The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

Category Archives: Half-Life

Black Mesa: A Reflection and Marvelling At The Refreshed Journey Through Xen

“That’s why I’m here, Mr. Freeman. I have recommended your services to my employers, and they have authorised me to offer you a job. They agree with me, that you have limitless potential.” –The G-Man

Upon arriving in Xen, Freeman is met with the same fauna he’d encountered at Black Mesa, and begins making his way through the floating islands that constitute Xen. Along the way, he passes by numerous research facilities and other HEV-equipped researchers who’d visited previously. In order to continue, Freeman activates a series of portals, eventually winding up in the Gonarch’s Lair. This powerful alien monstrosity initially appears resistant to all of Freeman’s arsenal, but after Freeman lands a few good hits with the rocket launcher, the Gonarch takes off. Freeman is able to prevail over this beast, and its death opens a new portal, leading him to a massive factory that manufactures the Alien Grunts. After making his way up through the facility’s cavernous interior, Freeman reaches a portal that takes him to Nihilanth’s lair. Freeman knocks out the healing system keeping Nihilanth alive and destroys the creature’s brain, killing it in a series of titanic explosions that also knock Freeman out. When he awakens, he finds himself face-to-face with the enigmatic G-Man, who provides him with an offer of employment. Freeman reluctantly accepts, knowing there is probably no other way to survival. This brings Black Mesa to a close, and this was such an incredible experience. Even more so than the revamped Black Mesa complex, Black Mesa‘s Xen missions have been completely redone. The alien segments of Half-Life, once a simple collection of crude floating islands, becomes a massively remastered, reinterpreted set of missions that capture the mystique and scale of this alien dimension. It was an absolute thrill to go through each segment of Xen and admire just how much attention went into every little detail, from the plants to the healing pools. The end result of a re-imagined Xen creates an experience that redefines the Half-Life story, greatly enhancing it and accentuating to give players a greater appreciation of the scale of things that would eventually precipitate the events of Half-Life 2.

The biggest part of the Xen missions that impressed were the inclusion of puzzles that kept to the spirit of the original Half-Life game – each puzzle introduces players to a new concept, and once players have an inkling of how to go about solving a puzzle, Black Mesa ramps it up, adding complexity to each area, forcing players to become increasingly creative in how they approach an area. The end result is that players have a chance to really explore an area while searching for a solution to unlock access to the next spot. Some of these puzzles can be quite complex, but once one figures out what needs to be done, it becomes an immensely rewarding. The original Xen lacked the same level of complexity, and was counted as being a disappointment in an otherwise solid game – Half-Life‘s Xen missions were maligned for its simplicity and lack of inspiration, being a very flat ending to the game. However, by re-imagining the missions, Black Mesa has transformed Xen into a detailed, meaningful and integral part of the game, one that is a pleasure (rather than a schlepp) to experience. It was though the re-imagined Xen I fought through; after killing the Gonarch and slaughtering the alien Controllers enslaving the Vortigaunts, I finally arrived at Nihilanth’s chambers. I swiftly set about destroying the terminals keeping Nihilanth alive, dodging fire and dumping everything I had into Nihilanth’s oversized cranium. After a few attempts, I emerged victorious, and with this, I’ve now completed a game that’s been many years in the making.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I was so blown away by the stunning scenery in Xen that I spent a good five minutes just standing here, just admiring the skybox and textures. Unlike Half-Life‘s Xen, which was a minimal and miserable collection of floating islands set against a sickly green backdrop, Black Mesa‘s Xen is beautiful, conveying the vastness of this exotic location. Xen is supposed to be a dimensional void, where detritus from other dimensions eventually ends up. Wildlife seen throughout Black Mesa‘s earlier sections call these asteroids home, and for this segment of the game, there are no live humans encountered.

  • Once the initial sense of amazement wears off, it was time to proceed into the level itself. For the first few moments, Freeman is able to travel freely without too much interference. I had exited the Lambda Complex with my health depleted from fighting the alien controllers, my submachine gun down to one spare magazine. Without human enemies it would initially seem that replenishing ammunition would be a problem, but as I continued to explore, resource caches left by scientists would allow me to top up.

  • Medical and suit recharging stations in Xen are replaced by healing pools and energy crystals, which refill  one’s health and HEV suit energy, respectively. These have unlimited uses, and when encountered, one should always top off to ensure they’re able to survive the next area. The lighting here is mesmerising: star light scattered by the nebulae illuminates the entire area in an ethereal glow. Xen’s first areas proved to have no shortage of sights to behold, and I was impressed beyond words at how the Crowbar Collective had re-built the area.

  • Portals are still found in Xen, being an essential means of travelling through the different areas. Unlike the Lambda Complex, however, the portals of Xen are a bit more straightforward, taking Freeman directly to his next destination. However, unlike the Black Mesa segment of the game, it is not exactly clear where Freeman is headed at this time: the only goal is to kill Nihilanth, but where this ends up isn’t exactly clear. Fortunately, Black Mesa is quite good about guiding players through, and so, I was content to continue exploring Xen.

  • After entering a cave that is gently illuminated by various Xen flora, it was time to put the long-jump module to use. By double-tapping the jump key, Freeman is propelled a considerable horizontal distance, allowing for gaping chasms to be cleared. Black Mesa and Half-Life both feel distinctly like a 3D platformer with respect to how the levels are constructed. Having an extra dimension to manage, however, is a little tricky, and not timing one’s use of the long-jump module could result in being propelled into the void of space. Conversely, mastering the long-jump module will make it easier to clear areas efficiently.

  • Moving through Xen, it becomes clear that humanity actually has known about this dimension for quite some time, and that a considerable amount of resources had been directed towards researching the wildlife and environments of Xen. The implications are that there was something in Xen worth pursuing, if they were willing to put in this level of effort. Exploring the scientists’ deserted quarters and their work will occasionally yield additional ammunition. These details were largely absent in Half-Life, demonstrating how even without any dialogue, things like level design and environment clutter can speak volumes about the lore and story.

  • Venturing deep into Xen, unusual glowing crystals can be seen. One of the things that was a little tricky for me was understanding which crystals served to recharge Freeman’s HEV suit: my intuition had me believe that anything that glowed could be a power source, but this was merely an aesthetic. Over time, I quickly picked up on which crystals were a part of the scenery, and which ones recharged my HEV suit. A classic question in video game design has always been how to indicate whether or not users could interact with an entity in its environment, and while making it clearer improves gameplay, it may also degrade immersion, so a fine balance must be struck between the two.

  • The remnants of the scientists’ research stations and the organic-looking circuitry create for some interesting puzzles: while things may appear different than they did at the Black Mesa Complex, the underlying principles are the same. As such, once one figures these out, they become a simple matter to work through. Here, I ended up using some of the puzzle elements to advance to a new area. The more organic and natural-looking maps in Xen can occasionally mean that where to go next is not clear, but Crowbar Collective has gone with a very clever way to hint at the user’s path: large glowing vines often will point the players in the right direction.

  • Admittedly, there are many sections in Xen’s first chapter that reminded me a great deal of World of Warcraft‘s Outland. The aesthetic resulting from floating islands, exotic-looking plants and a generally unearthy-looking sky, similar to how Outland had some of the most fantastical-looking places in the whole of World of Warcraft on account of it being set in the sundered remains of a planet. It suddenly strikes me that I’ve made no progress at all with regards to exploring the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands with my Blood Elf warlock at the time of writing.

  • Things have been incredibly busy of late, and I’ve not made too much of a dent in my considerable backlog – between real-world obligations, hosting Jon’s Creator Showcase, keeping up with my existing blogging schedule and making my way through Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4 on co-op now that my friend’s gotten their backup machine up and running with The Master Chief Collection, there’s been precious little time for anything else. Having said this, the Halo co-op has been a remarkably fun experience, and because the both of us are now veteran Halo players, we were able to attempt beating the par times.

  • While we weren’t always successful (on a few missions, we missed the mark by a few seconds), co-op missions were a decisive indicator of how team work makes things considerably faster. It’s something that I always value, and Halo‘s co-op made this particularly tangible: my friend and I tore through missions: we covered one another, split up to complete separate objectives where needed and otherwise, were able to equip a wider range of weapons for efficacy at more ranges. I’ll have a dedicated post for this experience another time, and back in Black Mesa, I pass by a healing pool.

  • In the spirit of the HECU Marines’ actions at the Black Mesa facility, the Black Mesa science teams decided that for whatever reason, it’d be a good idea to load laser trip mines into an area filled with explosive plants and head crabs. Their erratic movement sometimes puts them into the path of a laser trip mine, setting off a chain reaction that is impossible to survive: like that explosives-filled building, Black Mesa‘s been implemented such that setting anything off here is a conditional game over rather than dropping a player’s health count to zero to result in a game over event.

  • While some of Xen’s fauna and flora are putrid in appearance, others look visually stunning, such as these bioluminescent plants hanging from a cave ceiling. Back at the Black Mesa complex, some parts of the levels, especially ventilation ducts, began filling with Xen biomass, and it always imparted a particularly unpleasant sensation because of the marked contrast between alien and terrestrial plant and animal life. However, in Xen, native flora and fauna look considerably more natural, and this sense of revulsion was noticeably absent.

  • Making my way through Xen, I pass over regions covered with liquid water. Despite the seeming hostility of Xen’s conditions, it turns out that atmospheric pressure and gravity are largely consistent with Earth’s. The precise physics behind how Xen works is not explained, but for gameplay purposes, it’s not too big of a deal. Here, a flock of boids can be seen: these flight-capable aliens are absolutely harmless, and named after their in-game files, which were in turn named after Craig Reynolds’ BOIDS, which was a computer program that allowed for complex flocking and movement behaviours to be defined based on a simple, finite set of rules.

  • The behaviours that BOIDS exhibit are known as emergent properties, where systems exhibit complexity much greater than the individuals and their rules would suggest are possible. This is a very exciting area in computational research, and had been one of the reasons I became interested in multi-agent systems as a topic of research. I was able to apply concepts from BOIDs to create a model of microtubule assembly and disassembly in Unity3D that was very faithful to how it is thought that the cytoskeleton dynamically adjusts itself in a real cell. This model of microtubules ended up being a part of my graduate thesis, which aimed to combine mathematical models with agent-based modelling to visualise complex biological systems.

  • Of course, it’s been quite some time since I finished, and while I still remember the gist of what I’d built, I imagine it would take a little bit of effort to go back in and get the projects updated before I’d be able to extend them now. With this in mind, I’ll return the discussions to Black Mesa, where after clearing the first chapter set in Xen, I arrive in the level where I am forced to fight the Gonarch. This arachnid-like monster is supposed to be the final step of a headcrab’s life cycle, and the beast itself is remarkably resilient, being able to shrug off direct hits that would bring down a combat helicopter.

