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.