Black Mesa Review

Welcome to the Black Mesa Transit System. The time is 8:47am…

Many of us never thought this day would happen. In fact it’s probably a good bet most people were placing bets on which would get released first, Black Mesa or Half-Life 2: Episode 3/Half-life 3. But now we have our answer. Black Mesa is a complete fan remake of the original Half-Life from the ground up and I’m going to take the time to review it and explain just how good it is. It’s not an entirely complete release, the rest will come later. But it’s worth playing all the same. First though, allow me to give a little history lesson on how this wonderful fan made modification came to be.

Half-Life, the game that every self-respecting gamer should have played at least once in their life. Released in 1998 using a heavily modified version of the Quake engine, it completely shook up how FPS games were made and presented. Before it was an age of progressing non-linear levels, get some key cards to access certain areas and blow up some bad guys with a bit of text here and there to explain the story as an excuse to blow stuff up real good. Then Half-Life came along and showed us a new and gripping way of telling a story through the beautifully simple idea of the protagonist not speaking a word, never seeing his face, never having a cut-scene interrupt the flow of the game but that all the details of the story are in the events that happen around you.

From the outset, Black Mesa proves it was worth the wait. Half-Life was always about the little details as much as the big picture.

From the dialogue between the scientists as they prepare for the experiment, to the radio transmissions of the government forces and the set-piece battles and sequences you encounter, Half-Life was truly an immersive FPS that told the story of how you, Gordon Freeman, try to survive a scientific experiment gone very wrong. And rather than having individual ‘levels’ to complete, the game progressed continuously as a more linear progression of place to place only broken up by loading sequences as the next chunk of the map is loaded, again minimising the break in immersion. The beauty of Gordon Freeman and why he’s such an iconic character in the gaming world, is that he is whatever we want him to be. He is a representation of you as you play through the game and so it’s your reactions that define your experience of the story. I’ve lost count of the number of times I played through the original Half-Life, it was just that good!

The commercial success made Valve into the successful corporation it is today. It brought us Steam, the first real digital platform for you to get your games from. Despite early teething problems, Steam is now the single major distributor of digital games versus its competitors, with some research suggesting Steam is responsible for up to 70% of all digital game sales. It has grown into a massive gaming community which Valve does its best to listen to and deliver a good quality service such as giving us the tools we need to talk to each other, arrange games with each other, gift games as well as its wallet crippling but still extremely generous summer and winter sales. Steam has also helped to revitalise indie games giving them an easier, more cost effective platform to deliver their product to market that previously would’ve needed a large publisher like EA to do for them, which also has the benefit of allowing them to keep hold of their intellectual property. One could say it’s helped to bring about a new revolution in PC gaming because of this, helping to bring forth new ideas and concepts which bigger companies find too risky to invest in. Its only really in the last year or two that other corporations have finally realised that digital distribution is where the money is that the competition is throwing more resources at it, as evidenced by EA’s Origin service. A service which in my opinion has many shortfalls and problems when compared to Steam.

But Half-Life didn’t just bring us a shakeup of how FPS games were done as well as delivering a fantastic game with a quality story, it also brought us games such as Counter-Strike, Team Fortress and Day of Defeat, all of which started off as free fan made modifications which ended up getting supported by Valve and eventually taken into commercial success. Can you imagine EA, Activision, Ubisoft or any other large gaming corporation doing that today where draconian copyright enforcement is the prevailing trend? Even today Valve still holds the torch up for us gamers who like to tinker with the games that are made for us to deliver our own unique content or to get their own games on Steam, evidenced further by Steam Greenlight. Black Mesa incidentally, passed the number of votes to be accepted on Greenlight and will later be officially available to download on Steam.

Truly we have a lot to be thankful for with Half-Life and the things it brought us since.

Prepare for Unforeseen Consequences…

In late 2004 Valve went on to release Half-Life 2 in the brand new and entirely in-house created Source Engine. Today the engine is starting to show its age versus more modern engines despite numerous upgrades but it still remains an extremely versatile engine, being very modular, allowing it to be more easily upgraded and to add new features to the engine to suit the needs of a game. Valve demonstrated this by porting the original Half-Life into Source and released it as Half-Life: Source. Many, including myself, hoped there would’ve been a major graphical overhaul to the game but alas it was exactly as advertised – a direct port to Source the only differences really being some graphical effects such as the water or lighting and the physics engine making some of the older puzzles more interesting.

