The Infinite Zenith

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Tag Archives: Valve

Portal With RTX: A Reflection on A More Reflective Portal Experience

“Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do, doesn’t mean it’s useless.” –Thomas Edison

Back in September, NVIDIA’s announcement of Portal With RTX generated a bit of buzz: the original Portal is now fifteen years old. To showcase their new line of Lovelace GPUs and RTX Remix, NVIDIA also determined that Portal was worth reimagining. Using machine learning, RTX Remix dynamically computes how lighting should behave, allowing it to interact with objects in a 3D space in real-time. RTX Remix uses path-tracing, which uses a comparatively simple algorithm to render high-quality images at the expense of performance; as lighting becomes more sophisticated, path-tracing becomes more demanding, and typically, games utilise more efficient variants of path-tracing that may not be quite as visually impressive. Here in Portal With RTX, NVIDIA Remix’s use of path-tracing means that the end-result is a highly advanced showcase of what lighting effects are possible: because everything is done using ray-tracing, illuminations, shadows, reflections and even refractive effects are especially impressive, breathing new life into an iconic game. There is, however, a trade-off: because of how computationally expensive path-tracing is, Portal With RTX demands the most powerful hardware in order to run at maximum quality and resolution. In order to play Portal With RTX at 4K and 60 FPS, with everything set to ultra, NVIDIA’s RTX 4080 is recommended. On the other hand, while the minimum GPU suggested is the RTX 3060, folks have reported that they’re struggling to run Portal With RTX, even though they’re running video cards that are more powerful than the RTX 3060. The variability in performance and experience demonstrate that, as exciting as ray-tracing techniques are, and as exciting as the prospect of having real-time ray-tracing hardware become mainstream is, the technology still has a way to go before it can become widespread. For the present, real-time ray-tracing remains more of a curiosity, but when judiciously applied, the lighting and visuals can act as a fantastic showcase for what is possible.

The extreme requirements in Portal With RTX has meant that getting the game to run has been a toss-of-the-coin. On my RTX 3060 Ti, which is about 30 percent more powerful than the RTX 3060, I’ve managed to get Portal With RTX running at manageable frame rates, with reasonable quality. Although the RTX 3060 Ti is far outstripped by the RTX 4090, the fact that this mid-range card is able to run Portal With RTX without any major issues speaks volumes to the build I put together back in March. In this way, I was able to revisit an old experience given a fresh coat of paint. Initial impressions of Portal With RTX had been met with skepticism: video games journalist Ben Sledge writes that the highly reflective, clean surfaces of the remaster defeats the visual impact of the original game, where there had previously been dull, lifeless walls, and as a result, the soul of Portal had been “ripped out”. As a result, the remaster was unnecessary, and hardly any justification for playing Portal With RTX. In practise, this is untrue; although Portal With RTX has new, high-resolution textures to showcase just how sophisticated the RTX Remix lighting is, the overall aesthetic in Portal With RTX remains respectful to the visuals of the original. NVIDIA had chosen to showcase segments of the game where the differences were especially profound, but for folks playing through Portal With RTX, the visuals actually aren’t too dramatically changed: after marvelling at the reflections from the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Button, emissive effects from the high-energy pellets and dynamic shadows (all computed in real time), it’s time to focus on the puzzles themselves. Moving through the test chambers, it is apparent that, rather than depriving Portal of its character, the updated visuals actually speak to an Aperture Science that is at its prime. Clean, polished surfaces show an institute that was, at one point, a serious competitor to Black Mesa. The new visuals in Portal With RTX serve to both bring life to an old classics, as well as tell a different story about Aperture Sciences, and in this way, one can make a clear case that Portal With RTX is anything but soulless. Of course, if one wished to experience the original, that option continues to remain viable: the old game isn’t going anywhere, and upon returning to it after completing Portal With RTX, it is apparent that the original still holds up extremely well.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • For me, Portal With RTX represents a test of my hardware’s capabilities. I’d already played through and wrote about Portal previously, having greatly enjoyed the game’s innovative mechanics and sense of humour. On this particular play-through, I completed the entire game in the space of an hour and a half, having already gone through the game and therefore, had a full knowledge of all of the nuances to how each puzzle was to be solved. Instead, a part of this experience was to see just how detailed everything looked now that real-time ray-tracing was implemented.

  • To put things simply, Portal With RTX looks amazing. This is most noticeable in the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Buttons on the floor. Whereas they’d been made of a dull metal previously, they’re now reimagined as glass or ceramic buttons and reflect their environments in detail. To show that off, I’ve stacked a pair of Weighted Storage Cubes here, and positioned myself so I could see the wall lights and portal reflected on the buttons’ surfaces. Ray-tracing effects have previously been implemented in first person shooters like Metro: Exodus and DOOM: Eternal, but with how high-paced they are, there’s little time to appreciate the visuals.

  • On the other hand, Portal is the perfect place to showcase what ray-tracing can do. The high energy pellets, for instance, now emit their own light and act as a mobile point light. While this is nothing impressive, the fact that everything in this scene is ray-traced shows what’s possible with the technique. One detail I did particularly like was the fact that the toxic liquid in Portal With RTX, a dull, greenish-brown sludge in the original, is now more reflective, and thanks to ray-tracing, any changes in the environment are now visible on the liquid’s surface, too.

  • For me, I have DLSS on and set to “Quality”. I’m using a custom graphic preset with everything turned up, except the maximum number of light bounces is set to four. With these settings, the game runs at around 45 FPS, and I didn’t experience any crashes during my time in Portal With RTX. Although quite a ways lower than the baseline of 60 FPS for smoothness on my monitors, the game remained very playable, and I was able to complete it without any difficulties from a hardware standpoint. With this being said, it is clear that for me, Portal With RTX was not being rendered at native resolution, and instead, was likely being upscaled using DLSS.

  • DLSS (Deep Learning Super Sampling) refers to NVIDIA’s upscaling and inference technology which renders images at lower resolutions and then upscales the images so performance is increased. This translates to better frame rates for players, allowing lower-end GPUs to still keep up. The technology was introduced with the Turing Series, and with Lovelace, DLSS 3 was brought in: DLSS 3 is exclusive to the Lovelace series, but even the older DLSS 2 (which is available on the Ampere GPUs) offers performance gains. For most of the games I play, I have more than enough hardware to render everything at native resolution.

  • In the case of Portal With RTX, the image quality is a little less crisp than if everything were rendered natively. With DLSS off, I average around 15-20 FPS, so in order to have a playable frame rate, even at 1080p, I needed DLSS to be enabled, although even at the “quality” mode, I was able to maintain about 40-45 FPS. I estimate that folks running an RTX 2080 Super or RTX 2080 Ti should also be able to play Portal With RTX without too much problem after adjusting some of the settings, but anything below an RTX 3060 is unlikely to be able to run the game.

  • The requirements for Portal With RTX are surprisingly steep because RTX Remix is, simply put, expecting the Lovelace series of GPUs to brute force things. When optimised, real-time ray-tracing can be quite performant, but here, Portal With RTX is meant as more of a demonstration of the technology. As such, as incredible as Portal With RTX looks, it’s also one of those games that can’t be recommended to Portal fans unless they already have the hardware or are intending to upgrade their hardware and utilising it fully: it should go without saying that spending 2200 CAD for an RTX 4090, or 1650 CAD for an RTX 4080 (neither of which are in stock at my local computer store) just so one can play Portal is not a good use of money.

