Game Review: Black Mesa

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Black Mesa is a volunteer-developed remake of Half-Life using the Source engine. The first part, covering the levels until Gordon Freeman teleports to Xen, was made available for downloading on September 14, 2012 and I had the pleasure of playing it a few days ago.

My review is going to be very brief because Half-Life is, in my opinion, one of the best pure FPS games ever released in its time and it wouldn’t be fair to either attribute to Black Mesa all the good parts of Half-Life, or trying to decide which one is better. Black Mesa is a remake and has to be played with that in mind.

What you’ll find is a mostly excellent shooter that almost looks as if it was released by a team of professional developers. Technically and artistically there are only a few minor defects.

In particular, I didn’t quite like the reload animation for the .357 magnum revolver (it’s a bit too robotic), and the omnipresent closed door model features a keyhole positioned too high. I don’t know if it’s been inspired by a real door, but I would have reversed the positions of the keyhole and the push plate.

Technically, I experienced a handful crashes and the 1920x1080 resolution was not available in the video menu, so I had to set it by hand. Also, while the game played very fine and smooth all the time in my hardware (as smooth as Portal 2, so you get an idea), in the final game room where you teleport to Xen the framerate started to drop aggressively and made the last couple of minutes a bit frustrating.

While those are the low points, there are many high points. The game is not a mere remake and level retexturing project. The development team was brave enough to tweak the levels, and while the main areas remain the same, they didn’t hesitate to slightly change the level architecture if the original one had some rough corners. They didn’t stop there. You don’t get the game weapons in the exact same moments or the same order. For example, you find the revolver much earlier than in the original game. I found these gameplay tweaks very welcome and an improvement over the original game.

Some combat areas have also experienced a few changes and, in general, I think the game is harder than the original Half-Life. I played in medium difficulty and didn’t have any moments of frustration, but it wasn’t the cakewalk I expected from having played Half-Life many times. I really had to reload several times at a few points and the choppers were not easy prey. But the difficulty is balanced anyway and everybody can enjoy a few challenges here and there. On the other hand, the Ichthyosaur is much easier to kill.

I’m not giving technical or gameplay scores for this game. If you played the original Half-Life, playing Black Mesa is totally recommended. If you didn’t play Half-Life…​ honestly, it’s probably too late to enjoy it like you could do when it came out in 1998. The original graphics may turn you off and the gameplay innovations have been diluted in 14 years of gaming. Still, I’d recommend playing Half-Life first before replaying it as Black Mesa if you’re dead set on playing Black Mesa.

A very honorable tribute to the original game.

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