It's worth mentioning that Black Mesa isn't the whole game. Not yet, anyway. It ends when Gordon enters the portal to Xen, which is about 8-9 hours of gameplay. But anyone who's played Half-Life will know that Xen sucked. We don't miss skipping between floating platforms with the Long Jump Module one bit, but it will leave anyone unfamiliar with the story of the original Half-Life hanging at quite a major plot point. The good news is that the developers say they will release the Xen chapters, and they'll be taking creative liberties to make them more fun.
The structure of the levels are loyal to Valve's original designs, but the geometry has changed to make each space feel bigger and more realistic. From Black Mesa's entrance hall and office complex, to the dizzying maze of conveyor belts in Residue Processing and the hydro-electric dam, the facility now feels like a real, lived-in place. Some levels towards the end are a little drab, like the waste processing plant, but things get interesting again when you enter a top secret lab filled with captured aliens and experimental weapons.
Here you approach a room blocked by a pile of boxes and hear a scientist pleading with a guard not to touch something. Suddenly the door is blown off and you find the Tau Cannon - one of the game's best weapons - lying next to a smear of blood and a pair of smoking boots. Half-Life's wry sense of humour has definitely survived the remake.
HEAR NO EVIL
A new soundtrack has been recorded for the mod, but it's used sparingly, usually during boss battles and big set-pieces. Some tracks are beautiful, and evoke the mood of the game perfectly; others feel out of place, like the cheesy metal that plays when you're about to finish off the tentacle monster in Blast Pit. The mixing is a little off as well, and the music drowns out the general game sounds, which can be a problem when you're trying to determine where an enemy is by their voice and footsteps. This is a minor quibble, and you can of course manually turn the music volume down, but it's little things like this that remind you the game is a mod made by dedicated fans, and not a multi-million dollar studio with armies of testers.
We also encountered a few bugs along the way, like being locked out of an elevator that leads to the next part of the level, and the interface of the tactical air strike map - used to defeat the Gargantua boss - refusing to work. The Black Mesa team have promised post-release updates, so some of these issues will likely be ironed out. Generally, the game is remarkably solid. The robust and well-optimised Source engine obviously gave them a great foundation to build upon, but the Black Mesa team have to be commended for getting all of the weapons and enemies unique to the original Half-Life to work perfectly in the new engine.
Black Mesa isn't just impressive as a game, but also for what it represents. A team of people made this for free, and have refused donations offered to them by satisfied fans. Valve's only intervention was asking them to remove 'Source' from the name to make it legally distinct from their own games. No cease and desist letter, no court case. Hell, it's even going to appear on Steam thanks to Greenlight. What other company would allow that? Black Mesa is also a wonderful example of why being a PC gamer is so exciting. Bedroom coders can get projects like this to a wide audience without any help from publishers.
It isn't perfect, but Black Mesa is one of the most entertaining shooters we've played this year. That's pretty amazing when you consider it's based on a game released 14 years ago. The awkward 'crouch jump' mechanic is a constant headache, there's too much platforming, and the story is cut short because of the Xen omission, but it still stands equal to many similar games that had huge teams, inflated budgets, and publisher support.
Followers of Half-Life's mythology will relish the chance to experience the catalyst of it all, the Black Mesa Incident, with relatively modern visuals. The broad mix of weapons and enemy types keeps the combat interesting, and the Source physics and expanded maps bring the world to life. At the highly competitive price of nothing at all, you'd be mad not to try it.
An impressive, professional reboot of Valve's beloved first-person shooter that feels right at home in the year 2012.
- High production values
- Faithful to the original
- Free to download
- Too much platforming
- Some weak voice acting
- Crouch jumping