  • After sustaining enough damage, the Gonarch will run off into the next area, with Freeman in pursuit. Unlike the original Gonarch fight, Crowbar Collective completely redid this mission such that it became an entire level that takes some time to complete: originally, the Gonarch would fall after a comparatively short fight. Besides being able to spit acid a considerable distance, the Gonarch can also birth small, speedy headcrab offspring that can rush the player. Whenever this would happen, I immediately swapped over to the rocket launcher: the explosions can also set these small headcrabs on fire, damaging them before they can get too close.

  • While the extended fight with the Gonarch was intended to emphasise how powerful this foe was, during play-testing that Crowbar Collective did back in the summer of 2019, players found the mission to be a chore to fight through; while the first area proceeded in a relatively cut-and-dried fashion, later engagements left players with a severe disadvantage: rockets and satchel charges, the most effective weapons against the Gonarch, are always in short supply, and common weapons like the shotgun or submachine gun aren’t particularly useful for dealing direct damage to the Gonarch.

  • The Gonarch’s ability to absorb punishment, in conjunction with its surprising agility and speed, makes it a difficult foe to fight all around, even when ammunition is common. The developers evidently took this feedback into account, because by the time I reached this point in Black Mesa, I was able to figure out a pattern for pushing the Gonarch into the next scriped event without sustaining an unreasonable amount of damage myself. In the retail version, I conclude that the Gonarch fight, while still tough, at the very least, feels a ways more fair than it had been when the level first became available.

  • Black Mesa ended up including some puzzles in the Gonarch mission, during which Freeman would need to unblock water sources to fill a subterranean cavern with water and swim upwards to each the next part of the mission. These segments of the game proved quite cathartic, and act as another fantastic chance for Crowbar Collective to show off their revamped level designs. The variety of props used is astounding and really gives the sense that Xen is an inter-dimensional border world of sorts, where detritus from different dimensions accumulate.

  • The inclusion of underwater barnacles, “beneathacles”, was a new element in Black Mesa absent from the original Half-Life: like regular barnacles, the beneathacles are stationary enemies that pull players in if they should become ensnared. They restrict movement in the water and on the surface, but fortunately, like their standard counterparts, are relatively weak. When they occur in large clusters, use of explosives will defeat them. Individually, I prefer using the pistol on them to conserve on crossbow ammunition.

  • After a lengthy chase through a part of the map where I had to burn through webs to escape the charging Gonarch, I began engaging it with the Tau Cannon, as I’d run out of rockets. While I’ve never played Half-Life in its original form, having watched Freeman’s Mind helped me to appreciate what changed between Black Mesa and Half-Life: the Gonarch mission feels a lot shorter in comparison; while Ross Scott does use damage mods while shooting Freeman’s Mind, and occasionally skips certain areas, he remains faithful to the path that Freeman does take throughout a mission.

  • In Half-Life, once Freeman does enough damage to the Gonarch and prompts it to flee, he makes his way through a much smaller cave system, fights the Gonarch a second time after acquiring more rockets causes it to punch through an opening in the ground, and the faces off against the Gonarch one final time in the caverns’ interior. There is no underwater segment or chase sequence, and overall, the level was much simpler. Freeman’s Mind had Freeman assume that the Gonarch was Nihilanth, and he wonders if killing the Gonarch would allow him to return home.

  • Conversely, Black Mesa‘s fight was much more intense, and on standard difficulty, I ended up exhausting all of my rockets again during the final fight with the Gonarch. Without any explosives left in my arsenal, I turned over to the powerful Gluon Gun in the hopes that its damage output was sufficient to get the job done. The Half-Life fight with the Gonarch is set in a very small cave with pillars, allowing one to avoid the Gonarch’s acid spit, and making the small headcrabs more dangerous.

  • Black Mesa‘s fight, on the other hand, is set in a much larger space, and so, as long as one keeps the Gonarch at arm’s length, it is possible to avoid taking too much damage in the fight while at the same time, dealing enough pain to put this beast away. During my fight, it took me a few tries to determine the best attack pattern, and I barely made it out of my successful attempt against the Gonarch. I’ve heard that during the scripted chase sequences, the Gonarch is actually programmed to be invincible and will only pursue the players or flee after sustaining a certain amount of damage, making this final segment the only place where it becomes possible to deal meaningful damage to it.

  • Once the Gonarch is downed, its remains explode and open a hole in the floor that leads to the next area of Xen. While a challenging fight, the Gonarch mission was also quite enjoyable: it’s clearly come a long way from the beta days, during which multiple threads were opened in the Steam forums discussing the fact that the Gonarch fight had been difficult to the point of diminishing the players’ enjoyment from the game. Since I never tried Black Mesa during its Early Access stages, I cannot confirm (or deny) whether or not the Gonarch was indeed unfairly scripted.

  • The alien factory was probably my least favourite segment of Xen: unlike the expansive open spaces of earlier segments, things are set in the cavernous interior of a factory that manufactures the alien grunts. Much of the mission consists of platforming and puzzle-solving, making use of pistons to continually reach higher elevations. Vortigaunts can be found in large numbers during this mission, and unless the alien controllers appear, the Vortigaunts are non-hostile. There’s actually no reason to waste ammunition on them, since they won’t attack Freeman.

  • Conversely, once Freeman disables something in order to clear a path to the next area, alien controllers will appear and force the Vortigaunts to attack. In these situations, the best thing to do is attack the alien controllers and do one’s best to leave the Vortigaunts alone: there’s an achievement one can unlock if they can make it through the entire level without killing any Vortigaunts. Similarly, if one can kill an alien controller but leave its Vortigaunt entourage alive, another achievement can be unlocked.

  • To avoid any collateral damage, I found that the Tau Cannon was very effective against the alien controllers. Two shots from the Tau Cannon are, on normal difficulty, enough to take one down. Alien controllers, like Halo‘s drones, are difficult to fight not on account of their attacks or durability, but because they are airborne enemies. I’d previously used automatic weapons on them, but they do move quickly enough to require some degree of skill in tracking them. Conversely, the Tau Cannon’s consistent damage makes it a solid choice when dealing with groups of alien controllers: its high damage per shot and semi-automatic firing means that one is able to place their shots with greater certainty and without the same ammunition expenditure as an automatic weapon.

  • Once inside the alien factory, Freeman has nowhere to go but upwards by means of pistons that need to be activated in order to reach greater heights. Occasionally, getting a piston up will also cause it to overload, and a membrane must be punctured in order to remove the electric field buildup, in turn rendering the piston safe to stand on. This segment of the game took me some time to complete: a handful of the puzzles do require a bit of creative thinking to work through, and studying the environment can often yield insight as to how one can go about reaching the next area.

  • While impressive in scale, I ended up finding the ascent through the alien factory to be a bit of a repetitive one. Throughout Black Mesa, the pattern of clearing a set of puzzles, heading into the next area and engaging in a firefight to render it safe, before exploring means of sorting out the puzzles is widely used, but thanks to the interior of the alien factory, things did feel a little stretched here. Fortunately, just before things became too tiresome, Black Mesa introduces a new mechanic that puts the fun back into things.

  • Towards the final segments of the alien factory, Freeman will encounter crystals that top off one’s U-235 supply. Because the rate of regeneration is impressive, players essentially have unlimited ammunition for their Gluon Gun and Tau Cannon. U-235 had been relatively rare throughout Black Mesa, but here, the time has finally come to put the game’s most powerful weapons to use: even the durable alien grunts disintegrate quickly before sustained fire from the Gluon Gun.

  • Having unlimited ammunition thus made the latter parts of the alien factory remarkably entertaining, as I was able to simply keep my trigger on the finger and melt any alien controller or grunt that was standing between me and the game’s final sections. I reached this point in Black Mesa just a shade under a month ago, during Super Bowl Sunday: that morning had been a particularly chilly one, but the weather had been gorgeous.

  • That afternoon, I’d been set to make some homemade nachos ahead of the game between Kansas City and Tampa Bay: in the midafternoon, I’d prepared all of the vegetables and nachoes themselves. Half an hour before the game started, I threw everything together and baked it at 400°F for seven minutes. We’d finished with just a minute left before the opening coin toss, and subsequently found the nachos to be quite delicious. In retrospect, I could’ve added a little more cheese, and having some black olives and jalapeño peppers would’ve spruced things up.

  • In the end, while I’d been cheering for Kanas City, they got wiped out as Tampa Bay secured enough touchdowns to cement their lead. Of course, NFL games aren’t quite as exciting for me as the NHL, and so, the Super Bowl is something that I’ve ended up checking out for the spectacle more than anything. In order to have the time to prep everything, then, I set my sights on finishing Black Mesa as quickly as I could. Having near-unlimited Gluon Gun ammunition really helped, especially in areas where I needed to fight alien controllers.

  • The last segment of the alien factory involves a lengthy elevator ride to the top of the facility, and with a few of those crystals present on the elevator itself, I was able to constantly keep my weapons topped off. At this point in Black Mesa, there hardly seemed a need to use the other weapons the game provided, since the Gluon Gun dealt enough damage to sort out all enemies without difficulty. However, this sort of power can be seen as making the final fight against Nihilanth perhaps a little too easy.

  • This was the culmination of over eight years of patience: after beating the first half of Black Mesa in September 2012, here in 2021, I finally steel myself to cross the portal into Nihilanth’s lair and face Half-Life‘s iconic final boss. Nihilanth is the leader of Xen, and in the lore, its species was conquered by the Combine: despite the species’ power, the Combine managed to overwhelm them, prompting the sole survivor to flee for Xen. Nihilanth would establish itself as the leader, enslaving the Vortigaunts, who had also been escaping the Combine’s reach. Nihilanth’s intents had been to conquer Earth to act as a new homeworld, a sanctuary from the Combine.

  • Possessing the power that keeps the dimensional rift open, it is determined that killing Nihilanth should end the resonance cascade and close the portals to Earth. Nihilanth is initially invincible, but after Freeman destroys the healing crystals, Nihilanth begins attacking Freeman with energy blasts. The trick here is to keep moving to avoid Nihilanth’s attacks, while at the same time, returning fire with rockets and other long-range weapons. Once Nihilanth sustains enough damage, his body weakens, exposing his brain.

