Black Mesa is one of those oddball modifications that you have a love-hate relationship with. At its core, Black Mesa is a re-imagining of the original Half-Life from Valve Software. Kept intact are the essential story elements, setting, characters, enemies, and the lot. Personal liberties were taken at points to change various aspects of the original so that it wasn't a simple one to one port with a fresh coat of paint. That wasn't the goal of the Black Mesa team and that isn't what this mod is.
What it actually is, is a re-imagining of the events of Half-Life. Some frustrating sequences from the original were trimmed back or even outright omitted in Black Mesa. Dialogue has been added at parts and completely removed from others. Obviously, the visuals and physics are modernized thanks to the use of the Source Engine. Those who have decided to play Black Mesa come from all areas of the gaming realm. I've seen just as many people playing this that played the original game as I have seen people who have admittedly never played the original picking this up and experiencing Half-Life for the first time ever.
While it would be easy to go off on a long-winded explanation of the story, it's either one most everyone already knows, or one that is better explained through actually playing through Half-Life or even through Black Mesa. I do applaud the Black Mesa team for trimming some of the fat in various parts of the game. If you still have waking nightmares of the "On a Rail" chapter, you will be happy to hear that the version in Black Mesa is shorter and more straight-forward in its presentation. Speaking of "shorter" it should be noted that Black Mesa does not include all of the original game here. In fact, it "ends" right after Gordon Freeman jumps through the portal to travel to Xen.
Rather than get into the basics of a typical TGN review here, let's just break down the mod's pros and cons. Will there be comparisons to the original game? Absolutely. It would be hard not to draw comparisons between Black Mesa and Half-Life, the reason for which this mod even exists in the first place.
Black Mesa Pros• The development team behind Black Mesa did an absolutely amazing job at filling in the gaps at the Black Mesa Research Facility. What do I mean by this? Well, the team managed to take what was given to them and make the world feel even more believable than what the original game managed to do. Gone are bottomless pits and static backgrounds. In their place are elements that actually look as though they came from a real-life research facility such as CERN.
The backgrounds now make use of impressive skybox effects and bring more life to what used to be low-resolution images. Jets fly overhead, bombing distant buildings as you scale a dangerous cliff side. Sunlight glistens off as rivers flow through a valley. It's obviously a little touch, but it goes a long way to pumping up the visual appeal of the title.
• The weapons almost all feel fantastic. I say almost because the SMG is either glitched or it was struck with a poor gameplay decision, but we'll hit that up under the cons below. The shotgun's double shot sounds appropriately beefy while the Gluon Gun lays waste to anything in its path but at the cost of chewing through its ammunition supply.
The weapons are balanced out by how many rounds Freeman can carry for each gun. The .357 Magnum, for instance, packs an incredible punch at the cost of only being able to carry 24 rounds at any given time. In contrast, the Glock 17 is a lot less powerful but you can carry far more ammunition for it.
All of your old favorites make a return in Black Mesa including the laser guided RPG, satchel charge, trip mine, grenades, Tau Cannon, Snarks, Hornet Gun, and the beloved crowbar among others.
• The added dialogue is a great addition here. It ranges from being subtle jokes to a means of retconning story elements of the games that came after Half-Life but before Half-Life 2. None of it ever came across as being out of place and it all managed to fit in quite nicely with the Half-Life universe. It doesn't hurt that younger versions of Eli Vance and Isaac Kleiner are included and actually have exchanges showing they were pals long before the events of Half-Life 2. There is even a special nod to Barney whom is mentioned briefly. Gone are the cookie cutter security guards from Half-Life which were all presumed to be "Barney". Instead, it is believed he is busy dealing with the events in Half-Life: Blue Shift while Freeman is on his own adventure at the same time.
• This leads into the next pro that the mod has going for it. The fact that there are an actual variety to the appearance of the scientists and security guards goes a long way to making the environment feel more believable. Yes, there are still a number of re-used and repeated models but they are spaced out enough that it never becomes too much of an issue.
• The soundtrack is very well done. Instead of simply re-using the original music from the game, the Black Mesa team used the songs as inspiration for what is one of the best custom made soundtracks. It even surpasses the soundtracks of many commercially made titles and fortunately for you, it can be downloaded today.
• At first glance, the game does an adequate job at visually modernizing the Half-Life universe. Health and charging stations are animated and allow the player to more easily see how much juice is remaining before being depleted. The weapon models and textures are top notch work here, sporting a good HD look without going overboard at any point.
The environments are all very well done, though some areas may have gone a bit overboard with some of the physics props. Still, it manages to come across as a research facility that has actually seen quite a bit of use over time. If it came across looking like a pristine "just built" building, then the illusion would be lost. Each area of the game is visually distinct with some impressive lighting and reflection effects tossed in for good measure. Make no mistake, it's still easy to tell that this is a Source Engine title, but for having been in development for eight years, it's expected that the game would receive some high marks for its visuals.
• Many puzzles have been re-worked in Black Mesa. Some of them now include the use of physics, which is a nice but unnecessary addition to the game. I actually appreciate the fact that the new and redesigned puzzles try not to hold your hand. Half-Life came from an era where players actually had to figure things out on their own without an overuse of environmental hints that essentially painted a big arrow over the solution. Black Mesa continues that trend by making things a bit more abstract but never overly difficult.
Some puzzles are taken directly from the original game. Why mess with something that isn't broken, right? The puzzles that were added or changed fit in perfectly that they could have easily been included in Half-Life and they would not at all seem out of place.
• It's Half-Life, what more can possibly be said about it? It's the game that set the bar for the story driven first-person shooter genre. A bar that only Half-Life 2 managed to surpass after a six-year break. Black Mesa took what made Half-Life popular, refined it even further, and created a free mod that allows for an all-new generation to experience but with vastly improved visuals. Unfortunately, while Black Mesa is good it fails in a few key areas.