Thursday, 9 February 2012

Black Mesa Revisited - Re-reviewing Half-Life

Throughout my life as a man (previously a boy) interested in videogames I have invariably tried to come up with some form of Top Games list in my head. While this list tends to change with every interesting new game I play, or every forgotten gem I'm randomly reminded of,  one game in particular has tended to stay the course and has become my go-to answer if I am ever asked. Half-life is a game which I have cemented in my haphazard brain as a true great. Like Citizen Kane to the AFI, Half-Life is my inevitable answer to the question: what is your favourite game? But, the problem with this answer is that unlike several other personal favourites such as Monkey Island 2, Okami or Thief, I haven't actually played Half-Life in a very long time. So when I answer in a suspiciously robotic tone, I am also asking myself: Is this really the case or am I just avoiding a long period of silence while I rifle through all the games I've ever played?  

The thing is, while Half-Life is often brought up as an incredibly important game in the history of the FPS genre - making aesthetic and gameplay innovations which still have influence now - and is often placed high on published lists, it was also a game which genuinely had a huge affect on me as a youngster. I was 11 when it was released in 1998 and with a mind for violence and guns Half-Life struck me as something both visceral and sophisticated. From the instantly iconic opening I was hooked and became determined to traverse all the weird puzzles and scatty AI the game could throw at me. I found everything about it enthralling - the sound of changing weapons, the voice of the HEV suit, crow baring headcrabs, playing cat and mouse with the military and making jumps which seemed almost impossible - Half-Life was a game which enveloped me and many other gamers with its mysterious, labyrinthine trip through its crumbling research facility. For an awkward young boy Black Mesa was the place to be. But since my obsession with the game early on in life I haven't gone back to it for nearly 8 years. So, with the recent purchase of a working laptop I decided to throw nostalgia to the wind and re-play this 'favourite' game of mine.

It's surprising how much you remember about a game you haven't played for so long. Initially I enjoyed the long opening scene which foregrounds Black Mesa's vast spaces and diverse areas, but once I 'd got myself a gun I quickly found myself speed-running the first few sections without a thought. Reigning myself in I found I started to once again really appreciate how the game developed its story. It is often noted that Half-Life never breaks the first-person perspective, and while this has become used by several games since it is still impressive how immersive Half-Life's story and world is. In many ways Half-Life takes several cues from Looking Glass' System Shock - developing a coherent game-world which depends on a narrative told through player interaction; here replacing logs and emails for ailing scientists and security guards. This gives a strong sense that the narrative is occurring exactly in the same moment as the player input. There are no moments when something happens without you making an input, no distance is travelled without the player pressing 'w'. This may seem trivial but it really helps Black Mesa become an immersive environment for Half-Life's story.

In terms of actual gameplay I must admit that some sections haven't fared so well. The middle Chapters such as 'On a Rail', 'Apprehension' and 'Residue Processing' feel particularly dull. 'On a Rail' especially has you riding trams about in a rather haphazard way, fighting a few skirmishes, but ultimately the whole section feels like it, ironically, lacks purpose and momentum. However, as mentioned above, there is a sense that you are physically travelling through the facility. There is no cut scene to denote Freeman using the tram system to cover a distance - the player must do it themselves. Unfortunately the final set of Chapters on Xen totally ruin this immersive premise.  Here the idea of a cohesive  environment goes out the window and Freeman finds himself teleporting from one set of floating platforms to the next. The game swaps Black Mesa for an environment closer to the traditions of Quake - as well as exaggerating  the game's often frustrating fondness for platforming.

I am actually a little sympathetic  towards Half-Life's platforming sections. I even find them enjoyable in places and it does help to break up the action. In many ways it also gives the player a physical freedom and vulnerability which isn't really present in games such as Quake or Doom. Skirting along a precipice or leaping across some bottomless abyss (every self-respecting research facility has one) gives you an entirely different sense of physicality than the usual horizontal fire fight. It also gives the world of Black Mesa a treacherous  quality, helping to portray a research facility in melt-down. And even, with the addition of the long jump module, some of the Xen platforming sections can be a lot of fun - most notably when they involve flying manta rays.

Platforming aside, it's the combat which really shines through in Half-Life, even over a decade on. The game breaks down into two varying types of combat. There are the aliens - headcrabs, zombies, Vortigaunts, Grunts - and the military. By switching combat between these two opposing forces (weak pun shamelessly intended) the game constantly forces the player to change up their tactics and weaponry. A Shotgun might be useful against a Vortigaunt or two but try to navigate a skirmish with the military and you'll need something else. The only problem which could be levelled at Half-Life's combat is perhaps a lack of variety when it comes to the environment. Whilst as a whole Black Mesa is impressive in its unity as a believable space, it could be criticised for being a bit samey. Corridors and stairwells are the favoured locations for gun fights, well sometimes the game treats you to a sunny surface encounter.  But this criticism aside it's hard to fault Half-Life's energetic, satisfying and often challenging combat.

Half-Life is still very much a great game and every now and then it instils the same joy which I felt so strongly when I played it at the turn of the century. Combat especially has been a joy to return to and surprisingly still feels pretty unique even now. Unfortunately my over familiarity with the game (even after so many years apart) has meant that much of the mystery and foreboding I felt when I originally played it has worn off. Wandering through the grim world of Black Mesa now feels more like strolling down memory lane rather than plumbing the depth of some threatening labyrinth. But the environment still remains remarkable in its cohesive whole. Half-Life will maintain its hallowed place in my imaginary Top Games list simply for being one of the most memorable game's I've experienced, but it's also good to know that it still holds up as a great game even when its innovations and mysteries have become familiar.


  1. Great post. Its always interesting to see other people waxing lyrical about their favourite games. I can't share Half-Life stories, as I've never played it, but I can certainly relate to the connection felt to an old favourite. You are never quite sure if it was as good as you remember it.

    I'm doing something similar with Final Fantasy VIII - until last week I hadn't played it for about 7 years - and so far I have been pleasantly surprised. I'm still not sure which I'm enjoying more, the nostalgia or the actual game, but its reassuring just to be enjoying it again. It definitely still belongs on my best of all time list. What a relief!

  2. Cheers for the comment! I suppose you know its a really great game when the nostalgia keeps you playing, or when, if the nostalgia wears off, you still enjoy the game.
    I havent played FFVIII before though I hear its a brilliant game. Its interesting to think what someone's experience of an older game would be without the memories. I thought this about Half-Life - would someone who never played the game enjoy it if they played it now? I actually played FFVII quite a long time after it was released (on the PS2) and still really loved it.