Eight years; delay after delay after delay; anticipation building into trepidation drooping into despair. The development of this Half-Life remake, built from nothing in the spare time of driven fans, made bespoke for the now ageing Source engine has been a hell of a trip – but now it’s here, and astonishingly it’s free to download. Valve, give these boys and girls a job – there would be no justice in the world if these people don’t get handsomely rewarded for this fresh but restrained take on a classic.
Half-Life is a seminal 1998 shooter in which you play the role of a mute scientist who has apparently had special arms training by the name of Gordon Freeman, wrapped up in an experiment gone awry in a top secret scientific facility Black Mesa located in Nevada (Area 51, if you will) where all extra-terrestrial hell breaks loose – it’s a B movie, but one that brings its A game.
What made Half-Life a bleeding-edge game at its time was the way it presented its narrative. There is not a single cut-scene in Half-Life; control is never wrangled from the player to tell its story. The only time the player is not in control is during the brief loading breaks and Half-Life offers a level of seamless immersion that games today struggle to match.
The Black Mesa team have put in a profound effort in sprucing up this old game. Textures and lighting effects are crisp; character models are now well-defined and expressive, almost matching the level of Half-Life 2s populace. There is also more variety in this remake – an area that was once a couple of tables is now a fully-blown cafeteria. There is a far greater sense of place and atmosphere than the original.
The architecture of some of the environments originally targeted for the limitations of 1998 threaten to look ugly in places, but for the most part the Source engine’s proficiency at clean yet lived in surroundings works convincingly in conjunction with the sterile corridors and test chambers of Black Mesa.
Where the game has been truly enhanced is in the added interactivity and physics afforded by the more modern tech. New environmental puzzles have been scattered throughout and the maps have been carefully reworked. The world reacts largely how one would expect from a modern game – explosives can erupt into organic chain-reactions; barrels and other incidental items can be picked up and chucked around.
The team have also been incredibly faithful to the source material and thus, a few anachronisms from FPSs of old still exist. Iron-sights are absent bar a useless inclusion to the magnum, but it’s the absence of regenerating health that offers the greatest tinge of nostalgia. I like the fact that every hit you take counts, and discovering a medical station with only a slither of life left washes over a sense of respite. Taking notes from the Doom era of FPS design, exploring every store room and ventilation shaft offers goodies and jack-in-the-boxes alike. And just like in HL2 Gordon glides like a figure skater and runs like a Bugatti Veyron.
Another less-welcome relic of the bygone FPS is the less than stellar AI; all scripted routines and suicidal rushes. While this is fine for the aliens, when the marines start rolling in they can be a chore to fight, with their pinpoint accuracy that makes it nigh-on impossible to avoid taking damage no matter how well you utilise cover, and their tendency to take bullets to the chest like flea bites.
The unknown is more enjoyable to combat in this case. You never forget the first time Gordon is yanked by the neck ceiling-wards by an innocuous cord towards the hungry gaping maw of a ‘thing’. Headcrabs lunge at you in the most unexpected places and headcrab zombies are, well… zombies – they’re always fun to shoot. There is a sheer variety of progressively bigger and meaner enemies to fight that are mixed up and spring loaded in a way to ensure that no environment, whether underwater on in an elevator is safe and any less than thrilling.
There is a solid and well rendered array of weapons to procure. More grounded types such as pistols and shotguns have a solid heft to them but it’s the magnum that is my personal weapon of choice – clean headshots instantly dispatch the goons and one shot obliterates many of the aliens in a knockout punch. The more esoteric weaponry found late in the game give you better options for the more tricky opponents like homing attacks and bloody massive laser beams. Grenades suffer from overcooked physics that often lead to them sailing far above target with unyieldingly sluggish rebounds that deny trick shots.
There is a large share of platforming sections that will put those Mirror’s Edge skills to good use, though the jumping here is more clunky and less intuitive, requiring you to crouch mid jump to make many leaps possible, though they’re not too challenging and add an extra dimension to the shooting and exploring.
The game opens much like a survival horror, with an emphasis on survival – bullets are scarce and environmental hazards goad you into playing resourcefully and protecting gormless survivors, “don’t you think this is really cool?”. Then later on, when your improbable armoury becomes more stacked, and especially when you reach open desert air, away from Black Mesa’s claustrophobic innards the gameplay leans more towards a tactical FPS, but with ingenious breaks in pace in the form of environmental puzzles and surprises that afford the gameplay a variety and feel for adventure rarely seen in the genre, and rarer still presented with this much confidence.
So it’s an old genius in a dapper new lab coat then. The Half-Life series has always been more than the sum of its parts. The terse storytelling says very little but you experience a lot through your actions, and rather than stodging the player with verbose notes from the dead, the desperate tales around Gordon are in plain sight if you stop and look. It’s easy to look past the more dated gameplay mechanics when the overall design is so absorbing. This is a challenging game, but the difficulty is never prohibitive. Simply put, the pacing is magnificent.
This is a game that has weathered the test of time and is still the masterpiece it always was, but this update has made this visit to Black Mesa all the more palatable and relevant, and that is the highest praise I can give to an update produced with the utmost care and affection.
Graphics: 3/5 – While this isn’t the most technically impressive effort, the artistry in Black Mesa’s regeneration is never short of excellent and professional.
Sound: 4/5 – Environmental effects are brilliantly realised: generators fizz with activity and the headcrabs’ cries snap with discord, while the sparse music tracks are almost universally fitting and heart-pounding. The voice acting can be a tad comical and at times spread much too thinly, given the lack of voice actors to go around.
Gameplay: 5/5 – A solid weapon set and satisfying results provide plenty of variety in the gunplay, but it’s the way that this homogenises with the exploration, puzzle-solving and fun scenario that makes this a difficult game to stop playing. Younger gamers could be baffled by the classic FPS mechanics.
Longevity: 3/5 – A 15-20 hour campaign for zero dinero is unbelievably good value. The final ‘Zen’ section of the game is still yet to be completed and is to be added next year, but as it was effortlessly the worst part of the original this can be seen as a blessing in disguise.
Overall: 4.5 out of 5
A simply mind-boggling amount of effort has been put in for no monetary reward in producing the definitive version of Half-Life; Black Mesa is everything the original was and more. Surprising, brutal, intelligent and arguably still Valve’s finest moment given the treatment it deserves.
- Jason Borlase