Black Mesa vs. Half-life

Several months ago, I had the idea that I should start streaming or making video game related Youtube videos. I really like talking about video games and trying to explain them. Around the same time, the Black Mesa Half-life 2 mod was finally coming out after being worked on for the better part of 8 years. I figured I would strike while the iron was hot and try to get some attention by playing through the game and commenting on it while I played. I played a lot of Half-life when it originally came out. Like I had done for Quake, Doom, and Duke Nukem 3D before it, I downloaded a ton of mods and custom maps for Half-life. I had the first 1/3 of the game completely memorized, and had a pretty good idea of how the rest of it went. I knew what its strengths and weaknesses were. I could identify how future FPS games learned from Half-life: more atmosphere, more NPC interaction and dialog, cinematic scripted sequences without taking control of the player camera, and how to use level design to draw the player's attention to those scripted sequences naturally, and that jump puzzles in FPS games just do not belong.

I had been looking forward to Black Mesa for a while. Partially out of intellectual curiosity rather than a desire to actually play it. I hadn't really paid attention to a mod community in a few years. On the surface, it sounds like a pretty simple mod: just remake the existing Half-life content with Half-life 2 textures and models. All the game code for Half-life was already available in the mod SDK. Just take what was already there and implement it in Half-life 2. At some point, however, this mod project seemed to grow way beyond this simple scope and premise. They wanted to "re-imagine" the game and put their own stamp on it. It just kept getting pushed further and further back. This, I think, is the games ultimate folly. At some point along the way, it moved too far away from the original and lost what made that game fun.

As I played through Black Mesa while commenting on it, the times where I was impressed or surprised were increasingly replaced with times that I was frustrated or annoyed. It got to the point where I didn't play it for weeks because I felt like I had nothing new to say, and didn't think people would want to listen to me just complaining about the game. Eventually I stopped uploading new videos, even though I'd already recorded them. I did learn a lot about different recording software along the way, and the limits of my hardware and upload, and what makes for a boring or interesting gameplay video (hint: watching someone smash every crate and glass window in a game is not as fun as smashing every crate and glass window), so I'm still very glad I did it. Eventually, any time I opened Steam with the thought of playing it, I just played something else. When I loaded up the game last week to finally just finish it without bothering to record video or commentary, I hadn't played it in two months. I ended up beating it in about an hour. That's how close I was to the end when I finally gave up.

The main problem with the game is the difficulty of the human marine enemies and the helicopter enemy, but more generally, the game is just a lot harder than Half-life. There are a lot of other small flaws that are easy to overlook, especially when you realize this game was created by amateurs in their free time, but the difficulty one just seems ridiculous and out of place. I started the game on medium difficulty, rather than hard, because my main motivation for playing was just to see the level design and their take on an up-res'ed version of the Half-life world. I never had the slightest inkling that the game would be difficult. Other than one or two specific areas, Half-life was not difficult. Why would they change it?

It turns out they changed it a lot. For the non-human enemies, the changes seemed minor. Monsters had slightly shorter spin up time on their attacks. If you weren't already near a corner when a Vortigaunt spun up his lightning attack, it was going to hit you no matter what. This was not the case in Half-Life. Houndeyes went from being a monster that I never took damage from, and would use my crowbar to kill to conserve ammo in Half-life, to creatures to be feared that would damage me from seemingly impossible distances and through walls. The bullsquid ranged attack, which had been easy to dodge, now had a wide, arcing spray. Sure it looked cool, but it fundamentally changed the gameplay of that creature. Honestly, most of these specific changes were minor, and not really game breaking. You just took a little more damage than before. The biggest change is to the human grunts. They have way more hit points, and deal way more damage, on top of having more precise aim and better AI. An Easy difficulty Black Mesa human grunt is more difficult than a Hard difficulty Half-life human grunt. This is absolutely ridiculous.

When I first started fighting these enemies, I thought I had gone crazy and completely lost my ability to play video games somehow in the past 14 years. I went to the game's forums and sure enough, I was not alone. The response from the developers was something along the lines of: "well, we thought they were too easy, so we kept making them more difficult until we couldn't beat them anymore." This is not how you design a game or how you gauge difficulty in a game. When you're working on a game nearly every day for years, you learn every trick and every nook and cranny of the game. You've played that same area thousands of times, of course it's going to be easy for you. But the average player is only going to play through that area once. Maybe twice. They're not going to have memorized every script in the map and every spawn point. They're not going to learn ever nuance of the AI and how to beat it. And worst of all, they were supposed to be making a remake of Half-life. There has to be a bit of a sense of stewardship there and an understanding of the expectations of the audience. All the data they needed about how difficult their game should be was available to them in the original game. Even Half-life 2, which is somewhat more difficult than Half-life was, is not nearly as difficult as Black Mesa.

