Gaming PC Reviews

Black Mesa Review

After eight years, the much awaited community-made remake of Half Life has finally been released. To be more specific, the first release of Black Mesa was on September 14, 2012. In fact, it is more than just a remake. It would be more appropriate to call it “Half Life re-imagined” but don’t let this deter you, its main goal was to stick to the source material and only enhance it in a few respects.

Half Life was an innovative first-person shooter released by Valve in 1998. It saw great success, and with technology evolving, Valve attempted to create a remake dubbed “Half Life: Source” and released it in 2004. Many fans were disappointed that not much had changed since the original, only a few models and physics were updated so it still looked extremely dated. This led to the development of Black Mesa, formerly known as Black Mesa Source, a modern re-imagined version of Half Life.

Fast forward five years: Black Mesa was winning various awards and was perhaps the most awaited mod. Its release date was then scheduled for Q4 2009, but the developers found themselves rushing to make this release date. They realized that this was against their promise: they were sacrificing quality to reach that 2009 release date. As a result, the mod was postponed indefinitely before disappearing off the radar for three years.

Black Mesa was considered vaporware, but to everyone’s surprise, it reappeared in June 2012. Many new screenshots were shown, and the mod was said to be in its final stages of development. That brings us to now, September 2012. The first release of Black Mesa occurred on the 14th, including all chapters up to Lambda Core. Four chapters have yet to be completed, and they will be released at a later date.

Right now, Black Mesa is on the tip of every PC gamers’ tongue. Even today, two days after its release, the download mirrors are flooded and it is still hard to obtain. Luckily for me, I was one of the first to get it. A review is certainly necessary, don’t you think?

 

First Look

Black Mesa is a Source mod that only requires Source SDK Base 2007 to run. System requirements are more or less the same as Half Life 2: Episode 2. Installation is even more simple than a normal source mod: an installer is included, though for those who prefer the manual installation, drop the BMS folder into C:\Program Files\Steam\steamapps\sourcemods. Whichever method you use, you must restart Steam and then the mod will appear in your Library.

For those who were waiting for many years, as soon as the main menu pops up, it may feel surreal. Speaking of main menus, inside it you’ll find a bunch of custom options added by Black Mesa. Very nice!

It even includes its own achievements.

In Black Mesa, you take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist employed at the Black Mesa Research Facility, a government installation somewhere in the deserts of New Mexico. The introduction of Black Mesa, much like Half Life, is something to behold. You arrive at work and go through a train car ride through the facility, during which an automated voice will help guide you through. This is the perfect POV to put the player in; you’re being eased into a mesmerizing complex one step at a time.

This intro informs you about the basics of Black Mesa Research Facility, and is a great way to introduce the player to the game.

The attention to detail in the levels and the game itself are well above average, from character/object interaction down to the rendering of insignificant objects. When playing, take your time and explore so you can discover the quality of the mod, and it will pay off when the game kicks up.

The plot is fairly simple: Black Mesa Research facility does a variety of things, including retrieving and experimenting on otherworldly fauna. During one such experiment early in the game, things go wrong. An incident called a Resonance Cascade occurs, and a portal between Earth and a world called Xen is created. Xen is essentially a borderworld that connects various “dimensions” so to speak. Black Mesa scientists regularly teleported there to collect samples, though after the Resonance Cascade, the facility becomes overrun by alien species, and also soldiers who are ordered to contain the incident. This event becomes known as the Black Mesa incident in later games.

Throughout the game, you’ll hopefully have various sightings of the mysterious G-Man, an entity that continues to play a larger part in the series after each iteration.

And that’s the plot of Black Mesa. The storytelling is very subtle, Half Life is well known for having a silent protagonist and Black Mesa is no different. Thankfully, Black Mesa as well as all Half Life games don’t give you “objective markers” like other games. This mod, like the original game, presents lots of challenges and leaves the player to figure out what to do next, and where to go next. Dialogs between the player and various NPCs give them an indication of what to do next, but the rest is up to the player.

The first thing some may question is the stability of the mod. I’ve personally experienced five or six CTDs, and I’ve been made aware of clipping issues (possibility of shooting enemies through doors). But the mod’s stability is easily tolerable.

Black Mesa employs FPS gameplay combined with platforming, and problem/puzzle solving. This successful combination was popular back in the late 90s, as seen by other series such as Turok, but has long since died out. So for those who love this type of gameplay, Black Mesa feels very refreshing. This brings us to the next section, gameplay.

Gameplay

The original Half Life was rather innovative in its gameplay, much like many other titles during the late 90s. As I mentioned on the last page, it combines FPS gameplay with platforming and problem/puzzle solving. Black Mesa continues the trend. It’s not as linear as your average modern shooter, you’re given choices with how to proceed and tackle situations, there’s no time limit, several different path choices, and many places to explore. It also employs an innovative suit for the player.

Shooting mechanics are straightforward, though it should be noted that most guns have a secondary function (by default, right mouse button). There’s a number of interesting weapons, from modern military guns to prototypes and alien weaponry. Again this is something that was common for shooters in the late 90s but nearly extinct today.

An iron sight function was added to the .357 magnum, though it’s optional and enabled by default. Likewise, a more realistic scope zoom for the crossbow is also in the game.

Mounted weapons are also usable, from machine guns to rocket launchers.

