiet or too loud. Generally though, the sound brings across the sense of unease and anxiety that the Black Mesa Research Facility is supposed to evoke very well.
Continuing in that vein, it’s remarkable how scary Black Mesa really is. It’s apparently based on Stephen King’s claustrophobathon The Mist, and the alien creatures certainly adopt similar designs. What it’s excellent at (and something that we haven’t seen done this well in many games) is the feeling of oppression and loneliness. An indoor environment makes up a lot of this – it’s hard to feel comforted by ugly grey corridors with poor emergency lighting. When you find an NPC partner (usually one of the facility’s security officers) they’ll usually be unable to continue past a certain point, and Gordon must travel alone once more.
The scares actually drop off once you progress past a certain point. Fighting human soldiers, deadly as they are, lacks the fear of the other that Xenian creatures induce so wonderfully. You know how humans work – they shoot bullets at you, they don’t jump at your face. What’s more, this midpoint is where you’ll begin discovering outdoors areas, which while beautifully realised and ultimately short lived, do take a lot of tension out of the game. It feels weird to say it, but they’re sort of welcome. Grey corridors and indoor flickering lighting sequences are oppressive for the player as well as the character, and after an extended sequence (most notably enabling power and fuel for a rocket engine to burn up a huge creature) taking place inside, it stops being fun to play and starts to become panic inducing and claustrophobic. Whether the actual intent was to achieve this, it’s going to put some players off.
If I have a major complaint against Black Mesa, it’s one that’s quite important but also based on absolute pedantry. Why the hell is it called version 1.0 when it doesn’t include the game’s ending? Last time I checked, 1.0 signified the first finished release of a game, not the ‘we’re almost done’ version.
Black Mesa is a very ambitious mod, and it’s tempting to award it extra marks based on its scope, but it would do it a disservice not to judge it among its professional stablemates. While it’s certainly a serviceable game, and it’s well designed and written, a good deal of credit belongs to Valve rather than the modders who essentially made an updated rerelease. The unfortunate fact is that there are just too many awkward jumps, unclear objectives and thirty second loading screens for it to truly be called finished.
Black Mesa is an ambitious mod that’s a lot of fun, but constant irritations prove too much. 7/10 – but if you’re reading it in a few months, give it another point or two.