  • The final battle against Nihilanth is very taxing and demands a great deal of ammunition, but fortunately, Freeman is periodically resupplied when sections of the Black Mesa facility teleport into Nihilanth’s lair. Resupplying and moving will keep one alive long enough to deal the damage needed to kill Nihilanth for good: upon death, Nihilanth explodes in a green blaze of energy. The impact knocks Freeman out of the chamber, and the gameplay segment of Black Mesa draws to a close shortly after. With this, I’ve finally finished a journey that was years in the making: the final fight proved enjoyably challenging, and I finished with only six health points left.

  • Things suddenly freeze as the G-Man appears and offers Gordon a job. I chose to accept, since this is ultimately what leads to the events of Half-Life 2: while Nihilanth had sought Earth out as a sanctuary world, the Combine take an interest in the planet and subsequently conquers it in what would later be known as the Seven Hour War. The G-Man places Freeman in stasis and will reawaken him when the time is right: some twenty years later, the G-Man sends Freeman to City 17 to aid the Resistance. With this, my journey in Black Mesa comes to a close, and I am certainly happy to have finally tried for myself what is the definitive Half-Life experience. With this post done, my Black Mesa journey comes to an end, and my plans now will be to wrap up Halo 4‘s second set of Spartan Ops, as well as the original campaigns for Left 4 Dead 2 with the K-On! mod, before making a concerted attempt to both finish Skyrim and continue on with my adventures in World of Warcraft.

With Black Mesa in the books, I’ve now completed an essential piece of the Half-Life experience. Black Mesa ends up being much more than a simple remaster, and instead, is Crowbar Collective’s interpretation of what Half-Life: Source could have been. The final product in Black Mesa is a consequence of fifteen years’ worth of effort, being a loving remake of an old classic that modernises the game and really allows the Source Engine to shine. It was absolutely worth the eight year long wait to go through the game in full – the game might’ve been eight years in the making since it became available as a mod, and it still feels crisp, responsive and engaging. Black Mesa definitely lives up to its name as being a proper update to Half-Life. For folks like myself, who’ve got no experience in the classic Half-Life arena, Black Mesa represents a fantastic way for folks to dive right in and check out a re-imagined version of the game that kicked off an entire franchise. Those who’ve played Half-Life will likely enjoy Black Mesa as well. Altogether, Black Mesa is easy to recommend: retaining all of the classic gameplay elements of Half-Life while adding a fresh coat of paint and improving on where the original had fallen short, this is the quintessential shooter that, along with Halo: Combat Evolved, DOOM and GoldenEye 64, are a must play for anyone who is a fan of the first-person shooter genre.

Black Mesa: A Reflection and Recollections on the Road to the Lambda Complex

“But, if you do survive and somehow make it across the base, you’ll end up at the Lambda Complex, where the rest of the science team has taken shelter. I wouldn’t venture there myself, but I will let them know that you are coming.” –Scientist to Freeman

When an experiment goes horrifically wrong, theoretical physicist Gordan Freeman is forced to make his way through the heavily damaged Black Mesa research facility in an attempt to reach the surface and get help. However, the resulting resonance cascade has allowed portals from another dimension to bring in alien wildlife that begins attacking the security staff and scientists. Moreover, to cover up the incident, the military’s HECU (Hazardous Environment Combat Unit) has been sent in to neutralise the Black Mesa staff, security guards and scientists alike. Freeman is forced to contend with both the wildlife and soldiers; after leaving the office complex, Freeman is confronted with a massive tentacled-monster and activates a rocket engine to incinerate it, and then defeats a Gargantua to access the underground train line connecting the Black Mesa launch facility: the remaining scientists hypothesise that they can use a satellite to close the rift. Freeman successfully launches the satellite, but to no avail. Moreover, despite defeating Black Ops assassins, Freeman is subsequently captured by the HECU soldiers and left for dead in a trash compactor. After crossing the surface and watching as the aliens overwhelm the remainder of the HECU, Freeman arrives at the Lambda Complex, brings its reactor back online and fends off Alien Controllers before jumping into the portal. This is where Black Mesa left off with its initial launch in September 2012, a full eight years after development had started. Black Mesa had begun its life in 2004 as a project to greatly enhance Half-Life: Source after players felt the game did not fully utilise the Source Engine’s capabilities. The original mod had launched to acclaim, and the developers began work on the next segments of the game for Xen after Valve approached them and suggested they use a newer iteration of the Source Engine. At the time of its release, Black Mesa had proven to be a remarkable experience, completely modernising Half-Life and demonstrating what the Source Engine is capable of.

If memory serves, it was only three days into my final undergraduate year when Black Mesa became available. Until then, I’d not even heard of the project, but I had an interest in the Half-Life universe, having borrowed Half-Life 2 from my friends on a few occasions during secondary school, after they’d wished for me to go through it (and correspondingly, have someone to talk about it with). At the time, Black Mesa was a mod that simply needed the Source 2007 SDK to run, and so, after classes ended, I set about downloading both the Source SDK and the mod. Upon successful installation, I was immediately impressed with the game, feeling it to be no different than what Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary had done for Halo: Combat Evolved a year earlier. At the time, I had been an ardent fan of Freeman’s Mind, as well, and having some familiarity with Half-Life‘s location, I found it a thrill to see familiar locations re-imagined and remastered. However, being able to experience Black Mesa for myself was unparalleled: I found that some elements in Black Mesa had been done very well, even a shade better than some things from Half-Life 2. Barnacles vomit a green liquid when killed and drop the remnants of their meals to the ground. Soldiers and aliens alike are reduced to bloody chunks when hit by more powerful or explosive weapons, and these pieces are physical objects that, should players so choose, pick up and manipulate. Sparks and lighting effects felt a smidgen more evolved than the lighting of the original Half-Life 2. In my excitement, I ended up beating the game in just over a week: all of the improvements were apparent on my Dell XPS 420, an older machine, and so, when news of the completed Black Mesa reached my ears, my decision to pick it up and support the developers was an easy one. With the full game now in hand, I am finally ready to set foot on Xen and really take in the effort that went into Black Mesa in the eight years that had passed since the mod became available.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • While the first few missions in Black Mesa are ostensibly safe, I got a little carried away with exploration and fell off a ledge in an elevator, sustaining falling damage in the process. I’ve heard it is possible to die here as the crystal sample is being placed into the test chamber, but, being eager to get on with the game, I simply followed the instructions and watched the resonance cascade unfold. After coming to, there’s a bit of an adventure to get back out to the reception area and grab a crowbar.

  • Until Freeman gets the crowbar, players remain relatively ill-equipped to deal with the headcrabs that have begun spawning into the facility. Fortunately, one can pick up flares off the ground and use those to burn the headcrabs to death before they deal any serious damage. Eventually, Freeman will find a Glock 17 9 mm pistol, and for the first while, the pistol will prove to be an asset for picking off distant headcrabs.

  • In my original post and discussion for Black Mesa, I showcased different areas of the game, so this time around, my goal will be to highlight parts of the game that I did not cover earlier. Despite eight years having passed between now and when I first played Black Mesa as a mod, many areas of the game remained quite clear in my mind: I had no trouble navigating the game, which makes extensive use of puzzles to restrict player movement. Here, I enter the infamous box smashing room; in the original Half-Life, this room seemed quite devoid of purpose, but with Black Mesa, it becomes clear this is a processing room.

  • After making it to the office complexes, the single most useful tool on Freeman’s HEV suit becomes the flashlight, illuminating dark corners and providing a bit of light as to where enemies and vents are. Unlike later iterations, which have a battery and thus, limited usage, the original Half-Life flashlight could be left on indefinitely. Freeman spends a bit of time inside ventilation ducts in Half-Life (and Black Mesa): in these dark passages, the flashlight is an indispensible tool for informing which branch one should take, as well as casting light on any headcrabs lurking in the darkness.

  • The open elevator shaft here is an iconic scene, and in Freeman’s Mind, Ross Scott’s Freeman laments the strange design choices around the Black Mesa complex. After ascending the elevator shaft, players will end up in the next segment of the game, acquiring the SPAS-12 and MP5 in the process in the original. Conversely, Black Mesa allowed me to pick up the SPAS-12 a bit earlier, although ammunition is initially rare, so I saved it for dealing with the odd zombie: the SPAS-12 is a decent enough close range weapon, but it requires two body shots to deal with them, and in a frenzy, one may not always be able to aim for the head.

  • After the HECU Marines appear, they bring with them the MP5: this submachine gun is the most common weapon in the game, and ammunition for it is quite common. The original Half-Life MP5 was a close-range weapon with low damage, but because ammunition was plentiful, it became a reliable primary weapon for close and medium ranges. Black Mesa‘s MP5 feels slightly more accurate, and as a result, became my go-to weapon for almost all mid-range situations, with the occasional switch over to the SPAS-12 for CQC, or later, the crossbow for longer range combat.

  • After reaching the surface, Freeman finds himself under bombardment and is swiftly forced back underground again. After navigating a series of ventilation ducts, I entered the hazard-filled underground tunnels, including an entire corridor and silo filled with luminescent radioactive waste. Evidently, Black Mesa is a facility that is barely keeping together and frequently employs dubious practises. Originally, these were merely gameplay elements: a workplace safety compliant Black Mesa would correspond with a duller experience. Later additions to the story suggest that Black Mesa and Aperture Science had been competitors, and over time, the latter fell from prominence.

  • Here, I enter one of the silos after taking an elevator that took me high above the radioactive sludge. Upon following the perilous catwalks, I reach the heart of the silo, where a massive Tentacle awaits. The Tentacle is one of the enemies in the game that can only be defeated by scripted moments, and in the original Half-Life, developers found that scripted sequences happening in-game had a much more visceral impact on the testers than did cutscenes.

  • With the Tentacle blocking the way forwards (down, really), the only way is to prepare the rocket engine for a test launch. Black Mesa inherits Half-Life‘s puzzles, which were, at the time, completely revolutionary: environment puzzles, such as reactivating the fuel and oxygen pumps, are needed to advance to the next part of a mission. There are some firefights en route to these objectives, but the puzzles generally create a break in the flow, forcing players to work out the puzzle before they’re allowed to continue. The puzzles are no different than in earlier games like DOOM or GoldenEye 64, where players needed to locate a keycard or similar in order to unlock a door leading to the next part of the map.

  • The biggest thing about Black Mesa that I found particularly visceral was the fact that there was a full gore system in place. While lower-calibre weapons like the pistols and MP5 kill enemies in a normal fashion, discharging two shotgun blasts with the alternate fire or using explosives will reduce enemies to chunks of meat. I occasionally feel bad about doing this to the HECU soldiers: in addition to being blown to bits, occasionally, one can find brains and eyeballs lying around. On the other hand, I have no qualms about turning Xen wildlife into pieces: the Houndeyes are especially annoying, and reducing a herd of them into bleeding chunks of meat with a well-placed satchel charge is immensely satisfying.

