Thoughts: Black Mesa.

Note: I’m aware Black Mesa is a mod made by amateurs and so reviewing it to the same standard as a professionally made game may be a little unfair, but honestly I think that Black Mesa is a good enough product that if you stood it next to 90% of the games that have been released this year it would make *them* look like shit, not the other way around.

If twenty years playing video games has taught me anything it’s that it’s important to manage your expectations. Pre-release hype and marketing has always been around and will always be around, and it’s not particularly a bad thing having as many people as possible know that your game exists and is coming out soon. It’s a sales tactic that clashes badly with my policy of desperately avoiding any and all information about games I’ve already decided I’m going to buy (XCOM is especially bad for this having recently dumped an actual pre-release demo onto the internet three weeks ahead of release), but in general I can’t fault developers and publishers for doing it. It’s a good idea if you do it right. The problems only start if you continually fail to hit your release date, at which point your marketing can backfire badly by whipping people up into such a frenzied state of anticipation that not only is every subsequent failure to release the game seen as the worst kind of incompetence, but the final product can never live up to what people have built it up to be in their heads. They will inevitably be disappointed one way or the other, and that kind of thing can end up being utterly toxic for a game’s prospects; Daikatana and Duke Nukem Forever would not be remembered as two of the biggest jokes in gaming history if they hadn’t had some rather unfortunate publicity associated with them. It’s okay to release a bad game (well, it’s not okay, but it’s a forgivable sin). It’s less okay to proclaim it the Second Coming and then release a bad game.

This is why Black Mesa had a bigger problem than most games when it finally released a couple of weeks ago. It’s a remake of one of the best games ever (Half-Life) in a brand new engine (Source) that has been in development in one form or another ever since the release of Half-Life 2 back in 2004. Eight years ago. That’s eight years of expectations to fulfil and eight years of failing to produce a finished product this game has to make up for, which is a tricky thing to manage any way you look at it. It’s to Black Mesa’s immense credit that it (mostly) pulls it off.

Are you familiar with Half Life at all? I certainly am, which is why I was caught a little bit off-guard at how much the team behind Black Mesa have deviated from the holy scripture. The basic structure and key encounters in Half Life have all made it through into Black Mesa completely intact, but many of the levels differ greatly in their method. As an example, the very first level didn’t touch the tram ride at all, knowing better than to mess with possibly the most iconic moment of Half-Life, but after you push the sample into the glowy beam and everything goes dimensional rip-shaped you’re forced to make your way back up to the lab reception area with nothing more than a few flares for setting zombies on fire and a friendly (and I suspect invulnerable) guard tagging along. In the original you had the crowbar thrown at you within seconds of escaping from ground zero, whereas here you don’t get it until a good 10-15 minutes into the game.

Now, on the plus side this is very atmospheric and probably a net improvement on how Half-Life did it (which was a straight run to the surface while bopping zombies on the head) and if you were going into Black Mesa completely blind I suspect there wouldn’t be a problem with itl. Unfortunately the game going off-piste this early – and flouting several basic FPS rules while doing so – meant that I was convinced I’d done something wrong. It didn’t happen this way in Half Life and I couldn’t believe I was expected to take on numerous zombies without a permanent weapon, which is why I wasted quite a lot of time scouring the level for the crowbar I was convinced I’d missed somewhere.

This little vignette illustrates the hazards of changing Half-Life’s script. I imagine most players are going to be veterans of the original like myself, and while I found little changes in the detail refreshing I bristled at any sign that Black Mesa might be tampering with the basic elements of the game. Since the developers of Black Mesa have had to generate new material for one reason or another (new voices for female scientists, vastly expanded quantity of voice acting in general, new music because the rights for Half-Life’s still reside with Vivendi) you’d expect the game to be full of missteps like this, but I was mildly surprised to discover that the new stuff is generally of professional quality to the point where I honestly cannot tell what’s been taken from the original and what’s been inserted for the remake. The voice acting is just as good; Black Mesa has the odd duff line here and there but so did Half-Life. The music fails to match the original’s but that’s only because Half-Life’s music was incredible; the new tracks in Black Mesa at least live up to Half-Life’s tone and atmosphere and are kind enough on the ears that I don’t resent the enforced change that much. And as far as the level design goes that’s the one area where they’ve been able to do 1:1 recreations of what Half-Life had to offer. Most of the time this is what they go for, and it is just as amazing as it was fourteen years ago. The tentacle beasts, On A Rail, the Garg and assassin encounters – all of these things make it through into Black Mesa intact, and with the excellent new coat of paint provided by the updated Source engine (which is looking good for something that’s as old as Black Mesa itself) they pretty much haven’t aged. Black Mesa is proof that Half-Life would still be cutting edge if it was released today.

Mostly, anyway.

