As you know if you’re a video game geek, Black Mesa came out this month, after an astonishing eight years of development.  There was some talk of a 2009 release; when that didn’t happen the release date changed to “when it’s done”, and those of us who were looking forward to it had to just go through life trying not to think about it.  But now it’s here!  And on my computer!  For free!  Just look at it!

A long way down

Ha, no, that’s the original Half-Life, a real commercial product sold for cash dollars, albeit in 1998. Here’s the same level in Black Mesa:

Where’s my Pip-Boy?

I’m sorry to say, I’m a graphics snob.  I’ve never played HL1, for the same reason I’ve never played Morrowind: I just can’t handle the old graphics; they’re too ugly and unreal.  Beyond Good & Evil is about as retro as I can handle, and that’s because it’s purposely cartoony.  (I have watched Ross Scott’s hilarious Freeman’s Mind though.) So I was looking forward to Black Mesa in order to experience HL1.

Overall reaction: mission accomplished.  It’s really really pretty.  The texturing and level design (as well as the less obvious stuff– gameplay, sounds, music, voice acting) are all really well done.  Muchos kudos to the mod team that did all this out of pure love (though maybe now they’ll all get hired by video game companies).  There’s also a great attention to detail– it’s fun to look at the whiteboards and even talk to people.  (The soldiers are a bit melodramatic, but it appears they sounded that way in HL1 as well.)

No, I don’t know that guy. Just happened to hit the screenshot key right then.

And it’s very Half-Lifey.  It’s similar to HL2, except of course that HL1 starts in complete normalcy.  Then things go to hell, and Gordon Freeman has to take a spectacularly convoluted route to the surface.  Then back down inside the Black Mesa complex, and back up, and back down, shooting enemies and solving a few puzzles along the way.

And like HL1, it occasionally suffers from some confusing level design.  The levels are mostly linear, but whenever they’re not, you can count on me to explore precisely the wrong areas and get lost, and then run around back and forth several times to find the path I missed.  No wonder Gordon was late for his resonance cascade.

I’m on chapter 12, of the 14 that have been released, and I have to say that some of the later chapters are a big sloggy.  There are sections that rely a bit too much on precisely timed jumps, or pointless thumper-stompers… if this were my first video game ever I’d happily spend an hour mastering the timing on that one horrible jump, but by now I get tired of it.  HL2 was pretty good at this– it was mostly simple physics puzzles, like the one with the concrete blocks.  Unless your game is about parkour, I don’t want the solution to your puzzle to be a frigging fractional-second-timed jump.

And then there’s that damn helicopter… A walkthrough I found says it’ll go away if it takes some damage, but emptying an attack rifle into it did nothing.  Later you get a rocket launcher, and it took eight or ten rockets to get it down– really annoying when you can take them down in HL2 with three.

Judging from Black Mesa, Valve’s storytelling has improved over time.  HL1 is great science fiction: misguided scientists bring on the Alien Apocalypse.  But it lacks humanity.  There are no characters to speak of, including Gordon Freeman.  Gordon doesn’t seem to care about any human being, and the player is given no reason to either.  HL2 by contrast had a slew of memorable people, including one of the best villains in video games– the handsome, calm-voiced Dr. Breen, who betrays the human race while sincerely thinking he’s doing it the greatest of favors.

Anyway, if you are one of the few people who liked HL2 but never played HL1, go get Black Mesa and see where it all started.

One amusing bit… there’s an extra-large monitor in the Lambda lab, with a complicated wireframe display.  I recognized it immediately– it’s a screenshot from Hammer, the HL map editor.  Possibly showing the very map you’re in.

How very meta