  • Having said this, if one has a legitimate use case for a Lovelace GPU, then Portal With RTX becomes a novel experience. Here, I will share a laugh with readers at the expense of Tango-Victor-Tango’s John “Fighteer” Aldrich, who had posted to the forums shortly after Portal With RTX‘s announcement, wondering if his GTX 1060 would be able to run the game and concluded he should be okay since the GTX 1060 was capable of ray-tracing. Although the 6 GB model of the GTX 1060 can enable DXR and do some ray tracing, performance leaves much to be desired – if memory serves, in games with basic ray tracing, the GTX 1060 drops to around 15 FPS with DXR enabled. Seeing Fighteer’s misplaced optimism that the GTX 1060 (while a fantastic card) could run Portal With RTX is laughable and typifies the behaviour of Tango-Victor-Tango’s userbase’s tendency to not completely research their topics before speaking out.

  • Shortly after Portal With RTX released, Fighteer found himself eating crow and commented on how he now had an incentive to upgrade in the future, and I return to my previous statement – if one is planning an upgrade to an RTX 4080 or 4090 purely so they can play Portal With RTX, it is likely an unwise expenditure. For content creators who stream Triple-A titles, a top-tier GPU like the 4090 makes sense, and similarly, someone doing AI research will find the 4090 a suitable investment. However, for a vast majority of gamers, the RTX 4090, and even the 4080, is overkill. Having a video card like these for 1440p gaming as a hobby is akin to having a supercar, and then only using it as one’s commuter vehicle.

  • Because of the financial aspect, I do not expect Fighteer to spring on an RTX 4080 or 4090: in fact, I comment that it’d be more prudent now to wait for the mid-end Lovelace cards before making a decision. For me, I’ve settled into a pattern now: after I buy a GPU, I try to make it last at least three generations before upgrading again, and whether I upgrade depends on whether or not my current GPU can still run the games I am interested in on high settings while maintaining 60 FPS at 1080p. If my GPU cannot do this, then I will look at seeing whether or not the current mid-range GPUs can keep up with the upper-range GPUs of the previous generation.

  • For instance, when I upgraded to the GTX 1060 from the GTX 660, one of the selling points about the 1060 was the fact that it offered near-980 levels of performance for a much lower price and a lower power draw. One of the reasons why the RTX 3060 Ti was so enticing, then, was the fact that it actually edged out the RTX 2080 SC. In fact, the 3060 Ti is ten to fifteen percent weaker than the older 2080 Ti, but at the same time, costs significantly less and has a lower power draw. For me, I don’t need the additional power the 2080 Ti offers because I’m still playing at 1080p, so the lower cost made the 3060 Ti the obvious choice.

  • Since I made the call to grab a 3060 Ti, this left me in a position to try Portal With RTX out, and this is why I’ve been lucky enough to give things a go and see for myself what the technology could do. However, Portal With RTX is not a game worth upgrading a GPU for in this moment, but down the line, when more Lovelace GPUs (or the new generation) become available, more people will be able to give Portal With RTX a try. Surprisingly, most of Tango-Victor-Tango’s forums have been remarkable quiet about Portal With RTX, and most of the complaints about the game’s steep requirements are found at Reddit.

  • My response to Portal With RTX and its requirements are that, I’m glad my desktop was able to handle it reasonably well (40-45 FPS at 1080p with things cranked up to ultra is nothing to sneeze at, considering that the recommended GPU is an RTX 3080), and moreover, even if the humble 3060 Ti could not run the game as well as it did, it’s not as though the release of Portal With RTX would take away from the fact that Portal still runs extremely well and is the original experience. As such, it makes little sense to gripe about Portal With RTX‘s changed aesthetics and steep requirements because there’s nothing stopping players from grabbing the original and having a good time with it.

  • As I made further progress into Portal With RTX, I began recalling old memories of playing through the game for the first time. The puzzles came back to me relatively quickly, and I don’t mind admitting that I only had a minor bit of trouble with Test Chamber 15, but even then, after giving things some thought, all of the puzzles proved quite straightforward to complete. This was what allowed me to go through the whole of Portal With RTX with relative ease. On my original run of Portal a decade earlier, I had taken a total of three hours to complete the game since everything was new to me, but for my troubles, had a wonderful experience.

  • I ended up replaying the whole of Portal two years earlier, during the height of the global health crisis. Replaying Portal brought back memories of a simpler time, and here, I pick up the iconic Companion Cube, which became an instant favourite with players. Its first utility is to act as a shield of sorts, protecting players from the high-energy pellets while they travel down the hallways. Here, the ray-tracing has a chance to really shine: the high energy pellets emit light and glow brightly, causing a unique visual effect in the metal-lined corridor that was simply absent in the original.

  • The Companion Cube creates an interesting problem-solving scenario, since players must use their single resource in order to complete the objective, and for Portal With RTX, the updated visuals are especially impressive in Test Chamber 17 because there’s an opportunity to again showcase the lighting. Here, light from the Heavy Duty Super-Colliding Super Buttons illuminates the Companion Cube, and reflections of this lighting can be seen on the wall to the right. The slower pace of Portal is naturally conducive towards admiring the lighting effects.

  • It suddenly hits me that we’re now hurtling through December at a breakneck pace: it only seems like yesterday that the month has started, but we’re now less than two weeks to Christmas itself. Yesterday evening, I was able to enjoy the first Christmas gathering with extended family in three years, and it was a pleasant evening of conversation and excellent food (prime rib with au jus, roasted prawns, skewered pork, mahi-mahi, carrots and Brussels sprouts with bacon and potato gratin). I’ve got another Christmas party lined up on Thursday with the office, but beyond this, I am looking forwards to a quieter Christmas Day with immediate family.

  • 2022’s been an eventful year, especially with the big move and building of a new desktop back in March, but things settled down reasonably quickly, so I am able to look forward to some well-earned downtime at the end of the year. I am glad that I was able to get my desktop set up when I did: the ongoing microprocessor shortage has meant that new parts will continue to be hard to come by, and Intel forecasts that said shortage could last into 2024 because of a lack of manufacturing equipment. As a result, prices are unlikely to see any drops, and this has been most visible with the Lovelace series GPUs, whose flagship model costs more than an entire PC.

  • The extreme price of hardware is what led my alma mater to remove their gaming PCs from the main library. When the new library had opened a decade earlier, the gaming computers were something students marvelled at and featured hardware comparable to my previous desktop. They received upgrades back in 2016, but when campus was undergoing a reconstruction project in 2019, the machines were decommissioned: some students have noted that their hardware was increasingly outdated, and beginning to fail, so the university decided to shelve these machines.

  • As of 2022, campus has not purchased new machines to replace the old ones, and for good reason: picking up eight brand-new custom-built PCs wouldn’t be a good use of the university’s funding, especially when considering that a high-end laptop now can have comparable performance. On the topic of higher-end laptops, my best friend recently picked up a new laptop to replace an aging machine that’d been giving him no shortage of trouble. This laptop, the MSI Katana, is armed with an i7 12700H and an RTX 3070, which puts his machine as having 90 percent the performance of my desktop.

  • With this, I am looking forwards to playing Modern Warfare II spec ops with him in the near future, and in the meantime, the both of us can gloat about being able to enjoy games while Fighteer is stuck moderating pointless debates at Tango-Victor-Tango because aging hardware precludes his spending time doing more enjoyable and productive things, such as checking out the real-time reflections in Portal With RTX. Admittedly, the visuals here are such that it would be easier to show the effects in a video, rather than through screenshots, but one hopes that the stills I’ve got still convey the advances in lighting effects.

  • Back in Portal With RTX, after solving this puzzle, GLaDOS promises that there’d be cake, but for longtime players, what awaits is a hilarious outcome that also sends Portal into its second act. By this point in time, the sum of all of one’s experiences means that players should be able to quickly identify where portals should be placed in order to solve a given puzzle. In Portal 2, test chambers actually limited the amount of surfaces a portal could be placed on, which in turn would give not-so-subtle clues as to how things could be beaten.

