The team responsible for remastering what's considered the greatest video game in history; Black Mesa chat to us about how they brought it back to life...
Any fan of first person shooters will know we’ve all been waiting for Half-Life 3 for almost a decade now but we still don't know if this holy grail of games exists.
It's not all bad news though as that long wait’s been a blessing for a small team of 40 bedroom coders, who’ve been giving up their evenings and weekends for years to remake the original 1998 Half-Life in HD - Black Mesa. With no sign of the third instalment on the horizon, fans of Valve’s incredible sci-fi shooter have been turning to it in the millions.
The game, released in September, has been a critical smash hit. It boasts an 86/100 rating on Metacritic. “Black Mesa isn't just a remake of one of the greatest games of all time, it's also, in many ways, an improvement,” said Kotaku. And it’s already notched up downloads in the seven digits.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have any way of knowing exactly what our download statistics were,” says Black Mesa project leader Carlos Montero. “The best we have is a counter on our site for how many times people have clicked the download button. That number surpassed 2.5 million downloads.”
And the team didn’t charge a penny for any of them, despite the project taking a full eight years.
That’s right, eight years. But perhaps that’s not so surprising given the size of the project: it’s a remake using the Source engine that powered 2004’s Half-Life 2 and more recent hits like zombie shooter Left 4 Dead. A handful of people crafting a 15 year old game in pin-sharp graphics, for free.
Montero, who works as an online RPG (role playing game) developer at Cryptic Studios in California, joined a year into the project, but was quickly noticed for his ability to organise, manage and Get Things Done, and voted in as project leader.
“The project started from the community itself, via two different Half-Life forums,” Montero tells Red Bull UK. “It was originally supposed to be a simple high-definition version of Half-Life, but when the teams found each other and joined it slowly grew to be something much more ambitious.”
It quickly became a re-imagining. Black Mesa takes its name from the research facility in the original game that quickly turns into the battlefield between mankind and aliens - both of whom want your character dead. While it sticks to the storyline, maps have been tweaked and changed, there’s new voice acting (more than 6,500 lines of dialogue), and an epic new soundtrack you can download separately for free.
Altering one of the greatest and most loved games in history isn’t something to be done lightly. “All of our changes were usually discussed at length,” says Montero. “We did a lot of work and research to figure out what would help ground the original best into reality, but we were also very conscious of not wanting to break that nostalgic feeling that players have. It was very tricky to make those decisions and try and find that balance.”
But it had to be done. What we expect from a shooter’s changed more than we might realise in the last 15 years, Montero explains. Remember how great Goldeneye was? Played it recently? Yeah, not so much.
“Gamers as a whole are definitely smarter, more savvy, harder to please,” he says. “Why wouldn’t they be when they have so many more choices today, and when so many games have trained them to expect more and more? I’m one of those gamers myself, so that helps.”
And then there’s the ending. Half-Life’s finale takes place in an alien dimension where it turns out that jumping between platforms in a first person shooter is still really annoying. The team actually took the decision to release this section separately - big changes that make it far less frustrating seem likely when that segment comes out.
Montero and the team are also working on a multiplayer mode, though he’s not saying much about what we can expect to see. “We are still very much in the early phases so it's hard to speak about it too much,” he says. “One of our primary goals is to bring back the flavour and feel of a lot of old-school shooters, along with some modern polish. It wouldn't be something new per-se, but something very different from most modern games out there.”
Though Montero isn’t sure what the team will work on next, or if it will even stick together after Black Mesa is finished (“I think there are quite a few big ideas, but not everyone is in agreement”), he says it’s all been worth it.
“There were certainly some trying times. But there were a lot of things to keep us going. Our faith in the project, the endless support of fans, and the relentless progress from our teammates always ended up bringing us back to work, harder than ever.”
He wouldn’t do it over though. “Yeah, I think it’s pretty safe to say we will never remake another game again.”
But hey, if Valve doesn’t hurry up, maybe Montero could get started on Half-Life 3 instead.
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