Black Mesa Review
The term “rose-colored glasses” gets thrown around a lot whenever a gamer brings up fond memories of yesteryear. The ’90s, in particular, seem to be regarded as a golden age for PC gaming, with Half-Life sitting on the Mount Olympus of the pre-millennium gaming scene.
But does Half-Life truly deserve the reputation it holds, or are we collectively just letting nostalgia get the better of us? Were the game released today, with modern graphics, would we still hold it in such high regard?
Fortunately, this isn’t just a thought experiment — talented modders have made this a reality with Black Mesa, a free remake of the original Half-Life on the Source engine. Presently, Black Mesa consists of the first 90% of the original game, and it isn’t a straight-up high-resolution port. Some puzzles have been tweaked, some layouts modified, and a healthy dose of physics is introduced in a meaningful way.
Watch Mitchell compare the remake with the original. Find even more videos like this on the Game Front Youtube Channel.
As I loaded up Black Mesa, I found myself on that familiar tram ride once again, cruising through the research facility. While the graphics aren’t up to par with the latest and greatest PC tech, they’re a clear and monumental step up from the original Half-Life — so much so that I was actually wowed by my first view of the world outside the facility.
The tram ride itself is just as long as I remembered it, but the improved visuals offer you more to look at to pass the time. I recall jumping out of the tram after a couple of minutes back in 1998, falling to my death, and having to sit through the entire ride all over again as my just punishment for being impatient. Fool me once, Half-Life, but I’m 14 years older and slightly wiser. I kept my ass in my seat this time.
At the end of the tram ride, I was met with a familiar face. Or rather, a familiar security guard with a completely new face. While the graphics, overall, do feel a few years old — as expected from the Source engine — the characters are some of the most realistic I’ve ever seen.
This is aided by the professional-grade voice acting and believable dialogue that truly brings these characters to life. I recall one instance of a wooden delivery in response to near-cataclysmic equipment failure, but for the most part, the characters sounded like actual people.
From there kicked off an experience in immersion the likes of which you just don’t get from most modern games. From characterization, to level design, to plot, to music and sound, Black Mesa offers a cohesively immersive experience that drew me into its world. The music alone deserves special recognition, an entirely new soundtrack (available for free download) that creeps in to deliver key ambiance at crucial moments.
Today’s shooters are applauded when they offer non-linear level design, but to call Black Mesa’s levels non-linear would be doing the game a disservice — the levels don’t even feel like maps in a game, but like actual environments.
Objectives don’t consist of traveling from point A to point B while killing everything in your path, but rather various steps towards escaping the facility. My thought process while playing wasn’t, “How do I beat this level?” It was, “How do I get out of here?” I was Gordon Freeman trying to get to safety, not CJ Miozzi trying to finish a game.