  • However, in Portal, even though test chambers are largely portal-friendly, the game still gives some clues as to where portals can be placed. High-energy pellets, for instance, will leave scorch marks on surfaces they interact with, and the receptacles for these pellets similarly illuminate a path so one has an idea of where to aim things. Portal is one of those games where the puzzles, while sometimes challenging, aren’t impossible: it feels rewarding to work something out, but it won’t take one an entire afternoon to figure out one test chamber.

  • Portal is broken cleanly into two acts: the first is the test chambers, and the second is everything after players escape and do what they can to survive. From here on out, the game requires that players keep an eye on their environment and make full use of their creativity and ingenuity to survive. Along the way, scribbles on the walls will serve to guide one to their final destination, a one-on-one confrontation with GLaDOS. I found that Portal With RTX‘s second half was not quite as visually impressive as the first, but even here, the lighting effects are impressive, with things like the catwalks being rendered with reflections to give them a greasy, slippery sense.

  • Pressing through the bowels of Aperture Science with ray-tracing, it becomes clear that while Portal With RTX had refreshed the original test chambers, the back corridors of Aperture remain mostly untouched, and this creates an even stronger juxtaposition between the game’s first and second acts. In these corridors and maintenance ways, the effects from real-time ray-tracing are still noticeable (fans cast shadows in real time, and metallic surfaces interact realistically with light), but for me, the most impressive addition is volumetric lighting, which gives the entire space a musty, dusty character.

  • Owing to the volumetric lighting, spaces that were formerly dark are now much brighter than they’d previously been, and this brought to mind the changes that were made to Halo: Anniversary, where iconic spots on Installation 04 were rendered as being more detailed and bright than in the original. Fans were displeased with the changes, since the darkness had added to the aesthetics and unease those levels conveyed. By the time of Halo 2: Anniversary, 343 Industries took a much more respectful approach to things, and the game ends up being faithful to the original’s tone while at the same time, sporting much more detail.

  • Portal With RTX is more similar to Halo 2: Anniversary, or perhaps Half-Life 2: Update, which touched up the visuals without dramatically altering the game’s style. This speaks volumes to how things like RTX Remix can be used to add new life to classic games, and while I would very much prefer a proper remaster, the fact that the technology exist means that, at least in theory, it’d be possible to run something like Half-Life 2 though RTX Remix and get real-time ray-tracing working. Of course, in a first person shooter, where frame rates do matter, I’m not confident the technology would produce the best experience, even if it does showcase how the potential for giving games new lighting exists.

  • The sky bridge leading into GLaDOS’ chamber in Portal With RTX looks much as it did in Portal, although better lighting means more details are visible. Here, I will note that in the time since I’ve graduated, many parts of my alma mater have undergone dramatic renovations and changes, so some of the features that were present when I were a student are now gone, and the professional building is among the places that have changed. The office perched beside an atrium is gone, but this is actually one of the smaller changes; because it’s been six years since I was a student, the library tower and student services buildings have been completely replaced, and even the iconic “Prairie Chicken” statue was removed for a few years while construction was going on.

  • Although lower frame rates are technically okay (anything north of 30 FPS is playable in the test chambers and while escaping), 45 FPS is more than enough to beat GLaDOS, and I had no trouble completing the final fight. Having said this, it is here, during the final fight, that frame rates do matter: beating GLaDOS, even though it is a relatively relaxed task, still demands some degree of precision and coordination, and a janky experience can prevent one from timing their jumps well enough to grab some of GLaDOS’ personality cores.

  • Ninety minutes later, I had completed the whole of Portal With RTX and was treated to the final cut scene, wherein the infamous black forest cake is rendered using real-time ray-tracing. I found myself vaguely filled with a desire to enjoy some cake, and while the local grocery store sells black forest cakes for 16 CAD, the fact that we’re so close to the holidays means that other Christmas classics will soon dominate the menu (including my personal festive favourite, the chocolate Yule Log).

While ray-tracing has only really taken off with NVIDIA’s Turing series of GPUs, the techniques have been proposed since 1986 by James Kajiya, and during my second year as an undergraduate student, I put together my own ray-tracing method for dynamically computing fluid flow in complex paths for physics objects. The object of this project had been to see if I could solve the problem of the in-house game engine being constrained to linear models of fluid flow. As the lab was trying to simulate more complex paths, the only solution was to approximate these paths by placing what we called “flow fields” into vessels. This was a painstaking task, and the concept of ray-tracing had been a promising way to simplify things. I was asked to explore an algorithm that each physical agent in the model could use to computer its path, and over the course of a summer, fine-tuned it so that it could convincingly “nudge” objects flowing to follow a path for visualisation. While the method had similarly been computationally demanding, it demonstrated that it was possible to push physical agents through any arbitrarily-shaped vessels without manually defining the paths. At the time, hardware meant that doing this for a few hundred objects and maintaining 30 frames per second was an accomplishment, but as more agents were added, performance correspondingly took a hit. Through this summer project, I felt that ray-tracing was a fantastic way of simplifying some tasks at the expense of performance, and while hardware today has improved, the trade off between convenience for the developers, and an end user’s experience, is one that real-time ray-tracing continues to face. In the case of Portal With RTX, using an AI to remaster lighting in a game is an exciting new development, and while it may not produce an optimised product for retail, evolving technology and hardware means that such methods simply open up more possibilities: rather than remain disappointed about how Portal With RTX cannot run on all hardware, one can instead look to the technology as simply another sign that things will never stagnate and continue to advance in new directions: although at present, path-tracing as RTX Remix implements it remains something that needs to be brute-forced, over time, improving software techniques will make things more efficient, and players will be glad that the technology had a starting point from somewhere iconic and reasonable.

Yui Needs A Weapon: Revisiting the K-On! Mod for Left 4 Dead 2 with Halo Weapons

“I need a weapon.” –Spartan John-117, Halo 2

Having now finished the original two Left 4 Dead campaigns, the only thing that was Cold Stream and The Last Stand, two community missions that rounded out the game. Cold Stream sees the Left 4 Dead 2 survivors fighting through a forest in the mountains to reach a helicopter to evacuate them before a forest fire catches up with them, while The Last Stand represents an alternate interpretation of what had happened in Death Toll had the survivors gone a different route. After abandoning their truck at a roadblock, the survivors make their way into a junkyard and eventually reach a lighthouse. Here, the survivors signal for rescue from a boat, fending off hordes of Infected while awaiting the boat. These community missions are quite unrelated to the stories portrayed in the regular campaigns, providing players with a remote forest setting to explore. At this point in time, the mechanics and objectives were simple enough: having beaten the last two campaigns (and fighting with the community workshop directory, which had been giving me some trouble with the character name plates), getting back into Left 4 Dead 2 to finish off the single player experience was not particularly tricky, and I ended up wrapping up both of the community campaigns with time to spare. As noted in my previous posts, the K-On! mod for Left 4 Dead 2 had been remarkably entertaining, completely altering the aesthetic and mood in Left 4 Dead 2. However, this time around, I’ve decided to further increase the mods introduced into the game: as amusing as it had been to run Left 4 Dead 2 with Houkago Tea Time characters, even new models and sound files can get old to write about. As such, I decided to introduce an additional set of mods into the game which would modify the experience somewhat without conflicting with the K-On! mods.

