Half-Life is back. Back in Black Mesa, the fan-made, Source-powered remake that’s been years in the making. It was never going to happen, and then suddenly it did. After all that, is it a polished recreation of Valve’s beloved shooter, or an awkward perversion? I’ll be waiting for you, in the word chamber.
Even after all these years, I still feel bad about frying the tentacle beast in the Blast Pit level. Poor blind, stupid thing. It doesn’t know where it is, it doesn’t know what is and isn’t a threat, it’s found itself a nice hidey-hole and then some mute bastard comes along and sautees it just so he can open a door. You’re no hero, Freeman. You’re just some blood-crazed lazy guy who doesn’t know how how to use a screwdriver or pick a lock. And now, against all odds, I am you once again.
To say it’s odd to be playing Half-Life again, with new faces, better textures and moody light and shadow, would be overstating things. Black Mesa’s changes, additions and more 21st century rendering didn’t jump out at me, didn’t startle, didn’t make me feel as though I was playing something new and changed. That is not to criticise what the BMS team have done over the years – it’s a high compliment, in fact. BMS’s appearance segues naturally into my memories of Half-Life, so rather than dragging it kicking and screaming into 2012 technical standards, it’s more that I can now revisit a game that once meant a lot to me without being distracted by visible signs of ageing. It feels like I remember it feeling, whereas playing Half-Life 1 itself again today is not without its cringes.
The devs have been subtle in their changes, concentrating far more on atmosphere, lighting, character models and image fidelity than they have on alterations or even technical willy-waving. The result probably wouldn’t quite pass for a 2012 vintage game, in so much as if you saw screenshots of in a magazine not an OMG would pass your lips, but I’d give it a solid 2009. (Hey, maybe that’s the alternate scoring system all those big, self-regarding games sites have been looking for all these years. Halo 4: 2011/2012, etc). It doesn’t need to be any more high-tech than that – as it is already, there’s some incongruity between the modern look and a few more aged design sensibilities (such as the lack of subtle lighting to draw one in the correct direction, which did mean I spent a fair amount of time wandering in circles or futilely trying locked doors), and that doesn’t need exacerbating.
Most impressively, it feels slick. Given this is ostensibly made by amateurs, doesn’t cost money and is trying to recreate then improve upon a project that cost millions back in the 90s, that’s an achievement I take my hat off to. I don’t wear a hat because my head gets all sweaty, but you take my point. They’ve done very well. I honestly don’t know if having to recreate someone else’s work without screwing anything up is a taller or shorter order than making something from scratch, but it did seem like there were a million ways BMS could go horribly wrong, especially given the unnervingly long time it spent in development.
Beyond that, offering judgement on the game is a curious position to be in. It’s Half-Life, y’know? Whatever BMS gets right or wrong is because Half-Life got it right or wrong. But there are small changes that manage to make it something of a remix as well as a remastering. Some puzzles and are tweaked, expanded, there’s a little use of minor physics for challenges here and there, enemies can appear in different places and in different numbers… I don’t think anyone’s going to be bitterly exclaiming “shame on them for adding that bit where you have to stick a wheel onto a valve”, but you’re not going to blast through on muscle memory alone.
The other most noticeable change is to the NPCs – the scientists and Barneys who shelter in Black Mesa’s soon-to-be-ruins. There’s now a wide array of different faces (though not voices), so I didn’t feel as though I kept encountering the same guy over and over. Eli and Kleiner are very much individuals rather than templates, and that stretch in an early level where you can end up with three security guards following you means three separate faces, even if they are faces you’ll encounter repeatedly on other characters. There’s also a whole lot more dialogue, most of which has a heavy emphasis on rapid-fire gags, primarily from and about Black Mesa’s vast, cowardly nerd population.
This works better than it sounds – again, this is a slick affair rather than an amateurish one, and that extends to writing and voicework too – but the overall tone is perhaps a little more skewed towards romp than menace. Ideally I’d have it toned down a little, but overall I think I’m okay with it – after all, the Half-Life bestiary is probably too familiar by now to be terrifying again, no matter how many new pixel shaders are thrown at it. There’s a spot of gentle Half-Life 2 foreshadowing thrown in too, making this perhaps a slightly more natural prequel than the original Half-Life was.
Less potentially divisively and far more impressively, there’s also a slightly increased sense of vastness to Black Mesa – ceilings a little higher, caverns more cavernous and a near-constant semi-darkness that makes it a mercy the flashlight never runs out. Moody light and shadow adds to the game naturally, emphasising the looming, underground nature of Black Mesa rather than descending into grimdark gloom.
It is, needless to say, impossible for me to see Half-Life with anything like objectivity. Certain scenes are forever burned onto the retina of my mind’s eye – the hospital-esque coloured direction lines painted on the walls in Anomalous Materials, the water-ruined corridor beset by sparking electricity in Office Complex, the towering platforms and pervasive, thunderous banging noises of Blast Pit… I knew they were coming, I knew when they were coming, and I thrilled when they did. But I think – I think – Half-Life stands up very well in 2012. It’s scripted up the wazzoo, of course, and many of the first-person shooter industry’s later sins can perhaps be laid at its door for that, but it flows so well.
The unified location, the rollocking adventure of it all, the dramatic changes from indoor to outdoor and back again, the stomach-churning heights, the slow-burn of understanding and escalation of threat… It’s remarkable how long it takes to give you a pistol (and there’s an odd, doesn’t-quite-work stretch where you’re given flares to bother zombies with newly inserted ahead of that), and then again until machineguns and shotguns come into play. It’s a pacey, unhurried game that very much prioritises mood over adrenaline.
That said, despite all the rude things we say about Xen (not included here, famously – it’s saved for an update, God only knows when) there’s a bit too much emphasis on awkward first-person-platforming in the ‘main’ game, and that hasn’t dated as well as the setting and flow has. Quicksave needs abusing, and there were certain familiar jumping sections that I sighed at and had to force myself to play through, knowing that what lay beyond them would be worthwhile. It was, it really was, but I didn’t relish another round of pogoing across floating crates. Added to this by BMS’s devs is a pointlessly increased need for crouch-jumping, just for basic navigation. Silly business, that, but hardly a deal-breaker.
And, in the end, Black Mesa Source winds up being exactly what it always promised to be – a modernised, faithful recreation of a deservedly landmark first-person shooter. No alarms and no surprises, and that’s just fine. It remains an incredibly peculiar project for anyone to have embarked on unpaid, let alone for so long, but it’s polished, dramatic, has taken quite a few years off the old dear and, I rather suspect, will become the de facto way to play Half-Life from now on.
It probably shouldn’t exist, and frankly for a long time it looked like it wouldn’t. But it does and I’m glad of it. Half-Life 1 is better than Half-Life 2, after all (covers head, runs away).
Black Mesa is out now, and free.