Black Mesa is not without its flaws. In fact it’s riddled with them in spite of the incredibly polished and professional job the developers have done updating Half-Life. Several of these issues spring from the fact that the developers are amateurs no matter how skilled they might be, and their inexperience with game design does show in a couple of places. Grenades1 are a good example: there is no crosshair for throwing them and they’re a little heavier than your standard FPS grenade — which are not problems in and of themselves — but there’s also (utterly inexplicably) a small random factor attached to where exactly Gordon is going to throw it, which is not exactly what you want when you’re trying to grenade a sniper’s nest or machine gun post. Too often you throw one grenade, miss, and correct the throwing angle to what it should be, only for the random factor to kick in and the grenade to bounce off a bit of scenery and come flying back in your face. I eventually gave up and just ignored snipers rather than going through the hassle of taking them out with such an inaccurate weapon, which is generally not a player reaction you should be going for. There’s other raw bits and pieces scattered throughout Black Mesa which mostly pertain to level design and puzzles; it’s not that the new elements that have introduced are bad as such, its just they’re incredibly poorly signposted and leave the player with little idea of what they’re supposed to do next.  But I’m not sure I can hold these particular sins against the Black Mesa development team when Residue Processing is a thing that exists.

Oh god. Residue Processing is a rare case of Black Mesa’s 1:1 update of Half-Life backfiring horribly. Black Mesa’s version of Residue is (as far as I can recall) a near perfect recreation of the Residue Processing levels in the original game, and they have not aged well at all. The general design thrust behind Residue Processing can be summed up as “Let’s take away all of the player’s weapons and make them do jumping puzzles for an hour!” Wow, yes, I fucking love jumping puzzles, especially really obtuse ones inside a twisted Escher-esque network of conveyor belts and incinerators. To be fair jumping puzzles are scattered throughout the game, but they’re isolated incidents; you just do the jumping puzzle in front of you and then move on to shooting some marines in the face, and in general they do a good job of breaking up the gameplay and providing some variety. In the specific case of Residue Processing it’s nothing but jumping puzzles for over an hour, with nary an enemy to be seen in the whole thing.  I absolutely hated that hour and I was miserable throughout.

Residue Processing is very much an aberration though. Mostly Black Mesa is a faithful recreation of Half-Life, and Half-Life is a game that mostly plays just as well as it did back in 1998. There’s so many bits of Black Mesa that are stuck in my head even now, a week after playing it – the fight with the helicopter on the cliffs, the warehouse full of tripmines and explosives, the dam, the whole “Forget about Freeman!” sequence. The last fight with the assassins is probably the best and funnest FPS gun battle I’ve had in years, fighting with all my weapons against an enemy that is weak on paper but which is incredibly mobile and can take advantage of the omnipresent crates to move vertically, vaulting up and over onto gantries and walkways to fire down from above. You’d expect Half-Life’s gunplay to be dated after fourteen years of Halos and Call of Duties, but it still shines through just as strong as ever and is even refreshing in a way. If I take off my game reviewer glasses for a second and treat this as a mod, it’s utterly incredible that a modding team can put out a product of this quality no matter how long they’ve had or how skilled they are. They could have put a price tag on it and I would happily have paid £15-20 for it, which is about as much as I’m willing to pay for brand new AAA releases these days. That it’s free to anyone who owns a Source game2 is more than a little bit mind-boggling3, and I really hope the people behind it get some sort of acknowledgement for the Herculean effort it must have taken them to get this thing out of the door. In some ways it’s sad that a modded update of Half-Life is one of the best games I’ll end up playing this year, but there it is. They just don’t make them like this any more, and that is a crying shame.

(And the absolute best thing about Black Mesa? It finishes just as Gordon jumps into the teleporter taking him to Xen, which is basically Residue Processing if it was textured to look like the inside of somebody’s colon. Good choice, Black Mesa developers. Good choice.)


  1. On the plus side Black Mesa gives you the option to roll your grenades along the floor instead of throwing them, which is such an incredibly good idea I’m amazed it’s taken until now for someone to put it in a game.
  2. At least I think that’s the criteria for getting access to the Source SDK Black Mesa requires to run. At any rate, with the number of copies of Half-Life 2 and its associated Episodes sitting around in people’s Steam inventories it shouldn’t be too hard to get hold of a Source game if you don’t already have one.
  3. In terms of the amount of work that’s gone into it, not that I actually think they should try to charge money for it and get sued by a zillion different people all at once.
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3 thoughts on “Thoughts: Black Mesa.

  1. slimbuk says:

    They have said they plan on releasing the Xen levels later! The one thing that really irritates me however is the overuse of crouch-jump. You literally have to do it for everything! I’m surprised you didn’t mention it, tbh.

    • Hentzau says:

      That was annoying, but the review was already a laundry list of complaints about a game that I actually really liked so I decided to leave it.

  2. Zarnivop says:

    Another part that aged badly is the reactor teleporters. Half an hour of mouse gymnastics.

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