This mod takes the form of Halo weapon skins to replace the original weapons. While the weapons still function identically to their original forms, the weapons look and sound different. The end result is simple: I am now running with the automatics, pistols, shotguns and long-range rifles from Halo, rather than more familiar weapons. In addition to a new, highly-detailed skin, the Halo weapons also have new firing sounds. Altogether, these new weapons feel considerably more powerful and reliable than any of the classic weapons. Every shot fired feels powerful. The base pistols and Tier 1 weapons, which had felt diminished in power compared to the Tier 2 weapons in their original form, suddenly gave the impression of being viable, lethal tools that could hold their own against the hordes of Infected. The suppressed MAC-10 felt inadequate against special infected, but when replaced with the M7/C submachine gun, players suddenly appear to have a better fighting chance. The hunting rifle is replaced by the DMR, firing rounds with a slow but reliable outcome. The Tier 2 weapons themselves feel even more effective, and when the mods are properly applied, even the introductory pistol becomes a more entertaining weapon to use. I’d first heard about the Halo weapon mods from a friend who’d been interested in asking about why the modders had removed a particularly unique skin from the marketplace. I’d speculated it might’ve simply been because the mod needed more work and suggested said friend get in touch with the modders to inquire about it. After checking out the modders’ workshop, I became intrigued, and subsequently resolved to try the weapons out for myself. The end result was highly entertaining, and after ensuring that the new mods did not conflict with or modify the way my previous mods worked, I set about finishing off Left 4 Dead 2‘s remaining missions.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I figure it would be appropriate to open with the dual M6H pistols: the original pistols felt quite weak despite being useful weapons in practise, but upgrading them to the pistols seen in Halo completely changes the impact they have. In this post, not only do I have Halo weapons, but I have Yui, Mio, Ritsu and Tsumugi wielding Halo weapons. I imagine that with this mod, once Google properly indexes my content, I’ll have the first result whenever one does a search for “K-On! Halo” or similar. All of the Halo weapon mods in this post are supplied by Adorabirb!, whose done a phenomenal job of rendering the weapons and ensuring they sound identical to their Halo counterparts.

  • The suppressed MAC-10 is replaced by the M7S suppressed submachine gun seen in Halo 3: ODST. While one cannot use the reflex sights, and the weapon handles otherwise identically to the MAC-10 in Left 4 Dead 2, there’s something incredibly reassuring about using the M7S against hordes of Infected. The Uzi is similarly replaced by the M7/C with the right mods, and with the Halo submachine guns, I suddenly feel a lot more optimistic about fighting Infected. There’s a psychological boost that results from using cool-looking and cool-sounding weapons.

  • Cold Stream was a particularly fun campaign mission – despite being non-canon, its setting makes it the next best thing to being out in the mountains for myself. It’s now been over a year since I’ve taken a hike in the mountains and had any poutine from the best poutine shop this side of the country, and I do miss it greatly. While games like Left 4 Dead 2 and Skyrim do allow me to visit the mountains and their beautiful forested trails, there is no substitution for a full day spent hiking the mountains for real, followed by a hearty Montreal Smoked Meat poutine and spruce soda afterwards.

  • My yearning to return to the mountains means that I have recently returned to Skyrim with the aim of finishing the main story off: a year ago, while writing about KonoSuba, I mentioned an interest in playing Skyrim again, and it is only now that I’ve managed to do so. Returning to Skyrim, I am impressed with how immersive and detailed the game is. I will be sharing a full post on my experiences once I am finished: at the time of writing, I am pursuing Alduin through Sovngarde, and expect that in a few weeks or so, I should be done with things.

  • Before then, however, I determined it would be best if I wrapped up my thoughts on Left 4 Dead 2 with K-On! and Halo mods first. Here, I’ve picked up the DMR: it replaces the Hunting Rifle, a weapon that I typically did not play with much on my old play-throughs on account of its poor firing rate and small magazine size. Again, the psychological changes brought on by a Halo skin were profound – the DMR’s firing rate feels faster than that of the Hunting Rifle even though the weapon stats remained unchanged, and I had a blast using it to pick off distant foes.

  • The fact a simple re-skin completely changed up the way Left 4 Dead 2 feels, despite having no actual impact on gameplay, speaks volumes to how something as simple as changing up a weapon’s appearance and sound could completely refresh an experience to the extent where Left 4 Dead 2 could feel like an entirely new game. Prior to switching out the Hunting Rifle for the DMR, I’d never used the weapon simply because its low rate of fire and limited situations where a long-range weapon made it less useful to have. However, in Halo: Reach and Halo 4, the DMR is intended more of a precision weapon filling the range between the sniper rifles and Battle rifle.

  • I ended up swapping out the FN SCAR-L for the Battle Rifle: the Combat Rifle in Left 4 Dead 2 fires in three round bursts, and while dealing less damage per shot than the other assault rifles, it compensates for this with a good accuracy. With this in mind, given how often engagements were close quarters, I generally preferred the AK-47 or M-16 where available. The Battle Rifle I ran with is the Halo 2 variant, which is my favourite iteration of the Battle Rifle in any Halo game. The mod lacks the original’s heavy-hitting sound: besides performance, the Halo 2 Battle Rifle feels solid and sounds lethal.

  • The one weapon I was most impressed with in the mod was the SRS99-AM sniper rifle, which is seen in Halo 3. This weapon excels at long range combat, and equips an advanced optic for sighting distant foes. I chose the weapon to replace the semi-automatic sniper rifle in Left 4 Dead 2, with the end result that what was originally an anti-materiel rifle with a four-round box magazine now could hold thirty rounds. The weapon sounds powerful and looks even better: the optics will depict the same view, just as the sniper rifle in Halo 3 did.

  • One of the things I needed to get used to was the fact that I’m technically still using the semi-automatic sniper rifle in Left 4 Dead 2, which behaves more similarly to the DMR than the Halo sniper rifle. If I were to go purely for accuracy, the Hunting Rifle would be better represented by the Halo sniper rifle, and the semi-automatic rifle would be replaced by the DMR skin. This would allow the mods to be more faithful to their original weapon’s roles.

  • While crossing the bridge, I ended up picking up a grenade launcher: the M319 grenade launcher is a single-shot break-action grenade launcher that functions identically to its real-world equivalent, the M79. In fact, aside from a superior construction and digital display, the weapon is more or less a M79: the M79 is the original weapon in Left 4 Dead 2, and this Vietnam-era grenade launcher was intended to give platoons additional firepower. The M79 proved effective and reliable, but being a single-shot weapon left operators at a disadvantage, limiting how much firepower they could put out downrange.

  • Moreover, carrying a dedicated launcher meant grenadiers were limited to their sidearms as a ranged weapon. In Left 4 Dead 2, this is definitely to one’s detriment, unless they were carrying dual pistols, as well. While fantastic for clearing out hordes of Infected and even making short work of the Special Infected, the grenade launcher’s utility is quite limited, and the weapon itself is also quite rare: I only encountered the grenade launcher a handful of times while playing through the original campaign.

  • Conversely, the M60 (replaced by Halo 4‘s M739 SAW) is an excellent special weapon, and when outfitted with a laser sight, becomes the ultimate weapon for taking on common and special Infected alike. Halo 4‘s SAW features a 72-round drum magazine and, while firing the same calibre rounds as the assault rifle, had a higher rate of fire and accuracy, on top of a larger ammunition capacity, making it a straight upgrade to the assault rifle. Spartan Ops missions went more smoothly the instant I picked one up. In Left 4 Dead 2, the M60 is similarly powerful, limited only by the fact that its belt cannot be replenished.

  • At the time of writing, the mod did not replace the weapon icons for the M16 or AK-47. The M16 is replaced by the MA5C assault rifle, which was featured in Halo 3 and for the first time, felt like a proper assault rifle. While the MA5C’s skin does not accurately reflect on the actual amount of ammunition remaining, the modders have taken the effort of ensuring that the digital display uses an emissive texture: in dark environments, the display will glow in the dark, which is a nice touch.

