Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Black Mesa Review: Part 5 ("Blast Pit")

Blast Pit
                Blast Pit is one of my favorite levels in Half-Life and Black Mesa for multiple reasons. Firstly, it is a strategic chapter designed to ease the tension of the player. A lot of video games do not think of a players emotional state as they progress through the game. Games like Doom 3 for example, constantly throw enemy after enemy at the player until the each boss is defeated. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Id since action shooters are what they are known for. But Valve took a different direction with their action shooters.  In every Half-Life game released, there are levels that are designed to ease the tension on the player and introduce another element of gameplay. These emotional breaks not only allow the player to shift their gameplay style, but it allows the player to become more connected with the character, or in this case, the environment around the player. Developers need to learn you do not always need action on screen to make a game a thrilling experience.

                This chapter Blast Pit is probably one of the best designed remade chapters by the Black Mesa team. It’s a beautiful render of the source engine and it opens up the Black Mesa Research facility even further in terms of size. The decommissioned rail system that Gordon was told about in the previous chapter is easily found and stretches out the size of the complex nicely. But Gordon learns quickly that it won’t be easy as he thought to get to the Lambda Complex. The resonance cascade appears to have taken out the rail system bridge. Time to go on by foot.

                Instead of Marines constantly attacking, Blast Pit sets up other hazards for Gordon. Green hazardous chemicals pool up under the broken railway bridge, a bustedpipe spews green goo and an entire room is filled with radioactive waste. Where does this giant elevator take Gordon? To the rocket test labs of course.

                Another reason why this chapter is my favorite is because it is also one of the few levels with a mini-boss. Inside the rocket test labs is a giant mutated alien creature, blocking Gordon’s pathway to the rail system. In order to destroy the monster, Gordon must fire the test rockets, which currently is notonline due to lack of power and fuel. Gordon’s next two tasks are to solve the two puzzles; but they are not as direct as you think they might be. If players realize early that you must enter the beast’s chamber This is the first chapter where Gordon get’s equipped with the explosive satchel, although grenades are much more efficient for this puzzle.

                To turn on the oxygen/fuel tanks, Gordon climbs down a level and follows the colored pipes to another elevator shaft. Climbing down the shaft Gordon enters another sewer system that eventually leads him to a giant silo looking area. More Climbing... leads to a manual override switch that turns on a giant wind turbine. Eventually the end of this adventure leads to a control room with a valuepuzzle. Turning on the OXY/FUEL puzzle isn’t really that difficult, but it’s the monotonous journey to find that final switch that makes the puzzle interesting. Also seeing the Black mesa team add to the subtle new differences is a nice touch, like the lights changing to red as Gordon enters and exits the silo.

                Turning on the power is a similar puzzle but again, more subtle encounters are added such as having the Houndeyes sleeping in the middle of the hallway only to awake when Gordon approaches. Talking to a scientist informs the player that Smithers (another scientist) went to try and turn the power on himself, but “never came back”. Later, a Bullsquids is spotted eating a scientist who is presumably Smithers. Luckily, Smithers is revealed to be hiding when Gordon goes to flip the second switch which turns on the power. Now that someone has “restored allpower”, the engine can now be fired.

                Returning to where the mini-boss is begins some fantastic original music. Sets the tone wonderfully right before the button is pressed and the boss is extinguished (in spectacular fashion . To advance through the rocket test labs, Gordon needs to climb down to where themonster was growing from and swim under the complex. This leads to the one of the best set pieces in the game; a TRUE BLAST PIT, green toxic waste flows throughsome kind of treatment plant.  It’s a beautifulway to end this chapter.

Air vents in Chapter 5: 2 (storage area) (turbine room)
Total Air Vents to Date: 13

Monday, October 15, 2012

Black Mesa Review: Part 4 ("We’ve Got Hostiles")

We’ve Got Hostiles

                The first chapter in Half-Life/Black Mesa that is a quote from one of the NPCs, “We’ve Got Hostiles” is a chapter that allows the player to realize just how big this mess really is.

                The chapter opens beautifully in both Half-Life and Black Mesa with a scientist banging on the glass of a security office just before the guard is pulled into air vent. The distraught scientist then runs directly into a laser trip mine… wait a second, why are there laser trip mines setup around this area?...  As directed by the last NPC you met in Office Complex, you’re instructed to “keep going until you get to the surface”. But the elevator doesn’t get you to the surface. It gets you to an industrial-ish manufacturing area with conveyor belts, multiple storage and warehouse areas with forklifts, loading docks and freight elevators. I can imagine the Black Mesa team put considerable thought into how they wanted this chapter to look. The original version does not give much insight into the kind of level Valve was shooting for. What could possibly be ABOVE an Office Complex in a research facility?

