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Black Mesa Review

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  • Black Mesa Review

    Black Mesa
    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.

    Black Mesa Cons

    • The AI might be some of the worst I've seen in any game or mod and that even includes Revelations 2012. Tell me something here, in what world does it make sense for human, enemy AI to begin firing at you before either you or they go around a corner? In what world does it make sense for an AI sniper to constantly shoot at a wall after you're already inside of a building, hitting the wall precisely where you would be standing if the wall was not actually there? At what point does it make sense for the AI to fire at you in less than a fraction of a second upon seeing them. There isn't a reaction time in the world that could prepare you for the ass beating the AI will give you.

    I thought maybe this was just me. Perhaps I'm simply not as responsive as I once was back in 1996, or even in 2004 when Half-Life 2 came out. 16 years is an awful long time for the effects of aging to show up and knock aside those lightning fast reflexes I once had. The problem was, everybody that I have talked to on a regular basis has echoed the exact same feelings about the AI. It gives you no time to react. It doesn't make any mistakes, and they are able to hit you at absurd distances as soon as a hair on Freeman's head comes into view. It doesn't help matters that enemies will often get lost in the environments, so that by the time you actually see who is shooting you, they've already managed to take off half of your health.

    I'm all for challenging games but this is simply absurd and is a terrible way to artificially up the difficulty of a game. Now, this was encountered while playing on the Normal difficulty. I simply cannot fathom how frustrating it would be playing on Hard. Fortunately, there is a bit of a bright lining here. The AI for the aliens is quite a bit more tolerable. Why? I think it has a lot to do with the fact that the alien attacks are projectiles that obviously move at a slower pace than bullets fired from a human weapon. Thus, you actually have a chance to dodge these projectiles. It also doesn't hurt matters that the aliens don't actually fire at you immediately upon showing up.

    I don't think I've ever sworn more often or more loudly at the level of BS in game AI as I have while playing through Black Mesa. Maybe there should be an award for that.

    • Ladders. It's one word but it contains a wealth of pent up rage and anger. In Half-Life it was quite easy to slip onto and off of the ladders in the game. Sadly, this isn't exactly the case in Black Mesa. Black Mesa loves to use "sticky ladders" throughout the entire game. This means that Freeman will attach himself to the ladder and will only "let go" after coming to a stop and hitting the use key (default to "E"). This may not sound like a huge issue, but it is a massive problem when you have to contend with psychic sure-shot enemies and you're stuck fiddling with the ladder instead of simply sliding off and finding cover.

    This mechanic absolutely breaks the flow of movement in the game. The player should not have to do battle with inanimate pieces of the scenery when trying to get from Point A to Point B. Why they couldn't just allow for players to strafe on and off of ladders is beyond me.

    • That reminds me of another issue found in the game: The over use of physics props and environmental objects. If you've ever wondered what it's like to die to a computer monitor being flung at your face after a grenade explodes nearby, then boy are you in for a treat. Yes, the issue with physics in the Source Engine is here in full effect in Black Mesa. Since this game tends to make use of physics objects to a higher degree than other mods, there is a greater chance for having physics objects do more harm than good. You have been warned.

    • I believe that the SMG in Black Mesa is supposed to be an MP5. I believe this is the case despite this little annoying issue that was quite apparent. The weapon comes across as a burst-fire weapon, but one that is quite random in how many shots it decides to fire. A quick tap of the mouse will result in anywhere from 2-4 shots being fired, not one as would be expected, nor three if it was a true burst-fire weapon.

    I can't tell if this was by design or an oversight.

    • Collision issues are another common issue. I think perhaps the best example of where this was an issue was when trying to jump from broken catwalk piece to broken catwalk piece in the Surface Tension chapter. At some points, your run up to the jump would bounce you off of the cliff side that you believe should have been easily avoided. Compensate too much to the other side and you somehow end up hitting the side railing. Sometimes the jump attempt would simply result in Freeman pinballing on the collision areas on both the cliff side and the railing and then falling to his death since his momentum was destroyed during the jump.

    There are some easy and obvious things that should have happened here to avoid such issues but they were not done. This was only one example, but it does happen in other areas of the game, and strangely almost these areas almost always include dangerous jumping sections. Go figure.

    • The animations for the NPC's come off as stiff and unnatural. The facial animations look great, but body movements leave a lot to be desired at times. It looks quite weird, and almost creepy when an NPC folds their arms and everything just clips together in weird, odd places.

