Say hello to Granddad. Like a colossus he bestrode the top of PC game Best Ofs for YEARS. Really, he just couldn’t be beat. Too much style, too much character, too much polish. Look at how he effortlessly spawns Team Fortress and Counterstrike from his loins. Everyone go home now. But the years have passed, Granddad now sits alone in his armchair, forgotten, slowly calcifying, don’t ask about the bedpan. Who would dare disturb this slumbering behemoth from its stupor? Turns out a team of rogue developers have been training, teasing and shaping Granddad for years now, ever since Source became a thing. They’re sending him back into the ring with an new name. They call him Black Mesa now.
RISE FROM YOUR GRAVE GRANDDAD. SHOW THEM YOU’VE STILL GOT WHAT IT TAKES.
So here’s the skinny.
You are Gordon Freeman, a PHD scientist with birth control glasses and a ginger beard, on your way to work at the local clandestine research facility; a place with more government secrets and pressure locked doors than you can shake a subscription to the Fortean Times at. Predictably, today’s routine experiment either fails or succeeds with catastrophic results: fire, death and alien lifeforms everywhere. Your task is to fight your way to the surface with the help of your trusty HEV suit and a previously unknown talent for skull shattering ultra violence and call in the FBI/army/fire service/coastguard/your mum.
First off, this is an old school shooter, with health packs and a complete lack of a cover system, so refresh your memory on how to side strafe. Freeman carries so much ordnance he makes Iron man look like tinfoil covered cereal box with a peashooter glued to it – none of that primary weapon/secondary weapon nonsense here. Old hat you say? Wrong. Well aged is the term you’re looking for. It’s been a decade since I first fired up Half-Life on a device closely related to a Commodore 64 and yet the struggle to the surface is just as I remember it: an exercise in gut wrenching, yet darkly humorous, survival horror, battling your way through service hatches and exploding laboratories, while fending off bloodthirsty monstrosities and having to mash the heads of your puppeteered former Co-workers with a crowbar. That’s right, not a collection of levels with a goal flag strapped to the end, but a grimy organic world you happen to be hurtling through with your viscera stained crowbar.
So what’s changed?
The most striking departure is obviously the skin lift. By today’s standards Half Life has a face like a dog’s breakfast. A dog’s breakfast past its prime. That someone’s been a little sick on.
Like a beloved sofa you just can’t bear to part with, Black Mesa has been fully reupholstered with the Source engine. This includes the ability to actually manipulate your surrounding environment somewhat (no gravity gun/saw blade style shenanigans though) but the main thing is that it looks absolutely gorgeous.
Now this shouldn’t really be an issue, games should rise and fall on the merits of their game-play after all, but it really does help with world immersion in one key area: the survivors. As you run screaming though the rubble, you’ll occasionally encounter colleagues who can assist with information, passage through otherwise inaccessible areas, and even a handy little bit of covering fire -it was one of the touches that made Half-life so engaging. Now with the engine overhaul all these guys have individual character faces! It’s impossible to understate how endearing this is and unless you’re a skin-tag gnawing socio-path you can’t help but want to give aid to your fellow eggheads and blue collar gunslingers.* Maybe even form a small team of them, a party if you will. There’ll be lots of gallows banter, nicknames like ‘Specs’ and ‘Crueller’ and WE’RE ALL GETTING OUT OF THIS TOGETHER. Except you can’t. While gaming technology has proceeded apace, Black Mesa is still hamstrung by the limitations of its original design, your pals unable to traverse ladders or game sections. Every time their scripting left them unable to continue there was a genuine pang of regret – I was under no illusions that these fragile clouds of pixels wouldn’t last another minute outside the watchful shadow of my twelve gauge. I felt like dragging some boxes and desks over to build them a little fort and stocking it with as many excess health pack and submachine guns as could be found… time to go outside in the fresh air for a bit methinks.
Or maybe its time for some more gushing? It’s not just the visuals, the sound has been fully cleaned out and rebooted, with a couple of thousand extra lines of expertly scripted and executed dialogue that really helps give a sense of character to the personnel inhabiting the complex. Not to mention the completely new soundtrack composed by Joel Nielsen. Tense, industrial and with hint of Vangellis. It’s just what you want on your Walkman** when squeezing your way through dusty hellspawn stuffed ducts and, crucially, it’s actually worth listening to in its own right. Hot Dog. Pass me a towel.
Maps have been retooled, some of this is just cosmetic, but by enlarging many to encompass more game sections loading times have taken a steep climb, so keep book by your keyboard. Your opponents are definitely tougher; the basic alien grunt has slashed the charge cycle on his projectile attack and Sound Hounds are actually a credible foe now, with a massively increased speed and threat radius, gambolling toward you like a pack of murderous, explosive pugs, but the AI isn’t quite as ground breaking as it was back in 98′, when Penny Farthings were a thing and Guy Fawkes was on the throne. The weapon rebalancing is somewhat curious; most obviously in that you can only carry a maximum of three shells for the grenade launcher, though as compensation the Gluon gun seems much improved, hoovering through ammo like a commodities trader in a cocaine factory, but near instantly turning enemies into glistening piles of summer fruits pudding.
One minor tweak, but a very welcome one is that Freeman no longer treats ladders like each rung is a hissing cobra coated in grease that he must fly along like a shrieking roller-coaster of terror, invariably climaxing in him shooting off the end like a champagne cork and the HEV’s toneless announcement of another major compound fracture. So there’s that.
Of course there’s always has to be a wasp at the picnic – a small minded buzzing bastard that wants to ruin everyone’s good time. That wasp is called jumping puzzles. I will never understand the mania to input jumping puzzles into a game with a first person perspective. It literally makes no sense. The perspective and controls are just so ill designed for it the very notion is perverse. Imagine trying to arabesque your way across an eel’s back while blindfolded and wearing jelly roller-skates. Black Mesa’s jumping puzzles offer all the agonising frustration and prat falling promised by this, but with none of the sweet, sweet triumph actually accomplishing such a feat would bring. Arbitrary is the word here, your mind devolving into a blood tinged fugue, your fingers mechanically holding down the shift key and charging into the breach again and again until the game decrees it’s had enough of a laugh at your pathetic attempts and deigns you make it to your goal. The average amount of reloads one of these hell spawned sections propagates would actually cause Sisyphus himself to shed a single silent tear on your behalf. The odd thing is, these sections were clearly in the original game, so either the interceding years had allowed me to forget them, like a suppressed childhood trauma, or the Black Mesa team has made them at least twice as frustrating as they were before. If they had any sense at all they would have been surgically excised from the game like the malignant tumours they are.
So where are we at? Are we looking at a bunch of cosmetic embellishments to a game even my nan thinks is old? No. This one of the best games ever coded, now polished to such a degree you use it for a lens in the Hubble telescope. Black Mesa is your definitive Half-life remix. Now is the time to either return to the fold or embrace your new religion. Except the jumping puzzles and especially except the teleportal jumping puzzle. That part can fuck itself with a glass pineapple.
*Everyone bar those higher ups running the vivisection labs. Those shady fuckers are getting escorted straight to Nuremberg.
** Stick your Ipod up your bum.