When Half-Life 2 was released in 2004, it was bundled with Half-Life: Source, a port of the first game in the series to the shiny new Source engine. Shortly after the remakes release (and subsequent disappointment), a group of fans announced they would create a Half-Life 2 mod that would serve as a true port of the original game to the source engine. Eight years later, Black Mesa was released on September 14th, 2012, free to download as a mod for the Source SDK (a free download as well). As a long-time fan of the series, I was ecstatic when I found myself in the familiar Black Mesa transit system that makes up the games opening credits after eight long years.
Right off the bat, let me say that the game is gorgeous. The graphics have been made to take full advantage of the latest iteration of the source engine and the Black Mesa Research Facility has never looked better. Sure, its not going to stack up with the latest AAA titles, but for a fan-made mod (especially a free mod), it looks pretty damn great. Controls are what you would expect from any source game, so if youve played any modern VALVe release, youll fit right in. The game has a very interesting feel, as it is both a spot-on re-make of the original Half-Life and a great fan commentary on the original with levels tweaked, characters slightly changed, and the story told more effectively thanks to the newer game architecture.
As a remake, Black Mesa is everything a fan could ask for. The environments are great re-imagining of the originals, with level design that will leave you surprised with how well its all coming back to you. Easter eggs from the original, such as Gordons locker and the microwave in the break room are still there, while new ones have been thrown in for players to find. The major puzzles the series is known for are mostly untouched, so if youve played through the original, they shouldnt pose much of a challenge. All of the enemies are back (after a thorough remodeling), along with the weapons, level layout, and mechanics of Half-Life, making Black Mesa a very satisfying time investment for fans of the series.
The game elements that have changed are very satisfying modifications. All of the sound design is new, with updated effects, music, and voice acting. The comically repetitive dialogue of Half-Life is no more, with a supposed five-years worth of work put into recording the re-vamped lines. Some of the puzzling has been adjusted to streamline gameplay. In my testing, the railcar levels were much smoother, replacing the frustrating backtracking I remember from Half-Life. Unfortunately, the initial release of Black Mesa excludes the "Xen" portion of the original game, but a future release is in the works.
Unfortunately, all of the work invested in Black Mesa cant hide the source materials age completely. The mod feels like a game from 1998 as far as structure and level design goes. I cant complain, since the game is a remake, but gaming has come so far in eight years--some of the puzzles seem dated, especially the jumping puzzles that bring back the nonsensical crouch-jump maneuver of yesteryear. In the age of ironsights in every first-person shooter, the weapon mechanics (especially with the SMG) feel cheap, turning some encounters into frustrating spray-and-pray nightmares, just like in Half-Life.
Overall, the game is a downright excellent remake--all of the best parts of the original are there, while the graphics, sound design, and physics engine receiving a major overhaul while major gameplay hiccups were quietly buffed out. To think that the Black Mesa Team (who arent in it for business) can do what major game developers and even the motion picture industry cant is incredible. Fans of the series will love Black Mesa, hands down. Newcomers may find the gameplay a little archaic, but if they come with an open mind, they wont be disappointed with such a classic title. Gamers of all stripes should give Black Mesa a shot since it is available as a free download for Windows at blackmesasource.com requiring only the Source SDK 2007 (another free download via Steam) to work.