  • Towards the end of the final chapter, I picked up an M90 shotgun with a reflex sight, which replaces the SPAS-12. However, since the final part of the mission entailed pushing through a horde, the shotgun proved inadequate and I ended up dropping it for any faster-firing weapon. Shotguns have always had a limited utility in Left 4 Dead 2, and in Halo, I found them more useful against the Flood rather than the Covenant. With this being said, shotguns have always been fun to wield against the Elites, and my strategy in Halo games has always been to use the battle rifles, assault rifles and marksman rifles against weaker foes, saving shotguns or other powerful weapons for swiftly putting away groups of tougher enemies.

  • The last segments of Cold Stream requires that players reach a tall tower for extraction, and unfortunately, during my run, I ended up losing Tsumugi to the Infected. In spite of this, I still finished the mission in a reasonably efficient manner, earning myself a nifty achievement for my troubles. My best friend has indicated that there is an elegant and simple way to get the toughest achievements in Left 4 Dead 2 without breaking a sweat. I’m not sure if this is something I’ll seek to be doing in the foreseeable future just yet.

  • The last of the community missions, The Last Stand, returns perspective to Azusa, Ui, Jun and Nadoka’s perspective, as well as the grim and foreboding dark of a coastal forest. This mission starts players off with the Uzi, which the mod switches out for a M7/C Submachine gun. Insofar, I’ve referred to the Halo weapons mod in singular, but it’s actually a collection of mods one can download. Like the M7S, the M7/C feels distinctly better than the Uzi, even though the damage model remains completely unaffected.

  • It’s reassuring to know that the modder behind the K-On! mod made certain that the smaller details were properly rendered – I half expected the character models to clip or be hollow underneath, but thankfully, this is not the case. When I first played the K-On! mods, I’d heard that the modders even took into account the special attributes surrounding Mio, and while I’d never had the characters walk up onto a higher surface in campaigns with Yui and the others, I have played as Mio before. Being ensnared by a smoker demonstrated that those rumours surrounding Mio were true, and this level of attention to detail is commendable.

  • The darkness of The Last Stand meant that unlike Cold Stream, the weapons I pick up won’t be in sharp relief for everyone to check out. With this being said, having seen the M7S’ model, it shouldn’t be too difficult to convince readers that the M7/C is equally as well-designed as the M7S. Besides the same report when fired, the modder had also ensured that the submachine guns’ reloading sounds are identical to their Halo counterparts.

  • Somewhere along the way, I decided to swap out my dual pistols for the Tactical Magnum. In any real cooperative matches, such an action would be unthinkable: dual pistols offer firepower and accuracy nearly equivalent to that of an assault rifle, and so, players will hang onto dual pistols for the duration of a match if they can find them. However, since this isn’t a match with other players, I am able to switch things up for the sake of discussion.

  • I replaced the basic pump action shotgun with the M45D Tactical Shotgun. This weapon, I’ve never actually seen in a Halo game for myself before, but it’s supposed to be a straight upgrade to the shotguns seen in earlier Halo titles. I’ve heard that it is unlikely that Halo 5 will ever come to PC: of the Halo games, Halo 5 had suffered greatly from a series of decisions that dramatically altered the campaign, and this in turn led the game to receive poor reception. 343 Industries’ decision to leave Halo 5 without a PC port was likely a consequence of knowing that Halo 5 wouldn’t sell very well if brought to the PC, and instead, it appears 343 chose to focus their efforts into Halo: Infinite.

  • Because shotguns aren’t really my jam, I ended up switching it out for the MA5D with the reflex sight. Informally referred to as the recon assault rifle, this weapon differs only from the M16’s replacement in that it has a reflex sight. I’ve always wondered how Halo weapons would look with contemporary weapon attachments: in Halo, the presence of smart-link scopes means that soldiers don’t really need dedicated attachments to aim with, as a computerised system would do the work for them. Of course, with Halo 5, when the Battle Rifle was given a reflex sight, people took to complaining about it loudly online.

  • In Left 4 Dead 2, since there’s no aiming down sights for weapons without a magnifying optic, the presence of a reflex sight is purely cosmetic, and I chose this rifle purely to differentiate it from the MA5C replacing the M-16. Like the MA5C, the digital ammunition counter doesn’t actually reflect the amount of rounds one has left to them, but in the dark of The Last Stand, the glowing display is rather more visible: here, I make my way through a burning forest with Ui, Azu-nyan and Jun after fighting my way out of a junkyard to reach the safehouse.

  • The Last Stand was so-named because the original mode was about the survivors fending off wave after wave of Infected, at least until ammunition and supplies ran out entirely, leaving them to be overwhelmed. Conversely, in the campaign, players actually can escape successfully after reaching the lighthouse. Here, after exiting the safehouse, I came across a warden’s outpost.

  • Curiosity soon led me to ascend the watchtower, and I picked up another machine gun for my trouble. Whenever holding a special weapon, I’ve always found that having the dual pistols is most effective, giving me enough firepower to deal with the horde. This leaves me free to save the special weapon for the situations that demand it the most. Of the special weapons, the M60 (SAW in my case) is my favourite: possessing the same accuracy as the AK-47 and dealing the same damage as the magnum pistol per shot, the M60’s 150 round capacity eliminates the need to reload.

  • I wasn’t able to do so in The Last Stand, but locating a laser sight and equipping special ammunition dramatically increases the M60’s accuracy and damage further, to the point where it can destroy tanks and witches in the blink of an eye. On my play-through, I wound up saving the SAW for the final confrontation, anticipating that I would need its firepower.

  • This turned out to be a good decision, since a few tanks did crash my party, and with the damage the SAW deals, they were quickly eliminated. Looking around, I’ve noticed that there are also weapon mods for the melee weapons, but because I’d been interested in keeping Yui’s Les Paul Gibson, I chose not to install anything that could conflict with them. The challenge about running a large number of mods at once is that conflicts could be introduced, and it’s up to the players to choose which mod they’d prefer.

  • The mod prioritisation function in Left 4 Dead 2 is actually pretty well-written in this area: if a conflict is detected, the game will automatically load the one that’s higher up on the list, but if this doesn’t produce the desired result, one can always go into the mods menu and deactivate the ones that one isn’t interested in running. There is one more nuance about running the K-On! mod: by default, the game won’t always show the modded names correctly. Online, people suggest moving the mod .vpk files out of the workshop directory into the addons directory, which prevents Steam from automatically fetching newer versions, but also allowing all of the data to be read.

  • I’ve actually found that this doesn’t work: if one is subscribed to a mod, the game will automatically query the server for updates every time it loads. This means that every time I started up Left 4 Dead 2, a fresh copy of the mod .vpk would be downloaded into the workshop directory. Instead, to preserve my settings, one only needs to subscribe to the mod to download it, then move the .vpk out, and unsubscribe. This method is a bit cumbersome, but it does allow me to keep my settings as I like them.

  • Of course, having now completed every campaign and bonus set of levels in Left 4 Dead 2, I’m not too sure if I’ll be returning in the near future: while it could be fun to get those special achievements my friend mentioned and also re-run the game with Halo weapons, there’s quite a bit on my plate, and I’m just glad to have finally gotten the game done. Towards the end of my run, after depleting the SAW’s ammunition, I returned to the trusty BR-55 rifle to round things out.

  • Unlike my Cold Stream run, this time around, I managed to escape with everyone. Having brought back K-On! into my life in a big way, I am inclined to write one more K-On! related post before the month’s out. Once that post is done, I’ll enter May with a clean slate, ready to go through Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 Remastered and Call of Duty Black Ops: Cold War: while perhaps a bit pricier with respect to how much time I get out of them, I’ve always had a blast going through them.

