In 1998, the world of video games took a sudden shift into high-gear when a 27 year old research associate and MIT graduate entered the Anomalous Materials lab in the Black Mesa test facility. Having taken an interminable train ride, his colleagues tease him for being late to work before he goes to perform the days experiments. His colleagues hesitate to tell him about something that they noticed, brushing it off as a minor enough discrepancy and they allow him to go about his business. And upon putting that anomalous material into a reactor, the world of video games changed forever…
The arrival of Valve’s Half-Life was not unique and it could hardly be called the first of its kind with Doom predating it in 1993 or Star Wars: Dark Forces in 1995 or Quake in 1996 and Quake 2 in December of 1997 but first person gaming changed a lot when Gordon Freeman first donned his hazmat suit. I think the real driving force behind it was that it had a story, although arguably so did Quake 2. Gordon was a regular guy, with a slightly more interesting job than most, thrust into an explosively bad situation when a “resonance cascade” wipes out most of his lab and replaces his peers with head-crab headed zombies. We find ourselves in a real place with real people under extraordinary conditions. Gordon befriends some people through his journey, usually the odd security guard who offers some covering fire, before he moves on, but he is otherwise alone. By contrast, Doom just put us against hordes of demons with no other story than a portal opened up and let these creatures in. Quake gave us a similarly fantastic story in dark castles with strange guns and a chance to beat Lovecraft’s Shub Niggurath but both were very surreal settings with equally surreal plots. Quake 2, in fairness, did bring in a proper military sci-fi story but set on another world and still being just a bit too removerd to feel real. And Dark Forces put us in an exciting version of the Star Wars universe, but that too was a made up world, even if a very popular one. Half-Life… that was something special! A real place, with real people, and an array of believable guns (barring some of the experimental stuff later in the game!)
So what does that have to do with today? Well amazingly, I’m not here to talk about the original game, but the recent re-release of Black Mesa, which is effectively the original game, redone for modern computers. The graphics have been revamped and the game plays very smoothly indeed. It’s a chance for people with new systems to go back and give an old classic a shot. And why not? In 2020, many of us have gone back to comfort shows; those old classics we’ve enjoyed in our younger days, just to add a bit of happiness and solace in an otherwise dark time. Why can’t games do the same? In fact, more on that in the coming weeks.
The big question is: is Black Mesa worth the price? The original certainly was! But that’s over 20 years ago now. So here’s the reality of it: if you’re a new gamer or new to the world of PC gaming, this is a classic and well worth the exploration. And if you have played Half-Life before but want to go back to it, now’s as good a time as any. For me, I picked it up for $10 and looking at my normal assessment of dollar to hour ratio, it’s definitely going to give me somewhere between 8 and 10 hours, which is a win, but I don’t know if it’s enough to justify the standard retail $20 price tag. I found the graphics better than before but nothing mind shattering. Where things really improve is when Freeman gets to Xen. That was really where the game kicked in and it justified the purchase because it felt very new, but I did get it for 50% off. I don’t know that I would have felt the same way otherwise.
For instance, one major complaint that I still have which I had hoped would have been improved was with the ladders. This seems like such an odd thing to complain about but I was playing with the objective to see how long I could go without dying. I admit, I would have made it to Blast Pit without an issue – that’s chapter 6 – had it not been for one stupid ladder. In chapter 5, We’ve got hostiles, soldiers are sent in to kill any survivors of the resonance cascade. I made a run for a shaft where a ladder leads down to who-knows-where. But while the controls for using a ladder are supremely easy, getting off the ladder is less so, which caused me to fall into a fire. Try as I might to climb out, the area wherein I fell had no way out and I died, a depressingly burnt cinder. It’s frustrating because that was a mechanical issue with getting off the ladder, not a critique of my game play abilities and certainly not with my strategy. (I could not say the same of the situation in the aforementioned Blast Pit…)
On the other hand, the game also has one thing I think all games should have: a quick save button. You can conceivable save every 5 seconds if you were insane enough. That’s glorious especially when the first person genre of video games often leaves you stuck re-watching a scene over and over before one of those tough battles. The quick save button, a gift from the video game gods, is the solution to avoiding those painful sequences!
So, again, is it worth picking up? I’d say very much so. But I think I’d recommend doing exactly what I did do: put it on your Steam wishlist and wait for a sale. I didn’t mind dropping another $10 on a game I’d already played years ago, but probably would have felt a bit cheated if I paid the full price. That didn’t stop me from going into the basement to look for the plush headcrab though… just in case I wanted to play while wearing it on my head, you understand. ML
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