Note: Contains some spoilers for Half-Life, Black Mesa and Episode Two.
A long time ago when I was young(er) and (more) foolish I spent much time on the old Black Mesa forums and was steadily in the “purist” camp. I was shocked at how popular suggestions like adding in new visions/cutscenes where the g-man talks directly to Gordon throughout the game or having a giant portal to Xen open in the skybox during Surface Tension were. Now it wasn’t the actual dev team saying these things but I always felt rather outnumbered by the people who wanted such significant changes. It made me think if this is what the average person wants then it seems likely the devs think that too or that they would bow to the demands of the masses.
It seems my fears were pretty unfounded. The mod is very faithful to the original, too faithful in some ways even! Though I called myself and was called by others a purist I never wanted just Half-Life with better graphics, the graphics of Half-Life don’t bother me. I’ve replayed it many times through the years and it still looks good to me (and I prefer to use the original models to the HD pack due to how some of the enemies are redesigned).
What I always wanted from this mod was Half-Life updated to the Half-Life 2 feel. Half-Life with the same aesthetic and style as its sequel was always a prospect to be awed by. I will be honest that in this regard I was disappointed with a lot of areas. I can’t really hold that against the team. I had a very specific idea of certain things and I can’t expect them to read my mind and use that as a design outline.
Their effort has been herculean and their results over all are pretty damn good for a commercial game and truly outstanding for a mod. That said, I think a project that is ambitious enough to attempt to improve upon one of the most highly regarded games of all time deserves to be held to the standards of a full game and I won’t be letting the bugs and rough parts slide just because it’s a free mod. I think to do otherwise would be a condescension to the team. Unfortunately while there is tremendous quality in this mod, the quality is not consistent throughout.
Looking at the title screen of the mod for the first time pretty much summed up the whole experience. Here was this great view of the Black Mesa transit system. Scientists milling about and checking the lovingly textured schedule. Trams running to and fro in the background. It brings the Black Mesa Research Facility to life. Then I noticed an impatient scientist sitting on a bench in the bottom left corned of the screen, his leg shaking in agitation. Well, that was evidently what the team wanted to convey at least. What it really looked like was he had his foot resting on some sort of actuator that was robotically and rigidly moving his leg up and down in a motion that seemed completely independent of the rest of him. In short it was unnatural. It really drew me out of the moment. The whole mod is like that title screen; a great tapestry of work with tons of little details that drive me mad and unfortunately some not so little problems as well.
I’ll go through the various aspects individually:
The basic run and gun gameplay of the Half-Life series is still present and the movement can be set to either be the Half-Life style always run or the Half-Life 2 style shift to sprint set up. One strange change is the addition of view bob and view roll which seem at odds with Half-Life’s kinetic gameplay but they can be easily disabled from the main menu before you start the mod. Another change is that Gordon’s jump height seems to have been reduced. Crouch-jumps are now required to climb almost any obstacle and running jumps need to be performed much more carefully to avoid falling short of your target. This adds little frustrations throughout the experience that seem rather needless.
The general mechanics of combat are unchanged but the difficulty of the mod is quite a bit higher than the original game in many places. There is a fine line between reasonable challenge and unfair difficulty and sadly I think many parts of Black Mesa fall a sizeable distance into the latter. I will go into more specifics of this in the enemies section bellow. Suffice to say I think the team do not understand the difference between making a challenge and just making the game harder.
I must make a special mention of Unforseen Consequences and the decision to make such major changes to the opening gameplay. I think the idea of denying the player weapons for a while was a good one, and is something Valve themselves did at the start of Half-Life 2, but it was ruined by the inclusion of flares and far too many zombies. What is the point of making the player helpless only to provide them with a gimmicky means of self-defence? The use of flares in the Half-Life 2 episodes ties into the use of the gravity gun throughout the game. In this mod it’s a gimmick that is retired as soon as you get proper weapons and renders any tension brought on by holding off on giving the player the crowbar moot.
On the bugs front I had some random crashes, mostly during load times. When I reached to the dam scene my Tau Gun had mysteriously disappeared and I could not equip it even after picking up ammo for it. I needed to spawn myself a new one in the console to get it back. If I wasn’t already familiar with how to use the Source console I don’t know know how I would have taken out the helicopter here. I would count that as a fairly game-breaking bug for the average player.
