Re­live the Black Mesa in­ci­dent all over again in this ex­pan­sion-qual­ity story mod.

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Rick Lane

Back to Black Mesa in Half-Life:Echoes.

Has any videogame story been told from more per­spec­tives than Half-Life’s Black Mesa in­ci­dent? In­clud­ing ex­pan­sions, the vanilla game of­fers three points of view alone, while count­less mods have added to the Black Mesa lore, in­tro­duc­ing new playable sto­ries cen­tring on lawyers, black ops as­sas­sins and even alien slaves.

Half-Life: Echoes is the lat­est in this tra­di­tion of fram­ing the Black Mesa dis­as­ter from a new an­gle, and it’s eas­ily the best sin­gle­player mod for Half-Life in years, of­fer­ing in­cred­i­ble level de­sign, thrilling sur­vival hor­ror and blis­ter­ing ac­tion. It also weaves it­self into the broader Half-Life fic­tion in some clever ways.

Cre­ated by first-time mod­der James Cock­burn, Half-Life: Echoes puts play­ers in the shoes of Can­di­date Twelve, another Black Mesa em­ployee who ar­rives for a nor­mal day at work when the res­o­nance cas­cade trans­forms the fa­cil­ity into the world’s most tech­no­log­i­cally ad­vanced abat­toir. Like Free­man, Shepard and the rest, you must nav­i­gate and sur­vive Black Mesa’s labyrinth, bat­ter­ing zom­bies and blast­ing marines while the G-Man ob­serves it all.

Fa­mil­iar ground

What make Half-Life: Echoes stand out from other Black Mesa retellings is the sheer level of craft and am­bi­tion that has gone into it. To be­gin with, the mod’s 20-odd maps are enor­mous and stun­ningly de­tailed. Even the very first area you spawn in – an un­der­ground car park, im­presses with its cav­ernous scale and moody light­ing.

As with the orig­i­nal Half-Life, Echoes commences with a peace­ful tour of its own seg­ment of the Black Mesa fa­cil­ity, though smartly it lets you ex­plore on foot rather than con­fin­ing you in­side a train. When the cas­cade oc­curs, it does so at a dis­tance, un­fold­ing as a grad­ual in­fras­truc­tural col­lapse rather than an in­stant de­mo­li­tion. Lights flicker and tremors shud­der through the earth, while the sci­en­tists and se­cu­rity guards spec­u­late on what’s go­ing on. One of my favourite as­pects of the mod is how smoothly it re­pur­poses di­a­logue from the old games to as­sem­ble its own con­ver­sa­tions and nar­ra­tives. Even when the seams are vis­i­ble, it’s beau­ti­fully done.

Broadly, Echoes mim­ics the arc of Half-Life, but dis­tils its key el­e­ments into more po­tent forms. The ar­rival of the marines, which in the orig­i­nal

game is barely touched upon, is here given the kind of treat­ment you’d ex­pect from a Call of Duty game, fea­tur­ing a jet fly­over and an al­most pa­rade-like col­umn of sol­ders, tanks, and twin-ro­tor he­li­copters.

The first half of Echoes is al­most pure sur­vival hor­ror, lim­it­ing your arse­nal to just a few weapons and mak­ing clever use of scripted sce­nar­ios to sur­prise the player. In a splen­did Alien-es­que se­quence, a strange slug­like mon­ster hunts you through a tight clus­ter of cor­ri­dors and vents as you des­per­ately try to find a way out. Mean­while, your per­sonal res­o­nance cas­cade comes in the form of a gar­gan­tua mon­ster, which traps you in­side a train car­riage along­side a bunch of other sci­en­tists be­fore de­stroy­ing every­thing in sight. That same mon­ster hunts you through­out the mod’s run­ning time, ap­pear­ing at var­i­ous points just to make your day that lit­tle bit more ter­ri­fy­ing.

Once Echoes starts dol­ing out the heav­ier weapons, the mod ups the ante rapidly. Per­haps a lit­tle too rapidly, as the dif­fi­culty spikes with the in­ten­sity, re­sult­ing in sev­eral tran­si­tional com­bat en­coun­ters that are much tougher than any­thing ei­ther be­fore or af­ter­ward.

For­tu­nately, the last hour of

Echoes mod­er­ates its tsunami of op­po­nents with plen­ti­ful weapons and am­mu­ni­tion. The climactic bat­tle hap­pens on a scale that out­classes

Half-Life’s in­fa­mous Sur­face Ten­sion chap­ter, a fight that re­peat­edly es­ca­lates like a mi­cro­cosm of the mod as a whole. Two decades on,

Half-Life’s com­bat holds up, and

Echoes makes fan­tas­tic use of its weapons and ene­mies.

Sounds good

As the work of a sin­gle per­son, Echoes is a re­mark­able feat of de­sign, while its de­tailed en­vi­ron­ment de­sign and sharp pac­ing more than make up for the out­dated vi­su­als. That said, there are a few mi­nor flaws. Although Echoes is vast in scope, in run­ning time it is short, eas­ily com­pletable in a cou­ple of hours. It also con­cludes in an abrupt se­quence which, while an in­ter­est­ing ad­di­tion to the over­all Half-Life plot, feels ar­ti­fi­cially bolted onto the tail of the game.

Lastly, and this isn’t re­ally a flaw, but any­one com­ing to the mod hop­ing to see new fea­tures, such as weapons or ene­mies, will come away dis­ap­pointed. Ul­ti­mately, these are tiny is­sues in what is es­sen­tially a fourth Half-Life ex­pan­sion, playable for free. Echoes is that well made.

As the work ofa sin­gle per­son, Echoes is a re­mark­able feat of de­sign

The right men in the wrong place.

You just know one of those chop­pers is play­ing Ride of the Valkyries.

Given the en­gine’s age, the de­tail in some en­vi­ron­ments is re­mark­able.

Echoes never takes you to Xen, but makes good use of its as­sets.

I’ve al­ways en­joyed Half-Life’s quiet, hum­drum in­tro­duc­tions.

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