When I couldn't pass group of grunts marking the exit from Questionable Ethics to Surface Tension after over an hour of attempts, I finally gave up and turned the difficulty from Normal to Easy. My pride was wounded. I immediately turned it back to Normal after passing that roadblock, only to turn it back to easy at the end of Surface tension when I was completely unable to kill the helicopter boss, no matter how much I cheesed the fight.

This fight is probably the most insane example of how broken the difficulty of this game is. You're in a cave on the side of a cliff. The helicopter is looking into the cave. There are some small rock outcroppings that provide cover from the helicopter. The helicopter fires rockets and a relatively steady stream of bullets. The cooldown period between each volley from the helicopter is only a few seconds. Your rocket launcher can only hold 5 rockets plus one in the chamber. There is an infinite rocket ammo crate near the entrance of the cave, but the crate is not behind enough cover to keep you alive and the cooldown period between the helicopter's volleys is not long enough to reach the crate and get back into cover without dying. I tried for hours to finish this fight. At one point I loaded an earlier save and scoured the level for rocket ammo I could drop behind the safer rock outcropping. Because it's the Half-life 2 engine, you can "use" items to pick them up and carry them around and drop them places. I created as big a stack of health items and rockets as I could manage behind the safe rock cover, and fired every single rocket I had at the helicopter and it didn't die. I tried to run to the ammo crate and back to the safe spot, but didn't make it. Even the "safe" spot wasn't entirely safe, and there were times I would just take random splash damage from a volley of rockets. So I turned it down to Easy and killed it on the first try. There was no sense of pride or accomplishment. It was just depressing. It was not fair, and it was not fun.

Playing Black Mesa was making me actively question my enjoyment of Half-life, because I just could not remember for certain if the original game had been like this. I kept thinking I should play through these sections that were so frustrating and annoying and unfun in Black Mesa in Half-life to give myself some context, but I just didn't want to put the time in to do it. If this mod was made by people who claimed to love the original Half-life, and loved it so much that they would put all this time and effort into remaking it, and yet they managed to make something so unfair, and unfun, and unrewarding to play, then maybe my memories of Half-life were just rose colored glasses. Maybe I had cheated to pass some areas and simply forgotten or blocked it out of my mind.

So last weekend, after I finally resolved to finish Black Mesa (in grim silence), I also resolved that I should play through the original Half-life completely unmodified on Hard difficulty. I needed to recalibrate my baseline expectations. And you know what I learned? Half-life is still fucking awesome. Other than one or two very specific areas, both of which were at least manageable difficulty, the experience was fun and rewarding. It didn't feel frustrating or unfair. There were several times that I breezed through an area in Half-life on Hard that had been a nightmare on Normal in Black Mesa. I kept bringing down the console and typing "skill" to make sure I hadn't somehow accidentally changed the difficulty to Easy. Nope, still says "skill is 3." The encounter at the end of Questionable Ethics in Black Mesa doesn't even exist in Half-life, but the encounter with the helicopter does. Guess how many rockets it took to take ti down? Three. Three rockets. Not 10 or 15 or whatever. Three.

And there were some changes to Black Mesa that I hadn't even realized were changes until I went back to Half-life. For some reason in Black Mesa, they cut the maximum ammo capacity of nearly every weapon in half. Why? Why make this change? It seems completely arbitrary. And it seems like that's the takeaway from all of this. The changes in gameplay made in Black Mesa seem completely arbitrary and pointless. They make the game harder in a way that is not fun or challenging or rewarding, and actively take away from the enjoyment of the game, and just feel arbitrary. Change for the sake of change. Would it really have been so hard to try and loosely match the difficulty of the original game, and then add a fourth difficulty called "Hardcore" or "Ultra" or something?

Anyway, this is why my enthusiasm for this mod was tempered to begin with. I've seen these types of mod projects before. The mod author either gets screwed because they adhere to closely to the original game and get accused of being unoriginal or no one wants to play it because the gameplay feels outdated, or they try to update it and disappoint those who were just looking for a nostalgia trip. Usually when a mod gets pushed back as much as this one was, it just disappears into the ether. It's impressive that they were able to release anything at all, especially something with this many individual maps and at the level of complexity they did. And it is very successful at the nostalgia factor if all you do is look at the maps and models. It's only when you actually try to play it that it falls flat, caught between trying to be its own thing and adhering to the basic gameplay of the original. If you're curious about Black Mesa, my recommendation is to just play it on easy to check out the levels. Maybe even turn on some cheats. But if you have never played Half-life before, this is not the way to go. Play the original.