Firing the Canon: Black Mesa

Scientists act like they're all about "the good of mankind," but leave alone for a moment and they're filling gigantic microwaves with tinfoil.

Black Mesa is a faithful recreation of Half-Life, for better or worse.

It plays like a fusion of Half-Life andHalf-Life 2, as you might expect from a fan project attempting to recreate the original using the sequel’s engine. Well, more accurately it’s a reimagining using the updated engine from the sequel’s episodes, but still. You’re Gordon Freeman again, what else do you want?

People tell me at every juncture that HL hasn’t aged very well. And it’s may be hard to absorb that idea if, like me, you played it on release and have a hearty dose of childhood nostalgia colouring your perceptions.

And it’s probably that same nostalgia that made me warm to BM. The bizarre feeling of deja vu as I retread a location that’s a pitch-perfect (albeit prettier) remake of a HL map. Encountering set pieces that, if not awe-inspiring in and of themselves, at least invoked the same sense of wonder that absolutely gobsmacked my twelve-year-old self.

Sometimes those nostalgic expectations were challenged with subtle tweaks and added detail, sometimes they were shattered by design choices that seemed… at odds with the rest of the project. I’m not sure if I’d consider my tastes remotely representative of the majority of Half-Life’s fans but it goes without saying that in any remake that picks and chooses what to retain, you will alienate purists and you will fail to cater to every taste. The question is whether or not that’s a good thing. And spoiler alert, I’d find myself at odds with anyone who considers the first game flawless.

HL was hardly a stealth-orientated title but you were far less noticeable if you crouched; yet as I soon discovered in BM, these newfangled baddies don’t have the same respect for such classic abstraction. The tentacles in the silo splatter you so swiftly that sprinting from location to location is more effective than sneaking past while they’re distracted by grenades, and Black Mesa’s grunts are much more perceptive, and better marksmen, than their HL counterparts. If anything regular MP5-toting soldiers do as much damage at range as the snipers, chewing you up with a hail of bullets.

Not every map is a direct remake of the original’s layouts but enemy placement is true to it in spirit. This clashes with the altered balance of the game. Soldiers are far more fragile to counteract their firepower, Alien Slaves/Vortigaunts attack more quickly; when a Vort’s lightning attack required a ponderous charge-up animation, when soldiers were less likely to score a hit at extreme range, facing them was more manageable, more tactical. Half-Life 2’s lack of obvious, exaggerated flinching animations is reflected here, so people expecting HL1’s approach should realise that enemies won’t be interrupted mid-attack when you riddle them with bullets. Unless you kill them outright, of course. Which can be accompanied by an amazingly in-depth gibbing system if you explode them. Lovely.

BM occasionally swamps you with enemies and, unless you’ve just reloaded a save after a first attempt, you won’t know what to expect and will either die or fare so poorly that you’ll try again in order to preserve your health and ammunition. Which isn’t entirely unlike Half-Life, a game which has taught many of us to quick save constantly with the understanding that the devs expected us to do so and would not hesitate to throw ignoble death at you. And it also taught us to crouch jump to climb over pipes.

I’ve used the arrow keys since Doom— yeah you read that right, let the rebels unite against WASD— and I’ve crouched while jumping since Half-Life. It’s so ingrained at this point, especially in a Valve or Valve-inspired game, that I barely register doing it. Seeing so many people criticise Black Mesa’s decision to retain crouch jumping as the needless retention of an archaic and clumsy mechanic really hammered home just how many things are second nature. Entirely unexamined, at that. It was like the time I discovered photic sneezing wasn’t something everyone did (don’t ask).

When friends tried out Half-Life for the first time I was surprised to see people cite the length and inescapable nature of in-game cutscenes and the game’s overall linearity as marks against it. But I understood the hate of the platforming elements. Even back in ’98, even with the awe that came with a first-run through one of history’s most acclaimed games, I didn’t care for the sections where you leap from crates suspended over abyssal plunges. Hopping from conveyor belt to conveyer belt to evade various flavours of ostensibly functional smashy fiery machine was fun at first, but it wore thin and felt ill-suited to a first-person shooter.

Conversely I enjoyed the hell out of the On a Rail chapter, in part because I liked trains, yet this was one of the few segments that the Black Mesa team decided to truncate. Fair enough, maybe beta testers expressed concerns with the pacing. I certainly understand that it’s rare for people to express a fondness for a chapter where the gameplay largely consists of chugging along on a slow tram and occasionally stepping off it to flip a switch, but at the time I found it a welcome change of form. Less run and gun and more… well, chug and switch. Which sounds like a filthy euphemism, so please forget I said that.

