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Premature Evaluation: Black Mesa

Mutton Dressed As Lambda?

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.

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