Certainly one of the best part of the mod is the improvement to the scientist and guard interactions. The voice acting for the guards and scientists is pretty solid and captures the charm of the original while expanding on it. While the faces and animations aren’t Valve-quality they are very passable for a video game. Few companies seem to be able to do faces very well.
The real improvement is they now react to unique situations. From leaving everyone behind in Office Complex to the guard taking cover behind crates in Questionable Ethics the little scripting touches really bring the whole thing to life. I always cared for my barneys, walters, einsteins and luthors but this time I felt they cared back. Having barneys backing me up with more weapons than just the pistol was also great.
The inclusion of Isaac was handled extremely well though I’m a bit disappointed that the story details/retcons present in Episode Two were not taken into account. I understand that the Anomalous Materials scenes were probably planned out well in advance of the release of Episode Two but this mod still came out after these details were revealed. Eli seems somewhat in the dark about the running of the experiment, which seems a bit odd considering that Episode Two tells us he was one of the people the g-man presented the sample crystal to (though I supposed Breen could have altered the test behind his back at the last minute). The more obvious example the lack of any appearance by Arne, either with the casserole or as one of the scientists who lets you into the test chamber (which the commentary track says was the inspiration for his personality and where I think would be the more appropriate place to put him).
There were a few bad moments of scripting amongst the good presentation though. The worst example by far I saw was if you save the scientist who’s intended to be the snipers’ first victim he stays crouched staring at the corpse of a security guard (whose ragdoll clipped through the floor and wound up in an extremely contorted unnatural position) forever. It’s not like that even requires cheating or foreknowledge, just quick reactions. Occasional stiff animation doesn’t help the experience either.
The voice acting for the female scientists did not seem as good as the male this is overshadowed by how atrocious the acting for the HECU soldiers is. It’s hard to believe that the voices of the soldiers and friendly characters belong in the same project. I saw some confusing justification of this when the On A Rail gameplay video surfaced but even if the voice acting is for some reason deliberately bad that doesn’t actually stop it being bad.
The Acid Lion spit greatly improves the Bullsquid as an enemy. It makes it a better threat and more interesting. Previously the Bullsquid was no threat to a player who simply kept moving. The new spitting mechanics mean the player must actually be concerned with dodging rather than just moving. This difficulty increase is a fair challenge to the player. I do not feel the same about most enemy changes though. As for the design of the Bullsquid, the way the spit stains everything is a pretty nice touch but I found the design of the enemy itself lacking, particularly tentacles. They are not good. They only bed in one place and come across as far too rigid because of this. It looks outdated in an otherwise very good- and modern-looking mod. I’m pretty sure modern computers can handle more joints in the model.
The vision distortion effect on the Houndeye’s attack is a good way of making them a more credibly threat but the reduction in charge time is too much. In Half-Life the threat of the Houndeyes (little as it became to an experienced player) was that they attack in a pack and all start charging, requiring you to quickly deal with all of them either by killing them or just making them all flinch. The charge-up time with its distinct noise sent a clear message to the player. You had to deal with this quickly, but left enough time so that there was some build up of tension while you tried to defuse the situation. That was the beauty of a pack of Houndeyes; they form a living time-bomb and are deadly in groups the player doesn’t handle them well. The vision distortion improves their ability to operate as a pack (getting hit by one will make it harder to deal with the rest because it disorientates the player) but the faster attack just turns a fight with a pack of Houndeyes from generating interesting and unique gameplay to a game of whack-a-mole. It’s not really unfair or terribly hard, it’s just uninteresting. Houndeyes also have the strange habit of randomly having all their limbs fly off when you kill them, no other enemies seem to gib that spontaneously.
Zombies and headcrabs are just the Half-Life 2 versions in terms of gameplay, nothing really to say there. In terms of design they look exactly like updated version of Half-Life zombies. I would have preferred if they were more like Half-Life 2 zombies but they do look good. They die terribly though. They do not have a smooth transition to ragdoll. They jerk suddenly when they die (possibly the model clipping inside itself during animation?) and the headcrab just falls off vertically down with no momentum, plonking onto the floor like a sack of potatoes. It looks dreadful and you see it every time you kill a zombie.
