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Black Mesa Review

A long, long time ago, Valve Software released a little game called Half-Life, and in doing so changed gaming forever. Now, nearly two decades later, does this painstaking fan-remake of Gordon Freeman's original adventure still do justice to his legacy?

Introduction

As part of the build-up to the release of Half-Life 2, the much-acclaimed sequel to their magnum opus Half-Life, Valve Software released Half-Life: Source in June of 2004. Touted as a remake featuring the best elements of their new Source Engine, Half-Life: Source promised a bold new experience for players looking to relive the original  adventure of Gordon Freeman before the time came to experience his next chapter. However, while it delivered in some respects, for the most part  it left all but the most nostalgic members of the fan-base feeling cheated. Yes, the new game offered enormous graphical touch-ups such as improved water, lighting and shadows, not to mention rag-doll physics (a unique and enticing new addition for the time period). However, it also left out many of the incremental updates made through the original  game's expansion packs, like enhanced world and weapon textures, or  smoothed-out sound effects. In addition, it made only partial use of the  new graphical powers of the Source Engine, leaving it looking both out-of-date and low-quality compared to the upcoming sequel.

Because  of this and numerous other flaws, the so-called 'remake' was widely  reviewed as a disappointing hack-job, made to cash in quick before the  release of Half-Life 2 in November of the same year. Frustrated by Valve's behavior, a team of like-minded fans banded together to fulfill the vision of a Half-Life reborn;  not as a cheap, half-hearted graphical showcase, but as it was meant to  be. For eight years, they struggled, pushing back their release  deadline again and again, until their creation, known to the outside  world as Black Mesa: Source, was viewed jokingly as vaporware;  doomed to forever remain in limbo in a fashion similar to the series'  elusive third installment, Half-Life 3.

Finally however, in 2012, Crowbar Collective (as they had come to call themselves) released Black Mesa,  a labor of sweat, tears and coding designed to give gamers the truly  re-imagined experience they'd so desired. The launch version, released  for free on ModDB.com and other, similar sites, featured the almost the  entire Half-Life experience, starting from Gordon Freeman's  initial accident in the Sector C Test Labs to his desperate leap into  the unknown dimension of Xen. The only part not included were the Xen  levels themselves, which due to their poor reception in the original  game, were to be held back and given further attention until the devs  felt comfortable with what they had made.

Black Mesa Review - While offering improved graphics like shiny wet surfaces, Half-Life: Source still neglected to include many other improvements, both from the original updates to GoldSource and from the new Source Engine. The result was a jarring juxtaposition of old and new that didn't really feel like it was either.
Despite this minor hiccup, the downloads still poured in, and the  project quickly won instant critical acclaim, gaining attention from  numerous publications world-wide. Eventually Valve themselves took notice and negotiated to have it officially added to their Steam catalog,  where it continues to receive updates and technical support while the  creators work on finishing the final chapter. Various other updates have  added fresh features, like remixed level design, Steam Workshop support, and an integrated multiplayer death-match mode (a feature originally sold separately for the original Half-Life and it's sequel). For fans of the Half-Life series everywhere, Black Mesa was  a glorious moment of triumph, where the passion of the fans triumphed  over the cash-driven realities of the gaming industry to breathe new  life into an old classic.

Now, over half a decade later, with Half-Life 3 all  but cancelled and the Xen chapter still in the wind with regards to a  release, the nostalgia that drove the project and those who followed it  has largely faded once more. Meanwhile, Valve's new Source 2 engine is rapidly outpacing the capabilities of the aging software Black Mesa was built on (ironic given the code is a veritable tower of duct-tape with its origins stretching back to the original Quake).  Perhaps now is the time to ask the stickiest question that many  reviewers overlooked in the heat of those first heady days: What is the  value of Black Mesa as a game by itself? Is it still fun for those who, pardon the pun, never played the source material? If you want to find  out for yourself, it's available on Steam for just $19.99 (and usually less than that during their frequent sales. If  you'd rather hear a bit more from someone who's been there first  however, read on. With luck, a fresh perspective will help you make a  more informed decision…or at least one with less unforeseen  consequences.

