Sunday, September 16, 2012

A Red Letter Day

You all know by now: Black Mesa was released on Friday.

I woke up especially early that morning so I could download it before the servers were flooded. As it turned out, the official servers had already crashed by the time I got there. Multiple websites were scrambling to get their own mirrors up and running, only to crash themselves, unable to keep up with the torrent of people trying to snag a copy. It had only been an hour and people were already trampling each other to play it. Thankfully, Lambda Generation posted a link and I got there soon enough. I hit 'download' and suddenly I had an epiphany.

"Oh my god, it's actually come out."

The immense file size was a little shocking at first; a full six gigabytes. But I didn't waste any time, not even bothering to tell my friends, I rebooted Steam and started playing immediately.

Suddenly I was open to a whole new world of perfection.

I don't mean that as a hyperbole. I knew from the moment I started playing that this mod was going to be perfect. Even the title screen had a cornucopia of intricate details. The scientists in the background busied themselves as trains sped past. I did a little poking around the options, took a quick look at the achievements (I had no idea they even put achievements in), and jumped into a new game. There was a moment of nervous anticipation and then I heard those words, the one's I've been waiting to hear for eight years:

Good morning, and welcome to the Black Mesa transit system...

It's hard to describe how it felt to play this. It was so recognizable as Half-Life, the sense of deja-vu was inescapable. Yet it was so radically different at the same time. It was so jarring to see places I recognized so well so transformed, so modernized. Some sections of the games were drastically shortened, while others were expanded on. Some chapters were so radically altered that they became practically unrecognizable. They didn't just remake the original game, they expanded on it immensely. Everything felt so much more futuristic, more bleak and visceral. Every character has been vastly improved. The scientists aren't just the same four models either, every single one is unique (some of them are even ladies!). The houndeyes are much more of a pain too, acting more like pack predators than in the original. Of course, the zombies are every bit as disgusting and morbid as I thought they were going to be.

But what impressed me the most was the level design. Many iconic areas went virtually unchanged besides the vast graphical improvements, but like I said, whole levels were altered and extended. This made the facility seem that much more alive and functional. As I played, I accepted that I was in the Research Facility, a place were the brightest minds of a generation lived and worked in secret, dabbling in things they really shouldn't have. The above-ground sections especially stood out. They were alright in the original, but here we're treated to vast landscapes and soaring vistas. The hydroelectric dam is easily twice as large as the original, making the player feel tiny just standing near it.

It's such a weird feeling for me to fall so completely in love with something (Lord knows I haven't felt this way since I first saw a Dalek). But in all honesty there's nothing bad I can say about Black Mesa. For me at least, it's utterly perfect: the monsters, the level design, the visuals, all of it is perfect. There wasn't a single moment I didn't enjoy. I played it from start to finish in a single uninterrupted session, which was inevitable really. But I was so hooked to it. I just had to know what was going to happen next, what the developers changed or kept the same. Even if it was a remake it felt like a completely different game altogether. There was no escaping it.

It should be said that this is much harder than the original, much harder. It felt like every enemy was more intelligent. Even the Headcrabs seemed a little more clever. Plus the players weapons are weaker in some aspects. The MP5 feels like it's shooting little pebbles and it's attached grenade launcher is basically a long distance firecracker. On the other hand you have weapons that feel so much more robust this time around. For once, I had a real reason to use the revolver. There was ammo for it virtually everywhere and it was just so powerful. I used it in exclusion to practically anything else for the first few chapters. Why shouldn't I? The thing made me feel like some space sheriff on patrol.

So there you have it. For once, I actually love something. You won't hear a peep from me about how this could have been improved because as far as I'm concerned this is now the definitive article. I'd go so far as to say this supersedes the original Half-Life in terms of the canon. Bold? Absolutely, but after playing this you won't be able to deny the sheer craftsmanship and, dare I say, love that went into making this. It's the best of both worlds; Valve's original vision shines through as brilliantly as it has for years, but refined by it's fans, molded, tempered into a pristine everlasting form.

Well, almost pristine. I forgot to mention they completely cut out Xen in this mod.

Like most people, when I first heard this I started howling for their blood. But really, it all makes sense. They didn't cut Xen because they felt like it wasn't good enough. Of course not! The developers are actually going to make an entirely separate mod just for the end of the game. From what I've heard, they're going to make that section MUCH longer than the original. Imagine it, a sprawling trek through a hostile alien dimension unlike anything we've seen before. I'm looking forward to this like no one's business because this time we know it's going to be good. We've already seen what this team can do, we know they have what it takes to make this bizarre eldritch Universe a reality. So far, we've only had two glimpses of what their version of Xen will look like. I won't say any more, except that those two peeks are enough to keep me waiting for the next ten years if I have to.

At least.

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