Do you remember the movies you used to watch when you were a kid? Heroes and villains, adventure and excitement, jokes and humor all rolled into a rollicking good time! Have you ever re-watched any of those movies in adulthood? They tend to contain bad acting, horrible writing, non-existent plots, and nothing but boredom upon boredom. Why do I bother to bring this up? The point is twofold: 1) sometimes your perceptions don’t match reality, and 2) time exposes flaws.
1998’s Half Life is no exception to these rules. A great, if not revolutionary game by all accounts, it just doesn’t have the same kind of presence in 2014 as it did then. Playing the original game today forces us to ask questions we never would have considered when it first released, questions such as, “how did they get this giant crate through that small door?” or “why is this loading dock so small? No forklift could maneuver through this!” Trite as it may sound, these questions do detract from the gaming experience.
In 2004 Valve released Half Life: Source, but hopes were quickly dashed that this was anything more than a direct port. It was an upgrade from the Quake engine to the Source engine. The lighting effects were slightly improved, but that was it. Fans hoping for an upgrade would have to wait some more.
Black Mesa to the rescue! It took seven years of development, but the mod finally saw release in late 2012. In short, it was worth the wait. Does it drastically re-imagine the original Half Life and bring it up to modern-day standards? Short answer: No. Long answer: No, but it does “refresh” the game so that replaying it today will give you an experience that equals or is better than your memories of playing it years ago.
The lighting is better, the scale is better, the details are better. A waiting area actually looks like a waiting area. A cargo bay actually looks like a cargo bay. Any room containing a forklift and giant crates now has an obvious entry point for those large objects. The mod team did a fantastic job of making a secret research facility actually look like a secret research facility. The opening tram ride looks like it’s part of a mass-transit line that has more destinations than just the anomalous materials lab. The scale of Surface Tension has been ramped up to a more realistic level, and as a whole it now looks more like a battlefield where Spec Ops met Black Mesa Security. Office Complex looks like, well, an office complex. On a Rail is more like a maze of cargo trams than an amusement part ride this time around. The jumping puzzles in Residue Processing are still annoying, but that’s more a result of wonky movement mechanics than level design. Either way, distinct improvements to twelve out of thirteen zones isn’t bad! The last four chapters of the game are absent from the mod. The development team wisely chose to end the mod after the Lambda Complex and devote more time to recreating Xen.
It’s rare for a game to be relevant more than a few years after its release, even when that game is Half Life. It’s even rarer for a community of modders to come through on a project as ambitious as this. With all due respect to Valve, for me Black Mesa is the definitive version of Half Life. Download today and lose yourself again in Black Mesa. What could go wrong?