Story

Written and conceived by Mark Laidlaw, a high-quality  science-fiction and horror author, the story of the original Half-Life  shares its base concept with id Software's Doom,  in that the core of the story revolves around a teleportation  experiment that inadvertently causes an inter-dimensional alien invasion  (as they are so prone to do). There, however, the similarities largely  end. For one thing, Half-Life takes place on  Earth, in the New Mexico-based Black Mesa Research Facility, rather than on Mars, and instead than playing as a hulking, nameless space marine,  you take the role of mild-mannered MIT graduate Gordon Freeman. This shift in perspective was and is one of the great achievements of Half-Life.  In a field of game story-telling dominated by figures such as Duke Nukem and Serious Sam, Gordon's relatively mundane background and  surroundings offer a sense of immersion that a muscle-bound action hero  could never provide. Furthermore, because of the way that Half-Life tells much of its story through the environment and the events occurring within it, his mute nature is actually a benefit, and allows  players to more easily fill his narrative shoes without the obstruction of a preexisting personality. This sets him apart from more chatty  protagonists with their own problems and stories that some people might potentially find it hard to relate with. He's a blank slate, with only the world at large to tell us who he is.


Black Mesa directly adapts the story of the original Half-Life,  beginning with Gordon's initial tram-ride to the aforementioned Sector C  Test Labs and his brief mingling with his co-workers; a sequence that  is still being copied years later by countless other games for its  ingenuity. In the original game, it was devised as a means of laying out  a foundation for the setting and Gordon's role in it. As the scenery  rolls past and the automated public address system babbles away  overhead, the desert-bound research facility seems less and less like a  convenient killing ground and more like a real place. The various  scientists you can meet after the ride provide further immersion, giving  the 'real setting' some 'real people' to populate it. The overall goal  of the opening is to drive home the scope of the disaster when it inevitably occurs. When green lights start flashing and people start  dying, suddenly it's no longer just a bunch of mindless bots executing  fear animations or featureless corpses with attached text logs, but  actual characters whom you were speaking with mere moments ago.

Black Mesa recognizes  this and takes it a step further, improving not just the environment,  but the individuals in it, adding tons of funny and engaging dialogue to  the scientists and security guards you meet, who also no longer look  like duplicates of the same five characters repeated across the entire  game. It also doesn't limit this improvement to the opening sequence.  There are tons of new little world-building improvements and  interactions to be found across the breadth of the game. For example, an  early area charges you with guiding a band of survivors through a  gauntlet of aliens where before you had to go it alone. When you finally  reach a safe haven, they set up camp and wish you good luck as you move  forwards. These small events flesh out the world in unique ways that  cutscenes and text boxes never could, leaving you feeling like you  haven't just played the game, but have almost lived it (pardon the pun).

Gameplay and Design

As remakes go, Black Mesa stays almost totally true to  its roots as an old-school shooter in that there is no upgrade system or  collectibles to speak of; only raw action and quick thinking. Like most  90's-era first-person shooters, the core loop of gameplay revolves  around the player being given an arsenal of increasingly destructive and  weird weaponry while being pitted against ever-more difficult enemy  encounters and ambushes, forcing them to employ their wits and cool to  stay alive under fire. Regarding the guns, almost nothing has changed  save for increased texture and model definition. All the old fan  favorites are present, including the crowd-pleasing SPAS-12, the  versatile MP5 sub-machine gun, and the Colt .45 hand-cannon. For those  who prefer the odder options, such as the alien Hive Hand and the  experimental Tau Cannon (both of which are acquired in highly amusing  circumstances), those too are also still available, and just as wacky as  they were in 1999. There are very few definite changes to mention  beyond the addition of the ability to use the iron-sights on the Colt,  and the improvements made to the handling of grenades and satchel  charges thanks to the application of the Source Engine's improves physics. The latter is probably the largest alteration, and the most welcome, given that thrown objects in GoldSource tended to behave…strangely, to say the least.

