Still Playing: Black Mesa

Poor old Half-Life. Reviewed in the same issue of Edge as Ocarina Of Time (E66), the light of Gordon Freeman’s 9/10 explosion was outshone by Link’s supernova. It’s worth remembering, though, that OOT was the fifth Zelda game, albeit the first 3D one, and came from a company that not only had a long record of developing games, but had designed the hardware it ran on too. In contrast, Half-Life was Valve’s first game.

It was hard being a student PC gamer in 1999. The PC was for doing work on, not for games, and the 3dfx Voodoo 3 graphics card I’d installed in it would clearly help with that. Quake II was the game of choice, along with the first Unreal. Of all things, it was the sound of its machine-gun firing that led me to Half-Life. A friend with a better PC than mine was raving about the chunky noise it made as you let rip, a strange thing to praise, perhaps, but enough to tip my hand as I stared at the shelves.

And now it’s back. Black Mesa is a fan-made mod that runs on the Source SDK and is available for free. It recreates the original game in Half-Life 2’s Source engine, but unlike Valve’s own Half-Life: Source, it upgrades the models, textures and environments as well as adding a physics engine. The materials are even more anomalous this time, as the mod team has used artistic licence to subtly tweak and improve the game. Sadly, they haven’t seen fit to give Gordon Freeman any feet, and PC gaming’s favourite hovering gun/camera hybrid is still expected to jump across platforms with no idea of precisely how close he is to the edge – a sin replicated in Half-Life 2.

Just as James Bond represents the forlorn dream that Britain still holds a position of power and influence in the world, so Gordon Freeman embodies the fantasy that an ordinary man, in unforeseen circumstances, can do extraordinary things. Freeman’s journey from scientist to psychopath gets the attention of NPCs, as one later character, in charge of a powerful weapon that he can’t bring himself to use on a living creature, observes: “You don’t seem to have a problem killing things.” Even the G-Man accepts that the aliens’ only experience of humanity is a crowbar coming at them down a corridor.

Gordon’s signature weapon appears slightly later in Black Mesa, lending more of a survival-horror edge as you run past early zombies or set them on fire with the distress flares scattered around the place. This has the effect of turning the opening of the game into Ravenholm, and while it’s perfectly possible to get a security guard killed and his pistol into your hands before getting the crowbar, it’s also possible to do what I tend to do and leave him battling zombies while I run away.

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