Monday, September 17, 2012

Reactions to Black Mesa

Valve's signature series had a problem. Half-Life redefined what a PC game could be in 1998, but when Half-Life 2 came out in 2004, it felt like it was of a different world than its predecessor. Most series wouldn't have a problem with this, but the world of Half-Life is thoroughly story-driven, to the extent that the sequel just doesn't resonate if you don't have the grounding of the original. But the original is of a different time and a different tech stack, which makes it a bit inaccessible to modern gamers. Games changed an awful lot in the six years between releases, far more than they've changed in the subsequent eight years. Valve had no plan to re-vamp their most famous title, but they'd left the door open for fans to do so, using Valve's own physics engine. A couple of projects started down that road back in September of 2004. Then eight years passed.

And then it happened. Last Friday saw the much-anticipated release of Black Mesa, the story of Half-Life with an updated tech stack. Long considered Vaporware, the game released to a good deal of fanfare with only a few weeks of lead-up. The goal was simple: the development team wanted to be true to the original but provide a more engrossing and realistic gameplay experience. I've played through the first five or six levels, and I must declare it a rousing success.

Half-Life was a blend of genres, switching from survival-horror to action-shooter to puzzle-platformer and back again. Black-Mesa takes those impulses and cranks them up a few notches. The survival-horror sections now feature atmospheric effects and a lot less light. I can't speak for others, but I found myself having to conserve ammunition and choose between combat and running away. It's some time before you even pick up a weapon, relying on a security guard escort to keep you alive. The puzzles are a little more complex in places, and some of the fat has been trimmed out (The level Power Up was pared down to about half of its gameplay length without actually removing any of the puzzle elements). This keeps the game fresh for seasoned players, although there are a few puzzles that I worry would leave newbies scratching their heads for too long. The combat difficulty is toned down to more modern levels. The environments are made more open where appropriate and are far more cluttered with random objects.

This gives the game a more cohesive feel, not just with itself, but with the rest of the series. The sequels take place in a bombed-out shell of a city in a world that's been oppressed for two decades. Everything is cobbled-together. The conceit of the original is that it takes place in a state-of-the-art science facility running on the bones of an old nuclear missile silo, all parts of which are in the middle of combat or industrial accidents. So it also has that abandoned-yet-cobbled-together aesthetic, and Black Mesa ties all of those visuals together nicely.

Black Mesa also nails Valve's pitch-black sense of humor. Wandering around the office before the event that kicks off the game proper, I overheard some entertaining dialog (one line in particular about a scientist planning to shame his brethren at a comic convention and how he looked forward to hearing "the weeping of their women"). I interacted with a computer only to make it blue-screen. Some of the notices are pretty amusing too. This iteration also includes female scientists, an introduction to Eli Vance (sadly, the voice actor sounds nothing like Robert Guillaume), a hauntingly dark score (available for download separately) and achievements.

Now the game's not perfect. First of all, it's only about two-thirds finished. The off-world levels (the last third of the game, really) are still unreleased. The combat sometimes gets a little too frenetic, as the camouflage'd soldiers get lost among the debris in the new level designs. And for the life of me, I have yet to spot the G-Man. But it's free, and it's fun, and it's constructed with love and affection for the original. It's definitely worth checking out.

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