It also came as a surprise to me that I found Black Mesa’s take on the Lambda Complex much more involving than the original’s. And I don’t mean the extended start-up routines for the machines you have to activate, I mean the overall ambience. Hell, the same goes for the mod as a whole. The Black Mesa Research Facility of, uh, Black Mesa benefits not only from the Source engine’s increased capabilities but from the developer’s decisions to record god-knows how much dialogue and increase the frequency of interactions and to make custom models for intricate devices that you only encounter once.

"Doctor, you mentioned the ration of ten women to each man. Now, wouldn't that necessitate the abandonment of the so called monogamous sexual relationship, I mean, as far as men were concerned?" "Regrettably, yes. But it is, you know, a sacrifice required for the future of the human race. I hasten to add that since each man will be required to do prodigious... service along these lines, the women will have to be selected for their sexual characteristics which will have to be of a highly stimulating nature. "  " I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor."

In Half-Life I did my utmost to protect the security guards and scientists who I collected along the way, right up until Gordon encountered obstacles they considered impassable. Such as, um, an upturned table or a ventilation shaft so narrow that it can only hold an adult in a powered suit.

Black Mesa recognises this, lampshades it, with guards announcing how they’re choosing to stay behind to complete some task, commenting on strange set pieces instead of standing by in silence, demonstrating the motives and character that we projected on the facility’s staff in the first game. To mangle an old writing tip, the devs show instead of requiring us to tell. We went to such lengths to retain our retinue of disciples with identical faces, and even though the voices and likenesses aren’t quite so familiar Black Mesa tries to reward you for keeping that tradition alive. The game remains light on exposition but adds more character.

For the most part the voice actors are passable mimics of the professionals who did the original lines. Every piece of dialogue has been re-recorded, with plentiful additions to boot; there are now women working in the Black Mesa complex, finally explaining the mystery of those toilet signs.

I urge players to explore and eavesdrop in the opening chapter’s pre-disaster areas and to generally throw things and fiddle with buttons and be a jerk. Black Mesa’s strengths lie in the chapters where depth can and has been added, in character interaction, in background detail, in people calling you out for making a mess. My issues with BM, and they are issues that are tempered somewhat by my enjoyment of the mod and the fact I keep having to remind myself that it’s an entirely free fan-made project of incredible scope, lie less with the team’s decision to change parts of Half-Life and more with what they changed.

I could have happily waved goodbye to the platforming elements, to big chunks of the obstacle courses and all the hurdles that necessitate crouch jumping. I would have applauded the loss of fights that can only be effectively approached with the hindsight of a reload. I would have preferred to preserve Half-Life’s take on combat and damage levels, if only because I picture it being so much more satisfying experiencing it again except with ragdoll-physics deaths, and I would’ve liked to be able to sneak past the Blast Pit tentacle. Because for me the giant alien at the centre of the chapter is something of a big deal.

If you agree that Half-Life is a classic then I think you’ll find something worth your time in Black Mesa, but we’ll inevitably differ on what that something is. If Half-Life 2 was your first experience with the series then you’ll be familiar with much of it but may find yourself baffled by other parts; your progress isn’t quite as well directed, your hand isn’t held so much as it is slapped for doing wrong.

BM can’t quite decide whether it’s for newcomers or for grizzled veterans of the franchise. Perhaps it’s a bit of both, and I think that’s a worthy aim. It’s helped me figure out exactly what I did and did not like about the first game and it says a lot about the faithfulness of this project that I did and did not like the same things in Black Mesa, but even more so. That’s truly impressive.

Gordon would say how proud he is if he wasn’t eternally mute. And if he wasn’t currently busy throwing soda cans at Barney. Seriously, I love this opening chapter.

Black Mesa is a free fan project that was recently voted onto Steam via Greenlight after being in development for a long-ass time.  At present its download weighs in at 3GB and requires the Source SDK 2007 to play. Black Mesa is as yet incomplete: the levels recreating Half-Life’s final chapter, Xen, will come in a later update.

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  • BitterAlmond

    With some clever autoexec.cfg scripting, you can bind the spacebar to crouch-jump every time you press it. Saved my ass many times in TF2, and if I play Black Mesa I’ll bring it over there too.