A comparison of new and old. This is the dam from the chapter Surface Tensions.

This was disappointing in a way because the problem with the original Half-Life now is that it has not aged well at all. I remember how groundbreaking it all looked back in the day and now it looks… well pretty crap. The gameplay can still be entertaining, but it’s lacking that immersion now because the graphics tend to detract from it more than helping it. Introducing someone brought up in the more modern generation of gaming, will probably find it difficult to get into or play and simply not see it for the groundbreaking, awesome game it was back then.

Enter Black Mesa.

Originally titled Black Mesa Source, the ‘Source’ part of it was dropped by request of Valve and has been the only known interference from Valve on the project whereas another may have sent a cease and desist letter. The project was started 8 years ago by a group of people who wanted HL: Source to be an entire remake of the original game. As those 8 years progressed, we were promised a release date of late 2009 and a trailer was released to show us what we might be in for. But the release date passed us by and the team announced that they decided not to release it.

As the years went on, Black Mesa was largely considered to be a vaporware product and it would never see the light of day. The devs eventually explained their reason for the delay of the original release date that they were forced to cut so many corners and content to make the release date that they realised it would not be the quality product they wanted to deliver to us. It might have pissed a lot of people off, but it was the absolute right decision. Because after all this time, it has finally been released.

And it is absolutely stunning.

Black Mesa effectively brings back a sense of horror and better shows the scale of the damage the Resonance Cascade causes thanks to Source.

Seriously, if I had been told Valve made this and not a bunch of guys in their spare time, I would believe you – it really is Valve quality work. What they have delivered to us is a very faithful recreation of the original game with some minor liberties taken with a few new rooms or puzzles, often redesigns of the original which proved frustrating or annoying to players, thus streamlining it further. I recognised every area I played through to the original version and saw quickly where they had taken some more creative liberties.

Let me start with the graphics. Whilst there are better looking engines and games out there now, Black Mesa still looks amazing. It completely brings back the immersion that’s been lost from the originals very dated looking graphics. From the very beginning of the iconic opening tram ride sequence to work, it’s obvious the amount of attention to detail that has gone into this project. Everything looks like it has a logical purpose now, the Black Mesa facility looks far more realistic and lived in as a massive secret government research post. As you get off the tram to get to the test chamber, there have been so many little details added to give it that sense of realism. The scientists going about their daily work, talking with one another, the clutter on their desks, the whiteboards full of equations that you can actually read if not make any sense of.

You can also see that there are a large number of different character models now. If you remember the original you basically had 3-4 scientist models which kept cropping up everywhere throughout the game. Now though, there are many individual looking character models, though you can still see some repeat models being used from time to time. The same is true of the security guard models. As for the Xen creatures, whilst some of the creature models are simply Half-Life 2’s versions such as the Headcrab or Vortigaunt, they have had to recreate some of the creatures that never showed up in Half-Life 2 such as the Bullsquid, Alien Grunt and the Houndeye and program behaviours for them. The Houndeye seems particularly vicious now compared to the original version, disorientating your vision and doing serious damage to you if it gets close enough. The Bullsquid’s toxic spitting attack has a wonderful glow to it when it splatters the wall or even your gun model, a nice touch that I liked.

Ahhhh I love the smell of pretty, glowing HDR bloom radioactive waste in the morning…

The lighting is fantastic in many areas, particularly when you’re in the toxic waste residue processing area of the game, the bright green radioactive glow is really quite pretty as well as the subtle ‘interference’ your vision starts to get when you get close to massive amounts of radioactive waste. Or the dark and moody lighting just after the Resonance Cascade, trying to survive the immediate disaster with nothing but a crowbar in the dark with a zombie or two trying to swipe at you really adds to the survival horror feeling that you would never get today in the original game. Later on, as you get in the middle of the larger battle going on between the government troops and aliens, the maps have been built to better reflect the large scale conflict going on around you, such as the sequence at the hydroelectric dam. An iconic sequence in the game, whilst very familiar in design to the original game, it’s far more epic in size, probably several times the size of the original map which really helps show off the scale and size of the dam itself whilst battling several troops and an Apache helicopter.

