The apparently talented chaps over at the Black Mesa team have released a trailer for their forthcoming Half Life remake. And, by jove, if it isn’t rather spiffing. The release of the trailer would seem to have momentarily self-destructed their website, which is an indication of the anticipation surrounding what is essentially a mod. In fact, it’s what is occasionally described as a ‘total conversion’: using a game’s engine but changing all the content to create an entirely new game. What makes this a particuarly intriguing oddity is that they’re using the Half Life 2 engine to re-create Half Life 1.
I’ve got a bit of a convoluted history with the original Half Life. Way back in what was presumably 1998 or 1999 I played through the resonance cascade (in which everything goes to hell at the start of the game) on a friend’s PC. I didn’t have a game-worthy machine at the time, given that I was still using my ageing (but awesome) Acorn Risc PC. Half Life not only astounded me with its graphical prowess, it also gave me the extreme willies, causing me to expect headcrabs to jump out at me for the rest of the night.
A good few years passed until I came to own the game myself. It probably wasn’t until 2001 that I properly experienced the game, playing all the way through to the ‘On a rail’ level, at which point an untimely system crash resulted in my saved games disappearing. I didn’t play it again, being too frustrated, but the conviction of its opening train ride always stayed with me. It’s the closest I’ve seen a game come to the atmosphere of David Cronenberg’s early work, reminding me in particular of Shivers, probably due to the disconnected, slightly mischievous opening monologue. The rest of the game, with its mutilated corpse zombies and organic weaponry, continues the body horror theme of Cronenberg’s work, which I found particularly enticing (I was a film student at the time, so cut me some slack).
2004 and Half Life 2 is released. Having never completed the original, I’m concerned that I won’t understand the intricacies of the story. Luckily, Valve bundle in a Source engine remake of Half Life, including handy chapters that allow you to immediately jump to a specific section, which allows me to see the mysterious and highly amusing twin endings.
Of course, what I really notice is that Valve’s Source remake looks and feels pretty much identical to the original game, making the transposing of it to the new engine seem a rather pointless exercise. A couple of years after completing Half Life 2, I finally decide to take the plunge and complete Half Life, which turns into a marvellous mixture of nostalgia (“I remember that bit!”), excitement (“This is really pretty damn good!”), disappointment (“This would be so much better if it were half the length…”) and frustration (“Is the Nihilanth bugged, or am I just not getting it?”).
With the subsequent releases of Episode 1 and 2, and the inevitable 3, the main thing I’m left feeling is that Half Life has been left out in the cold a little. While it’s still a great game, it really doesn’t fit in with the rest of the series from a technical or artistic standpoint. What we really need is for Valve to remake it properly, retaining identical gameplay and level design, but updating the look and feel to match its sequels.
Unfortunately they’re not doing that, but the Black Mesa team certainly seem to be on track. I hope they hurry up, because I really want to play through their remake and the official sequels before Episode 3 is released. That would be a good day.