                “We’ve Got Hostiles” isn’t a practically great chapter both in either Half-Life or Black Mesa but the draw of the level is seeing the shocking turn of events where Marines are dispatched into the Black Mesa Research facility to essentially contain the alien invasion and wipe out any surviving scientists. It’s the first chapter that Gordon gets the machine gun, shotgun and it’s also one of the shortest clocking in at just over 10 minutes. Remember, my recorded play through on youtube is trying to simulate a movie-like reaction. It’s not a long playthrough, it’s not really a walkthrough and it’s certainly not a guide. I’m just playing it as I would expect Gordon Freeman to react during the events that take place.

                One of the Marines calls out “Squad! We’ve got Freeman! which is interesting because that radio transmission occurs before I hear “We’ve got Hostiles”/”We’ve got heavy fire here”. Have the Marines known about [Gordon] this entire time?

                One of the things I like most about “We’ve got Hostiles” is the tension. Gordon finally gets to ride two giant freight elevators a considerable distance up. That’s progress on reaching the surface and a change of pace from constantly heading down to escape the Black Mesa complex. Right when blue sky is seen for the first time in the game, that glimmer of hopes of possibly surviving quickly dissolves when Gordon sees dozens of Marines on the surface all prepared to wipe him out. Gordon is forced back underground into a bunker after Marines release artillery fire. Gordon gets so close… only to end right back where he started. Literally.

                But there’s a bright side; “We’ve got Hostiles” ends with an NPC giving Gordon another mission. He must travel to the Lambda Complex on the other side of the base- The side of the base that Gordon does not have clearance for. Apparently there are scientists in this complex that know quite a bit about resonance cascades and even know a way to fix this. But how can that be? Isn’t the Black Mesa Research Facility the only facility conducting these kinds of experiments? So we get a bit of foreshadowing with the mention of the Lambda Complex as well as trying to find the Decommissioned Rail System and getting through the Rocket Test labs. Gordon is in for fun times ahead.

                Air vents in Chapter 5: 2 (dropping in after the Air assault) (shortcut to security office)
                Total Air Vents after the resonance cascade: 3 + 5 + 2 =  11 Vents 

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Black Mesa Review: Part 3 (Office Complex)

Chapter 4: Office Complex

                Gordon makes his way to the Office Complex where he was told to go by the first guard you meet. Part of the aura that surrounds the Half-Life franchise is being subtly directed on the next task at hand. When the game begins, you realize very quickly Gordon is late for work, and they are expecting him in the test chamber. After the resonance cascade, Gordon’s primary objective is to get to the surface as directed by Eli. However, that simple task proves to be much more challenging when Gordon finds out the tram is down and the whole complex is falling apart. Eli makes Gordon (and the player) realize that you need to keep certain scientists and guards alive in order to escape Black Mesa.

                What I also love about Half-Life is how Gordon is forced to go deeper and deeper and deeper into the bowls of Black Mesa before arriving at the elevator that leads to the office. The Office Complex is a sight for sore eyes (sort of speak)- an office environment is much more pleasing to the players after witnessing the destruction of the laboratory. There are plenty of hazards Gordon must solve; It shouldn't be easy as to stroll down the office hallways to the next level. There is also some fantastic foreshadowing to the player. “Soldiers are coming to rescue us. It can’t get any worse than this!”

                The Office Complex sequence originally designed by valve was supposed to be act as a “break” in the action. The original Valve design team controlled the pace of the game well by allowing for less hostile situations and more puzzles focusing on intellect. Half-Life 2 does this more beautifully than any other game ever did. But Black Mesa also does a decent job here. 

                The Black Mesa team did a fantastic job sprucing up the office area and making the level layout a lot more realistic. Specifically, the parking/road area- Yes it took Gordon seven minutes to arrive at the Black Mesa research facility via tram, but what about the office workers? Would they need to endure the same painful slow moving tram every single day? No, they can arrive via car. They don’t need level 3 access. Remember, Gordon arrived in the Office Complex after venturing through elevator shafts, sewer systems, freezer rooms, a long deep decent, crossing two broken bridges and a loading area.  The different levels of the facility are connected and only accessible for Gordon because of the resonance cascade and broken down complex.