While Left 4 Dead 2 is very much a squad-based game that is best played with friends, mods like K-On! and Halo weapons transform the way the game feels, while simultaneously leaving the central mechanics intact. This seemingly minor set of changes alters enough of the look and feel such that Left 4 Dead 2 appears as a completely different game. Admittedly, the base Left 4 Dead 2 never really appealed to me in terms of its aesthetic, and I’d only picked it up because the sale price was excellent: my friend is very big on Valve games for their ease-of-modding, and I imagined that we’d spend more time messing around as a two-person team once I’d picked the game up. While we did spend a few fun-filled hours blasting zombies, the base game never really excited me to the same extent as I imagined. However, with things like the K-On! mod, Left 4 Dead 2 became considerably more entertaining, to the point where I can say with confidence that it would be worth buying Left 4 Dead 2 solely for the K-On! mod alone. At that point, the variety of mods available in the Workshop means that, were one so inclined, they could completely transform the way Left 4 Dead 2 handles: particularly well-done and extensive mods allow players to replace the existing Infected with Halo‘s Flood, and similarly, the very same techniques for using K-On! characters as character models allow for one to run with Spartans. Such mods even provide a means of changing up the HUD to closely resemble the Mjolnir armour system, customised for Left 4 Dead 2‘s inventory system. There is no ceiling on what is possible with the mods in Left 4 Dead 2, and while Valve currently has no plans for a continuation, the ability to change the experience via mods has meant that Left 4 Dead 2 has proven unexpectedly fun: what had initially been little more than a curiosity became a full-fledged, meaningful experience that was well worth the price of admissions. Thanks to mods, I’ve now finally completed Left 4 Dead 2‘s single-player experience in full, and while my friend and I are unlikely to co-op in Left 4 Dead 2 with any frequency owing to our schedule, knowing that I’ll be able to retain a highly customised setup should we take this up means that I’d be happy to co-op if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

Azu-nyan startled the Witch: Revisiting the K-On! Mod for Left 4 Dead 2 and the Classic Campaign

“But, you can always count on her in the end.” –Azusa Nakano

Left 4 Dead 2‘s campaigns also holds a pleasant surprise for players, in the form of the original Left 4 Dead campaigns being available for players to check out. This campaign sees the original group of survivors fighting their way to a hospital, where they hope to catch a ride from a news helicopter. After the helicopter crashes, the survivors make their way to a turnpike and find an armoured vehicle, which they use to reach the town of Riverside. Here, they fight through the sewage system, through a church and the town itself, eventually reaching a boathouse. Later, the survivors make it to a city and decide to head for the airport, fighting past Infected-infested city streets, a construction site and eventually, the airport terminal itself. Upon successfully refuelling a C-130, they manage to escape. The survivors land in a heavily forested area and make their way past a train-yard, arriving at a farmhouse. Upon radioing the military, the survivors manage to escape when an armoured personnel carrier arrives to pick them up. It turns out the military had been interested in capturing them, as the survivors are asymptomatic carriers of the Green Flu, and seek to study them. However, when the military base is overrun, the survivors escape, making their way to Georgia and eventually, the Florida Keys, where it is hoped that they can find a new home. That Left 4 Dead 2 comes with the complete Left 4 Dead campaigns and its original survivors in a refreshed environment was most enjoyable indeed, and being able to play through the original game’s levels with the additional weapons, consumables and infected from the newer game demonstrated that the Left 4 Dead mechanics have worked very well. As with my last play-through of Left 4 Dead 2, I’m running with the K-On! mods that allow me to substitute the base survivors for Azusa, Jun and Ui: the model for Nodoka remains incomplete at the time of writing, but the mod has seen additional improvement to voices, resulting in a doubly entertaining experience. As with the Left 4 Dead 2 campaign, having K-On! characters means improved visibility and differentiation between allies and infected, making the missions a bit easier to go through.

Unlike Left 4 Dead 2, whose campaign was largely set in the Deep South, more levels of Left 4 Dead‘s campaign is set in environments by nightfall, creating a much more compelling and gripping environment where enemies’ appearances are more unpredictable and terrifying: everything is shrouded in darkness, necessitating slower, more methodical movement. Left 4 Dead may have a more generic set of locations in urban areas, but the familiar setting, in conjunction with a zombie outbreak, creates the sense of unease that the unfamiliar is lurking around every corner. More so than the humid, muggy conditions of the Deep South, Left 4 Dead‘s choice of location and lighting results in a more convincing atmosphere. With the updated graphical style and visuals of Left 4 Dead 2, classic environments are sharpened and made more detailed without compromising their original aesthetic. The end result is that the Left 4 Dead campaigns end up being rather more successful in conveying terror through its ambience far more than the Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns, which ended up being a little more corny and humour-driven by comparison. The sharp contrasts between the aesthetics of Left 4 Dead 2 and Left 4 Dead levels are noticeable, but the actual campaigns themselves still handle as one would expect from Left 4 Dead 2: for folks who became accustomed to playing the original, they’ve remarked the originals are more challenging and rewarding to beat. Conversely, as someone who’s still relatively new to Left 4 Dead, I found that Left 4 Dead 2‘s inclusion of the original campaigns greatly extended the sequel’s replay value, as well as giving new players a chance to play old and new maps alike depending on their inclinations. On top of smoother mechanics and more options in-game, Left 4 Dead 2 remains the game of choice to pick up owing to its support for mods, which was the primary reason why I ended up returning to check out the Left 4 Dead campaigns to begin with; it’s not every day one gets to slaughter zombies with Azu-nyan, Ui and Jun as squad mates, after all.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • Altogether, I found the atmospherics and aesthetics in the original Left 4 Dead campaigns to surpass those of the Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns: it is a badly-kept secret that I am no fan of the festering, dank swamps of the Deep South and their unparalleled ability to conjure up images of swamp monsters and the Slenderman. While Left 4 Dead‘s campaigns are set in a more generic urban area located near the mountains of the United States, the setting actually works better for a zombie outbreak. There’s a solid combination of rural and urban combat, and to kick this post off, I’m rocking the G3SG/1 semi-automatic rifle.

  • Over the past little while, I had a few conversations with my friends, and they wondered why the Hunting Rifle was classified as a Tier 2 weapon. It turns out that the Tier 1 and 2 weapons differ primarily in damage, with Tier 1 weapon requiring a few shots to take down common infected, and Tier 2 weapons can smash special infected in as few as five shots. The Hunting Rifle deals the most damage on a per-shot basis in Left 4 Dead 2, but is offset by a low rate of fire that leaves its damage-per-second as being the lowest of the weapons in the game. I’ve never run with the hunting rifle for this fact.

  • Back in the Left 4 Dead 2 campaign, there was a bonus mission called “The Passing” which saw the new survivors meeting the old ones. Playing through one of the other bonus missions allow players to see what things looked like for the survivors in Left 4 Dead: the mission is called “The Sacrifice” and ultimately requires that one of the survivors die to keep the others alive. Since I was playing as Bill (Nodoka), I ended up making the sacrifice to conclude the game. Throughout my entire run of the Left 4 Dead campaigns, I played as Bill simply because the model for Nodoka had not been completed in the K-ON! mod.

  • I appreciate that the modders are busy people, and for me, having three of the four survivors completed was all I needed to push forward: I can’t see my own character model, so playing as Bill/Nodoka meant being able to see everyone else as Jun, Ui and Azusa. Since I last wrote about Left 4 Dead 2, the K-On! mod has undergone a few more updates, adding voices to the characters. This is a minor but hilarious addition, since the characters now speak in squeaky anime voices, making them more distinct from Left 4 Dead 2‘s aesthetic. Here, I make use of a mounted 50-calibre MG to shoot the rock from a tank, earning me a rare achievement.