As a game, however, Half-Life has always stood on its level design and plethora of environmental options to stand out in the crowd; a trend that Black Mesa continues in spades. Crowbar Collective has distinguished their creation by ensuring that whatever changes they  might've made to the layout of the B.M.R.F., the player still has  multiple paths of approach most situations, either physically or  tactically. The majority of the fights take place in open or semi-open  spaces, which helps to offset the largely linear nature of the game's  progression (a lesson that many early corridor-shooters failed to pick  up on, sadly). Where they don't though, there are air-vents, side  passages, and plenty of crates or concrete dividers to serve as cover.  There are also an enlarged number of choices when it comes to sowing  chaos and tipping the odds. The improved physics means that explosive  barrels can be used to set traps, and that later in the game, the  military's tripod-mounted auto-turrets can be picked up and moved for  your advantage. Your enemies can even be used against one another, as  every veteran who has lured a hapless HECU marine into a barnacle's  grasp knows.

Of course the integration of these new mechanics to combat is not the sole advantage Black Mesa has  on its side. In true homage to Half-Life 2, the devs have also done  their best to include the occasional new physics-based puzzle; something  else that the entire franchise was once known for. Old areas that were  once no more than a slog to find and press a button thanks to limited  hardware and design options now feature clever and intuitive spaces that  make the player pause and think. Some might argue that this is where  the creative liberties Crowbar Collective have taken are most  called into question, simply because while the new puzzles add content,  they also potentially disrupt the carefully-crafted pacing of the  original game. Certainly, there are some spaces that are left feeling  oddly arrested.

One good example is 'On A Rail', a chapter that leaned  heavily on puzzles relating to Gordon riding an electric tram cart  through a disused cargo transport network. The original version of the  section went on for a good forty-five minutes which were stretched out  by dull and uneventful backtracking through concrete passages that normally would make people cheery to know that the revised version terminates abruptly at the launching of the satellite rocket after only twenty or so minutes of running and gunning. When  held up against the community-created 'uncut' version of the level  however, which features a massive train-yard battle to keep the action flowing, one can't help but feel there were some lost opportunities on  the part of the developers. Still, at the end of the day, the final  experience is up to the player and their endurance. As with 2016's  revision of DOOM, Black Mesa is a rather long game that involves doing  one thing over and over in as many ways as possible. Whether or not  that's something the player can endure or enjoy is an open question that  only you can answer.

Final Verdict

There's not much else to be said about the meat of the experience.  It's impossible to deny that as a remake, Black Mesa had a limited  window for innovation to begin with, but it is equally impossible to  refute that what was produced was nothing less than brilliant given the  tools and artistic space on hand. It is undoubtedly a throwback, and  more likely to pick up points with those who feel a deeper connection to  gaming's past, but that doesn't make it less valuable for those looking  for something new. Gordon' adventure is an action-packed one, and its  subtle mysteries and breadth of experiences to be had make it as  enticing as any modern FPS. Even the soundtrack, whimsical and  sentimental as it so clearly is, easily stands on its own for all the  inspiration clearly present in its construction. In short, Black Mesa is  a good game, not just for long-time fans, but for new ones too. It's a  testament of how far we've come, and how much further we still have to  go in the field of game-making. So grab your HEV suit (no helmet  included), and slap on some glasses, because as every action movie worth  watching has taught us, at the end of the day, it's always down to the  nerds to save the planet.

PROSCONS
+ Improved level design, graphics and physics.– Some pacing issues with new level design.
+ Classic gameplay and feel.– Geared towards fans of old-school shooters.
+ Excellent storytelling; both visual and environmental.
8.9
Great

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