                The second thing I really like is the restaurant area. Gordon arrives in an eating area and if the player progresses correctly, you can recruit up to four security guards and two scientists. They will follow you and help take out enemies in the restaurant area as well as a mini-finale before the level ends. Before reaching the mini-finale, Gordon needs to get through the freezer, which actually makes sense now that it is made clear the restaurant area is indeed a restaurant. Any restaurant would require a freezer to store food. Compare the original restaurant area (which barely looks like anything) to the Black Mesa restaurant area. Wonderfully remastered. There is even a nice little new event inside the freezer involving a female scientist and a different way to approach the puzzle, which is exactly the kind of re-imagining I would expect in a “remake”.

                Finally, I love the extra dialog thrown into Black Mesa with some female scientists. Why didn't Valve think there would be any females in Black Mesa? Some of the remade scene in Black Mesa have some of the NPCs adding commentary to what they are witnessing. This adds an entirely new element of immersion to the player. If a guard saw two scientists getting sucked into a ventilation shaft and seconds later body parts are spewing from the vent, they probably wouldn't keep that to themselves.

                One thing I've always hated in video games is making the player use ventilation shafts. The number of ventilation shafts Gordon is forced to crawl through is extremely high throughout Black Mesa. In Office Complex alone, Gordon crawls through 5 vents! First to solve the electricity hazard, second to solve the second electricity hazard, third to unlock a door and progress through the game, fourth for some extraammo, and a fifth to solve the freezer puzzle. But they’re not just vents, they’re HUMAN sized vents. Enough with the vents! For some reason I am less critical of these vents in Half-Life/Black Mesa opposed to the human sized vents in the futuristic Dues Ex: Human Revolution. For some reason, in the future, there are human sized vents connecting every building- even locked hotel rooms, police stations and apartments. 

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Black Mesa Review: Part 2 (Unforeseen Consequences)

Chapter 3: Unforeseen Consequences is part 2 of my review but chapter 3 in the game. Try to keep up. 

Quite possibility the best chapter name ever, Unforeseen Consequences shows the disarray of the research facility after the resonance cascade. Unfortunately this chapter is also where Black Mesa falls off the rails. And I don’t mean the game turns awful; but it’s quite clear the developers of Black Mesa are not Valve employees and the lore of returning to Black Mesa with the Source Engine is lost in a dull, predictable mess. It's hard for me to say those words. After all, this is a FREE GAME that was made by fans of the same series that I love. How can I criticize them for anything? But this is the problem with shot-by-shot remakes- the sense of mystery is lost, and the gameplay feels quite outdated. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty to admire in this chapter (along with the rest of the game), liquid nitrogen machines turning portions of the laboratories to ice, fancy new computer monitors and buttons to press, but if this were the result of Valve's first attempt, it would feel rather lacking.

                Examples of the mundane gameplay are the two unremarkable valve puzzles. I don't mean they were created by Valve Software I mean the puzzles involve the kind of Valves you turn. The first puzzle makes Gordon turn off two pressure gauges to allow a backdoor into a freezer to open. The main pathway is blocked so it's a puzzle to get the player to "look for anything you can turn or press". Not much thinking needed.

                The second puzzle involves Gordon dropping into the sewer system. The ladder to allow passage up to the surface is broken, so Gordon must flood the sewer to raise the water so he can reach the ladder. Of course this must be done in an area that involves quite a few ceiling barnacles which cause massive damage. 

                Unforeseen Consequences is also where Houndeyes, Alien Slaves (also known as Vortigaunts‎ from Half-Life 2)and Bullsquids are introduced. The Black Mesa source team did a great job revamping these creatures which causes more than just physical damage when Gordon is attacked. The Houndeye creatures distort the screen and cause the player to shoot out of the crossaire while the Bullsquids shoot an acid attack that covers the player's screen. Well done here.

                One thing I love about Unforeseen Consequences (as well as Anomalous Materials) is Black Mesa dev team introduced Eli. In Half-Life 2 we were introduced to Eli for the first time. Eli makes countless references to Black Mea science facility and him and Gordon working together before the resonance cascade. So the developers of Black Mesa included a string of dialog that links Gordon's relationship with Dr. Eli Vance. Superbly done. In both Half-Life and Black Mesa, Eli (although he is never mentioned by name in Half-Life) is heard speaking about concerns with the test chamber. Eli is an NPV that gives Gordon his next objective. "Get to the surface and let someone know we are stranded down here"  

Another thing I really like is how long yo go without a real weapon after the resonance cascade. Instead you need to use the help of the security officer or use flares to light enemies on fire. In Half-Life you picked up a crowbar relatively quickly, but you do not get the crowbar (or a pistol unless you fail to keep the security guard alive) until you reach the front security desk. Another great touch by the BM team.