  • I begin the Left 4 Dead campaign proper here in the streets of Fairfield, a fictional city named after Pennsylvania’s Fairfield: unlike the Left 4 Dead 2 Fairfield, the real Fairfield has a population of around five hundred people, and Left 4 Dead‘s Fairfield looks like a city of at least a quarter million prior to the infection. The game starts on a moody, rainy night that feels perfect for a zombie apocalypse, and here, I equipped a suppressed MAC-10 to start things off. Where given a choice, I’ll almost always pick a submachine gun over a shotgun in the campaign, since it gives me a bit more RPM and reach over a shotgun.

  • The eternal question of equipping a pistol or melee weapons is the subject of no small debate amongst Left 4 Dead 2 players: my buddy believed that the best weapon in the game to fill one’s secondary slot was the combat knife, which had no delay between strikes and dealt solid damage. For me, I typically prefer holding onto the default P220 pistol and then pairing it with a Glock if one can be found: dual pistols offers solid all-around performance and allows one ranged capabilities should they ever run out of ammunition for their primary weapons.

  • I will switch out for a shotgun if it’s the only option available and I’m running low on ammunition for my primary weapons. While devastating at close range, the shotguns’ general lack of use at long ranges, and lengthy reload times mean that they’re only really useful in a limited set of situations. I have heard that with a shotgun, one can one-shot a Witch with a body-shot if their aim is true and all of one’s pellets connect. Witches were the one opponent I was absolutely terrified of fighting, and since they blocked access to critical areas at times, I often was forced to startle the Witch, become incapacitated and then dump magazine after magazine into it while hoping my AI teammates would help finish the job.

  • As I got increasingly familiar with Left 4 Dead 2‘s mechanics, I was able to detect Witches more easily and do around them, or else engage it from at range using a combination of Molotov cocktails and gunfire. Here, I’ve finally entered the hospital and cleared out an entire horde of infected. Early in my time with Left 4 Dead 2, special infected would always give me trouble, and I was always wondering how the AI teammates would always melt them so quickly. A part of the reason why this was so common was because I’d originally treated Left 4 Dead 2 as run-and-gun shooter, causing the Director to spawn more special infected.

  • By playing more cautiously and sticking with the team, I ended up setting off the Director less often. After fighting through the hospital, I reach the rooftops and signal to a news helicopter for evacuation, making use of an M134 on the rooftops to fend off the hordes. Left 4 Dead had the M134 Minigun in place of the M2 Browning 50-calibre heavy machine gun: both mounted weapons are powerful, but oftentimes are placed in strategically meaningless locations, so one can’t hop on and mow down infected en masse. However, they can still be useful.

  • Owing to how the campaign missions were, I ended up playing them in order, and here, I played through Crash Course, another DLC mission set between the No Mercy and Death Toll missions. Set in a rural small town just outside of Fairfield, the objective is to secure a vehicle and get on to Riverside. Like Fairfield, Crash Course is set during the night and has a similar aesthetic to Half-Life 2‘s Ravenholm: set purely in an industrial area, the eerie blue lighting creates a very cold feeling that brings to mind the narrow alleys and empty miner’s residences.

  • Of course, having K-On! characters around completely changes the aesthetic – I previously commented that there is a practical reason this mod is so enjoyable, and this was because the characters stick out so much, I have no trouble spotting them difference between them and the infected during a given firefight. Like Yui, Ritsu, Mio and Tsumugi, Azusa, Ui, Jun and Nodoka stand out from the hordes with their unique look, and in between combat sequences, small animations the characters have add to their authenticity.

  • Since I already wrote about a Jockey riding Mio previously, this time around, I’ve opted not to title the post after a Jockey riding Jun. Jun is Ui and Azusa’s friend in K-On!, having joined the jazz club after the light music club felt a little unusual to her. After hearing Azusa’s adventures with Yui and the others, Jun becomes jealous and in her final year, ends up joining the light music club. She didn’t really stand out too much in K-On!‘s first season, but took a greater role during the second, and becomes an integral member of the Wakaba Girls after Yui and the others graduate.

  • A common enough occurrence in Left 4 Dead 2 is that every time a powered door needs to be opened, or a radio call be made, the noise will draw the hordes of infected out. In general, I find the Molotov Cocktail to be a better throwable than the pipe bomb, since its large area of effect allows it to act as an area denial weapon, perfect for blocking off one direction of attack whenever holding an area. Pipe bombs are better used for pulling infected away from certain areas, making them a better distraction tool, and I’ve never really been too effective with the bile jar. Of course, players with more hours (and correspondingly, experience) will probably have different experiences and remarks.

  • The Riverside campaign, Dead Toll, has a distinct Alan Wake feel to it: a dark, foggy night in an eerie town. However, unlike Alan Wake, my arsenal is greater, and without a shield of Darkness surrounding the infected, it becomes a simple matter of blowing them away. I have heard that the K-On! mod for Left 4 Dead 2 is not without controversy – the exact original creator of this iconic mod is disputed, at least from what I read. If it was the case that there was a previous creator, it would’ve fallen on them to ensure they’d done a satisfactory job of maintaining and advancing things, otherwise, one can hardly fault new modders from taking up the mantle.

  • With this being said, this is not particularly relevant to me; the fact that the mod is actively being worked on and improved is what matters, and so, when I received word of the mod a few months back, I was more than happy to return to Left 4 Dead 2. Back in the sewers of Riverside (a small town quite unrelated to Riverdale, home of Archies’ Weird Mysteries), I managed to pick up a .44 Magnum, modelled after the Desert Eagle Mark VII chambered for the .44 rounds. The weapon’s large size and chrome-plated finish speaks volumes about its stopping power per shot, although most players have noted that the magnum is inferior to the P220 on the basis that it cannot be dual wielded, has a slower firing rate and a lower rounds per minute compared to the P220 or the dual-wielded P220 plus G17.

  • Making my way through Dead Toll, the grim atmosphere really creates a proper sense of horror. The dark night-time setting makes every encounter unpredictable, and conceal enemies that would otherwise be easily spotted during the day. Both Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 make extensive use of forests in their settings to great effect – whether it is the swampy forests of the latter or the Appalachian forests in the former, there’s something unsettling about a forest by nightfall that evokes imagery of the Slenderman or similar. Left 4 Dead‘s choice to use the night creates a more compelling atmosphere; in Left 4 Dead 2, the daytime setting diminishes from the horror piece.

  • With the Dead Toll mission resembling the original Alan Wake, I recall that it’s been about eight years since I played through Alan Wake, having purchased it for five dollars during the Steam Summer sale. I’d been intrigued by TheRadBrad’s playthrough of it – one of my friends had sent me gameplay of Deadly Premonition, and at the time, the game was not available on Steam (curiously, it did release a few months later). While watching TheRadBrad’s Deadly Premonition videos on YouTube, one of the recommended videos was one of his play-throughs for Alan Wake. The concept in Alan Wake intrigued me and I ended up picking the game up along with the spin-off, American Nightmare.

  • At present, I can’t say I have too much interest in playing Deadly Premonition for myself; TheRadBrad’s play-through was very comprehensive and gave me a solid idea of what ends up happening. With respect to Alan Wake, I’ve yet to actually beat American Nightmare despite the game being in my library for over eight years; it typifies my tendencies to procrastinate when it comes to entertainment, and Left 4 Dead 2 is proof of this, as it took me eight years to finally sit down and complete the game. To be honest, my Steam library’s grown larger than I have time to game on account of the Steam sales, and in recent years, I’ve not bothered partaking in sales, knowing I’ve got enough titles to last a very long time.

