You know what I haven’t covered in a while? A game mod. How about a game mod for Half-Life, one of my favorite games of all time? Sounds good.
I’ve always been fascinated by Half-Life‘s mod scene, which had some really creative stuff being made for it. Even to this day people are doing some outstanding work with the that 25-year-old game engine. But let’s jump back to 2005, when Half-Life 2 was new. Let’s talk about Black Ops.
No, not that one.
Not that one either. We talked about that one years ago.
There we go. Third time’s the charm.
BlackOPS (or Black Operations as it’s called in-game) is a Half-Life mod that covers the Black Ops soldiers, the reskins of the HECU soldiers initially introduced in Half-Life: Opposing Force. Released in 2005, BlackOPS was primarily the work of three folks: Stephan “little_otis” Grabenhorst, Volker “Thrillhouse” Schreiner and Daniel “DeeGee” Grabenhorst, who came from the German custom mapping scene.
By this time, Half-Life 2 had been released and the fancy new Source engine was starting to be one of the go-to engines to mess around with. Despite that, GoldSource — the old Half-Life engine — still had some legs in it, so much so that there were still mods being made for the seven-year-old game. Honestly, the Half-Life mod scene post-HL2 is really interesting to me, so let’s check it out.
The mod starts with an exposition of the creation of the Black Operations squad in game, and mentioning the Black Mesa incident that happened in Half-Life. Eventually we’re dropped into the Black Ops HQ as the protagonist, Declan Walker, is briefed upon his mission: Go to Metro City, find Dr. Gallagher, a rogue scientist, and procure a special case he was holding onto. Doing this while fighting off any aliens and soldiers along the way.
Initially armed with only a silenced pistol, Declan fights his way through the apartments of Metro City, fighting mostly headcrabs, zombies, houndeyes and even the Alien Controllers from later on in Half-Life. Declan’s journey eventually takes him to a subway, into the belly of a drug-addled club, through the obligatory sewer, before arriving in Chinatown.
While the core gameplay is identical to vanilla Half-Life, the mod does throw in a few additions. There are items – usually explosives, but sometimes wires and other important things – that Declan needs to pick up to make progress. There’s also sheets of paper or computers with keycodes the player has to find to unlock certain areas.
It reminds me of the classic Half-Life mod Poke646, which also had these features. A fair share of the early mod does remind me of the city streets of Poke646 in spots, as well as another game of which we’ll get around to. Rather fitting, since Marc Shroeder, the lead designer of Poke646, is credited in the special thanks section.
While the levels are fairly straightforward, there are some particular issues in the early levels of having to walk along an edge to get to the next area, which may not be easy to tell as it’s not always telegraphed. Asking the player to inch along a ledge to make progress is bad level design, and I don’t know why this was a fairly popular thing during the Half-Life mod scene. Thankfully these stop being a thing by the halfway point, the complex platforming replaced with simpler progress.
Each major chapter is bookended with these comic panels explaining parts of the plot. Clearly the designers were big Max Payne fans, as the style of the comic panels complete with ominous music playing during these sections.
The Max Payne style comics are more than a coincidence, however. The levels take a few pages from that Max Payne formula. At one point, Declan gets on a lift that he can move by pressing switches on each side of the platform, like a section from the first Max Payne game. Even the first mission has Declan going through a seedy nightclub, much like Ragnarock in Max Payne. Though, it’s not the only game that takes inspiration for this mod: When Declan gets captured, he escapes through a prison that also feels a bit familiar…
Chapter 4 takes place in an abandoned prison guarded by a myriad of regular soldiers. A fair share of the architecture as well as the camera angle featured above are likely making a reference to early Half-Life 2 footage, most notably the “Bugbait” gameplay trailer that featured early levels of what would later become Nova Prospekt in the final game:
Honestly, I find this charming. While this mod does reference other games, they’re not hitting you over the head about it. I don’t look at these as referencing other, better, games, it’s a case of “if you know, you know,” and I think that’s kinda cool. Certainly better than using the cliched, overused style of Black Mesa for the billionth time. Though they’re still cool, just overused even by 2005.
I’ll refrain from spoiling the mod any further, as it’s a fairly short mod to play through. For a mod that was coming out post-Half-Life 2, it really shows that the mod scene for Half-Life was still shining, and in the years following would come out with other amazing mods that push the engine to its limits while having interesting storytelling and cool locales. As well as some with unique gameplay differences.
Normally that would be the end of the article. But what if I told you this particular mod got updated not once, but twice?
The first one is BlackOPS Redux. This ports the mod to the Half-Life: REBIRTH engine, adding new features and abilities previously unheard of for the Half-Life engine at the time, like lighting effects. The core story is identical, but the gameplay has significant differences: High quality realistic models, a medical syringe instead of the standard Half-Life medkits, the works.