Alien Slave AI needs some work. If they are unaware of your presence they will not react to you shooting them in the least. They don’t even go into a ready stance. They just stand idly and let you chip away at their health with the pistol. The fact that they attack really fast on all difficulty settings seems odd, they only attacked that fast on hard in the original and I thought that a good use of the difficulty settings when most games just adjust damage with difficulty options. The assassins’ cloak behaviour on different difficulties was kept after all. Design-wise the Vortigaunts need new animations. Need them. In Half-Life 2 the Vortigaunts have a bit of a proud warrior race thing going on. They stand upright and fight fiercely. They should not have the same body language in the game where they are enslaved. They should be hunched over, more animalistic, more beaten down looking. They should not stand up straight and proud.
AI wise the HECU grunts have the opposite problem to the Vortigaunts; they have super-senses. They will see you from any distance even if you’re crouched, not moving and mostly hidden behind cover or if you are above or bellow them. Unless they are acting through a scripted sequence they will be aware of you even if their backs are turned, making sneaking stealth impossible except in specific situations. The marines engage ferociously as soon as they are aware of you (which is always) and their SMGs seem to be more accurate than the player’s one. It’s almost impossible to avoid getting hit by them unless you’re taking them out from very long range which is impossible in most circumstances. The fights with them end up just being a case of headshotting them as fast as possible with the revolver because killing them ASAP is the only viable option to not taking loads of damage from them. They never give you respite and while that may be realistic behaviour it makes for frustrating gameplay. The fact that the player is often lacking adequate cover doesn’t help matters. There is little room for tactical gameplay against an omniscient, nigh-aimbotting foe. In terms of design I do not like the fact that their armour is blatantly not a PCV. Have some love for Gearbox canon!
In terms of general AI everyone is too concerned with killing Freeman. I attempted to observe a battle between human and Xenian troops (the one where an Osprey continuously reinforces the HECU side) and would just get torn to pieces as soon as I approached as both sides dropped what they were doing to immediately kill the man in the orange suit. This is not only frustrating but you’re causing the player to miss out on a really great set-piece. Watching a battle between the two forces is always a great moment to show off the game and AI. I actually opened up the console and used the notarget cheat just so I could watch the battle.
The Apache cliff fight is insane. Utterly insane. It never misses and kills you in a moment if you peak out of cover. It took me ten rockets and two fully charged tau canon shots to bring the thing down. These two factors make the entire fight a question of sitting in cover for a few minutes, briefly sticking one’s head out to fire a shot before ducking again. There is no room for error and no interesting strategies to take it down. In Half-Life 2 we have two similar enemie; the Hunter Chopper and the Gunship. The Hunter Chopper attacks in a similar manner to the Apache but the big difference being while facing the Hunter Chopper on foot one is constantly ducking between different bits of cover that are being degraded. You must move forward in these sections. In Black Mesa you are stuck behind a couple of rocks. The Half-Life 2 Gunship is a game of distraction, where you shoot out a rocket from safety before revealing yourself from cover, getting the Gunship’s attention off you before trying to steer the rocket in for a hit. The Apache, like many things in this mod, offers difficulty but no strategy. This is not why I play the Half-Life series and the gameplay in many parts of this mod has failed to capture the essence of what makes the series great games to play.
I find it passing amusing that the one enemy who always gives me trouble on my playthroughs of Half-Life, the Ichthyosaur, has been rendered pathetically easy to defeat. Two crossbow bolts? This is supposed to be a deadly game of cat and mouse put in a 3D environment. You must juggle the tasks of dodging the bites of the beast, surfacing for air and using your openings to land hits with your crossbow. All this has been rendered pretty much moot as the Ichthyosaur can be dispatched in moments with two well placed shots.
No complaints about the Grunts and Controllers by the way. They seem pretty spot on. In fact, I must apologise to the Half-Life: Short Stories team but I think I prefer Black Mesa’s Xenians to the ones from Human Error. Oh, and I mush just quickly ask, where are the leeches?
This was always going to be the make or break of the mod and overall I was surprised at how pleased I was with the locals in this mod, though the quality and design focus seems to vary a lot from chapter to chapter. Is the purpose of the mod to recreate the levels of Half-Life embellished with extra details and nicer graphics? Was it to smooth out the poorer design decisions of Half-Life? Was it to fix the more ridiculous and wacky parts of the levels that made no logical sense? If I had only gotten to play one chapter of the mod I would have had a different answer for different ones.