  • After reactivating the fuel and oxygen lines, and the power, it’s time to light the rocket engine. While the exact nature of the fuel is unknown, it can be surmised that the temperatures of rocket exhaust can reach around 3400 Kelvin. Assuming that the Tentacle is composed of Chitin, which has a boiling point of 795.55 K, the exhaust will have no trouble in quickly vapourising its biomass. It’s a glorious moment, and the soundtrack accentuates this: it’s a brilliant piece that simultaneously speaks to Freeman’s resourcefulness and determination, as well as the melancholy in the realisation that there is still much to do.

  • The music in Black Mesa is of an incredible standard, especially considering that it was composed by sound engineer Joel Nielsen, who is not a professional composer. There’s a roughness that mirrors Freeman’s figuring things out as he goes. After the Tentacle is defeated, the next foe is the Gargantua, a powerful alien that can emit intense flames from its arms and is heavily armoured: there isn’t enough ammunition to defeat it, and so, Freeman must get creative. The mission’s title hints at the solution required to deal with the Gargantua. Of course, folks using console commands can defeat one using RPG rounds or other heavy weapons.

  • After making his way to the basement and bringing a generator back online, the rail lines will be powered up, and it is using the electrical discharge that the Gargantua is vapourised. With this beast gone, and the rail is now ready to roll. Throughout this post, I’ve only covered a handful of the total places that Freeman visits en route to the surface and his destination at Lambda Complex. During my original run of Black Mesa in 2012, I similarly collected a wide range of screenshots for the game, but to keep posts short (back then, the average post had 581 words), I only had ten screenshots and wrapped up my talk after reaching the rail mission.

  • Looking at the post date, however, the implication was that over the course of two evenings, I made it all the way from the start of Black Mesa to the On a Rail mission, and this time around, it took a more reasonable three days. Black Mesa had released a few days after my MCAT results came out, during my last undergraduate year, and I had been particularly excited to try it out. My final year had been remarkably light because of the undergraduate thesis project: my busiest days of the week were Wednesdays, where I had an iOS course that ended at 1800. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I only had one class (genomics), which ended at 1500.

  • Fridays were also a bit busy, with my thesis course running until 1700. The scheduled lecture times were filled with presentations and seminars to ensure that all of us were on track with our projects. Conversely, on Mondays, I only had one class from 1100 to 1200, and technically, that meant I could have slept in or left early. Instead, I spent almost all of my extra time working on my thesis project. As a result of this schedule, I only had one final exam that semester, which was great – I could focus entirely on my renal system model as a result.

  • After reaching the end of the rail and raising the platform for the rocket, Freeman hits the surface again and fights through a few squads of HECU soldiers to reach the control room. In the original Black Mesa, the skybox was pixelated and fuzzy when I zoomed in with the HEV suit’s optics. This has since been rectified in the retail version, and things look polished here. Unlike setting up the rocket in the Blast Pit mission, the rocket carrying the satellite is prepared and ready for launch: all Freeman needs to do is push the button.

  • For the second time in Black Mesa, Freeman gets to push a button and watch as a rocket engine fires. The textures in Black Mesa are a little dated, but the team had worked to ensure that the lighting effects were modern and sharp. Lens flare effects make it feel as though I were watching the launches for myself, rather than through a screen, and here, after the rocket launch, there’s a quiet about the scene. It’s onto the next segment of Black Mesa, which sees Freeman return back underground again en route to the next part of the complex.

  • The flooded sections of the Black Mesa complex are infested by Ichthyosaurs, a highly aggressive, carnivorous fish, Freeman also picks up the crossbow. According to the other scientists, it is tipped with a potent tranquiliser and appears to have been purpose-designed to handle Xen wildlife. It has a powerful set of optics that makes it an effective long-range weapon: the weapon can kill HECU soldiers in a single shot, and despite the projectile drop, I’ve found it useful in situations where the range of a target exceeded what could be reliably hit by the revolver and its iron sights.

  • After reaching the last of the hangars, Freeman ends up fighting a squad of Black Ops assassins. Only female assassins are encountered during the course of Black Mesa: these agile assassins move quickly and can backflip out of harm’s way when confronted. I found that using the SPAS-12’s rapid-fire option was most effective against them, felling them in a single blast. Unlike the other enemies, Black Ops assassins cannot be reduced into chunks by explosives or high-powered weapons. Once this room is cleared, Freeman walks right into a trap, is knocked out and left in a trash compacter. It would’ve been easier to just shoot him, but fictional villains always make mistakes in the protagonists’ favour because competent villains would cause a story to end sooner than the viewer’s liking.

  • Despite the time that’s passed since the last time I was here, I had no trouble figuring out where to go after coming to and entering a waste processing facility. On my first playthrough, I remember being stuck in this room for a good half-hour trying to figure out where the way out was. At that time, I had only been a week into my semester: traditionally, the first week of any term is really just about introductory stuff, and having spent the first bit of September working out my thesis project proposal ahead of the deadline, I did end up with enough time to play Black Ops and advance through levels at a higher speed.

  • In the end, I ended up making my way through the entire game within a week, writing a brief impressions post here after I’d reached the On a Rail mission, before returning to write about the entire experience on my old website shortly before Thanksgiving. Back then, this blog had not even passed its one year anniversary yet, and I was still rocking my old Webs.com website. As the limitations of that provider became apparent, I transitioned over to WordPress. Readers going through my oldest posts will find they’re in a completely different style and are considerably more concise than anything I presently do.

  • After leaving the waste processing facility, Freeman reaches a series of research labs housing Xen specimens, as well as experimental laser research. The implications here are that Black Mesa had been involved with Xen research from the start, and that the portal technologies had previously been used to retrieve specimens for research. The mission is appropriately called Questionable Ethics, and according to the developers, the mission’s unique design was to cause players to question what was happening, appreciate that the scientists were there to help them, and also introduce a powerful new weapon to help deal with increasingly lethal enemies.

  • For the first time in eight years, I set sights on the experimental lasers powering electrical functions in the labs. Solving these puzzles proved immensely satisfying, as was activating the biological sterilisation equipment that vapourised everything in a room. Several generators need to be activated in order to power a massive laser in another room, which is essential for getting into the next area of the mission. Admittedly, the setup here reminded me of a similar moment in Wolfenstein: The New Order when Blazkowicz acquires the Laserkraftwerk. After observing the weapon being tested in a chamber protected by a heavy plate of metal, it becomes clear that the way forwards is to take down this metal plate and then fire the weapon.

  • Half-Life had this concept: the original game required players block the laser shield with a crate, whereas here, players can simply unplug the power supply. The principles and outcomes are still the same, and once the laser burns a hole through the wall, it’s onwards to the mission’s next segment. Here, I acquire the Tau Cannon, which is widely considered to be the most effective weapon in Half-Life. Its primary fire accelerates a beam of τ-leptons to high speeds to deal kinetic damage, and the secondary fire charges the weapon, creating an unstable, explosive blast. In Freeman’s Mind, Freeman chooses not to pick up the weapon, reasoning that it must be unsafe to use on account of what it did to the last user.

  • The operating room’s automated machinery prevents a group of scientists from making their way over into the lobby: after disabling this comical-looking apparatus and fending off a few waves of HECU soldiers, the scientists will unlock the door using their biometrics. This opens Freeman to the next area of the mission, set under the hot desert sun of New Mexico. The sky is every bit as blue as I remembered, a far cry from the dull blue of the original Half-Life. My entire familiarity with Half-Life comes from Freeman’s Mind; after a friend introduced it to me during the summer prior to my starting university, I became hooked, and this Machinema accompanied me through my undergrad.

  • Here, I used the Tau Cannon to turn a HECU soldier into chunks of meat before using a mounted HMG to drive off an AH-64 Apache. The skybox appears to have improved somewhat since I played the original, featuring more realistic clouds and a different shade of blue than seen during the 2012 release. With the Apache gone, I equipped the crossbow, hopped into the water, destroyed the Ichthyosaurs infesting the water and opened the gates, allowing me to access the next area.

  • I remember watching this segment of Freeman’s Mind on the evening I finalised my undergraduate thesis paper: I had just finished the last set of edits, exported the LaTeX file to PDF and submitted it to the course coordinator. With a bit of extra time left, I watched the part of Freeman’s Mind where he crosses over the cliffs and finds a rocket launcher, which is useful in blasting the Apache out of the sky. As Freeman puts it, this rocket launcher is the perfect gift for the man who has everything, and there is a laser sight that allows players to guide the rockets. Half-Life 2 saw a return of the laser guide – rockets can no longer be dumb-fired. Unlike the original Half-Life, the cliff is considerably more detailed and realistic-looking, making the segment more acrophobic in appearance.

  • With the rocket launcher in hand, the HECU’s vehicles are no match for Freeman: the HECU have access to the M1A1 Abrams and M2A3 Bradley, and while these vehicles pose a considerable threat to players, the rocket launcher will make short work of them. While conventional weapons can be used to damage and destroy vehicles, this takes an inordinate amount of ammunition that would otherwise be better conserved for infantry. I’ve heard that owing to the way rockets are programmed, it is possible to hijack the rockets a M2A3 fires and redirect it using the rocket launcher’s laser sight.

  • Here, I prepare to make my way across a minefield. Rather than perilously negotiating all of the mines, it was much easier to simply bring out the Glock 17 and shoot individual mines in my path, or use the fragmentation grenades to clear clusters of mines out. At this point, HECU snipers are also introduced, and like Half-Life 2, no model of the sniper is actually present. Instead, snipers only give away their presence with a blue laser sight. Explosives are effective against them, and using grenades is the most effective way of dealing with them.

  • Here is one of the most infamous segments of Black Mesa – a building that is so heavily booby-trapped with explosives that accidentally setting off anything, even with cheats on, will result in an instant death. Here, the game is set up so that rather than dropping the player’s health to zero, it treats it as though any detonation is equivalent to falling off a map. Players thus have no choice but to be creative in navigating this area, especially with headcrabs leaping around; should headcrabs cross any trip mine’s beam, it’s game over.

  • As the extraordinary events at Black Mesa creates an infestation of Xen wildlife exceeding the HECU and Black Ops’ ability to contain, the military begins pulling out and prepare a thermonuclear device with the aim of wiping the area out. This is set concurrently to the events of Half-Life, being depicted in Half-Life: Opposing Force, which was an acclaimed experience. For Freeman, the HECU’s evacuation is apparent: over the radio, soldiers can be heard saying “Forget about Freeman”. Pushing into the facilities outside of the Lambda Complex will find areas that have begun undergoing a bewildering transformation as Xen biomass begins taking over.

