Black Mesa Review
The first hiccup to immersion comes in the form of abrupt and lengthy loading screens that interrupt your travels between environments. A loading screen may pop up while you’re midway through a corridor, and if you were just scouting ahead before returning to fully search an area, you may have to pass through the same loading area a couple of times. It’s an unfortunate but unavoidable concession to immersion the game has to make.
The other aspect of Black Mesa that breaks immersion derives from its difficulty. I can now absolutely, unequivocally say that yes, games released in the ’90s were much more difficult than games released today. No, we have not just become more skilled as players.
Black Mesa doesn’t lead you by the hand and spell out exactly what you need to do. There’s no quest log, no mini-map, no voice in your head giving you directions. NPCs will sometimes give you instructions, but it’s up to you to listen to them, retain the information, and interpret it. Weren’t paying attention? Too bad. You’ll now have a greater challenge to face, albeit not an impossible one.
I enjoy that part of the difficulty. I enjoy the puzzles; I enjoy needing to think my way through certain obstacles rather than be able to cruise through the game with my brain turned off. I enjoy being challenged.
However, when challenge turns to frustration, that’s when difficulty breaks immersion and the game suffers because of it.
Many people complain about platforming in first-person games. I’m not one of those people. However, Black Mesa makes extensive use of the “crouch-jump,” a jump maneuver that involves pressing the crouch key mid-jump to tuck your legs in to vault over taller obstacles.
Place your left hand in the WASD position, with thumb on the spacebar and middle finger on W. Your pinky is resting comfortably on the Shift key, right? Now hold W, space, and CTRL all at once. Your pinky is scrunched up in this awkward, uncomfortable position, isn’t it? Now, repeat this a few hundred times over the course of the next couple of hours.
As far as I can tell, there is no instance in which a non-crouch-jump is better than a crouch-jump, which makes the crouch-jump a completely pointless mechanic that serves to tie up an extra finger for no reason other than sadism. Worse yet is when you need to sprint and then crouch-jump, which has you swap from holding down Shift with your pinky to holding down CTRL.
As I said previously, I enjoy a challenge. But when I am shouting obscenities at my monitor and saving my game every fifteen seconds, not only am I no longer immersed, I’m no longer having fun. I want to stop playing.
Some people love this kind of challenge, and that’s why I believe in difficulty settings. Unfortunately, Black Mesa’s difficulty settings only affect combat, not platforming, and between crouch-jumps and getting stuck on ladders, I was dying for all the wrong reasons. Don’t punish me because your awkward controls are giving me carpal tunnel syndrome, and don’t punish me because it’s 2012 and we still haven’t figured out how to make climbing ladders in FPS games smooth.
The game also suffers from some instability issues; in two days of play, my game crashed four times: twice via a random freeze, and twice when I tried to load a game. I’m willing to chalk two of those up to user error from Alt+Tabbing, but the crashes on load seemed to be related to game instability.
Black Mesa covers the first 90% of Half-Life, ending just at the game’s climax. Fortunately, the curtain call didn’t come right after one of the sequences that had me frustrated, so I was left with good vibes and anticipation for the conclusion. I can’t fault the modders for accurately recreating the “if at first you don’t succeed, die, die again” difficulty of the ’90s, but I do wish they’d done away with the crouch jump mechanic.
For the cost of the bandwidth needed to download it and nothing more, Black Mesa succeeds in faithfully recreating the original Half-Life experience and improving upon it in ways that weren’t feasible back in the ’90s. The degree of polish and professionalism these modders have executed is truly astounding, and to give this gem away for free feels like a crime. Every Half-Life fan absolutely must play this game — hell, any FPS fan must play this game to gain an appreciation for one of the classics, especially given the current state of the genre.
- Professional-quality but free of charge
- Believable characters
- A faithful recreation and modernization of Half-Life
- Did I mention it’s free?
- Ladders and the crouch jump can go to hell
- Some instability issues
Final Score: 90/100