Thursday, October 11, 2012

Games Review: Black Mesa

"They're waiting for you Gordon. In the Test Chamber."

I remember playing Half-Life way back in the day, which probably dates me alarmingly. I remember that, pretty much like everyone else, this was one of the games that fulfilled the early promise of the First Person Shooter as a narrative experience as well as run-and-gun thrills, a game crafted with an eye on changes to the gameplay and pacing as the game went through, a game that really did define what a shooter could aspire to be. When you look at the huge presence of Steam as an online marketplace, thats because Valve were able to leverage it onto millions of PCs on the release of Half-Life 2. When you play one of those lumbering military themed shooters that seem to dominate the genre at the moment, they trace a lineage to the story and set-piece design of the your trek through the Black Mesa Complex. 

So the update of this classic into a modern engine (well, Source, which is a little creaky now) was hotly anticipated when Black Mesa - a completely community run mod - was announced, but that too was a long time ago and as the project seemed to drift many wrote it off completely. But it's out now. It can be downloaded at their site - http://release.blackmesasource.com/ - and is a from-the-ground-up remake of the original game from beginning to the Lambda Core section, with the final sections promised for later. I've been playing for the last couple of weeks, and it's a remarkable achievement. 

It's work mentioning that whilst this is a community project, many of the people involved and giving their time are employed in the industry, and it's also worth noting that most of the assets in the game had to be made from scratch, including all the voice work and sound effects. Its not a texture pack, or a reskinning, it's all completely new, just built to the template laid down by the original Half-Life. It gives it a weird mix of familiarity and freshness and allows it to be a game in its own right, free from a simple nostalgia trip. 

That said, the nostalgia is overwhelming in the games opening, a slow tram ride through the Black Mesa Complex as the opening credits roll, and the test chamber event looks fantastic with all the modern lighting effects. Cameos by Half-Life 2s Doctors Vance and Kleiner tie the game a little closer into the wider fiction, and that first section, though the Office Complex, is great, but does feel very close to the original. And then as the game wears on, you start to notice the changes. 

See, Half-Life was a long time ago, and I suspect parts of it have aged badly. So it's to Black Mesa's eternal credit that this isn't a simple recreation, but a true remake, tweaking and reshaping the flow of the game, changing somethings, dropping others, and adding whole new bits. The train section is much shorter, for instance, and but theres whole new set pieces dotted around, including a great section where you have to manually reload a TOW launcher to take out a HECU tank under heavy fire, or use a tactical map to target an airstrike on some gigantic Xenian horror. 

One thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the difficulty - the HECU Troops are lethal, more lethal than I remember and certainly a lot more dangerous than Half-Life 2 MetroCops. Which is good, but a real shock when I first fought them. Also one part of the original design that seems to have been left behind by the wider genre is amount of platforming involved, and that has come forward into Black Mesa, and is a bit of an acquired taste after so long without playing a game where precision box-jumping is a factor. 

Overall however, Black Mesa is a triumph. It's gripping, beautifully paced and enormously fun. It's a great game in it's own right and as an updating of one of gamings eternal classics it's an unparalleled labour of love. And on top of it all, it's completely free, so really you have no excuse for not playing it now....