  • Contrasting the sunny, blue skies seen earlier, the skies begin feeling a lot more apocalyptic as Freeman gets closer to the Lambda Complex’s entrance. Out here, Freeman is confronted with another Gargantua, but fortunately, has access to an airstrike map. Once the Gargantua is defeated, using the airstrike to knock down a radio tower will allow Freeman to cross over a water-filled canal into the next area. Throughout this post, I’ve not made use of the Xen weapons. The Hivehand is a weapon that shoots hornets that attack nearby enemies, but low damage means it is better used for setting off explosives and knocking turrets down, while the Squeak Grenades are beetles that attack anything nearby.

  • Chunks of HECU soldier can be seen in this massive hangar after I clear it, helping a scientist along the way. The Tau Gun is a fun weapon to use, and in a pinch, can always be depended upon. Early on, ammunition for it is rare, and I ended up using it to deal with tougher enemies like the Alien Grunts. Looking back at my old screenshots, the Tau Gun I had possessed far less detail than its current incarnation, which emits a blue glow. While I initially thought it was the ATI HD 2600 XT I was running with my Dell XPS, it turns out that the Tau Gun’s view model had been less sophisticated back then.

  • After clearing this final section of the remaining HECU forces who are awaiting evacuation, I enter the tunnels leading into Lambda Complex itself. Lambda Complex’s exact nature is never revealed to players at this time, and there’s a sense of mystery that results: players only know that it’s important to get here, but there’s no indicator of what they’ll find upon arrival. Even once players do reach the goal, one of the security staff state that before anything else can happen, Freeman must first bring the damaged reactor back online. The narrative in Half-Life excelled with compelling players into playing further, and this was one of the reasons why I was able to make so much progress during my first play-through.

  • I’ve acquired the Gluon Gun. The precise mechanism behind this weapon is unknown, although its namesake suggest it somehow disrupts the Gluons, which holds quarks together. Entities hit by the Gluon Gun’s beam disintegrate, and while perhaps the most powerful weapon in the whole of Half-Life (and Black Mesa), it is limited by a short range and the fact that it burns through ammunition very quickly. I’ve not found a use case for this weapon yet: it’s great for clearing out entire rooms of alien grunts, but other weapons like the Tau Gun can also get the job done with a similar efficiency.

  • I was a week into my Black Mesa run when I reached the Lambda Complex, where I negotiated the cavernous interior of the nuclear reactor. It had been a Friday evening after my second week of classes, and by this point, term was starting to get real. We began reading Frankenstein in English, started exploring genes and personalised medicine for genetics, and got an introduction to Objective-C 2.0 for my iOS course. In the honours thesis course, I’d just received my presentation timelines. As term began picking up, my timing couldn’t have been better; I was now very nearly done Black Mesa and could focus wholly on my work.

  • I wound up finishing Black Mesa a day later, and wrote the posts for it shortly thereafter. Here, I’ve reached one of the last puzzles in the game’s original sections: in order to reach the next area, one must take the correct portals located surrounding the reactor core. Failure is generally forgiving, sending players back to the green portal on the left-hand side of this image, although there are cases where failing to time one’s entry will cause them to plummet a ways. If memory serves, the correct combination of portals to take is two, four and seven. It took me a few tries to get these right, but in the process, I found that some combinations could send Freeman into a room with supplies and the like.

  • Here, I prepare to enter the final portal that takes Freeman to the central Lambda Complex research lab. It becomes clear that Lambda Complex is a facility for researching portals, of the same variety that Portal‘s Aperture Science had been exploring. The difference appears to be that Aperture Science’s portals can be better controlled and managed, while Black Mesa’s portals can send travelers much greater distances.

  • At Lambda Complex, the scientists explain that while their satellite launch should have disabled the portals allowing Xen’s wildlife to enter Black Mesa, an unknown entity is forcing the portals to remain open. Thus, Freeman’s task is to go to the other side and neutralise this enemy, whatever it takes. To prepare Freeman for the task ahead, scientists equip his HEV suit with the long jump module: double-tapping the space bar will propel Freeman a considerable horizontal distance, and to make life easier for players, landing jets negate all fall damage taken. Freeman thus replenishes his arsenal from a security guard’s private stores (and picks up the Tau Gun if they missed out on it earlier), before heading into the portal chamber.

  • After fighting off waves of the floating Alien Controllers, the portal is ready, and it’s time to head on through. With this moment, I’ve now properly revisited Black Mesa for the first time in eight years. The game has seen considerable improvement since its original release in 2012, and with the developers hard at work on Xen, it’s time to go ahead and finish my Half-Life journey. Black Mesa became a standalone game in 2015, and the Xen chapters were gradually released over the course of 2019. By March 2020, the game had been finished: it’d been a stunning journey, and the end results appear to have been well worth it. With this in mind, I am excited about setting foot on the remastered and reimagined Xen, which is said to be much more than the original Half-Life‘s hastily-assembled collection of floating islands in empty space, surrounded by a visually unappealing skybox.

Black Mesa ultimately proves to be a superb re-imagining of Half-Life that impressed even Valve; with their blessing, Black Mesa has become an authorised remake of the classic. Featuring modernised visuals and expanded areas, the Black Mesa team had rebuilt some parts of the game to flow more logically from a story perspective, without altering the aesthetic of the original. The infamous “box smashing” room, for instance, became a shipping room for holding discarded boxes to be flattened once their contents were retrieved. Flat, lifeless areas in the original Half-Life game became filled with additional details. The sound was overhauled: tinny and weak-sounding weapons were given more powerful reports, while ambient sounds, dialogue and alien noises were all updated. In particular, the sound engineering in Black Mesa is impressive, demonstrating how immersion can be further achieved by paying greater attention to using sound to convey a particular message. From the noise of fluids oozing from a defeated Barnacle and the splash of the Bullsquid’s attack, to the sound of Freeman’s footsteps while walking on a metal catwalk and the visceral “click” of the Glock’s slide after a reload, Black Mesa feels particularly good to the player, giving a tangible feeling of weight regardless of where one goes in the game. Together with the updated visuals, then, Black Mesa is a more detailed retelling of the Half-Life story, where every step of Freeman’s journey is given new weight to really convey the sort of heroics that this stoic MIT graduate undertakes to earn his reputation by the events of Half-Life 2.

Half-Life 2 Update: A reflection

“It’s great to reminisce about good memories of my past. It was enjoyable when it was today. So learning to enjoy today has two benefits: it gives me happiness right now, and it becomes a good memory later.” –George Foreman

A full sixteen years after its initial release, I returned to City 17 on what is my sixth play-through of one of the most iconic shooters of all time. This time around, however, I played through a mod of the original Half-Life 2: titled Half-Life 2: Update (Update for brevity). This conversion provides players with a redone visual experience. Lighting is overhauled, shadows are more detailed, and the game has been improved with full high-dynamic range (HDR lighting). With superior particle effects and fog, Update represents a considerable improvement to the visuals of the original Half-Life 2. Volumetric lighting creates a mustier sense amongst the dated buildings of City 17. Improved reflections in the canals gives water an even cleaner, true-to-life sense. The skies over Ravenholm are even moodier and intimidating, evoking memories of Halloween. Despite being identical to the original Half-Life 2 in gameplay, Update lives up to its name, breathing new life into an old classic by means of its improved visuals: familiar places are vividly rendered, and old memories came flooding back. However, these modifications are generally subtle, and the mod has been praised for being the Half-Life 2 Valve would have implemented had they gotten around to giving Half-Life 2 the same visual improvements that Episodes One and Two possess. Despite being a purely campaign-driven game, Half-Life 2 has managed to enthrall and immerse players for the past sixteen years: the game is endlessly replayable, even in its original form. Revisiting Half-Life 2 through Update, makes one thing about older titles apparent: gaming was at its finest during the 2000s, a time when improving technologies allowed games to immerse players in new worlds more completely than before, while simultaneously, still encouraging players to have fun and improve over time.

The design paradigm in Half-Life 2 had been to create an experience for players, such that every play-through felt distinct and fresh. The game used verticality to surprise players, dropped in the original jump scare to keep players on their toes, and encouraged players to be creative in how they approached a scenario. There was thus a myriad of ways one could solve challenges Half-Life 2, and this in turn meant that Half-Life 2 offers nearly infinite replay value. Back in 2004, games were intended to maximise replay value, and developers prided themselves on creating captivating single-player experiences that gave players incentive to revisit their games. The consequence of this were highly innovative games that continued raising the bar for what was possible. The paradigm in Half-Life 2 also carried over to Halo, where the campaign had been meticulously crafted for the player’s enjoyment. These early games represent video games at their finest, creating a combination of an experience for players to traverse a world unlike our own, and then giving players incentive to hone their skills and find new ways of improving their runs. By comparison, an increasing number of contemporary titles are written with revenue in mind, over the players’ experience. In particular, the emphasis on micro-transactions and cosmetics has come at the expense of gameplay: studios are forced to spend more time devising micro-transaction systems and cosmetics over ensuring a smooth, enjoyable product for the player. Nowhere is this more apparent than the current fad for Battle Royale games. Mechanically, these games are simple: a group of players are dropped into a world and then battle it out until a squad or individual is the last standing. Along the way, players can customise their characters to ensure their wins are memorable by means of cosmetics. Rather than writing captivating stories for the players, games are all about creating memes out of a moment now, and for this, they have suffered. Modern video games emphasise memes over substance, but the fact is that older games like Half-Life 2 and Halo, still remain immensely entertaining: it is a blessing that these older games, developed during a time when discovery was valued over memes, are still available for players to experience.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • My curiosity in Update came from the Chinese New Year Steam sale, during which I was recommended a variety of titles to try out. Half-Life 2: Update was among these recommendations. I ended up deciding to check it out shortly after Thanksgiving ended, and right out of the gates, I was impressed; the lighting updates are subtle, but noticeable in the improved volumetric lighting everywhere in the game. After exiting the train station onto a city plaza, these updates became apparent.

  • For this post, I’ve opted to feature screenshots from areas of Half-Life 2 that I did not have in my original reflections talk for the original game. I’ll kick things off with a moment of Dr. Kleiner’s lab, prior to my acquiring the Hazardous Environment (HEV) suit. Lighting effects in Kleiner’s lab are similarly improved, and I immediately set about trying to wreck Kleiner’s mini-teleporter, as I had done during my original play-through.

  • The last time I wrote about Half-Life 2 would have been in 2017, when I gave the mod Downfall a go. It had been a particularly cold and snowy December then, and I’d just gone on a drive into the mountains without any survival gear. It was a hazardous drive, and in retrospect, not exactly the brightest decision in the world. However, I did enjoy the crab-and-asparagus omelets that I had at a mountain restaurant prior to the drive. After brunch, we pushed into the mountains and noticed abandoned vehicles on the side of the road, an ominous sign.

