Premature Evaluation: Black Mesa

Alt-text is having a week off to recover from the election. Soz.

Each week Marsh Davies latches onto Early Access like a brain-eating alien parisitoid and slurps up any stories he can find. This week we’re back in Black Mesa [official site] – the classy fan remake of Half-Life 1 in a hybrid version of the Source engine which was used for its sequels. An incomplete release of the project was made available on Steam for free last year, but the Early Access incarnation is a more polished, ongoing, funded development, with additional chapters planned, multiplayer, workshop integration and modding tools.

If the past is another country, then it’s one under constant mnemonic invasion from the present. This is doubly true of moments from a distant childhood, a time when experience was already enlarged so dramatically by the imagination, when the emotional significance of toys, or books, or games far exceeded their actual sophistication – and it is these responses which then endure in memory, rewriting the reality. 22 years of brain death has sneakily uprezzed my recollection of the original Syndicate, for example, transforming it into a glorious cyberpunk cityscape that its crude, mud-paletted pixels have never really deserved. So when I say Black Mesa is every bit as good as the Half-Life I remember playing 17 years ago, you’ll understand that I’m praising something much greater than an act of recreation.

The Crowbar Collective, Black Mesa’s ragtag of part-time developers, working on this project for over ten years, haven’t simply rebuilt the game anew in a fancier engine – they’ve done justice to the imaginative response the original game provoked in 15-year-old me. At the risk of making exactly the sort of claim which normally prompts me to close browser tabs: it feels like they’ve given me back a bit of my childhood.

How has this misty-eyed hyperbole been achieved? Certainly the gloss of a newer engine, with its higher polycounts and crisper textures, is of no small benefit – but Crowbar Collective’s changes go far beyond this surface: their levels are judiciously restructured to expand upon the premise of the originals, adding complexity and credible detail. Black Mesa’s sprawl of labs and industrial plants now feel, more than ever, like living working spaces, and their lonely silos and subterranean chambers now achieve an awesome scale more befitting their air of mystery.

The opening levels, which see voiceless protagonist, Gordon Freeman, clock in at the Black Mesa research facility, suit up and take part in an ill-fated experiment which allows the hordes of Xen to invade Earth via an interdimensional portal, remain an example of measured scene-setting that few games, let alone shooters with slightly absurd sci-fi premises, would have the gumption to pull off. Here it has been further expanded, physically and audibly: though the layout is broadly the same, new laboratories and offices have sprouted along the route, many offering new conversational vignettes between the scientists therein.

A lot of this new dialogue is pretty funny, too, with sly nods to its sequels. Half-Life has always had a slightly lighter tone than those later games, though – a knowing Hammer Horror hamminess that glories in the sci-fi gibber of a “resonance cascade scenario” and mischievously enjoys yanking scientists into vents, only to disgorge them again as a shower of bones and a separate, perfectly intact brain. While Black Mesa largely keeps within this tradition, there’s now a slight discomfort with how realistically such things are rendered – the agonised, corrupted body of a headcrab zombie is frighteningly grotesque in a way which its lower-poly predecessor couldn’t really manage. It was oddly easier then, within the confines of low-fidelity, to segue between fear and laughter – now there’s something about the more believable reality Black Mesa conjures that doesn’t always sit so easily alongside its rivers of neon green gloop and more cartoonish perils.

Black Mesa’s efforts aren’t simply additive, however: they have been bold enough to suggest trimming the original’s slacker elements, or reworking them wholesale. Half-Life’s final few chapters, set on the alien world of Xen, are widely regarded as a bum note on which to end – and it is these which will be the subject of Crowbar Collective’s most intense revision, as yet absent from the Early Access release. In truth, Crowbar Collective could have been even more ruthless with many earlier sections: Half-Life’s platforming puzzles have not aged well, and protracted sequences in which you dodge through a ludicrously contrived hazard course of mashing machinery and flaming faucets remains a strikingly gormless low-point.

Part of my irritation with this section comes from its labyrinthine design. Elsewhere this is a strength: dead-ends and side-rooms disrupt your ability to see the path ahead, disguising the game’s rigid linearity. But the Residue Processing chapter loops you round and round, following no particular logic but the designer’s own arbitrary whim. It’s not Black Mesa’s only dubious legacy: the assassins are still terrible to fight; the room full of tripwires still wears out your quickload key; there’s a reliance on ambush teleportations which gets old really quickly; loading screens continue to be abrupt, inelegant interruptions; and, of course, Source Engine ladders remain the clearest evidence we have that Satan is real.

