I went into Half-Life (HL1) for the first time twelve years after its release fully aware that my expectations of how a game was to be designed was determined by contemporary releases, so playing this older game may be awkward, but I planned on appreciating the older style gameplay and lower quality graphics as they were. With this perspective I had an awesome time, because even though some parts of the game felt tedious or confusing and the graphics were dreadful (compared to 2010 releases, that is), the gameplay was an absolute blast. For the last eight years a team now consisting of forty volunteers has been bringing this experience into the more modern Source engine used for Half-Life 2 (HL2). As a result of this, their title Black Mesa feels like an awkward mash-up of the two Valve games, HL1 and HL2, and both benefits and suffers because of this. With such a long development time, does the satisfaction of a fresh revisit to a classic title justify all the time and effort put into the project? To be frank, I’m not entirely sure.
To anybody unfamiliar with the predecessor to what was arguably the game of the decade, Half-Life is a first person shooter in which you play as theoretical-physicist-turned-gun-wielding-badass Gordon Freeman, who may or may not be partially responsible for allowing an alien force to invade the planet. Spoiler alert: he is. With a continually diversifying arsenal of weapons Freeman is on a mission to get them damn aliens off his lawn. Gameplay consists of using the weapons to kill the bad guys, pressing E on things with lights that are or should be green, and completing some decently interesting puzzles. With weapons and enemies steadily introduced throughout the experience, which could last up to 20 hours depending on difficulty setting, skill level and patience, the simple formula of gun and targets never gets old. From here on I’ll stop reviewing HL1 and just stick to how Black Mesa performs in comparison, because that’s what we’re here for.
Black Mesa suffers from a number of tiny frustrating errors that really shouldn’t be present, and I really want to get them out of the way first. Sometimes it’s possible to walk directly onto a ladder beneath you and fall straight past it, onto whatever embarrassingly hard surface lies at the bottom. At one point I was stuck in a loop of constantly falling to my death due to the unfortunately chosen auto-save point, a system which causes much frustration much of the time. Like seemingly any game made with the Source engine, Black Mesa suffers from load times that last longer than most firefights. None of these are really game-breaking faults, of course, but they are only some of the many tiny, bothersome factors that sour the experience.
The Black Mesa team has attempted to update HL1 aesthetically, to make it more appealing to contemporary players, and also to give it more realistic gameplay. The weapons in Freeman’s hands reflect a definite improvement on textures, as they feel as if they’ve been taken right out of HL2, and the touch of having blood or goo smear over your weapon looks great. The animations are more fast and fluid than HL1, textures in the environment are noticeably more fitting. Certain iconic rooms are instantly recognizable, yet infamously tedious sections have been shortened and epic scenes have been made larger and, well, more epic. The boss battles throughout Black Mesa are so much easier to fully appreciate, with whatever thing in front of you actually being distinguishable from the room around it. For a fan of the series, these moments were somehow exact, nostalgia-inducing recreations, yet also much more immersive and exciting. And awesome.
These graphics are a vast improvement on HL1 from back in 1998, and feel identical to HL2, released in 2004. However, Black Mesa is a title released in 2012, so is it really something to be proud of to have a look that is already getting a bit old? The huge development time for Black Mesa seems to have made it so the end product really belongs in a time when the idea was originally concocted, not almost a whole decade later. The aesthetic vibe of Black Mesa is definitely not outdated, but anyone defending that it is on par with the best of contemporary tiles is truly in denial.
One feature of HL1 that really should have been cut is the crouch-jump element of puzzling. Not once has holding down Shift and W and tapping Space and Ctrl in rapid succession ever been fun, yet it plagues the entire title. Not just in platforming sections, even in simply maneuvering the battlefield. Also, the enemies in Black Mesa act exactly the same as they do in HL1. Despite receiving a huge improvement in visual design, both human and alien enemies are very predictable and quickly become tiresome to deal with. Though human enemies will now call out things such as “My arm!” when they are shot in the arm, they don’t recoil from the pain or retreat, so it seems weird that they even bothered with this feature. In this aspect, I feel Black Mesa has either totally misunderstood the concept of “realistic gameplay”, or has simply not strived for it, aiming to be an exact recreation instead.
Having AI identical to that of HL1 paired with the look of HL2 gives the game an awkwardly inconsistent atmosphere. With the gameplay of a 1998 release and the look and sound of a 2004 release, Black Mesa is a strange title for 2012 to embrace, and although it gives aficionados a chance to experience the best of both worlds, it doesn’t bring any new plate of delicious goodness to the first person shooter feast, even to the Half-Life table.
Credit has to go to the team behind this game, as only a developer with balls of steel would dare to take on a game as universally loved as Half-Life and change bits along the way. I will admit I had some fun while playing through Black Mesa. Disappointingly, it’s fun that I’ve already had playing Half-Life. Black Mesa is recommended for anybody who wants to play the first fourteen of eighteen chapters of a great classic, but is deathly afraid of low quality graphics. Ahhh, the pixels!
Black Mesa is a free modification for Source Sdk Base 2007, available here.