  • After reaching Peyto Lake, the time had come to turn back around. On that day, there had been a heavy snowfall in the area, depriving the world of colour. Of course, winter in the mountains is beautiful, but I’ve never really been favoured with the sort of luck required to visit the mountains on a sunny day by winter. Today, the weather is a more hospitable overcast, and there is no snow on the forecast. Of all the levels in Half-Life 2, Water Hazard is my personal favourite: featuring the perfect combination of vehicular combat and on-foot moments: here, I pass by the first stop: players can spot the mysterious G-Man here, and curiosity will drive players to explore, leading them to find supplies.

  • Update‘s water effects are a slight improvement over those of the original’s: I was particularly fond of the reflections because they really give a sense of how clean the water of the canals is. In this post, I’ve opted to showcase more of those screenshots; interiors of the buildings remain more or less as they appeared in the original game, and while fun to move through, do not offer much in the way of interesting screenshots.

  • Travelling along the canals, players catch glimpses of Soviet-style apartments and factories. City 17 is distinctly said to be modelled after Eastern European architecture, and is set somewhere in Eastern Europe. There has always been a sense of mystery and intrigue about this side of the world, and it is for this reason that Half-Life 2 is something I’ve found so enjoyable. Since Half-Life 2, I’ve been curious about games with levels set in Russia. Together with getting Metro: Exodus free with my GPU, this led to my interest in the Metro series.

  • For much of the Water Hazard mission, the airboat will not have a pulse cannon mounted to it. As such, players only have the option of pushing further on into the canals towards Black Mesa East, eluding the Hunter-Chopper as best as they can. During one segment of the mission, Combine forces will close the canal locks, forcing players to disembark from their airboat and re-open them. In the control tower, a pair of automatic guns can be found. They’re powerful enough to damage the Hunter-Chopper and drive it off, giving players some much-needed quiet.

  • Having already showcased the final confrontation with the Hunter-Chopper, I’ve decided to skip that section and instead, show off one of the puzzles here. While solving the puzzles in Half-Life 2 now is a matter of trivial difficulty, I still remember that the first time my friends tried this game out for themselves, they’d gotten stuck at some of the puzzles. Ultimately, they’d never made it past the final puzzle leading to the showdown with the Hunter-Chopper: the reason we had been visiting then was because of a group project we’d been working on, and owing to our progress, we had time to spare for checking Half-Life 2 out.

  • Ravenholm received one of the most dramatic changes in Update: rather than a deep navy blue, the sky has a more greenish tinge to it. The lighting from lamps, however, is also warmer. Ravenholm is iconic in Half-Life 2, for changing up the game’s dynamics and capturing the horror aesthetics. To accentuate this, ammunition in Ravenholm is rare, and players are encouraged to utilise the Gravity Gun to lob saw blades, explosive barrels and cinder blocks at the zombies.

  • Like the remainder of Update, the exteriors are where the mod’s visual improvements are most noticeable. Inside the apartments and warehouses of Ravenholm, the game looks more or less identical to the original. The interiors of the buildings in this mining village have a very austere, Spartan feel to them that contributes to the sense of unease that the town conveys. According to the original E3 footage showcased in 2002. players were supposed to arrive in Ravenholm by boat and reach the docks, but in the final product, players travel here via a tunnel from Black Mesa East.

  • There is an achievement for completing Ravenholm with nothing but the Gravity Gun. I had gone through Update with the intention of doing the Gravity Gun challenge again, but evidently, my skills have deteriorated since 2013, and for the last bit of the mission, I was forced to abandon the challenge and fend off a few waves of fast zombies. Conversely, whereas poison zombies gave me considerable trouble back in the day, my trick of luring the poison headcrabs off them and finishing them off individually meant now, poison zombies are easy to deal with and no longer require an inordinate ammunition expenditure.

  • In my original post for Half-Life 2, I did not write much about Highway 17: this mission is similar to Water Hazard in having a substantial vehicular component, mixed in with on-foot segments. It is set under a grim, overcast day, and I first set foot on this mission at another friend’s place while visiting for leisure. With no science project to deal with, we conversed and played through the driving missions while enjoying Mac ‘n Cheese. Despite the skies washing out the land in white and offering little of note in the way of lighting, this mission nonetheless captures the sense of hopelessness in humanity’s war against the Combine.

  • While I cite an evening at a friend’s place in 2005 for a science project as my earliest exposure to retail Half-Life 2, I’d actually heard about Half-Life 2 as early as 2002; back then, the local Radio Shack had been running videos of the 2002 E3 demo for Half-Life 2, showcasing the Nova Prospekt bug-bait segments and engagement with the gunship along Highway 17 on their then-cutting edge 1024 x 768 resolution monitors. I watched in fascination, impressed with how realistic everything had looked and how the game had appeared to use a very sophisticated physics engine.

  • The Highway 17 missions also bring back memories of my undergraduate graduation; I’d picked up Half-Life 2 for my own Steam account to celebrate my finishing the Bachelor of Health Sciences programme, and reached this point in Half-Life 2 on the day of my graduation ceremony. Looking back, it was a bit of a sad time, as all of the friends I’d made in the past four years were headed their separate ways. Here, I ready the crossbow to grab the Targetted Advertisement achievement, noting with some irony that for me, targetted advertisements aren’t actually all bad: I’ll sit through food and entertainment ads without impatience kicking in, but pick-up truck and beer commercials are those I do not bother watching.

  • Upon reaching Nova Prospekt in Update, it was late October, and here, I do have a bit of a personal story to share regarding the ongoing pandemic; as the month reached an end, it turned out that I had been in close contact with a positive case, and immediately set about scheduling a test while observing isolation protocols. While thoughts of the pandemic ran through my mind, I pushed through Nova Prospekt. I eventually got stuck in the final part, and it took a bit of effort to clear it. Fortunately, I was able to clear it (my gaming skills might not be what they were seven years earlier, but they’ve not left me yet), and in the end, I tested negative, to my great relief. The incident was a reminder of how important it was to keep safe and healthy.

  • The Pheropods (informally, “bug-bait”) were a pleasant addition into the game, allowing players to command the Antlions. These insects were a nuisance during the Highway 17 and Sandtraps missions, but once acquired, they allow players to direct Antlions to attack Combine soldiers or follow. The Pheropods are most useful during the Nova Prospekt mission, allowing one to save ammunition by ordering Antlions to attack. However, even after the Pheropods are rendered useless, they can still stun Combine soldiers, and appear to regenerate on their own, making it a useful tool for creating minor distractions.

  • In what appears to be a laundry room, I prepare to engage a host of Combine soldiers. The improved lighting conferred by Update is visible here, as moonlight streams into the hall. A major part of the appeal in Update was the fact that these minor updates accentuated the atmosphere of each area. In The Master Chief Collection, 343 Industries’ anniversary version of Halo: Combat Evolved was an example where visual updates altered the tone of an environment. The original had been suspenseful because of the dark, sparsely decorated corridors, whereas in Anniversary, once-dark locations were now brilliantly lit. Conversely, Halo 2: Anniversary was a straight upgrade, respecting the aesthetics of the original while giving everything a fresh coat of paint.

  • Update is more in line with Halo 2: Anniversary, respecting the original Half-Life 2‘s aesthetics while bolstering lighting somewhat. I’ve skipped ahead to the part where players return to City 17 after rescuing Eli Vance. In the two weeks that passed owing to time anomalies resulting from the teleporter. Nova Prospekt is destroyed, the Resistance has come out in force, taking this as a sign to begin fighting the Combine. The Combine respond by sending in heavy weapons, including APCs and Striders.

  • With City 17 now a battlefield, the players’ goal is to assist the Resistance and eventually reach the Citadel. The remainder of Half-Life 2 features urban combat, and it is here that Update really is given a chance to shine. It is outdoors that the new lighting effects are most visible: the original game did not have a  slight fog, whereas here in Update, a slight bit of haze can be seen, accentuating the ferocity of the battle: it turns out that the Combine and Resistance have been at it for over a week, and despite lacking the same armour as the Combine do, by scavenging weapons, the Resistance are doing a fairly good job of repelling the Combine.

  • As I make my way through one of the tunnels underneath City 17’s surface streets, I stop to consider the fact that two walkthrough-driven sites, Mahalo Games and Visual Walkthroughs, are now both offline. These two resources were once indispensable for gamers looking for tips and tricks to get through certain areas of games, and I remember specifically that Visual Walkthroughs had some of the most extensive collection of screenshots around: their guides actually inspired my format here. Mahalo Games, on the other hand, were better known for their videos, although I never made extensive use of their materials.

  • While I provide covering fire for the Resistance as Combine forces swarm a plaza, Alyx will work on overriding a Combine terminal to expose its energy core. Once the core is exposed, a blast from the Gravity Gun will dislodge the core, causing the gate to power down. For the final segments of Half-Life 2, the Overwatch Pulse Rifle becomes plentiful enough so that players can use this as their primary. Until now, the MP7 would’ve remained my weapon of choice simply because ammunition for it was more common. Despite having a high recoil, the Pulse Rifle also has a higher damage-per-shot, and where ammunition is plentiful, this is by far the superior weapon.

  • Players eventually a vast underground tunnel beneath City 17. I’ve always been fond of this segment of the game: the massive warehouse players end up in reminds me of the local Convention Centre’s south building. Leading into this area, players must traverse a Manhack-filled hallway. At the end of the hallway is a window that fills the corridor’s end with light, but owing to limitations, I’ve never really figured out whether or not this was a window or a light fixture. Once I fight my way through the warehouse, I will return to the city streets, ready to take the fight to the Combine Nexus building.

  • Combine Snipers cover the streets of City 17, but fortunately, they can be destroyed with a well-placed grenade. There’s an achievement for taking out all of the snipers in City 17, and during my play-through of Update, I secured this achievement without effort. I missed one sniper on my original run because of how the spawns worked, and never bothered going back for the achievement. At the time of writing, I’m missing this, plus the Defiant (throw the can at the Combine officer instead of into the bin) and Lambda Locator (locate all caches) achievements.

  • For better or worse, the Combine Nexus building reminds me of the Great Flood of 2013: it had been a warm summer evening three days after the flood waters had receded, and after making a donation to the Red Cross for flood relief, I fought my way through the Nexus, clearing out the energy projectors locking the facility down. Because the university had been closed as a result of the flood, my plans for a kokuhaku were shelved, and I ultimately spent a week on the hunt for games to try out. I ended up going with Vindictus and Tribes Ascend, and while both games were fun in their own right, neither had staying power.

