Developers: Black Mesa Modification Team
Publishers: Black Mesa Modification Team
It honestly feels ever so slightly wrong to have gotten Black Mesa for free. The incredibly dedicated team of modders who've been beavering way on this loving resculpting of Valve's groundbreaking original have, quite simply, done a fantastic job. We've been able to go back and revisit Gordon Freeman's worst day at the office for years, but never quite like this. So much more than a paint job, infinitely more valuable than a re-skin, Black Mesa actually puts Half-Life: Source to shame by taking Valve's source material (sorry!) and not only recreating it, but expanding upon it too.
First, a trip down memory lane. Black Mesa itself is undeniably the star of the show. It feels like a hive of activity, more densely populated than before, with the rooms decked out more realistically and in finer detail than the technology previously allowed for back in the last millennium. The subterranean chambers are now occupied by bustling scientists of both genders; the toxic sludge is given an eerie luminescence thanks to the Source engine's bloom; impressive cinematics abound, whether you pick up on them or not. Once again, just as when Half-Life first came out, there's a meticulousness to the aesthetic crafting that encourages the player to simply absorb everything that they possibly can. The appearance of a younger Eli Vance makes me so unbelievably happy that I almost choke up.
Everything comes with a sense of extreme nostalgia, for those who've played the game, married to a sense of progress. It's like a homecoming in a number of ways: you step back into Freeman's body so effortlessly, instantly recalling a hundred and one things you'd perhaps consigned to distant memory, and even as you do so you begin to realise that the Black Mesa team have subtly changed a few things.
The scale is one such difference. Black Mesa's main entrance hall seems more impressive, as do the glowing confines of the waste processing plant. The cacophony of activity in Residue Processing overwhelms one's ears and the labyrinthine conveyor belts dazzle the eyes. Black Mesa is alive in a way that revisits to Valve's original cannot hope to be, with the modders squeezing as much as they possibly can from the Source engine. Little physics-based details, the delicate rearranging of some of the more annoying platforming sections (Surface Tension has been judiciously edited), and the cheeky redeployment of some of the game's weaponry all serve to add a little freshness.
Although the AI might not quite be on a par with the modern shooters this revamp now sits amongst, it's a joy to be back mixing it up with some of the most varied and imaginative enemies around. Dodging the vomited darts of venom from Bullsquids, being dazzled by the blasts of energy hurled forth by Vortigaunts, Black Mesa serves to reminds us of just why we revered this game in the first place, from a position years into the future. Smacking headcrabs with a crowbar has rarely been as utterly satisfying as this, couched in a world that glistens, glows, and gleams, even as pesky Marines try to flank you as you tear about the place desperately searching for a health pack. The mod team have done a better job at bringing Black Mesa, and its assortment of weird and wonderful denizens, into the 21st century than Valve did.
Joel Nielsen's score is another major plus point for this project, used in expertly sparing fashion and ranging from incredibly evocative, delicate pieces, to a spot of well-placed metal during the tentacular boss battle in the Blast Pit. That section is likely to cause a few Marmite reactions, perhaps, but we loved it along with moody piano-led theme for Black Mesa itself, which isn't used in the game. Sadly, the voice acting is not quite there, with the modders unable to use the originals, but it is solid for the most part. The scientists are all faithfully recreated, although the voices for the soldiers could have used a bit of work.
Of course, in amplifying all that was great about the original game, the Black Mesa team have also made us aware once again that first-person platforming is a fiddly business that can ruin any game's flow, even if it's one of the best of all time. Although some editing has been conducted in the later levels to try and ease some of the player passage through the most frustrating bits, there'll still be places where you want to break your keyboard over your knee in rage. At the nadir of it all sits one phrase -crouch jumping - but at least the moments that require such a counter-intuitive procedure are few and far between. There are one or two bugs in this build as well, such as an essential elevator refusing to open and let us access the next area without a reboot, and it should be noted that the team have promised post-release support. It's in an unfinished state as it is anyway, with the Xen levels unavailable for the moment, and the game drawing to a close as to approach the Lambda Core.
All in all, Black Mesa is an absolutely staggering achievement, and we wouldn't judge you at all for shedding a tear come completion. For every Half-Life fan, this must be an essential game to play through; for anyone who missed out, there's now a fresh chance to see what we saw back in 1998 relatively unmolested by time. It feels special, and though that's difficult for this writer to detach from overwhelming fandom, it's a huge credit to the modding team who designed Black Mesa. This isn't a George Lucas-esque spit and polish that dazzles the senses but sucks at the soul, there's love, sweat, and tears in this return to where Gordon Freeman's journey started. Make time for it quickly, before Borderlands 2 arrives. Considering it's absolutely free, you'd have to be completely bonkers not to.
- Fantastically detailed and splendidly faithful
- Completely free
- Removes some of the more annoying platform elements
- Though there's still a bit too much
- Ugh...crouch jumping
- Slightly incomplete
The Short Version: By combining a fine eye for detail, ttowering love for the source material, and a commendably dispassionate eye for some subtle editing, the Black Mesa dev team have created one of the freshest FPS titles in months by dragging one of the best games of all time into 2012 and, dare we it, improving it. Only an idiot would miss out on this.