Black Mesa Source: Having a gander
So Black Mesa: Source came out last month, very shortly after it being announced that “Hey, it’s coming out now, you guys”. Having been believed to have gone the way of Vaporware considering it took eight years to complete, it is nonetheless out and free for anyone who wants to try it out. I finally got some time to play it through to the end, or at least the end of what is currently complete, which is everything before Xen; read: the good part.
I have played Half-Life many times, even if a lot of those times I have stopped at the point where I reach Xen. I have also watched every episode of Freeman’s Mind, many of them twice. So I have a pretty good internal map of what the original game is like, so making my way through Black Mesa has been a weird trip down memory lane. This project was entirely fan-made, so it was very interesting to see what they changed, how they changed it, and what was left as it was. So if you will stay with me; let me take you through my thoughts about this mod.
Let me start by heaping praise upon the environments. They have clearly put a lot of effort into updating the Black Mesa Research Facility, and while it’s not always for the better, the sheer attention to detail is staggering. Black Mesa feels bigger than it ever did. The initial tram ride is a very different experience, and just walking through the opening bit between the tram and the test chamber was a delight. There is pretty much everything you expected to see, and so much more. They’ve put a lot of thought into making the facility layout make more sense. Because let’s be honest here: Half-Life was full of corridors and rooms that had no purpose or sense, and the facility felt a bit sparse at times. The BMS team have added a lot more context for the place, and overall done a really stellar job of it.
The sound effects and music have also gotten a pretty big overhaul. Sounds from Half-Life 2 have been imported when appropriate, speech and weapon sounds are a lot cleaner, there’s a new music score (that is perhaps set to a bit too loud by default) and with the greater range of characters (there are even female scientists now!) comes more voice acting and a few new interesting conversations, and lines that hint at or reference characters from the second game.
As for the gameplay there is little change, but there are a couple that made the game feel really weird in the beginning. First off; you move a lot slower in Source than in the Quake engine the original ran on. To counter-balance that you have infinite sprint, but it still makes a lot of jumps, especially getting over trip-lasers, more awkward. Thank the gods that Quicksave and Quickload are still in the game. I also felt like I didn’t jump as high, so I had to do more crouch-jumping than in the original. I never had a big problem with crouch-jumping to begin with though, so I quickly got used to that, but I’ve seen several complaints.
Now, what has been changed, and what hasn’t? Going through everything would be too big a task, but I’d like to go over the weapons, enemies and certain areas that stood out to me.
The crowbar is not where I expected it to be. It had been moved to the data room behind the reception desk which you access through the vent after disaster strikes. So up until then all you have to defeat enemies is a security guard that follows you around and disposable flares that can set enemies on fire (and burn out too fast). It does help make the initial escape extra tense, and when I finally saw the crowbar I was so relieved and happy I could hardly believe it. It works much as before, except the rapid-fire quality it gains when hitting something. And Gordon must have a mean swinging arm considering I easily dented metal.
The infinite flashlight is handy. In fact, not having the light, the sprint and holding your breath drain a single arbitrary power bar was a welcome change, especially from HL2.
As for the Headcrabs and zombies in the first section; there were a lot more of them. They also added the crawling zombies from HL2 who were bullshit back then and are still bullshit now. And while they seemed to swing faster than before, they also seemed less durable. The Headcrabs also feel slightly nerfed, as they can’t pounce as far any longer. I’m not complaining though. And I am so glad they didn’t import the zombie sounds from HL2, because those are frankly harrowing, especially when they’re on fire. Did not like how the sitting/laying zombies could not be actually shot until you got close enough for them to get up.
Next up was the pistol, which also wasn’t where I thought it would be. The security guard still seemed to have shot a zombie to death before dying himself, but before reaching for the first aid station he decided to holster his gun and Gordon was too polite to take it out of there. I found my own pistol in a security office a little further on. It works exactly as I remember it, so nothing to really report there.
Before that though I had to fight the first Doggy with just a crowbar. Which showed me why there was just one. The Doggies have been buffed quite significantly. They charge up faster, have a longer range and getting hit distorts your vision. Had there been two-three of them like originally it would have been really hard to make it past that section. The updated Doggy behaviour is most interesting as well. They prefer moving in packs, and if you kill two-three of them the rest will scatter, hide and try to ambush you. Helps make them feel more alive. I even found them napping a few times.
