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Nothing Like the First Time: Black Mesa, Pt. 1

by shaxam1029   //   4:51 AM on 11.01.2012

So, the thing is, I'm a pretty young guy. I wasn't around for most of the 90's or 80's, so along with bell-bottoms and Pogs, I missed out on the releases of some of the most ground-breaking and revolutionary games of all time. I can't imagine what it must've felt like to discover the gigantic game-world of the original Zelda because, well, I wasn't there. Sure, I could download it on the virtual console or a ROM but it just wouldn't be the same. There's something about playing a game that you know is unlike anything else the world has ever seen, right then and there. That said, I'm not against going back to gaming classics and seeing what all the hubub's about.

So there's this game called Half-Life. It came out in 1998 and was made by a little company named Valve. One of the lead designers was a man named "Gabe Newell". Never heard of him? Huh. Anyways, apparently the game was pretty good because almost everyone who played it fell in love with it. To my understanding, it was renowned for it's atmosphere and it's story which was told almost entirely through gameplay. I guess that back then, with the FPS genre being mostly populated by games like Doom and Quake, a shooter that wasn't all about running and gunning was pretty mind-blowing. But I wouldn't know.

I was just a kid when the original Half-Life came out, and was likely totally unaware of it's existence. As I grew older and got into gaming however, a certain bearded scientist slowly made his way into the back of my mind. When browsing game sites, I saw Half-Life being referenced constantly as the epitome of story-telling in videogames. This "Gordon Freeman" character usually held a spot on lists of people's favorite protagonists, and gamers as a whole exploited every chance they had to bring up the lack of a third Half-Life game. That was it. I wanted to be part of this club. I wanted to theorize about "G-man". I wanted to strike down a headcrab coming at me with my mighty crowbar. So I did.

Except not really. I didn't download Half-Life, but "Black Mesa"; a fan-made mod that recreates the Half-Life experience with improved graphics and gameplay. Or so I'm told. As I've never played the original, I have nothing to compare Black Mesa to, so keep that in mind when you're reading this.

"I'm standing on some kind rail. A voice coming out over the loudspeakers tells me I'm in the "Black Mesa" facility. Something about science and New Mexico but I'm not really listening. There's a newspaper on the corner of the rail. There are words on it. I want to read it. Not sure why. Then I look up. Out the window. People are doing things. Science things. I'm interested but the rail pulls away before they do anything interesting. Now I'm sad. I spend the rest of my ride reading caution signs and listening to the loudspeaker lady."

The rail sequence to Half-Life was super weird for me. It grabbed me almost instantly, but not by throwing me straight into the action. It teased me. Gave me an inkling of the world that I would be inhabiting for the next several hours. I really wanted to stay and observe the scientists for some strange reason, but the game assured me there would be plenty of time for that later and pushed forward. The rail sequence also introduced the rather hostile atmosphere of Half-Life. During one scene, the loudspeaker lady warned me that being exposed to radiation would "have me terminated" or something along those lines. I wasn't really paying attention to be honest, until the rail made it's way over two scientists stuck in a room overflowing with toxic waste. It really reinforced how alone you are in half life. Sure, there are others out there, but none of them stay with you throughout your adventure, leaving you to confront the hellish creatures of Black Mesa by yourself. If that makes sense.

"I'm roaming the hallways of the facilities, aimlessly, unsure of what I'm doing. Old men in lab coats tell me I'm Gordon Freeman and that I'm needed somewhere. I ignore them and find the office kitchen. I blow up something in the microwave. Heh, heh. Eventually I find a locker room and put on a bitchin' orange suit. Music starts playing and I'm feeling good. I make my way to the testing facility and people are mad at me. Then things start going wrong. Equipment is malfunctioning, but they assure me that everything's OK. We're going to try something new today. Oh no. They push me into a chamber, and tell me to press a button. No thanks, but I do it anyway. Lasers. Now push that crystal into... oh... oh no."

I wouldn't really describe Half-LIfe as a "horror" game. I wouldn't describe the original Legend of Zelda as a horror game either, but both games make my heart beat and palms sweat at abnormal rates. You see, I enjoy playing Half-Life, and I want to play Half-Life. But Half-Life asks me to do things that I don't want to do. I didn't want to put the suit on. I can't handle that much responsibility. I didn't want to take the sword in the first Zelda either. Can't I just walk around this safe part of the map forever? Can't I just roam Black Mesa, blowing up things it microwaves until people realize that I am not qualified for this job? No you can't you cowardly fuck. You're going to push that crystal into that laser, and when all hell breaks loose, you're going to be the one that makes it out of Black Mesa alive. Now go.

"Oh good there are others. What? You're not going to come with me? Whatever. Woah laser. Hey guy, laser. Someone manages to crawl his way out of the fire. I back away because he has a stupid head. Accidentally might've killed some people in an elevator. I feel bad. More stupid heads fly through the air and I find a security man. He's pretty nice, but he is way to O.K about all of this. He cracks jokes while he shoots stupid heads and tries to make conversation with me as I try to avoid conflict. He tells me to go on as he tries to make contact with the outside world but I refuse to leave his side. He stares at me for about five minutes with those cold, dead eyes, and I reluctantly find an open air vent to crawl into. There's a crowbar lodged in a door and I grab it. I eye the two stupidheads making their way towards me hungrily. Playtimes over motherfuckers."

For a first person "shooter" Half Life doesn't have you doing much shooting, at least at the beginning of the game. This sequence had you mostly avoiding enemies and taking in the fact that Black Mesa is absolutely screwed. Chaos awaits you at every turn, and the only way you can deal with it is by running away. This brings a feeling of hatred and hostility towards headcrabs and zombies which makes the moment that you receive your first weapon; the crowbar, all the sweeter. This sequence also introduces the buddy mechanic of Half-Life, a strange inclusion considering the lonely atmosphere. It does work well though. Like with the crowbar, finding a buddy to follow you around after being alone for so long is very satisfying. They never stay with you too long though, at least, not what in what I've played, so the lonely atmosphere is still very prominent throughout the game.

And that's all the time I have for Black Mesa now. Hopefully, I'll keep playing, and continue to post my impressions. I really enjoy what I've played so far though, and can understand why the first Half-Life is considered such a classic. Again, I can't really speak to how faithful Black Mesa is to the original, but just by watching gameplay videos and listening to people's thoughts, I have a feeling that it does a really good job at taking what made the old game so great, and building on that foundation. I can't really find much fault with it so far, but some people might be turned off for the slower pace. If you're a gamer that plays FPS for the shooting, you're probably better off looking elsewhere. The atmosphere and pace is what makes the game for me though, along with the attention to detail. I haven't been this immersed and interested in a game world since the original Metroid Prime. If you're having doubts about it, I'd say give it a shot. It's free, and is (in my opinion) one of the strongest examples of tension and atmosphere that you'll find in any game.Photo Photo Photo view gallery
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