All this said, it’s remarkable just how well so many aspects of Valve’s 1998 design have endured. I still think the game’s earliest hours are its strongest – padding with trepidation through the destruction and desolation of your workplace. It’s perhaps more survival horror than shooter at that point – but when gunplay is required in those early chapters, Valve’s AI design makes for lively, dynamic battles. It’s not that the enemies are apparently smart – it’s because each flavour of foe represents a very particular pattern of threat. When facing multiple enemies, the asymmetry of their abilities forces you into constant motion, prioritising targets and maintaining an acute positional awareness. Vortigaunts have a significant wind-up on their energy beam attack – you must decide whether to try to take them down before they unleash, or whether to dash behind cover to break line of sight. Bullsquid launch devastating barrages from afar, while houndeyes scuttle under your feet. Headcrabs and zombies are ignored at your peril: though slow to get in range, each can be a serious nuisance up close. Dealing with all this while darting among the dangling tongues of barnacles requires a degree of nouse that the subsequent deluge of CoD-alike military shooters entirely discarded.

Indeed, Black Mesa almost discards it too – its latter battles against soldiers often reject this sort of AI interplay in favour of an exchange of hit-scan fire. Too many of its confrontations are easily annulled by retreating round a corner and waiting for enemies to stroll into your bullets, and the unrestricted use of running, while initially liberating, erodes the skill required to manage your mobility in combat. The game also risks making the MP5 too useful: a shame when the arsenal otherwise includes a severed alien claw that can fire bees, and adorable, cycloptic living grenades. Then there’s the Tau Cannon, with the whirring immensity of its fully powered laser discharge, and the Ghostbusters-ish Gluon Gun – both with so uncertain a supply of ammunition that I felt reticent to use them outside of boss battles. And I can never bring myself to waste crossbow bolts – the only thing that can stop me soiling my hazard suit when faced with a large, dark body of water, wherein an icthyosaur may wait.

After so many years in the military shooter doldrums, where the most exciting difference between two weapons is a microtransactable laser sight, perhaps it’s no wonder that Half-Life, in its reincarnation as Black Mesa, feels so vibrant and enticing. Despite its occasional low points, mild mechanical hangovers, and regardless of whatever happens with Xen, Black Mesa is one of the best shooters around – and often at its best when you aren’t doing much shooting. Indeed, the original game’s tagline was “Run. Think. Shoot. Live.” It’s not a bad summation of the game’s priorities, even now.

Few things that we enjoyed in 1998 have endured quite as well as Half-Life – just look at how the US budget surplus or Chumbawumba are doing today – and Black Mesa does enough to keep it fresh for another two decades still. Maybe, by then, someone will have remade it in the Half-Life 3 engine.

Black Mesa is available from Steam for £15. Worth every penny, I’d say. I played version 0.0.1 on 08/05/2015.

50 Comments

  1. metric day says:

    “Few things that we enjoyed in 1998 have endured quite as well as Half-Life”

    Pfft. It was a bumper crop year for movies ALONE with a wealth of great stuff made that holds up great and will continue to be enjoyed! There’s no need to cut and paste tediously, 1998 was good shit.

    • gunny1993 says:

      Damn, that was a good year for movies

      Caucasian anyone?

    • joa says:

      The Matrix and what else?

      • Kelduum Revaan says:

        The Matrix was ’99, but…

        Dark City, Saving Private Ryan, Armageddon, Truman Show, Big Lebowski & American History X.

        A very good year.

        • joa says:

          Ah yes, and Starship Troopers. A widely misunderstood film.

        • Darth Gangrel says:

          As Wikipedia tells me, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1998_in_film, 1998 was a good year which also brought us There’s Something About Mary and Shakespeare in love. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Mysteries of the Sith was also made that year, a game I personally enjoyed very much.

    • Frank says:

      It’s by far my favorite year in music: Aquemini, Dizzy up the Girl and the Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

      And, you know, Starcraft and Thief, which are both way more fun than Half-Life.

      • TheSplund says:

        Eels -Electro Shock Blues, Boards of Canada-Music Has The Right To Children, Fantômas-Fantômas, Mercury Rev-Deserter’s Songs, Offspring-Americana, Placebo-Without You I’m Nothing, Happy Rhodes-Many Words Are Born Tonight, Gomez-Bring It On, QotSA-QotSA, Spacehog-The Chinese Album, Rammstein-Sehnschut, Remy Zero-Villa Elaine, Elliot Smith-XO and Morcheeba-Big Calm.
        Unreal, Toca2 Grim Fandango, Colin Mcrae.
        Yup, ’98 was a great year

    • Minsc_N_Boo says:

      Fallout 2 was also a 1998 release. It’s UI is a bit dated, but I’d definitely put it in the “endured” category

  2. Lamb Chop says:

    The Chumbawamba CD in my ’98 Civic would beg to differ. Some experiences are eternal. Others desperately need a new alternator.

