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.

Pros:

  • Professional-quality but free of charge
  • Believable characters
  • Immersive
  • Challenging
  • A faithful recreation and modernization of Half-Life
  • Did I mention it’s free?

Cons:

  • Ladders and the crouch jump can go to hell
  • Some instability issues

Final Score: 90/100

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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.