Black Mesa Review
Black Mesa may be one of the best mods for a PC game I have ever played. A strong and perhaps hyperbolic way to begin a review, but it can't be denied. The amount of care and quality put into this mod, the level of detail that went into recreating nearly every aspect and square inch of the Black Mesa Research Complex while adding and tweaking some existing gameplay elements is a thoughtful and impressive tribute to one of the greatest first-person shooters of all time. You rarely see remakes this good, especially not when they're free.
Black Mesa began as remake of the original title Half Life after the development expressed disappointment with the release of Half Life: Source. As the years went on and a slow trickle of screenshots made its way to the Internet, interest began to fade, rumors began to make their rounds, and Black Mesa’s fate was thought to be that of vaporware. The fact that the developers stuck to their guns and continued to work on the remake at their own pace, unfazed by outside pressure, has resulted in a game that feels exactly like the original Half Life and at the same time, completely new.
However, it should be known before playing that the final product is not the complete experience. It’s missing the final act from the original title, the alien Xen levels, and the battle with the final boss, the Overmind. What is here is the complete game, remade with the Source engine and featuring new visuals, physics character, weapons models, and dialog. This isn’t just a simple reskin of the original; this is a made-from-the-ground-up rebuilding of Half Life.
The overall game and level design feel natural with the Source engine. Not only were the levels visually given a facelift, but many of the areas were made bigger as well. The canyons outside the base seem to stretch off into the distance rather than being static backgrounds, and the underground caverns go quite a bit deeper, feeling monstrous and foreboding.
Click the image to view game screenshots
Along with adding more real estate, some levels of the game were streamlined to take away some of the tedium and repetitiveness. The underground rail car segment now features drastically less backtracking, for instance. This is streamlining done right, and it feels less like herding players down a single path à la Call of Duty and more like giving players the freedom to explore at their own pace.
Some of the puzzles have also been slightly tweaked, too. While they never stray too far from the goals and basic design of the originals, the new twist on familiar solutions will give veterans a new way to approach some situations.
All of the weapons, characters, and enemies are present from the previous title with enhanced visuals and new audio. Scientists are now both male and female. HEV troops now sound more like real people rather than garbled radio chatter. The creatures from Xen also feature some remixed audio, most noticeably the houndeye and vortigaut. The weapons also received graphic facelifts and minor tweaks, most noticeably with the magnum now featuring iron sights. All of them still function and feel the same as before.
For as much as this remake did absolutely right, there are still a few things that are not quite perfect. Every obstacle in the game requires the player to duck jump over them rather than simply jumping. While interesting at first and seemingly making the jumping seem more interactive, it quickly becomes an annoying chore later on in the game when jumping puzzles become more relevant. The visuals, while impressive, are not quite up to the standard of most modern PC titles. Granted, this might be the smallest complaint of all considering when the project was started and the huge graphic leap it featured from the original. Finally, it may be disappointing to some that the final Xen levels are missing from the game, essentially making it incomplete. (The levels are set for a later release date with no word on when they will see the light of day.)
As a whole, Black Mesa is an amazing achievement from a legion of dedicated and passionate developers and designers. Everything from the original is present, and with the addition of some modern tweaks, it looks and plays better than ever before. Part of this is due to the ingenious level and game design of the original, but much can be attributed to adding and subtracting just the right amount. Knowing what doesn’t work and what is great often is a slippery slope coming down to opinion and personal preferences. Despite some slightly questionable choices, Black Mesa is an amazing achievement. It’s a great way to experience a classic in a whole new light and a perfect entry point for those who never played the original. It’s, quite simply, one of the best mods ever made.