So, after five or six years, Black Mesa: Source is finally released. It's not the entire game, mind you, but it's everything up to the part nobody actually likes to play (the alien world, Xen). So while it's not everything, it might as well be everything, and even if you're playing the numbers game, we're looking at probably close to 95% of the game. So, how is it?
Different. The easiest way to describe it is to relate to something else I've been playing for my first time: the original Resident Evil. The original Playstation game is goofy and kind of dated looking, but was sort of a landmark game for its time. When Capcom opted to remake Resident Evil for the Nintendo Gamecube, it was not a straight conversion - though the same basic structure of the game remained intact, puzzles were retooled, the storyline was made a little bit deeper, and the visual fidelity became much, much more rich. That's what we're looking at with Black Mesa Source: This is the game you remember, but enough about it is different that even if you've memorized the original Half-Life, this version still feels new, fresh, and exciting.
In a lot of ways, its sort of impressive that this is a fanmade mod. The quality of the textures is phenomenal, and the amount of detail packed in to every single map is impressive. It almost feels like a retail game - if not for a couple of awkward animations and some hit-or-miss voice acting, anyway. Polish is generally very high, but it makes the few moments where the game lacks polish stick out even more - in particular there's a whole lengthy segment now before you get your crowbar where you have to use flares to set zombies on fire, and it just seems kind of awkward to me for several reasons - namely that zombies can be set on fire easier than basically everything else in the game world (including wood and paper), and the fact that fire interrupts anything a zombie is doing. While that's to be expected, in practice it looks kind of funky when a zombie is crouched over a dead scientist and then robotically snaps to his "oh no I am on fire" animation. Similarly, female scientists seem to have problems with regards to the way their hands animate - there's lots of ugly clipping problems, especially when they cross their arms. Relatively small things in the grand scheme of things, but all the more obvious when you consider how high quality literally every other part of this mod is.
I'm still undecided about the quality of the voice acting in BM:S. They have a very small pool of actors to pull from, and one of the biggest problems seems to be their adherence to specific "iconic" lines - their actors seem to be caught between reciting the line with same cadence of the original game and trying to put their own spin on it. The end result are lines that sound close to the original Half-Life dialog, but are just a little bit off - and never in a way that sounds appreciably better, just kind of... wrong. When the actors are given new dialog to play around with, however, everything is fine - and some of the new dialog is pretty good. My current favorite is something from earlier in the game:
Security Guard: "Oh, would you look at that! Freeman DID show up for work today! Looks like somebody owes me lunch."
Scientist: "Ugh. Hello, Gordon."
Security Guard: "Yep, yepyepyepyep... looks like there is a peperoni pizza in my near future."
Scientist: "I hope you choke on it!"
With a sense of humor still intact, BM:S also redoubles its efforts to make Half-Life feel like a horror game. It's easy to forget with how dated the original game feels, and how Half-Life 2 moved more towards orwellian overtones, but the original Half-Life started out playing kind of like a horror game. Ammo is scarce, and your friends are dying all around you - or worse, they're being turned in to unspeakable monsters. All hell has broken loose, and you're at the center of it. BM:S makes the Resonance Cascade feel dangerous again, though part of that is also due to rebalanced difficulty.
If you played the original Half-Life on normal difficulty, you were in for a game that required stealth and a tactical advantage in order to win. After having played and re-played the original Half-Life on easy difficulty for years, sometime last year I decided to play through the game on normal and was angry with myself for missing out on it for so long. It was like a completely different game - one that required a great deal of thought in order to clear. The jury is still out on whether or not this has been accurately translated to Black Mesa Source - but my first encounter with the soldiers was one of frustration.
These guys will chew you up and spit you out. They don't seem quite as mobile as the original soldiers, they don't communicate as much as to what they're doing, and once one of them gets a bead on you, you've only got a couple of seconds to get to cover before your entire supply of health and armor is gone. It feels a little overly difficult compared to the original game, which lead me to bump the difficulty of Black Mesa Source back down to easy mode again. Resources just feel too scarce for normal difficulty, and there are a couple of areas that put you a little too up close and personal with soldiers for me to feel comfortable. It doesn't need a ton of rebalancing, but it feels like it is just barely on the edge of being a little unfair. I've played quite a few shooters, and a metric TON of Half-Life in particular, and it just feels like I shouldn't be having this much trouble.
In general, though, BM:S is making a very strong first impression. I almost kind of wish Valve had picked these guys up - with some extra resources and the guiding hand of a multi-million dollar game developer, the few rough edges in BM:S would have been buffed out and I'd have nothing to complain about. Then again, my complaints are generally small things that are easily forgotten for how absolutely great everything else about this mod has been so far. It doesn't even really feel like a mod; this could very well be a retail game, and while it's not all of Half-Life, we're looking at something that will easily last you 7-10 hours.
It's not often you get to play something like this. Check it out, folks.