  • Towards the end of the Dead Toll mission, after arriving in Riverside and reaching a boathouse, the goal will be to fend off the hordes again. I’ve switched off the G3SG/1 to the M16A2: while my favourite weapon in Left 4 Dead 2 is the AK-47, for being a slow-firing, hard-hitting weapon, the M16A2 is reasonably versatile and its large 50-round magazine and rate of fire makes it a great choice for both CQC combat and medium range firefights against common infected.

  • Here, I’ve equipped a laser sight for my M16A2: this weapon mod greatly improves a weapon’s accuracy, transforming the assault rifles into makeshift marksman rifles. They’re able to improve hip-fire accuracy on all weapons, but on the shotguns and grenade launcher, they’re not as effective. Offering tremendous advantages when equipped, laser sights also indicate where allied players are pointing their weapons. To offset their usefulness, laser sights are incredibly rare, and players usually go through entire campaigns without finding one. Having the laser sight made the final fight to keep the infected away while waiting for a boat at Dead Toll proved useful.

  • The Dead Air mission entails fighting through the city streets until reaching an airport, which is host to a range of aircraft the survivors could use to fly out of town to the next area. Of the Left 4 Dead missions, I enjoyed Dead Air the most owing to its setting: there is something unsettling about an orange-tinged night sky that implies the world is burning now, folding from the weight of the infection. The survivors start on a rooftop greenhouse and must make their way over to the airport, which appears to be located very close to the city if one could simply walk up to it.

  • Most airports are located away from urban areas so the noise from air traffic do not disrupt residents and businesses, but smaller airports are often located in the heart of a city to act as an auxiliary facility for domestic flights. En route to the airport itself, this is the moment that lent itself to the post’s title: because one of the AI teammates had startled the Witch, the Witch’s attention was focused on them: a swift finger on the screenshot button landed me this screenshot, and I subsequently dumped a few magazines into the Witch before it could take me out.

  • The Dead Air campaign marked the first time I’ve been in a video game airport since my previous unsuccessful attempt to explore the Washington National Airport in The Division 2. I fought through a concourse area before entering the parts of the airport with the gates: the saferoom is located just inside the gate before the sky bridge. The K-On! mod for Left 4 Dead 2 adds the riff, Kendama-kun, as the song for whenever a chapter ends, and I keep thinking in my head, in Yui’s voice, “Keion!” upon successful completion of each chapter.

  • The final step of the campaign is to wait for a C-130 to finish refuelling. There’s a mounted M134 available here, but as most of the infected will come from different directions, I didn’t find it to be particularly helpful. I’ve got the SPAS-12 equipped here: known as the Tactical Shotgun in-game, the SPAS-12 has the least spread. While dealing slightly less damage than the Benelli M4 Super 90 (Auto Shotgun in-game), the reduced spread means it reaches out slightly further with more reliability. Finale missions always provide an endless supply of weapons and ammunition, allowing one to freely switch between different weapons to get the job done.

  • The final campaign is set in a forested area by daybreak that brings to mind the areas seen in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, specifically the White Forest, even if the forest seen in Left 4 Dead has deciduous trees (and White Forest, being modelled on forests in the Pacific Northwest, are largely coniferous). The early morning light represents a departure from the night settings in the previous levels, but this is only an aesthetic – the sky may be illuminated, but the land is still somewhat dark, and one must remain vigilant. The site is modelled on Allegheny National Forest in eastern Pennsylvania, which is located just south of Lake Erie in the Appalachian Mountains. It becomes clear that any other time, the park would be a fantastic place to go for a day trip of sorts.

  • A glance at the calendar will find that we are two-thirds of the way through March, and that today is the Vernal Equinox. On this first day of spring, the days will only continue to lengthen as summer approaches. I am very glad that light and warmth are returning to this side of the world. The first day of spring also coincides with the city-wide youth science fair – a few weeks ago, I helped with the science fair for the most prestigious secondary school in the city: my old secondary biology instructor took up a post there and invited me to help out, and it’s always been fun to see what the brightest young minds in the area are up to.

  • Like last year, this science fair is virtual: this is for the safety of all involved, and while I very much prefer to see projects in person and ask questions after a presentation, I understand that the virtual science fair format is necessary. With this being said, the plus side about a virtual science fair is that I can review projects at my leisure while rocking my pyjamas before my first cup of Earl Grey. As soon as this post is done, it’ll be time to turn my attention wholly towards the judging.

  • Now that I’m coming close to finishing off the original Left 4 Dead campaigns, and having finished Left 4 Dead 2‘s base campaigns, the thought of a potential Left 4 Dead 3 did cross my mind. It turns out that Left 4 Dead 3 and Half-Life 3 were projects that were permanently suspended in 2017 as work continued on the Source 2 Engine: only a handful of games, including DotA 2 and Half-Life: Alyx, have been developed in the Source 2 Engine so far. With Valve still tight-lipped about their future projects, the only constant is that speculation is quite meaningless, since there’s next to nothing in the way of facts surrounding the future of the Half-LifePortal and Left 4 Dead franchises.

  • The last segment of the Left 4 Dead campaign has survivors holding out near a small farmhouse: once the radio is called, the military will deploy an APC to the site, and until it arrives, the survivors must survive wave after wave of infected. Unlimited ammunition and several first aid kits are available for use inside the farmhouse, and I ended up going with the M16A2, since this was a scenario where RPM and sustained damage was helpful. In the end, I succeeded in fending off the zombies, and as No Thank You! began playing, I watched the end-of-campaign stats roll, revelling in the fact that I finally finished both the major Left 4 Dead and Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns. At the time of writing, the only Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns I have left are the community-made ones.

  • Towards the end of the mission, I ended up picking up a tonfa and killed an infected to earn the “Club Dead” achievement, which requires players to get a melee kill on common infected with each of the game’s melee weapons (axe, chainsaw, cricket bat, crowbar, guitar, frying pan, golf club, katana, machete and tonfa, plus a pitchfork and shovel on PC). While most guides call this a nightstick because it is modelled after the Monadnock PR-24 police baton with side handle, the baton itself was based off the Okinawan tonfa. I’ve been training with a tonfa for some years, and they’re usually used in pairs. While I’m not as skilful with tonfa as I am with sai or nunchaku, I am sufficiently versed to know that in Left 4 Dead 2, the player is not holding the weapon as one would traditionally hold a tonfa.

With all of the major Left 4 Dead 2 campaigns now finished, this journey has been one that’s been a shade under eight years in the making: the presence of mods has been an instrumental piece of my inclination to pick Left 4 Dead 2 back up, with the end result that I managed to finish a game that I’d all but forgotten about. The presence of K-On! mods for Left 4 Dead 2 also had another side effect: it brought back numerous, pleasant memories I have of the K-On! franchise, leading me to check out the K-On! Come With Me concert and revitalise my interest in the franchise’s music, in turn helping me to relax and keep focused during a somewhat stressful February. Familiarity with Left 4 Dead 2 also means I’m now able to keep up with my friends where conversation turns towards this game: for the longest time, said friend had been hoping I’d complete the game to an extent where I’d be able to offer insights on the mechanics and provide thoughts on why Valve might’ve made certain decisions in the development process, which results in interesting discussions well beyond what gaming discussion today typically consists of (i.e. the best cosmetics and memes, or complaining about games endlessly for not catering to the individual). At this point in time, I’ve now completely experienced the K-On! mods for Left 4 Dead 2, which was an impressive and commendable effort into bringing one of my favourite franchises together with a survival shooter: the process to get the mod set up and running has been effortless, and really adds dimensionality and fun to a game that I otherwise would’ve just left in my backlog. Having now seen what the K-On! mod has done for Left 4 Dead 2, I do plan on taking things up a notch for the two remaining community missions, Cold Stream and Last Stand. Hopefully, getting those last two community missions done won’t take me another eight years to wrap up this time around!

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 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.