    • Fnord73 says:

      Saw them play acoustic on their fare-thee-well tour in Oslo last year. The band was still as good. The audience was a bunch of hipsters who couldnt keep their mouth shut for 20 seconds.

      Oh well, Im getting old.

  3. Scripten says:

    Just a quick PSA for Source games; Hitting your ‘use’ key while looking at a ladder lets you mount it, and doing so while on a ladder will dismount you with a little push in the right direction.

  4. klops says:

    Silly, easily googleable thing to ask BUT:
    What’s the difference between pay-to-play Black Mesa and the free Black Mesa that was published some years ago?

    • klops says:

      I shouldn’t write here when I’m tired and should be doing something else.

      ” An incomplete release of the project was made available on Steam for free last year, but the Early Access incarnation is a more polished, ongoing, funded development, with additional chapters planned, multiplayer, workshop integration and modding tools.”

      I’ll get me coat

      • Mman says:

        It’s improved visually in several areas (there’s a comparison thread on the Black Mesa forums somewhere) and changes quite bit about the game balance and effects, such that I think it comes much closer to the mark than the original release did, even I still have some issues with it. However, currently there are some bugs that have slipped in, like a few enemy stats being off due to certain co-dependancies (the Assassins are much harder than they are supposed to be by accident), and the AI also seems to bug out at times in a way the free version didn’t. So I think it’s okay to wait a little for it be polished up more.

        • grrrz says:

          truth is, the game I played last year was already very good, I don’t really see the point to go back to it for a few minor changes.

    • Rich says:

      Xen levels, apparently.

      • Cryoburner says:

        Except the Xen levels still aren’t in the game yet. I started playing the mod version of Black Mesa back when it was first released, but set it aside once I learned that the endgame wasn’t included yet. Now, almost a few years later, they still haven’t included those last areas of the game, but are asking $20 for what is essentially just a somewhat refined version of the same unfinished mod, only now with arena multiplayer.

        I’m fine with them getting Valve to allow them to sell the game on Steam, since they put a lot of work into it, but they should have at least completed the single-player portion first. Especially since they pulled a bait-and-switch, being one of the first games to get through Greenlight by promising to keep it completely free, before changing that a year later to a “low price”, and then eventually releasing it for $20 in an unfinished state.

        • Thesingularity says:

          Isn’t the entire point of releasing a game on early access to allow players to experience it in an unfinished state and give their feedback?

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      It also has multiplayer.

      As Half Life was my first taste of Multiplayer in general, this does make me quite eager.

      • outlive says:

        yes – multiplayer!

        6 original maps and 2 gamemodes – that is a lot for an early access game!

    • PancakeWizard says:

      Lots of new visual polishes, audio changes, weapon and AI balancing, workshop, multiplayer and Xen to come (the latter being the reason the project is EA and not full-release, I imagine).

  5. Spacewalk says:

    Yep, looks exactly as I remembered it did.

  6. Rindan says:

    The opening levels, which see voiceless protagonist, Gordon Freeman, clock in at the Black Mesa research facility, suit up and take part in an ill-fated experiment which allows the hordes of Xen to invade Earth via an interdimensional portal

    Come on man! Spoilers!

    I kid.

  7. thedosbox says:

    I briefly tried the free version last year and remembered why Source engine games annoy me – the motion sickness and running around on ice skates feel.

    I’m guessing nothing has changed on that front?

    • outlive says:

      there are lot of options to reduce camera movement in the standalone game, like camera side to side sway, head bobbing, motion blur,…

  8. dskzero says:

    Half-Life’s platforming puzzles have not aged well

    Well to be fair that was never particulary well received.

    • keithzg says:

      Yeah, something that’s already expired when it first came out probably doesn’t need to fail to age well, it’s already bad to begin with.

    • Rich says:

      Jumping puzzles have always sucked. I remember with dread jumping around on big metal crates hanging from ceiling.

    • green frog says:

      I never really had a problem with the jumping puzzles in Half-Life. I wonder if the widespread distaste for platforming segments in shooters comes from PC-only gamers who never really had much experience with the platformer genre? I dunno. I do think the first-person perspective makes FPS jumping puzzles a bit trickier compared to actual platformers.

      • Kefren says:

        I thought they were fine too. The dangling crates gave me scary vertigo – exactly what I’d feel if I was really there.

      • Amazon_warrior says:

        I don’t recall minding the HL FP platforming bits that much. The Thief:TDP platformy bits though? Argh. Lost City, I hate you so much for that. <_< I was going to say I don't have that much platforming experience, but then again, thinking back, most of my formative gaming years were spent playing 2D platformers of assorted flavours on the Commodore/Spectrum/early PC, so maybe that did help a bit, I dunno….