Blast Pit is the most obviously sanitised chapter. The more ridiculous parts of the generator room have been removed and replaced with a much more logical set up (though I miss Smithers’ insane hiding place) though the glowing green goo remains. I have no idea why is the team has made an effort to make the Facility more believable but then continued to use the Simpsons’ idea of what nuclear waste is like. There is a reason Valve made the radioactive waste in Half-Life 2 less silly when the adopted the more realism-based style. Having the glowing green goo remain in Black Mesa, though its alliteration adds appeal, is like playing Tehran Highway in Battlefield 3 only to discover when you reach the enemy base that you are not fighting Russian soldiers, but the National Army from Battlefiend Heroes. It is not a coherent design choice.
Questionable Ethics and Anomalous Materials seem to have gotten the most love with addition of details and better designs and are both a joy to explore. I suppose it fits that they are both still currently active labs while many of the other areas are more disused. I can’t say I love the shortening and simplification of On A Rail, a chapter I actually like in the original game, but I can see the purpose behind it. The addition of the raising the rocket set-piece was a very good idea and I applaud it. It almost makes me wish there were a third part to the launching the rocket series just to extend the whole sequence a bit more.
The fact that it was seen fit to give On A Rail an overhaul and Blast Bit a bit more logic really raises the question of why similar things did not happen to Residue Processing. I am actually in the pro-Xen squad as well as the pro-On A Rail squad but by god Residue Processing is a terrible chapter in both the original game and Black Mesa. The fact that the game slows down here and gives you a break from the action is not itself the bad thing. It is wise to give the player a breather between the action-packed chapters proceeding and following it (even if taking the players weapons away to do so is annoying). Residue Processing’s problem has always been that it is both silly and uninteresting. Nonsensical criss-crossing conveyor belts and pointless buckets of churning glowing green goo do not engage the players mind in any way and just provide an obstacle to get back to the entertainment. If this mod had been able to make Residue Processing actually fun that would have been a grand achievement in and of itself but it seems like the chapter out of the whole mod that the least effort has been put into. I think Residue Processing was salvageable if the dev team had replaced the uninteresting jumping with actual mentally taxing puzzles but it seems no one even tried with this chapter. It is not just the low point of Half-Life, it is now the low-point in its recreation effort in terms of what the team were willing to invest in it.
The rest of the mod provides a good standard of polish to the areas with some highlights and lowlights. The cliff scene vista is of course beautiful; as lovely today as the one in Half-Life was in 1998. I’m glad it was done justice.
The set pieces are hit and miss, with most being hit thankfully. For example both the scripted sequences in the lobby in Questionable Ethics are pretty good, but I thought the handling of the sequence I mentioned earlier where the Xenian and human forces engage each other was handled poorly. Not only does the overzealousness of the AI to fight Freeman get in the way of being able to watch the fight unfold but I thought the TOW missile launcher set piece was badly implemented. The idea of having to manually reload the launcher was a great one but if you’re going to have a mounted missile launcher that you must reload manually and fires missiles the size of your normal rocket launcher they should be damn powerful missiles. It should take out the Osprey in one hit or two at the very, very most and it should decimate enemies in a very wide radius (as a side note, two bullets from a 50 cal machine gun reduces enemies to a bloody mess but a satchel charge or TOW missile at their feat just ragdolls them, what?). If you’re going to have such a dramatically set up toy to play with use it should have an equally dramatic effect when you shoot it at things.
As a final passing remark on level design, Valve has, in their level design, set up a shorthand system for communicating intractable objects with the player without explicitly stating it. A greem light on a control panel, a red Valve or visible handles on a door should indicate that those objects have an effect when used. While Black Mesa for the mast majority of the mod follows good design practices to bring the players attention to what is needed, it does sometimes include elements that look like they should be interactable but actually do nothing.
This mod has highs and lows both as a stand-along product and as a remake of Half-Life. I would recommend that any Half-Life fan play it though I don’t think it’s going to be replacing my bi-annual playthroughs of the original. It is certainly one of the best mods I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing. The enjoyment in provided certainly outweighed its frustrations, but the frustrations it provided were many.
- Beautiful translation of the original Black Mesa Research Facility to modern standards
- Friendly characters are well animated, voiced and scripted and really helps build upon the charm of the original game
- Sanitisation of some of the more ridiculous bits of level design from Half-Life
- It’s the still Half-Life we all know and love
- Inconsistent quality and level design choices
- A failure to understand the difference between creating a challenge and creating difficulty
- Several AI problems
- Random crashes