Black Mesa

9.5 Overall Score
Graphics: 9/10
Gameplay: 8/10
Sound: 10/10

A great recreation of a classic game

It is a remake of a 14 year old game

It has been one long trip to get where we are today. Putting all the cards on the table for the sake of this review, I will admit I never got around to finishing the original Half-Life. I was an avid Counter-Strike fan back in the day, and with the announcement of Counter-Strike: Source being bundled with Half-Life 2, well needless to say I had to purchase it. I purchased the bundle on Steam which included the said 2 products and the now infamous Half-Life: Source.

Knowing the importance of Half-Life on the gaming culture, I decided it would be in my best interest to finish the original before moving onto the sequel. For better or worse though, the allure of Half-Life 2 and it’s shiny new source engine deterred me from ever finishing the original. I just couldn’t get the motivation to finish the now graphically dated product. And that is when I first encountered Black Mesa. That was October 2004 with my young mind naively concluding that I would simply wait for this mod to be completed before I would get to experience the almighty Half Life. How long could it really take?

The first few years went great. Image after image was uploaded to moddb and it continued to win the yearly most anticipated/best unreleased mod award on the site. Then in 2008 the trailer was released and I knew I would finally be playing it. It was going to happen. And then it didn’t.

Then it didn’t happen again, year after year after year. My interest moved on assuming it had entered development hell for whatever reason. I would randomly check in on the forums to see if anything was happening and was always met with the same disappointment with the community left hanging when crying “Is it dead?”. I had forgotten about Black Mesa.

But then it really did happen. Almost 4 years of silence and suddenly a surge of activity. September 14th 2012, almost 8 years after starting its initial development, Black Mesa is finally out. I had my initial fears. With this much time passed, would the parts developed years prior still hold up? Did the designers evolve with the source engine or would I look at it with the same attitude as I did with Half-Life: Source years prior? No one has seen it in years, would the second half of the game be rushed and sloppy just for the sake of getting it done? Folks, I am pleased to announce Black Mesa is out and it is good.

Once again, I only got through the first 2 hours or so of Half Life 1. I got to when the marines attacked and went no further I actually played the first part of Half Life 1 multiple times, but each time without making much progress. This actually puts me in a unique position to review this mod though. The majority of the people who are going to play Black Mesa fall into 2 separate categories: The ones who finished the original and who’s enjoyment of it will most likely be based on how true it is to the original, and the ones who never played Half Life and will probably enjoy it objectively on its pure game quality. I sit somewhere in the middle.

Right of the bat let me say that Black Mesa is the best single-player mod I have ever played. From a production value it is virtually unrivaled in the mod community. After the first hour or so I became fully immersed and honestly forgot I was playing a mod. This feels like a valve quality remake. The only bugs I encountered were the ones that I have come to expect from the Source engine (random “hl2.exe has stopped working” crashes, events not triggering).

What really got me about Black Mesa is the details. This is fan service at its finest. I was really worried when Black Mesa went dark for those few years of development that it may have lost the developers love for the original game. I was afraid their frustration of development may have affected the quality of the product. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Virtually every nook and cranny of Black Mesa has been polished. The atmosphere and livelihood of the opening 30 minutes alone were enough to strike down my fears. The Black Mesa Research facility feels like a living and breathing work place. I know at the time Half Life 1 must have been revolutionary with its scientists all fully versed and immersed with no cutscenes first person perspective, but it simply hasn’t survived over the years if you go back and play it. Listening to the sound quality of the original Half Life is almost painful, as if everything was thrown through a filter and then compressed and decompressed over and over.

The rerecorded sounds alone would make this product a worthy download simply as a sound mod to the original. The voice acting and soundtrack are on par with most triple A titles released today. You get the occasional over acted line or cheesy dialog, but most of the time these are from the scientists in the lab and it harkens back to Half Life 1 without being completely jarring. Even a majority of the enemy sounds have been redone and really sound incredible. I never thought a Houndeye would actually be scary, but a pack of them out of nowhere screaming while the screen shakes made me jump more than a few times.

And the graphics, for the most part, follow suite. I give the developers credit. Virtually every piece of Black Mesa is redone and use of Half-Life 2 objects and textures are used minimally making Black Mesa feel like a complete stand alone game. The developers really went the extra mile to ensure Black Mesa didn’t feel like a level map with redone models. Virtually every enemy is redone from the ground up. For example the marines have their own AI entirely while they could have been lazy and simply stolen the Half Life 2 Combine AI. The zombies, scientists, and security guards all have their own custom models and animations. The weapons all are completely redone; these aren’t just remodeled and skinned Half Life 2 weapons. The shotgun feels like the Half Life 1 shotgun. The SMG shows absolutely no resemblance to the Half Life 2 SMG. The animations on the hive hand and snark literally made me stop and stare in awe at the fact that the developers (whom I remind you are working for no pay) would put so much time and effort into really nailing the littlest things.

The first time leaving the research facility and opening your eyes to the New Mexico desert could potentially be “tears of joy” inducing to original Half-Life fans. The recreation of the dam level is awe inspiring. I stopped and looked around just staring at the environment around me for a very good chunk of time. Did I mention this is mod based on an engine that was originally released 8 years ago? Crysis 2 and Battlefield 3 didn’t have me sit and staring at the graphics for as much time as this free mod did. That is saying something.

Now from a game stand point there are a few issues, but this is where the review of this product becomes difficult. This is still Half Life 1 and with that comes dated and sometimes frustrating level design. Blocky corridors and vent crawling is abundant and there are more than a few annoying water areas and cart levels. But this is still Half Life 1 at its core and these things are expected. I expect to get stuck on ladders and have generic switch puzzles. If I were reviewing an original product, I would lash out at these nitpicked items, but at its core this is a 14 year old game and the fact that I am rarely reminded of that is a feat all in its own.

I need to mention here that this is not the finished game. The Xen levels and Half Life Deathmatch are not included in this release, but I believe this is a wise decision. I recalled reading that the developers were having trouble with how to approach the Xen homeworld levels, and I can’t blame them. After finishing Black Mesa, I went back to Half Life 1 to play through the final 4 chapters. They are strange and there is definitely room for improvement. Lets hope that by releasing the first 14 chapters the developers will get reinvigorated and we will have the final levels soon. So this review is not encompassing those final levels and I am not factoring in the exclusion of those levels and the multiplayer suite into this review.

As a recreation, this game is incredible and should be used as the standard for all remake mods and even actual HD remakes by companies. The developers leave their mark in some places by making minor changes for fun and/or improvement (crowbar is found in a different area, the main cart area is shorter), but overall this is Half Life 1 and I would go as far as to state this is the superior version of Half Life. If my friend wanted to play Half Life 1, I would tell them to play Black Mesa instead. This mod achieves everything it sought out to accomplish, and then some. It is rarely true when it comes to gaming, but here it is. The near decade of waiting for this game was well worth the wait. This is a review but at the end of the day to read this as the deciding factor to play the game is almost pointless. This game is completely free. Go download it now.

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Author: Chris Fadeley View all posts by
I am UF alumni and a computer engineer. I know virtually every useless fact about videogames ever. I like computers and potatoes.

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