Next I ran into my first Barnacles and immediately thought “Really? You’re introducing these already? So obviously? There was good reason they first appeared where they did back in Half-Life.”. So yeah, that was my first big indication that the fans don’t quite understand pacing as well as Valve did back then, and even Valve had some serious issues in that department at the time. They decided to buff these bloody things as well. Now they take four crowbar hits to go down, meaning they will most likely manage to bite you at least once if you use the tactic of riding up the tongue to one-shot them with the crowbar like I tend to do. Usually better to give them a series of four pistol shots as pistol ammo is rarely short in supply.
The first Vortigaunt was introduced exactly as in Half-Life, which showed me that the Vorts have been buffed as well to fire a lot faster, and a lot more accurately. They seem to take fewer hits to go down, thankfully, but they really feel significantly more dangerous.
Then I came to the first Bullsquid, and I was intrigued to see the Headcrabs actually attempting to fight back now. They were dead fast though, and then it started spitting at me. There is a lot more splash to the spit now. It’s a little ridiculous. The eyes are also very prominent now, which is weird since I’ve always thought of Bullsquids as eyeless.
And then there is the crate jumping section room. I like the way they’ve added extra context to that seemingly pointless room. I don’t like how the jumping felt even worse than in the original.
As I went into the section where I expected to find the shotgun, I ended up taking away the revolver instead. Any of you who have played Half-Life know how powerful the revolver is. Getting it this early basically meant that few things were a real threat any longer, so long as I had ammo. As a secondary mode the revolver now allows for iron-sights aiming. Which is pretty neat. No clue if it’s actually any more accurate than the cursor.
The satchel charges came a lot earlier than I expected them. I think I got them even before I had to fight my first soldier, but I could be remembering that wrong. The cool thing is you can now throw out several at once and trigger them all with the secondary fire. I only used them once though, and I’ll get back to that later.
The submachinegun came later than expected though. Got it when I killed my first soldier. Nothing really changed otherwise.
As for the soldiers themselves, I found them a bit underwhelming. Yes, they were accurate and quick shooters, but they went down really fast. Same with the ninjas. All the human enemies felt a bit nerfed. Which is probably good since that ambush at the end of the Questionable Ethics lab was the one time in the game I seriously felt in danger of dying. I was down to 18 health at one point there.
Oohh yes, the grenades. Almost forgot to mention I got those pretty early as well, though not as early as you could get them in Half-Life if you knew all the secret areas. Major new addition: The secondary fire is rolling the grenade rather than throwing it. Damn handy in certain situations, like getting it just inside a door if you knew something was lurking around the corner.
The shotgun was in the security room by the silo doors where you have to crawl through the vents to get in. I remember those vents being quite extensive, but they had been cut down considerably for this update. It’s still the same weapon.
Now the grenades were highly needed to distract the huge tentacle monster. It was a lot more explorative in its tapping, and the strikebox seemed larger, so even if you were moving really quietly, it could suddenly decide to tap where you were at random, and crush you haphazardly. You could kill it the same way as before, but a friend of mine said she had been able to simply sneak by it and go down the ladder. I never even considered trying that. It does look spectacular in the Source engine.
And then we came to the Gargantuan thing. Somehow they have made the thing even more terrifying than it was. It’s faster, uglier and its flamethrowers seem to reach farther. Its ‘stomp to fire energy bolt’ attack seems to have been removed, but I was still running for dear life.
Down below here is where I found the tripmines, and I have a little story to go with those. See, I never used tripmines in the original game, but at the section where you have to go down to start the reactor and after you have to take an elevator up that will bring soldier down to you I decided to be a crafty bugger. I set up tripmines under the elevator that blew when the soldiers came down and took them out, then I put some satchel charges on the elevator and sent it back up, so I could detonate them up there. Helped thin the herd. Felt rather pro after that. That was the only time I used tripmines or satchel charges though.
