Black Mesa Half-Life

If there’s one thing FBT hates, it’s a remaster. Here, he plays a remaster of one of his all-time favourite games. Oh-ho...

I am wary of remasters. And by wary I mean combative when one gets brought up. Lazy, cheap franchise-reminders, they’re like bands’ greatest hits albums. Only the true rebuilds get a pass from me – Broken Sword, Monkey Island; whereas crap like Bioshock Remastered (starfish on the windows and crashes every five minutes?) or Skyrim (God rays and only free if you bought all the DLCs?) can do one. The changes are cosmetic, never include modern sensibilities and often just draw attention to a beloved games’ short-comings. The thing that winds me up the most though, is a newcomer would naturally go for the remaster not the original, and then wonder what all the fuss is about. They cause more damage than anything.

In 2004 Valve re-released the seminal Half-Life on their shiny new Source engine. Considering how rich and detailed HL2 looked, this was gonna be great. It wasn’t. It was the same game but with nicer water effects. None of HL2’s immersion or graphical improvements. It was everything I despise about remasters and to not even layer it with detail felt like the first sign Newell and Valve were losing interest in HL. Still waiting for 3 …

Turns out I wasn’t the only one disappointed by HL:Source. Others were too, and thankfully they’re more creative and proactive than I am. ‘Crowbar Collective’, a group of fans and modders, set about unpicking the Source engine and began building HL from the pixel up. But how can they hope to (re)master Half-Life, one of the best shooters of all time? You don’t just go and remake a classic, it can’t be done. I don’t care how talented you are; that’s like Tim Burton remaking Willy Wonka. Or Planet of the Apes.

Okay, this is what HL:Source should have been. Crisp, bright and loaded with detail, this time Gordon’s slow-ass commute to work is actually interesting. We all know what happens when he gets there – Freeman triggers an alien invasion and being the only geek in a conveniently armoured wetsuit, he’s the best option to reach the surface and get help for the scientists trapped in the crumbling and infested complex. But Gordo’s not just cutting his way up through the ruined lab and headcrabs, there’s marines headed down to make sure nothing survives – or talks.

At least, that’s what happened in Half Life. In Black Mesa the same thing occurs, but this is not just a Blu-Ray to Half-Life’s VHS. More than once I find myself somewhere new, or areas now opened up, new paths or ways to deal with things – often it's an entirely new experience; but isn’t it sacrilege to mess with one of the best shooters of all time?

Black Mesa tightens HL up where things got flabby, expands on moments that got rushed, explores events that seemed under-cooked. It’s all a lot more logical; this is no longer a step-up from the Doom era; the lab now feels like a real place under invasion, a more believable journey layered with detail, interaction and depth. Somehow Black Mesa pulls off the impossible; it feels completely faithful to the original but reshapes it into something new. It’s an alternative adventure, like you’ve been here before, everything happens how you’d expect and yet there’s a million subtle differences leading to new experiences - eventually you can’t trust your memories anymore; I keep expecting to see 1998 Gordon run past.

There’s better AI, better creature placement, alterations to where you find things – I was traumatised to discover the crowbar wasn’t where I expected it and confused to gain the revolver early – but those changes make more sense as do the new layouts and the logic of it all. There’s more interesting scripted moments, more events going on; it’s still faithful, it just all clicks together better now. There’s new dialogue mixed with the old, making the NCPs that little bit more believable and they more readily react to events. There’s even a new music score.

I keep thinking about Gearbox’s redundant remaster of Bulletstorm – they punted out that crap at full price and whored Duke as an alternate character skin in a desperate attempt to reboot one franchise and damage-limit the other, yet quashed the Duke Nukem 3D fan-remake; they should have supported the Duke redo like Valve did this. This isn’t a fan mod, this is a Triple-A game; it’s smooth, tightly wound, and never crashes or stumbles. When the fans can build a better game than you can, take them onboard not to court Gearbox. Other top-notch fan efforts like Morroblivion prove that you can do more than just slap ‘remastered’ on it and think gamers are going to fall for it. Black Mesa should be the standard for a revisit.

BM currently ends when Gordon makes the jump into Xen, and I didn’t mind. I never liked Xen; the world wasn’t that interesting and it quickly got repetitive. The draggy Vortigaunt factory bit, the giant Headcrab and the platforming turned it into a generic sci-fi shooter. And that bloody giant baby for a final boss. Xen dragged HL back into the generic. But, Crowbar Collective didn’t skip Xen because it’s other-worldly setting was beyond them, they held it back to get it right. If the time in Black Mesa is anything to go by, I’m looking forward to Xen. Never thought I’d say that.

This is how you remaster; with one eye on getting it right and the other on what was wrong. HL is perfect to me but when I fancy another go as Gordon, it’ll be Black Mesa I fire up and for once, if a newbie goes for this over Half-Life, they’ll understand what all the fuss is about. It’s brilliant.

Valve should just let Crowbar Collective do Half-Life 3.

2015 | Developer Crowbar Collective | Publisher Valve/Steam Greenlight

platform; Win (Steam)