Platforming is different than most games: you have to employ a jump-crouch technique to jump to higher obstacles. To do this, after jumping just hit the crouch key in mid air. Platforming plays a large role, and you’ll platform over very impressive and dangerous obstacles.

Your suit runs on energy, which essentially acts as an armor value. If you have suit energy, then damage will take away less health as well as some energy. If you’re out of energy, then attacks will deplete much more health. Both energy and health can be found in the form of usual pickups, as well as more innovative and limited charging devices with great attention to detail. They even have dynamic lighting and draining, once drained the receptacle will close.

Throughout your playtime, you’ll explore pretty much every part of the facility from some more normal looking (indoor and outdoor) areas…

To less inspiring areas…

To some very impressive areas.

This includes a sneak peek of Xen.

What all of these areas have in common is excellent attention to detail. Enemies are very diverse, such as aliens with various different abilities including some very intimidating ones.

The soldiers who are sent to contain the incident are also hostile, since they’ve been ordered to kill everything.

Helicopters and tanks also make an appearance as scripted, challenging battles.

There are a few boss fights, though they’re not done in the usual straightforward sense. They’re very well done, and Black Mesa introduces new ways to fight them (compared to Half Life).

As most of you know, Black Mesa ends at the Lambda Core level, so Xen and the last four chapters are not included. Don’t worry, they’ll be released at a later date. The devs promise an 8-10 hour gameplay time for this mod. I can tell you that 8 hours is for those who rush and don’t explore, and just want to kill things (i.e., the typical gamer). Those who like to explore will get at least a good 10 hours out of Black Mesa.

The Half Life series is known for diverse, dramatic, challenging, and very fun gameplay that reflects the high production value. Black Mesa is no exception. You’ll feel like you’re playing an official Valve title, not a free to play modification. Attention to detail exceeds even the Half Life games, from the side object and character interaction, to the details on the level such as puddles of water actually being slippery and making platforming harder at a few places, and much more.

I would like to see some gameplay improvements however, namely the human hostile AI. These enemies employ the old school tactic of getting as close as possible to the player, though at least they use cover. They also have pretty much perfect aim, combined with the lack of a leaning function is not desirable. I would have liked to see iron sights added to all guns too, of course this should be optional since some people freak out at newer superior mechanics. Black Mesa also suffers from some Source engine clunkiness, namely interaction with ladders. I won’t blame the mod though, this probably can’t be fixed. Now let’s move onto the technical stuff.

Audio & Visuals

Black Mesa uses Source engine 2007, which is the same one seen in Half Life 2: Episode 2. Since this is a mod, I will have to score it like a 2007 game to be fair. 2007 happened to be the year in which Half Life no longer had industry-leading graphics (this was the case from Half Life to Half Life 2: Episode 1). But don’t let that fool you, Black Mesa still looks better than most 2007 games, and believe it or not, your average game today. This is certainly the case with NVIDIA cards, for which NVIDIA Inspector allows the user to force SSAO and other types of anti-aliasing. All of these screenshots are shown with SSAO enabled (high quality), supersampling + MSAA enhancements, and 2x TRSGSSAA.

Polygon count, character models, and shader quality still impress even me to this day. There really isn’t much to complain about, even if some 2007 games look better than this (Crysis came out the same year). The only lackluster visual aspect is the overall texture quality; only first person gun models are really impressive.

Black Mesa employs superior lighting effects compared to HL2 and even some other Source games, thanks to good production on Source engine 2007.

Particle effects are good, especially underwater. Again, great attention to detail here.

Sound effects are good in quality and variety, just like Half Life 2 and its episodes. Voice acting is very good especially for a mod, and the soundtrack is in the same league as the Half Life games. It goes well with various scripted events and the pace of the game. There’s not much to complain about in this section. So let’s wrap up this review.

 

Conclusion

Despite eight years of hype, Black Mesa manages to exceed expectations thanks to increased attention to detail. Playing through Black Mesa is a refreshing experience, and makes me wish there were more quality shooters like this. It is more than a Half Life remake, it is Half Life re-imagined and improved.

Since this is a modification, I’ll be using a slightly altered scoring procedure.

  • Presentation: Black Mesa has an easy installer as well as lots of custom options, and it even has its own achievements for those who play for that sort of thing. However, I’ll take a half point off for minor stability issues. 4.5/5
  • Gameplay: Gameplay is diverse, challenging, and most of all satisfying. I would have liked to see a lean function added, and perhaps iron sights for more weapons, and more importantly, improved human enemy AI. Their tactics could be better, and their aim is too perfect especially in combination with the lack of a lean function. 4.5/5
  • Visual Quality: This mod has excellent graphics for Source engine 2007, on par with Half Life 2: Episode 2. Overall texture quality is the only thing that I’d like to see improved. 4.75/5
  • Audio Quality: The sound effects are very much like HL2 and the episodes, so no complaints there. Voice acting is surprisingly good especially for a mod, and the soundtrack fits perfectly. 5/5
  • Lasting Appeal: Black Mesa is a good 10 hours long for those who like to explore and want more of an experience. It isn’t complete, and doesn’t really offer anything new on a second playthrough. But during your first playthrough, you’ll almost certainly feel compelled to keep playing until you’re finished, and once you’re finished, you’ll be sad its over. Multiplayer is not included with this mod, for those who didn’t know. 4/5
  • Overall: 91/100 (Greatness)

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