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.

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13 Comments on Black Mesa Review

SweetPea

On September 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm

I love the crouch jump. I do it in every game.

fulis

On September 18, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Turn on “always run” in the options, that way you don’t have to hold shift

Matt

On September 18, 2012 at 4:59 pm

You do know you can re-bind the duck key to C and make crouch jumping not only easy, but fun? Just a Pro-Tip.

David

On September 18, 2012 at 10:23 pm

Also, the fact that it’s a mod means you can adjust things like that. I forget exactly where it is, but if you get to the config file, change the vertical jump setting from 160 to 200. it’ll make your life so much easier. You might still need crouch jump sometimes, but it won’t be for every blasted jump in the game.

CJ Miozzi

On September 18, 2012 at 10:36 pm

@David:

No kidding? Wow, that’d be awesome! Thanks mate.

Darg

On September 19, 2012 at 8:15 am

I’m downloading it as I type this (well, I only need to download the SDK Base 2007 since I got all the mod files last night), and am so looking forward to trying it out with my game pad. Well, after I play for a while with the nostalgic keyboard/mouse combo, for nostalgia. And science.

C

On September 20, 2012 at 4:43 am

Personally I took Danny “frod” Montanas advice and have Q as my crouch button, its so much more convenient. I also have sprint as MOUSE3 (admittedly this requires a gaming mosue though).

SweetPea

On September 20, 2012 at 9:10 am

@David
Or you can just use a crouch jump script, it’s the easiest way.
Just copy paste to your cfg:

alias +crouchjump “+jump; +duck”
alias -crouchjump “-duck; -jump”
bind “c” “+crouchjump”

And change the “c” to whatever you’d like.

Passer by

On September 21, 2012 at 6:26 pm

“we still haven’t figured out how to make climbing ladders in FPS games smooth”

Never had problems with ladders in Black Mesa. Simply press E to attach/detach from the ladder.

Andrew

On September 21, 2012 at 10:51 pm

This is the most satisfying to happen to the Half-Life franchise since 2007. And since we’re STILL waiting for Episode 3, we’ll have to make do with the jewel that is Black Mesa in the meantime. To say this is a well executed mod does not do justice to the scope of what has been achieved here. I have vague memories of playing through the original Half-Life back in the late 90′s, and the one thing that sticks out the most was how unrelentingly frustrating the Xen levels were. The fact that they have been excluded (for now) for the purposes of this mod does nothing to degrade it. With solid voice acting, and re-visioning of the original gameplay environments in appearance and scale; Black Mesa feels much more alive that it ever has before. Despite a handful of glitches like the difficulty involved with aiming the mounted guns, manipulating the targeting map for the second Gargantua encounter, and the game occasionally crashing the moment of my death, I loved almost every moment of Black Mesa.

dreimanis

On September 23, 2012 at 8:00 am

You can always get off of the ladders by using the “Use” key. Ladders bothered me too, but when I learned this trick, everything became much brighter.

soiledwig

On September 23, 2012 at 8:19 pm

For every FPS i’ve ever played, i’ve found the problem of using jump in combination with other movements is solved by simply binding jump to the middle mouse button. You can freely move, sprint, crouch, etc. and jump with the other hand easy as anything. Chances are you’re not actively firing or aiming down a scope while you’re moving, so the right hand isn’t doing anything else during, say, a sprinting crouch-jump. i would even submit that if the middle mouse button had been more common back in the days when WASD+Space were first being codified for FPSs, it’d likely be the norm for jumping today. It’s like QWERTY, it’s not the best way to set up the alphabet on a modern keyboard, but after a while it’s too hard to change old habits and conventions.

Dave

On October 14, 2012 at 10:26 pm

Rebind your keys if you are having trouble with the crouch jump. For all shooters since 1998 I have moved the ASWD configuration to SDEF and have never looked back since. Crouch would be C, reload V or R. Use key G.