I would like to mention that the train tunnels leading up to rocket launch area have been very stream-lined and cut down. No faffing about with changing tracks and exploring side passages to maybe push a button. It was all really straight from A to B stuff. I get the feeling they didn’t really like that part of the game much. Can’t say I blame them. It was a shame that when we found a proper train after the satellite launch it shorted out after 50 metres and charged front-first into a watery hole.
Of course that means it wasn’t long after that we encountered our first Monster fishy. I’ve always hated those things since the first time I encountered them. I remember I refused to go in the water and just shot at it whenever it grazed the surface. It has wised up to this tactic though, so now it stays in the murky water where I can’t see it. Had to sneak down the side-route through the water and take it out with the pistol, which thankfully can fire underwater. Didn’t take a lot of shots to kill it though. Seem to remember they were tougher.
The crossbow works much as I remember it, though the scope is a lot fancier this time around. It’s in the shark cage as it was originally too. I even managed to nail G-man a couple of times with it. He bleeds! Speaking of, I noticed him in all the usual places, except during the initial tram ride, where he was conspicuously absent.
Something that was missing completely was the little nibbling fishies. I’m not complaining, since they were a right pain, but it made me a little nervous that they were missing, since I kept expecting to fall into a pool of water teeming with the little nasties.
The alien Soldiers have gotten really nasty. They fire their bees a lot faster, and try to get up close and personal to punch you to death. I think they have less hitpoints now, but there are more of them around as well. They are also a lot uglier than they were in Half-Life.
And now one of my favourite weapons: The laser rifle. Nothing has really changed in how it works or where you get it.
Speaking of: The Questionable Ethics lab kinda locks down after you rescue the scientists, and you can’t get any of them to follow you where you want. They move in a pre-determined route after rescue. Which sucks a bit. The labs themselves were marvelously re-done and I wanted to explore more. Maybe take a scientist along for the retinal scanners I’d seen along the way.
As for the enemy vehicles: they all seem to have been beefed up, except for the APC. They take more hits, fire more often, and in the case of the gunship: move faster.
You got the RPG at the cliffside as before, though it felt a lot less potent. Four direct hits on the gunship, and it was only just smoking. I had also missed one so I was out of ammo. Switched to laser rifle to finish it off. I found the RPG most useful for taking out APCs. Just turn off the laser guidance, lob two rockets right into it, and boom! Done.
The whole overworld segment before entering the Lambda Complex felt shortened down. There are the big places I remember, like the warehouse full of explosives, the area where you found the big cannon you could mount, and the warehouse with the huge armoury on top. But overall it felt like I was done with this part faster than expected. So when I stumbled across the tunnel with the next Gargantuan thing I was rather surprised, and quickly remembered to just run like hell.
Now we are onto the more exotic weapons though. Like the Bee-shooter! For some reason they felt it necessary to add a sequence where you manually plunge your hand up its butt, accompanied by some horrific squealing. Why was this necessary? The major change is adding the ability to fire a lot faster without guidance with the secondary button. Beeeesssss.
Then come the little bug-like critters that are overly aggressive and tend to explode. They did away with the awesome idle animation for it, but otherwise it was just as aggressive and volatile as ever. Honestly didn’t really use them. I just think they’re kinda cute.
And finally there’s the Gluon gun, or microwave gun as I tend to call it. They have tweaked it a bit though, so now it behaves more like a plasma beam cannon. Since my one use for this in Half-Life was killing the Gargantuan thing when I get to Xen, I didn’t actually use it this time outside of the firing range.
Even the teleport tower section seemed a bit shortened. I had to Quicksave-Quickload a bunch to get through it properly, but no major difficulties.
I really only ran into two bugs: The first was some teleports that triggered again without depositing anyone when I backtracked to get more ammo. The second was that the game crashed when it hit the loading screen after the dam.
Overall it felt like they had put so much care and attention into the first half of the game, that they just cut a lot in the latter half to get done in time. Okay, a lot of what they cut was just busywork and mazes, so maybe nothing of value was lost, but it still felt a little odd compared to the first half.
As it is a free mod though, so I can’t complain too much. Did I have fun with it? Was it worth my time? Yes, I think so. Would I play it again? Probably not. I’d rather go for the original, but I might be in the minority there. I’ll probably play their take on Xen when(if) it comes out.