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Black Mesa Review

Dan plays a modern reimagining of a cherished classic


Way, way back in the mid 90’s, a then unknown developer Valve released their first game, Half-Life. No one really knew quite what to expect, but it quickly took the gaming world by storm and won all kinds of best game awards and built up a huge online community. Everyone by now of course knows of Valve because of Steam if nothing else, and Half-Life went on to become arguably one of the most important games of the decade with a huge modding community that resulted in the creation of Counter Strike and a number of other games.

Before all of that came to be though, Half-Life stood on its own merits. Taking place in the super secret Black Mesa Research Facility you play as Gordon Freeman, a member of a research team experimenting with various items of unknown origin. Once such experiment goes disastrously wrong, rupturing space and allowing alien life forms to invade the Black Mesa complex. Bucking the trend for big, flashy full motion video cutscenes, Half-Life tells its story entirely from the point of view of silent action scientist Gordon. Through interactions with other characters and many cleverly scripted events, Gordon makes his way from the initial experiment lab through alien and hostile armed forces to try and escape the facility and prevent the alien invasion from spreading.

Half-Life had a huge effect on me as a teenager (and I think was one of the first games that I bought more than once when the original disc was damaged during a move) and I’d say was the game that really hooked me on first person shooters. I spent many years involved in the online community, always playing new multiplayer maps and both single and multiplayer mods and even dabbled in making maps myself for a while. Every few years I’ve gone back to it (thankfully now on Steam so I don’t have to find the disc) so when I first heard of Black Mesa Source as it was known at the time I was a little apprehensive. Too often complete remakes of games mess with the formula too much and fail to capture what was great about the original, so was that going to be the case here?

Thankfully that wasn’t going to be the case. Black Mesa is a complete remake of the original Half-Life up to the end of the chapter Lambda Complex, with the last four chapters that comprise the Xen section of the game still in development. The Crowbar Collective, the team behind the remake, have wisely chosen not to be slavishly accurate to the original game. While many sections are indeed almost identical in layout, some sections have seen substantial edits or even been removed altogether to improve the flow of the game – this content has been made however and will shortly be available on the Steam Workshop to add back in if you so wished. The chapter On A Rail, for example, which I remember being a bit overlong and somewhat confusing has been trimmed back significantly while still retaining the core mechanic of the section.

Aside from the significant increase in visual quality, the first thing that I really noticed being different was the placement of Gordon’s iconic crowbar melee weapon. Initially found before you head back up to the entrance of the Anomalous Materials lab, it’s now a number of rooms away and after several enemies. You now meet a security guard before encountering the enemies so he can help you in fighting them and there are also flares present to set fire to enemies, so you’re not left completely helpless, but it served to point out that while the surroundings and events are familiar not everything will be exactly as you remember and there are several instances through the game where items and weapon pickups have been moved to new locations.

Even with changes made though, it doesn’t mess with the formula and what made the game great. Since it uses Half-Life 2’s engine it does carry over some of the technological advances made since the release of Half-Life, most notably the massive improvements in physics. You can now pick up all kinds of items, and this is used in a number of reworked puzzles. Also added is the HEV suit sprint function and some of the jumping puzzles have been retimed to fit with this accordingly.

As you fight your way through the game you’ll come across a wide variety of enemies. From the iconic Headcrabs to the acid shooting Bullsquids, the enormous war machine Garg and the now even smarter human Marines, all of the enemies from the original game are back here and remain faithful to their original designs and habits.

I originally played Black Mesa when it was released as a free Half-Life 2 mod a couple of years ago, and was impressed with the work done on the game at the time. Now, with further polish and all the settings turned up it looks really good. The environments of the Black Mesa facility in particular feel almost real with huge amounts of detail crammed everywhere. Walls that would once have been bare are now covered in pipes and vents, destructible objects like glass react as you would expect them to when shot or smashed with a crowbar.

Along with the new graphics, Black Mesa also has completely new sound with an original soundtrack replacing the original music from the game. It seemed to play music a lot more often than Half-Life did (which isn’t saying much) but still refrained from being constant background music. I wouldn’t say it was quite as memorable as some of the classic tracks but it never feels out of place and some of it is really quite good, particularly some of the music that accompanies fight sequences.

The dialogue of the various NPCs and enemies has also been completely re-recorded. I’ve not tried a side by side comparison but the scientists and guards all sound just like I remember them, an impressive feat considering that none of the original voice actors returned for the remake.

The shooting mechanics feel somewhat dated though, in a way even moreso than Jedi Knight did when I played through that. I think it must be from not looking like an old game, I somehow subconsciously expect it not to play like one. When Half-Life came out, first person shooters typically didn’t have down the sights aiming and have a secondary fire instead. This led to a few accidental self kills when I picked up the machine gun with grenade launcher until I got back into the habit of not aiming. I can’t really blame Black Mesa for this though and I’m very glad that the controls haven’t been modernised to the standard iron sight aiming method as it would have led to a very different game.

The two big selling points of the new Steam version of the game over the original free mod are the eventual completion of the single player story, which will add the Xen chapters where Gordon travels to the alien homeworld, and the multiplayer portion of the game. The first part hasn’t been added yet, and the development team have reportedly been working on Xen since even before the mod release and aim to completely rework the gameplay and design of the levels to make them live up to the quality of the rest of the game – in the original game it is widely felt that Xen was the weakest part of the game with its weird level designs heavy emphasis on platforming.

Multiplayer however, is present from the start in this version. Featuring a selection of the original maps redone to a similar level of quality to the single player and with I believe more due to follow, the available deathmatch and team deathmatch modes are even more of a nostalgia trip for me than the story mode. I spent hundreds if not thousands of hours with Half-Life deathmatch and they’ve managed to completely nail the feeling of the game. The sprint button that was added to single player has wisely been removed so as not to affect the speed of the matches and exploring the updated versions of old favourites is truly a delight. As Black Mesa is still quite new and in early access, there aren’t a huge amount of people playing multiplayer just yet so finding a game was challenging at times but great fun when I was able to do so.

For those heathens like myself playing it with a pad, the control layout mostly mirrors the one that Valve set up for the Orange Box release on Xbox 360, with the exception of the right bumper acting as reload like Halo 3 or Gears of War as this was used to switch to the Gravity Gun which isn’t in this game. It controls perfectly ingame, though none of the menus work with the pad so you need to switch back to mouse to save and quit and so on. I have a feeling that this might be a limitation of the menu structure of Half-Life 2 more than an oversight, however. For mouse and keyboard users, you're looking at a standard WASD layout by default instead of the classic cursor key setup but no one would use that these days anyway.

Black Mesa is clearly a labour of love from a team that care about the original Half-Life a great deal. Despite spending over a decade in development, with games worked on that long often either disappearing into the ether or ending up a complele mess, The Crowbar Collective have managed to create something truly stunning. It simultaneously manages to be both a visually impressive new game while also staying true to everything that made Half-Life great. It’s kind of like playing how I remember Half-Life looking all those years ago, and ends up making even those memories look rubbish. It’s a tremendous accomplishment, and I honestly can’t wait for the release of the Xen levels in future.

Black Mesa is available now on Steam – you can still download the free mod version from the website but if you play it and enjoy it I would urge you to purchase the Steam version to show the team your support.