However, the mod has a lot of flaws. Due to updates to Half-Life over the years, the mod tends to crash the game when starting the mod unless you load the first campaign map in the console. Second, Redux tries to go for a more tactical vibe, which includes changing the camera movement to be more realistic, having a bit of delay when turning and such. The constant jerking of the camera was very off-putting for me, so much so that I can imagine someone getting motion sickness problems playing this. Outside of replacing the models with more high definition versions, there isn’t much else to add.
I only got about halfway through BlackOPS Redux before shutting it off, the movement system kinda ruined things for me. In addition to the camera stuff which I couldn’t shut off no matter how I changed things, stuff like climbing ladders were made more complicated in this mod, which I couldn’t tell was a bug or deliberately designed like this.
Thankfully, the second one is much better, and it brings us back to an old mod I covered years ago.
Half Payne Black Operations is a mod-within-a-mod: With the help of one ZikShadow and using suXin’s Half Payne as a base, BlackOPS became one of the few Half-Life mods to get this special treatment of adding one gameplay style to another. I’ve written about Half Payne before, you can check it out here.
The Half Payne version of BlackOPS does change a few things, though: We’re playing as Declan Payne, complete with occasional Max Payne comments from the various games, just like in Half Payne. Weapons like the silenced pistol can now be dual-wielded. The crossbow is replaced with a more appropriate bolt-action sniper rifle. The mod even introduces the Ingrams from Max Payne and a full auto machine gun called the RPK, as a substitute for the M249 in vanilla Half Payne.
Adding in bullet time and shoot dodging really makes a big difference to the gameplay. While the original BlackOPS mod can be a bit too cramped to really do some of the iconic Max Payne things like shootdodging, it’s still fun to just climb up the steps in one of the later chapters and mow down soldiers in slomo with akimbo Ingrams. It’s exhilarating.
Half Payne BlackOPS now wears the original mod’s Max Payne influences on its sleeve, using the gameplay and style of Half Payne on what would’ve been a solid but otherwise forgotten mod. It made going through the mod again much more fun the second time around, though stuff like the RPK with its 250-round magazine did break a lot of the later fights. But that’s okay, I’m still having fun with the levels, and that’s really all that matters to me.
BlackOPS is a pretty solid B-tier mod. It’s not among the greats like Poke646 or some of my old favorites like Todesangst 2. But that’s fine: most of us wanted more Half-Life levels to shoot aliens and grunts in, and we were happy with that. It’s a fun little time-waster, and that’s good enough for most people.
As for the other versions, I’d avoid Redux, as the unnecessary additions that make it less fun, whereas I highly recommend checking out Half Payne BlackOPS mixes the elements of Half-Life and Max Payne together into something more fun. Granted, it helps that the original Half Payne was a fun romp to begin with.
I do hope that the original BlackOPS mod makers did eventually keep on making stuff after this. Hopefully they’re in the actual game industry now. (I couldn’t find them through some cursory web searching.) Though, I’m curious if they’re aware of the other versions of this mod. It’s probably gotta be surprising to see your work be remade not once, but twice, each with their own unique flair.
If you wanna play the original BlackOPS, RunThinkShootLive has the original mod here, as well as the later Redux mod (ugh). Both of these require Half-Life to run, natch. Since the original BlackOPS was a mod made in the days of WON Half-Life and before Steam was the mainstream thing, the original mod doesn’t come with menu graphics and will show the default Half-Life menu. But don’t fret, it will play the mod just fine.
As for the Half Payne version, it’s a bit more complicated. You need the original Half Payne to run it, which is available here, then to play BlackOPS, you need to download this and put it in a folder separate from Half Payne. This may seem a bit complex to play one mod, I assure you it’s worth playing. Hell, you get two good mods for the price of one! You can’t beat that.
Honestly, this is why I love the mod scene: The concept of expanding a game beyond its original package to have seemingly infinite new places to mess around in is fun. It’s what keeps a game alive beyond the official content.
The modern gaming landscape has lost this sort of charm: Most games now are a walled garden where fun’s only allowed between the developer’s parameters, with little to no mod tools to let people’s creativity run wild. It sucks.
It’s slowly getting better, with games like Fortnite introducing its Creative 2.0 and putting out some pretty bonkers stuff. But the days of people just making a bunch of custom stuff like the old days of Doom, Quake and Half-Life are mostly gone, relegated to a small niche community these days. That’s kinda sad, really.
While Valve hasn’t abandoned this philosophy — they embrace the mod scene with making mods for various games playable through Steam, from their own creations to stuff like RealRTCW for Return to Castle Wolfenstein. But it’s not enough: We need more stuff like that, because the current gaming landscape is kinda dull at the moment because of that closed source philosophy. Here’s hoping we can get back to those mod-making glory days sometime. If only so someone can remake Max Payne‘s gameplay in a modern engine. I always loved that game and its mod scene, which was just as bonkers.
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