Disclaimer: this review assumes the reader is familiar with the Half-Life series and discusses several story elements. In short, spoilers ahead.
In the unlikely event that this is your first time hearing about it, Black Mesa is Half-Life. Yep, the first one. Unsatisfied with a direct Source port of Half-Life, a number of volunteers from the Half-Life community rebuilt the game from scratch to more effectively make use of the Source engine’s capabilities. And by rebuilt I mean everything. All levels were redesigned; every object and every character was remodeled, re-textured, and reanimated. The voices were all re-recorded with new voice actors. A new soundtrack was written and recorded. This was a massive undertaking and a labor of love that took place over seven years.
I played the original Half-Life more times than I can remember, and though it’s been several years since my last play through, much of the game is pretty well seared in to the ol’ grey matter. So I felt more than prepared to play through Black Mesa. I enjoyed the tram ride through the newly remodeled Black Mesa facility. I made my way through the Anomalous Materials lab with barely a thought, collecting my HEV suit and making my way to the test chamber like it was a matter of routine. I pushed the sample into the anti-mass spectrometer, and things went predictably haywire. But then something else happened. I realized I was feeling the anxiety of the aftermath of the resonance cascade like I was playing the game for the first time. I was suddenly engaged in a way I wasn’t expecting. I was sold, and I stayed sold for the rest of my run through the game. Black Mesa, it turns out, is much more than just a cosmetic upgrade of Half-Life, but rather a reincarnation of the original, full of its character, spirit, and nuance.
With the goal being a fresh telling of the story, rather than a precise, mechanical rebuild, the mod team took a number of creative liberties with the game. New dialogue was added. Some of it serves to tie the events of Half-Life into the larger story that has emerged out of the Half-Life universe. For example, during the “Anomalous Materials” chapter, there is a conversation with Eli Vance and Dr. Kleiner that doesn’t appear in the original, but helps lend credence to their characters in Half-Life 2. Some of the other new dialogue shows up in the idle chatter of the NPCs, my favorite of which being the comment from the security guards to Gordon that “I keep thinking you’re about to say something profound.” Changes in level design serve to add believability to the environment, but also cut out some of the more slowly paced parts of the original. The “On a Rail” chapter, for example, is significantly truncated in Black Mesa, but I didn’t miss the stuff they cut. The rocket silo and satellite launch sequence was much more concise. These kinds of changes moved the story along well, and made the game seem to make more sense. Cuts that were made were largely inconsequential to the story, but served to improve game play.
Another welcome addition to the game is the completely re-written soundtrack, which is available for download, and which I’m listening to while typing this up. As a music fan, I pay particular attention to how music is affecting game play. Joel Nielson, the sound lead on the game, also wrote the soundtrack, and he did a pretty great job. His statement on the Black Mesa website says that this was his first attempt at writing a soundtrack, but I never would have guessed that by the quality of his work. It’s apparent that he, like the rest of the mod team, felt the gravity of their undertaking. I’m sure the long development time of the mod worked in his favor, affording him plenty of time to get it right, but get it right he did. The soundtrack does what it needs to, lending atmosphere to the halls of the Black Mesa and Lambda complexes. When the marines attack, the music picks up an intensity blending almost metal-like riffs with electronic music elements that subtly maintain the feel that this is a technology-centric sci-fi action story.
There is surprisingly little to complain about in Black Mesa, but I’m going to nitpick anyway. I found some of the platformer areas of the game particularly troublesome. Several of the precision jumps took me far more attempts than I felt my ample gaming experience warranted. Similarly, the trip-mine rigged ordinance warehouse took me forever to work through. Even the trip-lasers on floor level I often had trouble timing my jumps over. It moved beyond being challenging into just being frustrating. I’ll admit, though that these might be attributed to user-error. Maybe it was just me. The only other significant technical problem I had was in “Forget About Freeman” when I had to kill a Gargantua with this thing:
The cross hair in the middle of the console image is misleading. There are two other cross hair lines that never did render properly on the console screen. It was difficult to tell if I was even interfaced with the console touch-screen. In fact it took me a while to figure out that it was even supposed to work like a virtual touch-screen at all. This was exacerbated by the fact that the big beastie was stomping around down there shaking things up. Once I did figure out how to use the console, the lack of ability to see where the cross hairs were lining up resulted in far too many failed attempts at bombing the Gargantua. This is the most glaring shortcoming I could come up in the game, which, really, isn’t much at all. I wish major game studios could have such a track record.
Black Mesa is an exceptionally well-executed homage, and a great piece of neo-nostalgia. It reminds us how good Half-Life was and why Valve has become the legendary company it is. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, as well as the freedom from corporate production schedules, and combined with passion for the work, the Black Mesa team was even able to overcome some of the shortcomings of the original. The game isn’t finished yet, either. Right now, Black Mesa only takes the player as far as the leap through the portal to Xen. In the original game, Xen was probably my least favorite part. In fact, I’d sometimes play through the Lambda complex and call it done. But with as good of a job as the team has done, I’m actually really excited to see what they do with the endgame.