Black Mesa Review
This is somewhat uncharted territory for Trendy Gamers, as normally we don’t review mods, but this is a special case. It’s not every day a team of talented modders remasters the entirety of Half-Life. For that’s pretty much what Black Mesa is, the original Half-Life recreated on Valve’s Source engine with graphics and gameplay comparable to Valve’s more recent offerings such as Half-Life 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead. Black Mesa was an endeavour nearly eight years in the making. In that time, it was lauded by mod-watchers, C&D’d by Valve (okay just its original title, “Black Mesa: Source” was), and written off as vaporware—more than once!—but in the end the Black Mesa team delivered with a truly spectacular game and a true compliment to Valve’s original FPS standard-setter.
This is usually the part where I give an intro to the game’s storyline. If you’re a PC gamer you probably either know or have heard of the storyline of Half-Life, but if this is your first brush with the original, then you’re in for a wonderful treat with Black Mesa being your introduction to the Half-Life/Portal universe. The gist of things is thus: you are Gordon Freeman, a physicist recently graduated from MIT and currently working at a top-secret research facility in the New Mexico desert, the titular Black Mesa Research Facility. Then one day Gordon pushes a cart into a spinning thing and the world goes to hell. And you have to fight your way out of it. Good luck.
What I Liked
It really is. This was a prospect that was fraught with peril right from the word ‘go’. Remaking Half-Life … completely? Good luck, sport. Making it as good as the original? Why yes, the psychiatric ward is just down the hall, please give your name to the nurse and we’ll get you settled into a bed right away. Expectations were high and although the Black Mesa team continually astounded audiences with their trailers and screenshots, the ultimate proof would be in the gameplay. And, well, to steal a line from Bill Pullman in Independence Day, “He did it! The sonofabitch did it!”
Run, Think, Shoot, Live
The core gameplay of the original Half-Life is faithfully replicated in Black Mesa and feels just the same as when I played the original, only a lot smoother. Black Mesa is a thinking person’s FPS, as much a puzzle game as it is a shooter. Supplies essential to your survival (bullets, health packs, batteries, ect.) are limited, and you scavenge as much as or perhaps more than you shoot.
Valve’s indomitable physics engine sees a triumphant return in Black Mesa, and I dare say that the Black Mesa team have made quite a few improvements here and there too. They got pretty much everything right and they didn’t stop at simply replicating the original, they went above and beyond and actually improved upon it significantly.
Sure, it doesn’t look as spectacular as some of the state-of-the-art games either out now or coming out in the future, but it’s not trying to be Crysis or FarCry, it’s trying to be Half-Life. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t look ridiculously good on its own. The original Half-Life had its moments of cinematic immersion, but the stiff animation and blocky late 90’s graphics just can’t stand up to some of the stuff that goes down in Black Mesa. I was impressed from the moment the game started and my admiration only increased as I went further along.
The Sound Design
Sound design is an often overlooked but critical component of a game, and it usually only gets noticed if it’s a) very good, or b) very bad. Luckily, Black Mesa is blessed with as talented a set of audio engineers and voice actors as it is with programmers and scripters. I want to give a special shout out to composer Joel Nielsen, who’s soundtrack for Black Mesa is a stunning selection of tracks that bends right in with Kelly Bailey’s and Mike Morasky’s work on the Half-Life and Portal games, respectively while being a completely original work. The voice acting is also quite good, especially for a fan-made game bereft of “professional” voice actors, some of whom are called upon to replicate the voices of some of Valve’s most iconic characters from the Half-Life universe.
Personally, I think I owe the Black Mesa dev team some money for a game this well-crafted, but the fact that it’s free-to-play is a testament to their generosity and makes their eight years of hard work all the more admirable. Also, they face time in federal prison if they charge anything for it, so there’s that too. What’s more, you don’t need to own a copy of either Half-Life or Half-Life 2 to play it—the mod is 100% self-sufficient and integrates directly into Steam upon installation. It will also be available directly through Steam’s Greenlight service in due time.
What I Didn’t Like
The Load Times
No, this wasn’t just my computer being slow—it ran the game flawlessly. This is more a limitation of the Source Engine that plagued Half-Life 2 and it’s expansions, and unfortunately it’s back here in full force. The loading screens between areas are abrupt and really break up the flow the gameplay, but if you have a powerful machine, you can surmount them rather quickly. They’re not a gamebreaking flaw, and they’re certainly not a problem the Black Mesa team neither created, nor had any control over, but they’re still a pain in the ass and I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention them.
Again, a minor annoyance, but the jumping mechanic is slightly broken by having to crouch and jump simultaneously in order to surmount ledges. Make of it what you will.
Skip down to the Comparison section past the next two screenshots if you don’t want mild endgame spoilers.
Black Mesa shipped without Xen. Yeah, I know, this is technically cause for celebration, but the game just feels incomplete without Half-Life’s legendarily derided final level. There is a perfectly valid reason why Black Mesa went gold without it, however. Xen was infamous in the original game as the world that utterly broke Half-Life’s physics engine, and it’s the reason Black Mesa was delayed three whole years after the team promised a December 2009 launch date. The Black Mesa team is still working on getting Xen up and running, however, and promises to release an update, which will integrate it into Black Mesa in the near future. …God willing.
Better Than: Half-Life
There, I said it. The Black Mesa team set out to modernize the original Half-Life and along the way crafted a game that looks, feels, and plays even better than the game the that made Gabe Newell an industry giant and rocketed Valve into the upper echelons of gaming studios, where it remains to this day. Along the way, Black Mesa was derided as the most needlessly elaborate job application Valve ever received. If that’s the case, and Mr. Newell is somehow reading this right now—HIRE THESE PEOPLE!
Black Mesa is a fantastic game, an excellent mod, and a must-play for PC gamers. If you’re a longtime Half-Life fan, you owe it to yourself to download a copy and have a go at it. It is pretty much like experiencing the game all over again for the first time. If you’re brand new to the Half-Life universe, then Black Mesa also serves as the prefect introduction to one of the greatest PC game series of all time. It is literally a classic reborn. And, if nothing else, it is the perfect thing to pass the time between now and the release of Half-Life 3. The long, long, long, loooooooong time….