When you get a chance to play a game you have been waiting eight years for, it is a momentous occasion. When that game is the Sci-fi shooter remake of one of the best games ever made, it becomes a monumental task not to get dizzy with nostalgia and memories of a genre changing game. I am of course referring to Half-Life remake Black Mesa: Source.
Black Mesa is a free Source Engine modification, so the only prerequisite to owning this game is having bought another Valve game in the last 4 years or so. But just how does this homage and recreation of the original Half-Life hold up in today’s first person heavy gaming universe?
When entering the game for the first time you are guided through familiar sights and a sequence that instantly overwhelms you in nostalgia, as memories of the perfectly recreated tram sequence takes place. The first time seeing the game also leaves you breathless, the Source engine proves that it can still keep up with even more recent gaming engines and in some ways outclass them. With the infamous tram ride introduction over, you suddenly start to realise that this isn’t just a fresh lick of paint to an already great game. Black Mesa is an incredibly thought out and improved upon vision of the original game taking advantage of so many of the great features we expect from today’s action shooters.
It is obvious great care has been put into every last detail of this game. This has clearly been labour of love for the entire team involved. The smallest details have been recreated to ensure the best experience possible for the player with no omissions. Black Mesa feels most importantly like it has that Valve quality, and at times it is easy to forget this wasn’t created by the original team. Moments in the game leave you wondering if the Black Mesa team aren’t doing a better job with Source than Valve.
That is a bold statement but one that has stuck through my time with the game. First impressions of the visual quality of the game are simply a feast for the eyes; superb lighting effects and incredible model work on the characters make this game look incredible. Small details like the glowing neon liquid inside the HEV chargers reflecting on the nearby surfaces, to the huge canyon vistas that are crisp enough to make you reach out to feel them leave you always looking around and exploring this incredible experience. Simply put this is the best looking game to come out of the Source engine yet.
The games various complexes and landscapes mean there is some incredible variety in visual style. After working through a water sewage plant, wading through seas of murky grey filth passing by endless rustic barrels and being contained in dilapidated brown walls covered in grime, the contrast of the clinical blue hallways bathed in white lights as you enter the laboratories is a shocking one but also a welcome change in the games aesthetics.
The game has also undergone some minor changes in its structure. The reception area shortly after your tram ride has been completely overhauled to reflect a more believable universe and yet manages still to capture the same feeling as the original title; most scenes however have been left unchanged and true to the original game which is a crucial part of this remakes success.
There are some different sections though; there are moments in the game where veterans of the Half-Life game will question whether this is indeed the same sequence as they originally encountered. These changes are a brave gamble as if it is one thing valve know how to do, it is how to perfect the pacing of their games. These sections however work just as well as the original counterparts and the flow of the game remains unaffected and still as brilliant as ever.
The game is still a nineties game, it has platforming sequences and combat is often broken up by long sections of traversing the various landscapes flipping various different levers and switches and working out the puzzles to proceed to the next area. There are still many ways to get lost within the levels and Black Mesa has kept true to the spirit of that generation in gaming.
Boss battles are still apparent and where in today’s games you simply require a bigger gun Black Mesa stays true to Half-Life and makes you find alternative ways to defeat these formidable foes. The difficulty of the game really brings home just how accustomed we have become to regenerating health and even at times just how much our hands are held through modern first person titles. There are some genuinely difficult and frustrating moments in Black Mesa that remind us that a game can be both challenging and fun at the same time, with a little patience the solution can always be obtained. The senses of achievement from games like Black Mesa come not from an icon with an attached number, but the feeling of overcoming a difficult challenge and succeeding where you had previously failed.
The sounds of Half-Life are still fondly remembered today by fans of the game. Sounds like the beep as you press the use key, the sound of the health charging stations or the hazard suit telling you systems are critical. These are all still in the game to much delight and the overall sound design of the game is brilliant. The team behind Black Mesa have seemingly recreated these iconic sounds and brought them to us in a 2012 package as the quality is simple phenomenal. Weapons have a great punchy sound to them and the explosions, lasers, health kits, energy pickups all have been transformed incredibly.
When dealing with remakes it is key to keep things true to the game you are remaking, and Black Mesa has captured that sentiment perfectly when it comes to not just sound effects but the whole sound of the game in general. The voice acting in particular is incredible with voices displaying the likeness of all the characters you know maybe not from just the original game, but also Half-Life 2 and its Episodes. Eli sounds like a young Eli and Dr Kleiner has that same quirk to his voice. Huge congratulations to the actors behind these voices for a job well done.
The amazing sounds of Black Mesa don’t stop there though. Black Mesa’s soundtrack is nothing short of genius. A masterpiece in waveform, from the delicate notes pulled from the piano in the games menus to the incredible high action tracks that accompany the ferocious fire fights as the bullets fly the Black Mesa soundtrack captures the game in a way that is simply nothing short a perfect fusion of game and sound.
When hearing about this project some 7 years ago fans were eager to get their hands on Black Mesa. It has taken until now to get the game to the incredible quality it is but it isn’t over yet. Games of the nineties generation had incredible length to them by today’s standards and that is no different here. Although Black Mesa is not fully complete at time of review, with the sections after you travel to Xen due to arrive at a later date when they are ready, the game has a good 10-12 hour campaign to those who maybe haven’t played Half-Life for a few years.
The Black Mesa project was created by fans who felt the release of the 2004 Valve remake of Half-Life, Half-Life: Source simply wasn’t the remake the fans deserved. Rather than simply sit and feel sore about the whole affair they set about showing Valve how it was meant to be done and just what can be achieved. 8 years later much like with all Valve game releases the wait was completely worth it.
In my time with the game I figured out one crucial thing; Black Mesa is not just a simple remake of a game. It is the passion of fans brought together to create a homage to one of the greatest games to grace a platform. Black Mesa not only triumphs in being a fantastic recreation but is a true testament to what can be achieved with time and extreme passion for a game. In today’s market filled with yearly updates and constant motion Black Mesa is like a diamond in the rough, a moment frozen in time to serve as a reminder of just how great gaming can be.