  • Fighting through the interior of the Combine Nexus, there was one spot that always stood out to me: there’s a room filled with explosive traps, and tripping any of these beams with set the explosives off. I’ve tried this previously: even with cheats enabled, one will not survive the blast. The only solution is to navigate through the room and find a switch that deactivates the beams. Once this is done, and the building is cleared, it’s time to hit the roof, destroy a handful of gunships and rejoin the battle on the ground, where Striders have entered the fray.

  • Striders are among the deadliest opponents in Half-Life 2, and aside from a pulse cannon, possess a powerful laser cannon that warps the space around the weapon. I’m guessing that a shader is applied to a sphere that is generated when the weapon is fired to create this highly distinct effect, and as soon as the cannon discharges, the sphere is deallocated and removed from world-space. While I’m not a game developer, I have had some prior experience with both the Unity and Unreal engines as a part of graduate school, so there are some things that I can still speak to; the warp effect is one of the coolest things I’ve seen in a video game, and for the longest time, I’ve had no success in capturing a screenshot of such a moment.

  • After fending off an armada of Striders, I finally reach the building rooftops and prepare to hop into the streets below, where Dog and Barney are waiting. After Dog opens one of the Citadel’s walls, players drop into a sewer pipe that leads to the cavern housing the Citadel’s foundation. Having seen the Citadel for most of the game, it is at Half-Life 2‘s climax that this Combine fortress is visited. Resembling a skyscraper several kilometres high, the Citadel is shown to house manufacturing units for the Combine’s war machine along with a dark energy core.

  • In the grim corridors of the Citadel, players are stripped of their weapons, save for the Gravity Gun, which allows it to pick up Combine Soldiers and vapourise their weapons. This results in some hilarity as players can finally dispense punishment on the Combine. No matter how many times I return here, the super-charged Gravity Gun never grows old, and one thing I’d love to do is to see what the super-charged Gravity Gun’s effects on Barnacles are. I imagine they’d get vapourised, since this is the effect that energy balls from the pulse rifle’s secondary fire do to them.

  • After reaching Breen’s office and confronting him, players can only watch as Breen attempts to escape. However, Alyx suggests overloading the Dark Energy core, causing the entire system to fail. Once the Dark Energy core is destroyed, Half-Life 2 draws to a close. Update was overall, a solid experience, giving me a chance to go back through Half-Life 2 again. My experiences in Half-Life 2 have always been overwhelmingly positive, and so, during this year’s Steam Winter Sale, I picked up Black Mesa, a remake of the original Half-Life. This remake began its life in 2005, released as a mod for players in 2012, and the Xen segments were finished in 2019. In March 2020, the game finally released in full for players.

  • Thus, my next journey in the Half-Life franchise will be a step backwards in time as I fight through Black Mesa: I lack the proper hardware to play Half-Life: Alyx, and despite some suggesting that Half-Life 3 could return, I’m not optimistic about the series receiving a conclusion on account of an interview which suggested that the original Half-Life 2: Episode 3 was delayed because of work on the Source 2 engine, and over time, scope creep and expectations made it exceedingly to develop a sequel. Only time will tell what happens in Half-Life, but in the meantime, it’s time to go ahead and experienced a game I’ve wished to play in full since 2012.

Going through Half-Life 2: Update, I found a superb title that shows how even subtle changes can shift the way a game feels. Update was overall, a smooth and solid experience. Moreover, this mod is free to players who own Half-Life 2: aside from a bit of a download, installing the mod is a seamless process. As a Half-Life 2 mod, Update represents modding at its simplest and cleanest level, leaving Half-Life 2‘s base mechanics intact while simultaneously providing players with a new experience. However, mods do not end here; Valve has always encouraged modding, with the intent of allowing players to create their own content, stories and mechanics. The modding community surrounding Source Engine games is therefore especially active, and indeed, some of Valve’s own smash hits came from mods to Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Mods are an integral part of gaming, and while I do not play too many mods myself, I am aware of their impact, as well as their enjoyability. One of my friends plays Source mods almost exclusively over more traditional game modes, citing the unpredictability and community’s enjoyment as the reason for sticking around. A glance at where modern gaming is going indicates to me that my ability to keep up with the latest trends is probably drawing to a close; instead of grinding it out for the latest Battlefield or Division title, I see myself returning to older games like Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Sim City 4, capitalising on the fact that I have entire worlds to myself, open to discovery and exploration as their developers had intended, long before skins and emotes overtook creativity and fun as the primary reason to play games. With a host of these older titles left to experience, I believe the time has come for me to take a step back and finish some titles that I’ve yet to complete (such as Skyrim). This is going to be my resolution for the upcoming year as far as gaming goes: rather than delving into newer titles, my aim will be to make some progress with my backlog, starting with Left 4 Dead 2, Black Mesa, Skyrim and Go! Go! Nippon!.

Half-Life 2- Downfall: A Reflection

“Prepare for unforeseen consequences.” —The G Man, Half-Life 2 Episode 2

Gordon Freeman is tasked with retrieving a resistance weapon capable of destroying Combine Citadels in a mission whose timeframe relative to the other events of Half-Life 2 are not known. After arriving at a sawmill, Freeman fights his way through hordes of zombies to reach a derelict mine guarded by a veritable armada of Combine soldiers. Entering the mine, Freeman begins his descent into the bowels of the earth itself in search of this weapon. Released earlier this year as a Half-Life 2 mod, Downfall is an excellent fan-made addition to the Half-Life 2 universe that remains highly faithful to the mechanics and visuals of the Half-Life 2 games. Set in the White Forest area, the atmospherics and visual effects are top-tier, matching those of Half-Life 2 Episode 2 in most areas and surpassing it in others. The mod is incomplete at present, and two more chapters are planned. The first chapter is a ways longer than Half-Life 2: The Lost Coast. The mod is comparable to a single chapter in a Half-Life 2 episode, taking around three-quarters of an hour to beat on standard difficulty, but it’s an immensely thrilling ride, being the next best thing to a proper announcement about the likely non-existent Half-Life 2 Episode 3 and Half-Life 3 itself.

What makes Downfall such an entertaining mod is the fact that, while the level design is structured consistently with what is seen in the actual Half-Life 2 titles, Downfall introduces a new twist on things: players are only equipped with the legendary Zero-Point Energy Manipulation Device (Gravity Gun) to begin with. Upon arriving at the sawmill, zombies begin appearing en masse to attack the player, forcing players to get creative with the objects available in the environment. Even after a crowbar is found, things remain quite tricky – clearing an area of zombies and moving onwards is an especially rewarding feeling. One of the more exhilarating moments was fighting a poison headcrab zombie in one of the houses: I’m accustomed to having some heavy firepower in the form of under-barrel grenades and a good stockpile of hand grenades when taking these monstrosities on, but Downfall only provides players with a pistol at this point. Running out of ammunition will occur before one can take down the poison headcrab zombie, so players are forced to bait the zombie into throwing the poison headcrabs at them, and then dispatch each individual poison headcrab with the crowbar. As players acquire more weapons, the gameplay in Downfall begins feeling more like a traditional Half-Life 2 mission; engaging Combine soldiers and other enemies become rather more straightforward.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Downfall opens with a casual Sunday drive to a location where a beacon signal is transmitted, under what appears to be the setting sun. Downfall could hypothetically be set in the moments following Episode 2, after Eli Vance is killed by a Combine Advisor; Freeman must then regroup with additional members of the Resistance before they set off for the Borealis. Once players reach the sawmill, the muscle car must be abandoned.

  • There’s a definite calm in the atmosphere as Freeman begins exploring the area, and there’s an abandoned boathouse adjacent to a lake. Of all the existing instalments in Half-Life 2Episode 2 stands out as having some of the most memorable scenery, being set in the remote forests of Eastern Europe rather than the close-quarters of City 17. I’ve heard that Episode 2 was inspired by forests of Oregon.

  • The moody skies in Episode 2 bring to mind the mood of my area shortly after the Great Flood of 2013. The Royal Family visited the area shortly after, and I recall listening to a news programme covering the event while I was fighting my way through the White Forest Inn ambush. The quiet beauty of the area is offset by the fierce onslaught, so after the fighting died down, I spent a few moments exploring the area.

  • Because players only start out with the Gravity Gun and find a crowbar early into Downfall, the first segments of the mod handle similarly to the Ravenholm mission. To encourage creative play, Valve implemented an achievement called “Zombie Chopper” for using only using the Gravity Gun. While seemingly a difficult task, ammunition was already quite scarce in Ravenholm, and bullets are actually less effective against zombies than large objects.

  • The crowbar is a fantastic weapon against leaping headcrabs and can kill one in a single hit, including poison headcrabs. A large number of zombies, including zombines, appear here, but the abundance of objects that can be thrown means that there are no shortage of options for dealing with zombies. The tire swing on the left of image can be used to great effect; it is hilarious to send conventional zombies flying with it, but there is also a risk: I lost thirty points of health because the tire swing swung back at me after one use.

  • In the sawmill’s attic, players will come across the control panel for opening the flood gate, allowing Freeman to move into the next area. There’s also a large ammunition cache here, plus several computer terminals, indicating that the sawmill was probably used as a Resistance outpost before the Combine overwhelmed them. For the time being, there’s no way to actually get into the ammunition cache, which is present purely for aesthetic purposes.

  • The house here is infested with poison headcrabs and a poison headcrab zombie: while I’m accustomed to using heavy firepower to deal with them (burning them with explosive barrels, or otherwise using a combination of hand grenades and the MP7’s under-barrel grenades), these are not options in the house. Instead, Freeman must bait the poison headcrabs into leaping off the zombie, and then beat them down with the crowbar. After all of the poison headcrabs are expended, the zombie itself can be pummeled to death using physical objects, and the cinder brick found in the cellar of this house is particularly useful for that task.

  • A quick glance at the calendar shows that it’s been five days since Christmas, and six days since I posted anything. This is because it’s been a bit of a relaxing, if somewhat busy Christmas: on Christmas Day this year, the day began with a fantastic breakfast of fried eggs, bacon, hash browns and Belgian waffles. After the opening of gifts, I took a walk on the nearby hills by afternoon despite the -20°C weather, where I found some Christmas ornaments hanging on one of the aspen groves, and then spent the rest of the day playing Overgrowth. We finished the day with prime rib and the remarkably flavourful beef bones.

