Black Mesa Review

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Black Mesa Review

by Vivi Hill » Sat Sep 15, 2012 6:12 pm


Release date: 9/14/2012
Steam: (not yet, but it's been greenlit...)
Download: ... nager.html
Cost: Free!

What's Black Mesa?
Black Mesa, originally called Black Mesa: Source (but they had to change it to avoid problems with Valve), is a complete remake of the original HL1 made by Valve. What's significant about this mod is that it has taken them eight years to make. At first, they had adopted a Valve-esque strategy of not announcing a release date, which caused people to assume the mod was vaporware. However, in 2008 they announced it would be released in 2009. That didn't work, obviously, but it was for good reason: The developers decided to move the engine up to the next generation of Source used in Half-Life 2: Episode 2, which added much better lighting (including real-time lighting, HDR), as well as improved faceposing and AI. Because of this delay, most people assumed that the game would just never be released, so when it was announced recently that it would be released on Sept 14th, people were dubious. In any case, it was released, and it's really incredible.

That HL1 Feel
I'm sure many readers have played HL1 and can agree that the game has a sort of flavor to it. You're underground in this huge facility, no one knows what's going on, and you're just trying to escape despite the onslaught of suddenly ravenous scientists. Black Mesa has undoubtedly nailed this feeling. I would go as far as to say that this game is the exact same game as HL1, with better visuals. With some remakes, you have to think a bit to compare the original to the remake. You have to think to yourself, "Okay, where is this place supposed to be? Ah, yes, I see. That makes sense now." With Black Mesa, you don't have any of this disconnect. The two games are identical. Essentially, Freeman's looking at the game's world through better glasses.


This is not meant to belittle the work that has been done with this mod. To the contrary, it's quite incredible that they can recreate such a complete game with so few flaws. Many mods have these nitpicky issues that break your immersion--maybe the voice acting's bad, or something's ugly, or a gun feels like it's a toy. It's the classic case of Uncanny Valley that often messes with the experience of fan-made mods. Black Mesa does not suffer from Uncanny Valley when you compare it to HL1--it's past that point.



Half-Life has background chatter of scientists and such near the beginning, but with today's standards of voice acting it pales a bit ("Greetings!"). In order for the Black Mesa team to get a game that has a good background feel, they had to add a lot more dialogue and conversations between scientists. And they succeeded! I was able to connect to the scientists post-incident much better than in HL1, because I had heard many of them talking about things, discussing vacations they were planning and such.

I (accidentally) played through the same sequence twice, and the second time I was able to save a guard up to the point where we met another one. The two guards then began a conversation which didn't take place the first playthrough, which really impressed me. They have evidently taken into account different scenarios like this.



HL1 is such an old game, that it might not be too difficult to remake it in Source and have it be an improvement. So has the Black Mesa team scrimped? Not by a longshot. This game is one of the most beautiful games I've played--not necessarily because of the engine, but because of the art effort that has been put into it. The textures are superbly and lovingly crafted, to the point where you really don't think of them as textures that a mod team came up with. The maps are strewn with all sorts of props and items that are realistic and realistically placed in the environment. The layout of the maps themselves would be hard to differentiate from the layout of the HL1 maps, but at the same time the detail has been greatly improved, with various features making the place look much more real.

The NPC models are very true to the originals, and well-crafted. The faces are very diverse, so unlike in HL1 it feels like each guard and scientist has a unique face. The zombies are new models that are actually far superior to HL2's zombies in terms of realism. Black Mesa fully utilizes the improved facial animation system to give each character a much better talking presence.

Sometimes a mod has great visuals but the audio makes you groan. Not Black Mesa. The gun sounds feel very real and extremely similar to their original counterparts. The voice acting is really incredible--whoever did the scientist voice completely nails the 'geeky' voice Valve was trying for in the original, and the guards have an excellent 'barney' accent to them. The Resonance Cascade audio sequence (which is word-for-word the original) makes you beam in pleasure as you can finally experience the thing without the annoying WAV compression the original game is plagued with. In fact, I'd argue that the voice acting in Black Mesa exceeds the voice acting in HL1, in that the voices sound more realistic and less repetitive. My only complaint is with Eli Vance--the visuals suggest the same person as in HL2, of course, but the actor who attempted Eli's voice did not really capture the intonation of the HL2 Eli (even 12 years earlier), which broke immersion a little bit. I would absolutely love if Valve were to ask the original voice actor to record the few lines Eli has for the Black Mesa team, just so that small blemish is fixed.


Additionally, the team has worked with Source's lighting and shaders to produce a set of visual effects that are astoundingly beautiful. They've used dramatic lighting effects to impress, spook out, and guide players, resulting in lighting that is similar to, if not better than, Portal 2's. The water, radioactive goo, acid spit, fire and other particle effects are some of the best I've seen in the Source engine, beating Episode 2's quality, even.

Another thing mod teams often miss when they focus so much on art, is the point of many of the art elements Valve introduces. Valve is very smart about its psychological cues--when they want you to look somewhere, they'll put a crow on the ground that flies up to bring your vision upwards. When they want you to notice a visual element, they'll make it spark so your eye is drawn to it. Light always guides your eyes towards the next exit or objective. If something needs to get plugged in, you'll see the wires leading to the goal. The Black Mesa team is completely aware of all these nuances. Everything is placed for a reason, and you know what to do based on all these tiny clues, which made me happy inside.


Additionally, at no point do you feel that the gameplay is overly unfair or difficult, nor does it feel too easy. Normal mode is actually quite challenging, but often leaves you with just a tiny bit of health before you reach a recharge station.

Engine Performance
In terms of raw performance, the game runs very well at ~120 fps on my machine (i5 w/ 280GTX) with everything maxed, despite the beautiful graphics. However, there were a few issues with my playthrough later on in the game (in the Surface Tension level). The very beginning of Surface tension glitched out, which ended with me having no higher-level weapons and 7 health with an entire team of soldiers pummerling me. This was solved by making a new game and starting out at Surface Tension, luckily. Additionally, some areas seemed to induce irregular engine crashes, but I couldn't find any consistent problems. Luckily, there are ample autosave points, so you don't feel too annoyed when starting up (and the frequency of crashes was minimal for me--I only got 3 crashes in yesterday's session).

At this point, I'm prepared to give Black Mesa 4.75/5.0. This game is a masterpiece, way better than I was expecting, years of work went into it, and I only had a few extremely minor gripes with it (eli's voice actor and the crashes). Black Mesa is nearly the most fun I've had in a game since Episode 2.
"Just because nobody complains doesn't mean all parachutes are perfect." --Benny Hill
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Re: Black Mesa Review

by Shotgunbob » Mon Sep 17, 2012 12:23 pm

I'm at Residue Processing at the moment.

Fantastic game, really miles above what I expected.
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Re: Black Mesa Review

by Repoman » Tue Sep 18, 2012 9:57 am

This is one of the best community made mods Ive played, along with Third Age Total War.
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Re: Black Mesa Review

by Grey Fox » Wed Sep 19, 2012 7:14 pm

I have to agree this game is simply awsome. I love how close to the origonal they really got.
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