Remember these things? They’re still just as annoying to get past…

With the Source engine comes its awesome physics handling and Black Mesa has been restructured in a way to take advantage of this. Some of the original puzzles have been modified or even changed entirely to take into account the physics or require you to use physics to solve the problem. This can also allow you to setup some more inventive traps of your own, particularly if you know the game well enough to know when to expect surprise attacks. There was one area in particular I remember, I knew there would be a point that when I came back to this area, I would be attacked be several soldiers. So I put down several laser trip mines and then placed several explosive barrels next to the mines. The resulting carnage was great fun to watch, though one of the explosive barrels was thrown straight at my face as it exploded. Great fun though!

The platforming element which some may have found frustrating or annoying in the original is still kept in Black Mesa. Quite a number of these areas have been streamlined to make it less of a bother to players, whilst others are the same as the original. The sometimes hated crouch-jump feature is required to do a lot of them. I have little problem with this, but it can be a little cumbersome when you have to run and crouch jump on a tiny piece of structure and end up falling off or falling short. A couple of attempts later though and I’m on the move again quickly enough. There are other segments of the game which have been streamlined too, such as the On A Rail chapter, which is now less confusing and more linear a place to travel about in. It’s also an example of where an entirely new area was created where you have to release several of the locks holding a satellite rocket in place before you launch it later on.

The On A Rail chapter features several streamlined areas and even a new section.

As well as now looking beautiful, Black Mesa also features entirely its own composed music and dialogue sequences, using nothing from the original game except – as far as I can tell – the voice of your HEV suit as you become injured or get power for it. The music for the most part is well timed and presented when played and really helps with the immersion factor and helps to amplify you’re feelings of the areas your currently playing through, though there were one or two tracks which I thought felt out of place. Likewise the dialogue, whilst pretty much on the mark in many places, I felt was a rather off-key in others. I know they were trying to go for a cheesy feel for the government troops, but there’s a well known bit of dialogue between two of these soldiers that makes it sound too over the top cheesy and not in keeping with the feeling of the rest of the game as any humour that tends to come out of Half-Life is often morbid or dark.

They have also added some extra dialogue of their own which was not in the original, a couple of these are nods to the original Half-Life’s early development such as when a security guard comments “awww you cut the pony tail… sellout” – a reference to early concept models of Gordon Freeman. It’s a very Valve thing to do.

Yes you are looking at the Chuckle Brothers. This mug is unfortunately indestructible. Believe me I tried…

I should obviously point out that this release of Black Mesa is only a first release and is NOT the entire game. It does however represent about 80% of the whole game, being able to play all the way up to the Lambda Core and its teleportation labs. As you jump through the main portal into Xen (which is a fantastic set-piece battle, both visually and gameplay wise), the screen fades to black and simply says awaiting further data. This should give you anywhere between 8-12 hours of gameplay depending on how much time you spend exploring or gawking at the new graphics. The final Xen chapters of the game are presently still being worked on and the intel we have suggests they will be taking a few more liberties with Xen than the rest of the game in order to make it more fun for players. The Xen chapters were widely regarded as the weakest area of Half-Life, requiring a lot more platforming using the Long-Jump module and I remember it being a rather frustrating process. It is still however integral to the story and it needs to be told, so I look forward to seeing what they do with it. If the 80% I have played is any indication of the level of quality and entertainment, then I will not be disappointed!

In conclusion I cannot recommend Black Mesa enough. If you love Half-Life then you owe it to yourself to play this. I mean it’s completely free requiring you own nothing but at least one Source-based game. And given that it’s completely free, it only makes what’s been achieved here more amazing for the fact that these very talented people have not been paid a penny to do this and that it’s a labour of pure love on their part. You owe it to them as much as you do yourself to play it!

Wisely done Mr Freeman…

Review by Jason “Angel” Millward.

Info & Links
Black Mesa Official Website

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