    The bad animations also show up when encountering zombies on the ground that you believe are dead but suddenly spring to life to try to surprise the player. I'm sure it would work a lot better if they didn't go from being slumped over on the ground to suddenly being in a standing position and walking towards me. It's almost as if there were blended animations that were omitted that really should have been included.

    There were other times that NPC players, namely the security guards, would have their arms twisted back into their own bodies while their upper torso and head were pointed towards the player. This was most apparent when the NPC was talking to the player and the player attacked them or an enemy was nearby. It would resolve itself after a brief time but while it was happening, it just looked very poor. Either they suddenly developed Boneitis or animation cues went haywire here.

    • The enemy soldier dialogue could have used quite a bit of work. A lot of it comes off as forced attempts at juvenile level humor and it just does not really work well in this environment. It's quite unfortunate if this was an intentional design by the Black Mesa team.

    • I've seen enemies spawn right in front of my face. No, I'm not talking about when they teleport in with a nice green flash, I'm talking about situations like seeing Alien Grunts magically appear behind a short wall of crates as I approached.

    • Cover in this game is an interesting beast in its own right. More often than not, you feel as though you should be safe where you are. Your view is well below the top edge of a wall and yet you are still getting hit. How is this possible? Well, either the view is a lot lower than the hit boxes for Freeman are, or I was being shot through solid walls and barriers.

    This can be especially frustrating when tackling a helicopter or any of the tanks you come across during your journey. If you think crouching behind a wall will save you, you may find you are sorely mistaken.

    • Black Mesa is not complete. Eight years. That is about the amount of time that this modification has been in development for. That's almost a full decade of waiting. Sure, Black Mesa is out but there are some very noticeable omissions that were promised.

    First off, every chapter involving Xen has been cut from this release. The team promises that it will be released in a timely fashion but I'm taking that promise with a grain of salt after release windows were broken repeatedly over the years. You still get a good deal of content here, especially for a free mod but there is part of me that can't help but feel extremely disappointed that it isn't yet complete.

    I'm sure many will argue that this isn't Half-Life, it's merely a re-imagining or a re-telling or something else to that effect. That's fine, but the mod has always promised to be a "total conversion" of Half-Life. Even to this day, their "About the Mod" page opens with that same line. Why call it a total conversion when what was released was not all of what was planned? Now, players will have to wait for however long to get the "complete" experience that was promised to them in the first place.

    Also promised was a modern version of Half-Life: Deathmatch, the classic competitive mode that is still loved by many all over the world. This was also not included in this initial release.

    • For as great as some of the models and textures look, there were some very obvious low-resolution textures used throughout the game. I learned that there exists a version of the mod that features HD textures upwards of 2048x2048 in size. When asked if this version would ever be released, even through Steam, the response was not to the affirmative.

    It's unfortunate that the game could look even better than it already does but nobody outside of the dev team will ever get to see it. I understand that this mod is more than just a visual upgrade of Half-Life, but it would have been nice to really see the game shine graphically, especially after such a long wait.

    Various areas of clipping are also present but now that's just being too nit-picky.

    Closing Thoughts

    Yes, there are a lot of cons working against Black Mesa but none of them will matter to anybody in the end. People are still going to play it and they are still going to enjoy it. It's a completely free modification that offers up as much gameplay that many $60 titles currently out there on the market offer. Sure, it's a bit broken in parts but for the price, I would be an idiot if I expected anybody to care about the cons of the mod.

    Old Half-Life fans, and those who are not even aware they're about to become Half-Life fans, will enjoy the game. It's a lot more difficult than it has any right to be, so perhaps a go with the Easy difficulty would be the best bet for those who want to enjoy the story without becoming overly frustrated.

    Overall: 6.5/10
    Gameplay: 7/10
    Audio: 8/10
    Visuals: 7/10
    Value: 10/10

    Relevant Links
    Black Mesa website (Includes download links for the mod and soundtrack)
    Half-Life Wiki

  • #2
    Great review Zips. I need to say I agree with every single opinion and aspect you said. You covered everything so well that some of the stuff I had forgotten you ended up reminding me of them.


    • #3
      Thanks jimykx.

      For those reading the review, please note that there is a second page which features the cons and closing thoughts. Some people tend to miss that.


      • #4
        Great read, i do not know why i am not playing this yet! i got it on my steam library so come on! lol