Return to Black Mesa and the story of Gordon Freeman as envisioned by modern game building.
PC Release: September 14, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Before I get into this review, I’ve received a fair number of requests to review more “current” video games, i.e. the lineups of the Xbone and the PlayStation 4. My hesitance to do so stems not from my bitterness at modern gaming nor even my philosophical stance against DRM, just simple economics. Neither console has put out enough quality games for me to consider purchasing one. Killzone: Shadow Fall did fairly well, but the other launch titles this generation have been among the most disappointing I’ve yet seen, in terms of both critical reception and of story quality.
That said, I’m not pretentious enough to proclaim that the Xbone and the Playstation 4 are damned now and forever to crappy games. Hell, when the 360 first came out, all that Microsoft managed to spit out was the fourth Quake game and that god-awful Perfect Dark prequel. It’s not uncommon for new consoles to experience what I call a “launch drought”, so I’m not ruling out that more good games won’t come out for consoles in the near future. Until then, though, it’s PC exclusives (some of which have been very recently released, by the way), gen-7 games I haven’t had time to review yet, and perhaps a few retro articles, should time allow.
Black Mesa is a mod for Half-Life 2 that seeks to recreate the original Half-Life on all levels save for story: gameplay, artwork, level design, etc. Just like the original game, players assume the role of Dr. Gordon Freeman, a newbie physicist who’s just landed a job at the prestigious Black Mesa Research Facility. Dealing in all kinds of crazy stuff, the labyrinthine complex is the forefront of human ingenuity. Gordon is assigned to projects dealing with teleportation, and the game opens as he heads to his lab for a test.
It became immediately clear that Black Mesa is not the same as Half-Life. I can’t bash Half-Life‘s graphics for being behind the times, since it’s been out for 15 years, but when I saw what Black Mesa‘s creators had done, my jaw hit the floor.
Heightened, glorious visual power. Just as the original game began with an impressive tram ride through all of Black Mesa’s tunnels and labs, so too did this mod, highlighting what had been done with modern gaming technology to make old areas breathe fresh.
The plot of Black Mesa is identical to the game it emulates. After Gordon is ordered to shove a strange-looking crystal into a machine that vomits lighting and thunder, the galaxy’s integrity is torn asunder and aliens from another dimension begin pouring into the labs, killing everything in their path. Armed only with a crowbar and on-the-spot gun training, Gordon must travel to the other end of the facility and help the scientists there shut this whole mess down.
The mission, already made challenging by the hordes of sticky-eyed freaks between you and the scientists, gets even more complicated when the military shows up and begins gunning down everything having to do with the aliens, including the Black Mesa personnel who unwittingly left the door open for the aliens. Gordon fights a lively mix of vicious, aggravated aliens and ordered, disciplined U.S. marines in a harrowing journey to the Lambda Complex, the lab that may contain humanity’s last hope for survival.
So what was it exactly about Half-Life that was so damn endearing? The atmosphere. The competent level design, eerie music, disturbing enemies and urgent storyline produced an in-game environment whose ambiance future games could only hope to compare to. The Black Mesa facility is a dark, dark machine, and you are its lab rat, running to and fro down the darkened corridors and bloodied labs in what feels like an increasingly futile effort to just survive.
The narrative of Black Mesa suffers few changes from that of Half-Life. Gordon’s mission, simplistic in its scope if not its difficulty, is unchanged from the original classic. Get from Side A of Black Mesa to Side B.
Unlike most HD remakes released these days, Black Mesa‘s tweaks to the original game go beyond better visuals. But, I do want to touch on those for just a moment, because holy crap are they impressive. This game surpasses the graphical quality of any Valve title I’ve ever played, including Portal 2. What was there before has been brought to new life with a swath of bold colors, and the entire game has had thousands of set pieces and assets added to it. As you can see from the stills, the game has a significant amount of color and lighting diversity.
The character animations are a far cry from even those of Half-Life 2. Characters move about much more naturally and realistically, and they’re quite a bit more alive than the awkward characters in Half-Life, who stomped around as if they were about to beat someone up. I also applaud the modding team for including female character models, which were absent from Half-Life.
The gameplay is slick and sleek, with innovations first pioneered in Half-Life 2. Gordon runs and walks at a much more natural pace. He can strafe quickly, aim truly, and dance around any desert battlefield like a pro. The small armory of weapons you found in the first game return in style, and they all look great and feel satisfying. I was particularly happy to see the Tau Cannon, a device that shoots streams of nuclear energy, or what I call Anti-Peace With God Material.
So far, it might sound like this game isn’t very different from Half-Life under the surface, but this is where the true brilliance of the mod kicks in. The environments and puzzles from the first Half-Life game return, but a few of the more nonsensical ones have been tweaked into making more sense. Some puzzles that were so bizarre and convoluted that they could only be solved by trial and error have been taken out altogether, like the box-stacking puzzle in the rocket bunker.
Level design has been improved in some places, too. Much as I love Half-Life, more than a few of the original game’s environments were mazelike and not at all intuitive. Black Mesa manages to trim the metaphorical fat of these areas while preserving the other design elements integral to the original game. This is a philosophy that applies to all of Black Mesa; cutting out what was awkward or flat-out wrong with Half-Life‘s design and either tweaking it or removing it altogether.
The philosophy behind the making of Black Mesa is why I call it a labor of love. The game succeeds in preserving and deepening Half-Life‘s best qualities, but gently dismantles a few of the things that weren’t working in favor of simpler, more intuitive solutions. The game keeps the horrors and atmosphere of the Black Mesa research facility fresh, but with fantastic visuals, simpler mechanics and better gameplay, the game world that won the heart of the 90’s gaming era has even more atmospheric power. You will get lost in this fantastic science madhouse. I meticulously explored every corner looking for more detail, more color, and was duly rewarded for my efforts.
However, with the changing of an original work comes the risk of going too far. A few puzzles that I, at least, had no problem with were completely gone, such as the rocket puzzle toward the end of the game, numbing the element of challenge. Some areas whose design I would not classify as damned were gone altogether, replaced with new, unfamiliar settings.
I also felt like Black Mesa suffered in the challenge department. The gunfights in Half-Life were brutal, but the enemies in this game drop like flies. Marines that once took entire clips to bring down now fall over with a few pistol shots. This made the game more relaxing, in some ways, but I wasn’t necessarily soliciting a game that’s supposed to be a mix of horror, shooting and puzzles for relaxation.
The biggest issue with Black Mesa and a fair warning for anyone who plays it is that it’s actually unfinished. The last fifth or so of the game remains under construction and it abruptly chokes off at this point in the narrative. Part 2 is in the works, but I guess with how many years the mod team has been building this, they figured that they had to release something to the horde of we the faithful. An abrupt disappointment, but apparently part 2 of the mod is close at hand. Let’s hope so.
But, these problems don’t take too much away from the core of the Half-Life experience and the fresh lift provided it by Black Mesa. The essence of this game is everything good for game design: workable story, fluid gameplay, and brilliant visuals. The mod digs into Half-Life‘s foundation by correcting a few awkward flaws, while managing to preserve the core feel of the original game.
Black Mesa is the best mod I’ve ever played and is now one of my favorite shooters of all time. Far more than a shoddy HD remake, it manages to deepen and make sleeker the original Half-Life experience without changing the essence of the original game. The gameplay has been significantly improved, the puzzles reward intuition and logic rather than chance, and… must I again bring up those glorious visuals?
The game is free on Desura, but you should buy it on Steam to give this mod team some of the money they deserve for this quality game. It’s the least they deserve for resurrecting Half-Life with so much love and attention to detail.
You can buy Black Mesa here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.