  • They definitely aren’t kidding when the say that the Icefields Parkway is a remote stretch of road with reduced maintenance in winter. The drive back home was as treacherous: a blizzard had began in earnest when we began making our way back. Last evening, temperatures reached a low of -31°C before windchill and a fresh snow had fallen. It’s expected to be -32°C later tonight (-43°C with windchill), making me extremely appreciative of being able to rest in a warm place. I’m sure readers are not here about the cold, so we’ll return to Downfall, where the mines are warm, even if inhabited by barnacles.

  • Upon exiting the first of the mines, Freeman comes across a rail line covered by a Combine Sniper. There’s practically no cover leading down the tracks, and while there is another path that allows Freeman to close the distance between him and the sniper, I chose to make use of a log and well-known limitation in the AI to close the distance more quickly. The sniper will throw back the first grenade, but will not do anything about the second grenade Freeman throws at them.

  • The Colt Python pistol, for all of its incredible power, is constrained by a small ammunition pool, and I’ve typically not run into situations where I’ve required it. It’s best saved for Combine elite soldiers and Hunters; in Downfall, these enemies do not appear and so, it can be used to quickly deal with the first wave of Combine soldiers Freeman encounters. Here, I look back at the train tracks and the scenery.

  • With the sniper now cleared out, I take a look around at the setting and marvel at the details of the mining structures. This mine forms the setting for the only firefight against Combine soldiers in Downfall, and while players are armed with only the pistols at this point, use of cover and a little bit of creativity will allow for the first wave of soldiers to be cleared out in a relatively straightforward manner.

  • I finally acquire the MP7, which is probably my most-used weapon in all of Half-Life 2 and its episodes simply because of how plentiful ammunition for it is. The weapon is used extensively by Combine, and ammunition crates for the weapon are easily found. While ineffectual at longer ranges owing to its spread, its large magazine capacity and carrying capacity makes it a solid all-around weapon for most close range engagements.

  • I cannot quite put my finger on what it is about the lighting and assets that give Episode 2 environments such a unique feel to them, but overall, the presence of open wilderness as opposed to urban build-up meant that, had Half-Life 2 Episode 3 ever come out, I would have been hoping for more rural settings. With the story hypothetically set to take place in the arctic, it seems that players would have had the chance to explore non-urban settings.

  • There’s a restrictor here that keeps the Antlions away. These insect-like aliens can spawn indefinitely and overwhelm players with their numbers, but they can be kicked back using the gravity gun. Enough hits from the gravity gun will kill them, although their numbers makes the technique viable only with solitary antlions.

  • The elevator here leads to the control room with the energy orb powering the Combine defenses here, and disabling it will lower the force field covering the path Freeman needs to take. Antlions begin swarming the area, although now that Freeman’s got the MP7 and SPAS-12 Shotgun, taking them on becomes a bit more straightforwards.

  • While there’s been no official news of Episode 3, some dedicated folks have begun working on an unofficial continuation using the Unreal 4 Engine, which powered my Master’s Thesis project. This continuation, titled “Project Borealis”, is being undertaken to build a game from the story that Marc Laidlaw provided back in August, outlining what Episode 3 would have entailed. The project’s lead manager has industry experience and seeks to create the best possible experience for fans of the series and presently, the story is around half finished.

  • Some interesting concept art has also been provided for Arctic headcrabs and a new model of Strider. Enemy AI and weapon concepts are also entering testing; while no news of when Project Borealis’ release was provided, the team did mention that they will be keeping the community updated as they continue with the project. This is quite exciting, and it seems that, even if Valve has no interest in continuing the Half-Life franchise, dedicated and devoted community members can and will keep things going. I’m curious to see where things will end up, and with the Unreal 4 Engine driving things, the game could look quite refreshed once completed.

  • After entering the main mine shaft and descending deep underground, Downfall comes to a close. The bitterly cold winter evening is upon us, and after a warm dinner of fried chicken, I’m watching the mercury plummet. The weather is expected to warm up as we enter the New Year; before 2018 sets in, I’ve got one final post for 2017, dealing with Nekopara‘s OVA. 2017’s been a bit of an interesting year for the blog, and while I can’t say that my numbers are particularly strong a motivator for continuing this blog, a strong reader-base and the associated discussion means I’m not quite ready to call it quits fully yet.

It typifies Valve’s ability to create suspense and horror in games whose aim is not solely horror, and Downfall makes excellent use of Valve’s techniques to create a mod that feels as though it is a proper instalment in the Half-Life 2 universe. While faithful to Half-Life 2 in design and concept, subtleties in the gameplay show that there remains some room for improvement still: besides cleverly forcing players to adopt different strategies, there are other minor surprises in store for players, with the most notable being the Combine Sniper that returns a grenade players throw at them, requiring players use a second grenade to defeat the sniper. This moment was completely unexpected and shows that the Source Engine, in spite of its age, can still be made to throw off players to create refreshing moments. While there’s been talk of Half-Life 3 and Half-Life 2 Episode 3 sporadically in the years since I first beat Episode 2, my intuition tells me that the expectations for these two items is one of the contributing factors to why Valve is not actively pursuing a continuation of Episode 2. With this being said, Downfall isn’t quite finished yet, and it will be interesting to see as to whether or not its continuations will come out as the modder has suggested – if there are indeed to be future instalments of Downfall, I will definitely be interested in seeing where things are headed.

Half-Life 2 Episode Two: A reflection

Half-Life 2 Episode One was good, but Episode Two was phenomenal. After the train derails, Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance attempt to make their way to the White Forest base to deliver a code that will collapse the Citadel’s portal. En route, Alyx is mortally wounded by a Hunter, powerful and resilient enemies with a flechette cannon and wickedly sharp claws. The player fights through an antlion colony to retrieve the extract necessary to heal Alyx, before driving through the countryside to reach White Forest ahead of the Combine. Once the rocket is launched, Eli Vance is killed by a Combine Advisor, and the game ends after Dog drives off the Advisors. Of all the Half-Life 2 games, Episode Two is set in the countryside and therefore feels a lot more open compared to its predecessors, even though it is as linear as Episode One and Half-Life 2. My first experience with this game was back in March 2008; after finishing my chemistry, English and calculus coursework, I spent the remaining three days of Spring Break playing through this game, although looking back, I feel that the experience is far more enjoyable with a larger screen.

  • Episode Two is an amazing experience all around, but its most infamous achievement is the “Little Rocket Man”, which is notoriously difficult to complete. I might go back and try to get it later, but for the present, I’m occupied with Battlefield 3. So…the preview for posts are as follows: I’ll have a final impressions post for Infinite Stratos² and Non Non Biyori by Christmas Eve at the latest.

  • I’ve omitted the antlion colony level from the screenshots simply because those levels were a shooting gallery, and I was admittedly having too much fun squishing antlion larvae to obtain screenshots. Before picking up the vehicle, the player must take down both the antlion guard and the antlion guardian. There are many explosive barrels scattered throughout the region, so even if one is short on ammunition, it’s possible to make use of these barrels and the Gravity gun to take down these mini-bosses.

  • The remnants of the Citadel can be seen way out in the countryside. I’m about to reach the radio station and fight the Hunters for the first time. Guides recommend using the energy ball to take them down quickly, but the shotgun is also effective. Using bunny-hopping to perform hit and fade assaults, the Hunters are no match for my über-micro skills.

  • This abandoned farm is where the player first encounters a Combine Advisor: be prepared to be impressed by the Source engine when one of the Advisors uses telekinetic powers to crush a barrel. Even the super-powered Gravity gun can’t do that.

  • The mountains and atmosphere in these parts are somewhat similar to that of the Rocky View County region during autumn, when grey skies and the vast prairies end in distant mountains. It’s a very calming place to be, even when it’s overcast. Here, another assault chopper pursues the player, but upon reaching a Resistance base, there is a chance to square off against it using the Gravity gun and the chopper’s own mines.

  • This is the White Forest Inn. More Hunters and a Combine unit show up. I recall that Sunday in July when I had taken down the last Hunter; the basement television was on and the news was broadcasting Prince George of Cambridge’s birth. Though I am not too terribly interested in the British Monarchy, the event itself was particularly noteworthy from a historical perspective, and so, this part of the game will forever remind me of this event. It’s been some five years since I last played this, so I don’t have any memories attached to this part of the game from back then.

  • The Magnusson device is the ultimate weapon against Striders but requires precision aiming to operate. During the last mission in Episode Two, the player is tasked with defending the White Forest base long enough for the preparations for a rocket launch to be completed.

  • It looks like one could take out a Strider with a single shot from the USP Match here; in a sense, this is now possible. After sticking Magnusson device to the Strider’s underside, the pistol is the recommended weapon to use: the 9mm rounds are enough to trigger the device, and the pistol has a reasonable firing rate. It is very satisfying to bring down the Striders using this weapon.

  • As the battle wears on, the Striders begin targeting the buildings housing the teleporters. The vehicle can carry one Magnusson device at any given point, so it is imperative to make every shot count. Hunters escort the Striders: they represent additional firepower and should be dealt with quickly, although priority should go towards taking out the Striders.

  • After the last of the Striders are downed, the player has the honour of launching the rocket. The codes the satellite transmit are successful in shutting down the Combine super-portal, but there isn’t a happy ending: Eli Vance is killed by a Combine Advisor, leaving behind more questions than answers. With the release date for Episode Three is nowhere in sight, I have no idea what the Borealis’ role is, or even where the next game will take place. Over the past few years, April Fools’ jokes surrounding Episode Three have been made, leading some fans to believe the game was available for sale for 29.99 at one point.

At present, Half-Life 2 Episode Two reminds me of two moments during the summer. The first memory was on July 20, when I am driving down a railway track to a Resistance hideout to get the radar installed. I was set to go on a short outing to Canmore at this time: for most of Summer 2013, the floods completely threw my hopes of travelling in the mountains out the window. I had made donations to help flood victims and also to flip the bird at the weather for having caused the flood to begin with, but by late July, when I had reached this point in the game, much of the Trans-Canada highway had been repaired. This trip succeeded in giving me a brief  but much-needed respite from work. I spent a sunny afternoon in the mountains, partaking in a hike before having afternoon tea at the Communitea teahouse. A few days later, on July 22, while the media was buzzing with announcement about Prince George of Cambridge’s birth, I reached the White Forest Inn. Admittedly, I am not particularly interested in the Royal family, but the announcement meant that the mission “Under the Radar” would be associated with this historic event in my books. I beat Half-Life 2 Episode Two a few days later. It’s been some five years since I first played through the Half-Life 2 episodes, and although clues about Aperture Science’s Borealis are tantalising, Half-Life 2 Episode Three or Half-Life 3 show no signs of release anytime soon. So shrouded in mystery these games’ statuses are, that I’m willing to bet that I’ll probably be a few years into my full-time occupation before it comes out.