It’s not often Valve gets put to shame. The darlings of PC gaming can do little wrong, even when it does do things that irritate its fans (say hello, Left 4 Dead 2). So it makes Black Mesa all the more surprising: it’s a mod; it’s brilliant; it shows up Valve completely for merely shunting out Half-Life: Source as a forgotten non-remake using the then-new engine’s prowess. A group of 40-or-so dedicated modders – some professional programmers, some not – have all spent their free time over the last eight years crafting Black Mesa.
It was voted vapourware of the year, two years running. It became a running joke – the modders version of Duke Nukem Forever, apparently consigned to development hell for the rest of days. People once so enthusiastic about the project – entirely remaking the original Half-Life using the Source engine in a way Valve itself never bothered doing – forgot about it, moved on, got on with their lives.
Not long ago, Black Mesa was released. It isn’t vapourware, it certainly isn’t like Duke Nukem Forever and it absolutely should not be forgotten about: this is quite possibly the best mod we have ever played.
Everything you would expect from such a project has been updated, tweaked, changed or simply slapped with better textures. It’s not amazing to look at by modern standards, but by 2007-era Source engine standards it does the job admirably – and when compared to the original it’s based on, it blows Half-Life out of the water.
More than just higher definition textures and better character models though, the game incorporates everything you would expect from Source: realistic physics, realistic lighting and updated AI that means crabhead zombies will smack barrels your way and Barney and his army of security guards will get out of the way when needs be.
And the updates don’t stop there. Black Mesa is the product of a group of fans who know Half-Life, love Half-Life and respect Half-Life, but it’s also the product of people who understand things like how to create coherent worlds for the player to pass through. A few kinks from the original game have been ironed out – a room added here, a ladder placed there – and none of it feels pointless or misjudged. It’s clear that there has been a lot of care taken to restore everything as accurately as possible, and anything that just didn’t work or didn’t feel right first time around has been swapped out with surgical care and precision.
The same goes for voice work and the addition of – get this – humour. While some of the soldiers sound like people merely trying to sound tough or B-movie evil, the majority of the vocals are excellent, with soundalikes for the original actors performing admirably. Layered on top of this fine work is a layer of very knowing comedy: an entire deconstruction of the motivations of the team behind Black Mesa (no, really); individuals complaining that their job comprises of little more than walking a set route and staring at a screen for hours before returning to their set, programmed routine – it all fits. It’s not all hilarious, but there’s sure to be smiles raised as a result, and it’s all handled with enough subtlety that none of the excitement, trepidation or outright fear of the game itself is lost.
This would all be for naught if there wasn’t a solid game backing it all up, so it helps Black Mesa for it all to be based on the skeleton framework of one Half-Life. Released in 1998, this was Valve’s big hello to the world and instantly rendered the majority of first-person shooters redundant. A long time has passed since its release, but there’s still a hell of a lot about the game that impresses and shows just how forward-thinking the original release was in terms of design.
Yes, there are issues – ones that have been happily carried over into Black Mesa – like horrible, floaty platforming sections that will see deaths through no fault of the player. There is little in the way of tactics when fighting enemies (who, once you’ve been spotted, always know where you are) beyond strafing and emptying every clip of every weapon into them.
Some unchanged level design is confusing, with a total lack of signposting leading to half-hour searches for a way out of a room, only to notice a small, barely-visible ladder in a dark corner. None of these issues or the others carried over are dealbreakers, and in fact many just feel like quirks of a decade-plus-old game.
And the reason it’s so easy to ignore the faults – so easy to shrug off falling off a ladder again – is because there’s joy in taking on an entire platoon of troops as a goatee-sporting nerd. There’s joy in taking on situations and knowing they aren’t scripted half to death. There’s joy in scamming your way through a puzzle by pretty much breaking the game. There’s joy in thwacking a midair headcrab with your crowbar. The reason it’s so easy to ignore Half-Life – and thus Black Mesa’s – faults is that there’s joy in it.
So what has come out of all of this? We’ve seen that we shouldn’t doubt the sincerity of a team of people working together just because something is taking them a long time. We’ve seen that Valve is not perfect. We’ve seen it is possible to take something brilliant and make it better if the right amount of care is given. And we’ve seen that Half-Life, a 14-year-old FPS, is still better than a hell of a lot of its current generation stablemates.