                Some thing I really dislike. Apparently in the effort to reproduce Half-Life the developers forgot to give Gordon the ability jump over obstacles that are taller than a pencil lying on its side. This is one of the biggest complaints I have for the whole game and it makes puzzles like this one frustrating (of course I do it perfectly in this video because I'm awesome). Jumping does not feel right. Neither does getting off a ladder. You stick to the ladder like glue, and you need a very precise movement to escape from the ladder's clutches. The developers also made an exact replica of the descending elevator event to which the face-huggers that fall down the shaft, jump right over Gordon... no fighting needed. This occurs in the first game, and it also occurs in the remake. They could have put a little more thought into this event, but maybe they were trying to stay true to the first game. 

The full videos of the walk-through is below. 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Black Mesa Review: Part 1 (Inbound & Anomalous Materials)

The Half-Life series has played a major role in my love for single player video games campaigns ever since I popped that orange CD into my computer’s disk drive back in 1998. From that moment I was utterly obsessed with the protagonist Gordon Freeman and his adventure through the Black Mesa Research Facility. Valve Software changed the way we played video games. They created an immersive universe with a silent protagonist and told a story with revolutionary interactions throughout the 12 hour campaign. In a seemingly impossible event, Valve outdid themselves in 2004 with Half-Life 2, the sequel to the events that followed the Black Mesa incident, expanding the Half-Life universe with a brand new engine (called the “source engine”) that incorporated a radical new way to simulate physics in game. Gordon’s story was continued in 2006 and 2007 with two short sequels called Episode One and Episode Two. But lovers of the Half-Life series lusted for a remake of the 1998 adventure. And in 2006, I learned some bold fans of the series were making a free, shot by shot remake of the 1998 adventure using the source engine and calling the project; Black Mesa Source. The developers boasted another 12 hour campaign that is essentially a free modification, no purchase necessary.
                Black Mesa Source was eventually renamed “Black Mesa” and was released this past Friday. It had been six years since I read about the game’s announcement and like most highly anticipated long dev-cycle announcements (think Duke Nukem Forever) I was eager to play. Because my love for this series is so strong and it's one of the last remaining franchises I can hang my hat on (So long Mass Effect, Duke Nukem and Resident Evil), I will attempt to identify the good and the bad of this remake through a series of blog posts going chapter by chapter. 

Chapter 1: Black Mesa Inbound & Chapter 2: Anomalous Materials

                The first and second chapters, Black Mesa Inbound and Anomalous Materials createa beautiful sense for just how large the Black Mesa facility is, much better than Half-Life ever did. Remember Half-Life fans, the Black Mesa Research Facility is just one portion of entire complex. Since this is a shot by shot remake, Black Mesa opens in the titled sequence as Half-Life did; credits role as Gordon takes the 7 minute Black Mesa tram system to work (video below).  The additions to the opening sequences are quite clear; There is a beautiful lobby complete with escalators and a vibrant lighting system, there’s considerably more activity below the tram and along both sides, there are nicely set corner offices, and beautifully designed corridors and tunnels. The Black Mesa team made a considerable effort to make Half-Life look more like Half-Life 2- make the set pieces more realistic, with a thoughtful approach to how a tram system should look. Let’s be honest, we all thought Half-Life appeared “realistic” back in 1998, but when you play it today, character models look like walking legos and most level layouts made little sense. The point of Black Mesa was to correct that and it appears they do right out of the gate. I need to commend the Black Mesa team for realizing some implausible mistakes in the original opening. In Half-Life, there’s a portion of the track where a gate is lowered that requires the tram to stop to allow the passing of a robot carrying radioactive waste. Would a research facility really build a tram system low enough for this to even be in issue? In Black Mesa, the tram is far overhead as the spider-robot walks by and is merely a sightsee on opening tour.

                One of the more impressive sides of Black Mesa is the inclusion of huge pieces of additional dialog not present in the first game. There’s one section of the level that has three or four scientists discussing an experiment as well as two others talking about TPS reports getting “progressively worse”. But just like in Half-Life, Gordon can still nuke the casserole in the microwave, bother a fellow scientist waiting for a message and push the alarm button in the lobby. There’s also some cute dialog involving a security guard who tells Freeman he’s a “sell out” for cutting his pony tail and an achievement for helping a fellow scientist by getting him toilet paper in a bathroom stall.