    • Premium User Badge

      phuzz says:

      The one that took me many, many, tries was jumping to a ladder at the back of an elevator shaft. For some reason Gordon would just miss it each time I jumped. That almost stopped my whole play through.

  9. BloodPukeSalvation says:

    yeh, i recall it was very much praised for its AI at the time. I’m sure there were other elements at work but I do recall AI being a big one.

    • Amstrad says:

      Yeah, I remember some of the magazine ads at the time being very distinctive on this point. With one page being nothing but the words “run shoot run run shoot shoot run, etc…” in white text on a black background and then a double page advert on the following page describing how much more involved HL was going to be compared to previous FPS experiences.

    • SomeDuder says:

      Which is a load of nonsense, since even now, “AI” is anything but the “I”. Developers still script every possible action a NPC can take. Depending on how much time a developer puts into this, you can end up with hundreds of possible options that depend on certain conditions on which a NPC performs a certain action, or just a few dozen.

      Rags or sites that still describe a computer controlled entity as “intelligent” should be taken out back and shot

  10. Premium User Badge

    Phasma Felis says:

    I haven’t played any version of Black Mesa yet, but I do recall seeing a trailer and being very disappointed in the voicework for the soldiers. Anyone have any input on how that looks now? Or, is there a way to patch Valve’s original sound FX back in?

    • outlive says:

      one of the many big changes from the 2012 legacy edition was marine voice acting being completely re-recorded to better fit within the universe.

    • Pixeltender says:

      as i played through this weekend i thought to myself i’ve playing playing the source engine for over a decade and i still can’t figure out how to work the ladders

      glad i’m not alone

      • Pixeltender says:

        first post on RPS and it’s a misreply. of course.

        wrt the voice work, i remember watching BMS trailers a few years ago and cringing at the voice work in them, but when playing through the game they totally worked!

  11. Kefren says:

    “the agonised, corrupted body of a headcrab zombie is frighteningly grotesque in a way which its lower-poly predecessor couldn’t really manage”

    I know what you’re getting at, and did find the headcrab zombies in HL2 to be creepy, but I think it was mainly the sounds effects – moans, screams, begging – which did that. The original scientist headcrab zombies were actually more scary to me though, because they were much more alien. Silent, elongated limbs, weird stiff ways of moving, arms eagerly extended when they saw you, crazy fingers. It resembled a being that couldn’t fully control or understand its own body, and that alienness made them far more believable and satisfying to me than the ones in HL2.

    “Half-Life’s final few chapters, set on the alien world of Xen, are widely regarded as a bum note on which to end”

    But, as always comes up – possibly widely regarded, but many of us really liked them and would be happy if they were rebuilt exactly as they were. When I got to Xen the change of pace was refreshing, and it felt alien, and the mile-long jumps churned my guts with vertigo, jumps that couldn’t be achieved back on Earth. Brilliant.

  12. Robslap says:

    I promised myself I wouldn’t pick this up until it was complete, the more I read of it the harder that becomes (xen levels do count imo).

  13. DrScuttles says:

    In the free version, I seem to recall having some issues with the mp5 being almost too accurate. That this also affected the soldiers turned some of my favourite parts of the original Half Life into hitscandeathfrustration for Black Mesa.

  14. Arathain says:

    Didn’t fancy writing a well researched article on a complex topic hidden inside an already well written and considered piece? You’re slacking, Davies. Bleak thoughts about an uncertain future is no excuse.

  15. Premium User Badge

    gritz says:

    I disagree about the environmental hazards and the platforming. To me, that’s one of the big things setting HL apart from the run of the mill that are just shooting galleries.

    • PancakeWizard says:

      Residue processing is pretty much ‘the platforming level’ now, and that’s OK with me. They shortened On A Rail getting rid of some of the tedium, and cut some stuff in Apprehension I believe, but I don’t think the game suffers for it. People have made ‘uncut’ mods for it, but I’m happy with the proper BM versions.

  16. morbiusnl says:

    wow they totally botched the vortigaunts. cant remember looking anything like that in HL1.

    • Det. Bullock says:

      Well, they are essentially Half-Life 2 Vortigaunts with “shackles” (or whatever the green thingies thay had in HL1 are), they wanted to be consistent with most games of the series and a silent retcon sometimes is better than a contrived explanation of why the Vortigaunts of HL1 were so different from the ones in the sequels.

  17. Enkinan says:

    I just binge played the whole thing and enjoyed it quite a lot. It was great that it had been so long since playing the original, I had forgotten quite a few bits of it. It seemed like how I remembered it..until I looked up video from the original. I’m looking forward to Xen, I remembered liking it originally.

    That teleporting reactor platform sequence at the end was annoying, but thankfully quick. No real complaints other than that.