Black Mesa: The Kotaku Review

Fan-made Black Mesa is a remake of Valve's classic 1998 shooter Half-Life. It's been in development for around eight years, which is poignant, since it's been around that long since I've played the original.

A lot has changed since then.

For starters, the project's original goal slowly became almost untenable as time went by. First conceived as a way to remake Half-Life and do it properly - unlike Valve's own lacklustre effort - as the years dragged on it became less and less likely that the finished product (if it ever was finished!) would look as modern as it had first been hoped. Time was moving faster than the project's ability to keep up with it.

So, let's get this out of the way first. Black Mesa does not look like a modern video game. The limitations of both the Source Engine, and the fact its armchair developers were working with someone else's code, means that things like object density and character animation look like something you'd have seen in 2007, not the kind of thing we're accustomed to now, even in mods.

That's not to say it's ugly, far from it. There are some gorgeous lighting and environmental effects to be seen, and as a foundation Valve's original art design still looks, in many parts, as fresh as it did when it was first released. But in general, for the majority of your playthrough, you'll feel like you're playing, yeah, something from 2007.

Black Mesa: The Kotaku Review

WHY: Black Mesa isn't just a remake of one of the greatest games of all time, it's also, in many ways, an improvement. Oh, and it's free.

Black Mesa

Developer: Black Mesa Mod Team

Platforms: PC

Released: Sept. 14

Type of game: First-person shooter.

What I played: The whole thing, in three sittings. It's shorter than I remember it.

My Two favourite Things

  • It's an update to a classic, but it's a restrained, tasteful update.
  • Did I mention it's Half-Life, and it's free?

My Two Least-Favorite Things

  • The new music is, at times, wonderful. But at other times it's wholly unsuitable.
  • Some of the new voice acting isn't so great either.

Made-to-Order-Back-of-Box-Quotes

  • "Black Mesa has Full-Life Consequences! -- Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com
  • "Still hot shit" -- Luke Plunkett, Kotaku.com

Except for the parts where you remember you're playing a game that's actually from 1998. Those simply reliving old glories won't mind, and will probably even enjoy the fact, but for younger players interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, know that the FPS genre moved on from a lot of this game's staples for a very good reason. You need health packs to survive, not five seconds behind cover, which may make things harder, but often also results in a tedious procession of endless quicksaves. There is still platforming, dominated by crouch-jumping, and it's still dreadful.

But you know what? None of that stuff really matters. Because Half-Life, like its sequel, is great not for its bullet-point features, but for the way it pioneered the experience of really being in the first-person perspective, and not just using it as a disembodied floating gun platform. And Black Mesa doesn't just maintain that feeling, it's where the bulk of the really worthwhile improvements have been made.

This isn't just a remake. The Black Mesa team, led by Carlos "cman2k" Montero, have quietly gone in and either fixed or added new content all around the fringes of the game to make it more immersive, to really kick up the sense that Black Mesa was a facility where a lot of people worked, and not just some empty, cavernous shooting gallery.

That means more chit-chat and incidental events in the background. More junk lying around. One gun has, gasp, iron sights. Many areas have even been not-so-subtly changed, to make them bigger, or even just to be more impressive.

Which is a gutsy thing to do! There are other developers porting obscure old games who wouldn't dare mess with the original, let alone something on the level of Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time. But these guys did, and did it well, so my hats are off to them.

Especially for the end. If you've never played Half-Life, know this: the end sucks. I don't mean that relative to the rest of the game, I mean it really sucks. Terrible first-person platforming combined with a weird storyline twist (that sits at odds with the one of the rest of the series) makes it easily Half-Life's lowest moment.

Lucky for newcomers (and everyone), then, it's gone. You don't play it. The team have cut it from this release of the mod, and instead of plugging it in later, will release it as a standalone title sometime in the future, promising to make substantial changes. It's not often you can praise a game for leaving something out, but again, making that call must have taken guts, and in the end it was the right call. The Half-Life experience is a tighter and more coherent one without it.

It feels strange playing Black Mesa after all this time. I'd honestly resigned myself to never getting my hands on it at all. It's also weirdly stressful to be reviewing it; while it's a fan-made mod, it's also a remake of one of the greatest PC games ever made, only now I'm reviewing it with 12 years of critical baggage and adoration along for the ride.

Which, of course, must have been nothing compared to the stresses involved in actually creating such a high-profile project. There have been AAA original titles come and go with less scrutiny than this mod, which may explain in part why it's taken eight years to get the thing into the hands of the public.

Now that it's here, though, the Black Mesa team has actually delivered. This is Half-Life updated just enough to make it palatable for contemporary tastes, but not so much as to deviate from the original vision. Considering the amount of people involved, the time it's taken and the legacy of the source material, it's an amazing achievement.

Almost as amazing as the fact that it's free.


Comments

    Does this mean no alien planet? I gave up at the alien planet years ago and never finished it. I loved hl2 though

      Xen? Correct.

        They have said however that they still plan on finishing it.

    Anyone know when this will be integrated into Steam? I'm kinda hanging out for that at the minute as I am in no rush to jump straight into it and would prefer to wait for the integration.

      It already is. Download the mod and install it and it plugs itself into Steam automatically (achievements don't carry over though).

        I think he's referring to the official Steam release. I've been holding off myself because Steam downloads don't count towards my quota, and I can't get the mirrors to download.

          Might want to wait a bit then, it's currently in Seam Greenlight.

    Highly recommended, I love this game.

    Don't you have to buy Half-Life 2 in order to play it?

      No, It automatically downloads the Source Base 2006 and 2007 SDK's

    Eep, I actually enjoyed the alien planet and end of HL. HL wasn't just about the gameplay, it was about the epic experience, and the the final stuff helped to create that. A bit glum it isn't in Black Mesa.

    Having said that, I have played an hour of Black Mesa so far, and can honestly say I am astounded at its production quality, for a free mod. Its truly a credit to the people who made it, and well worth playing.

      Yeah, don't worry about the haters. I enjoyed Xen too. I only finished the Source version last year, and just loved that the game took you to multiple locations/dimensions. The gravity effects were great, and it was trippy as hell... all round. Just like Half-Life 2 + the episodes...

      Can't wait to play Black Mesa tonight. I left it downloading this morning before work :)

      Steve, I totally agree mate. I actually loved the ending, it was weird, enjoyable and I just didn't see it coming. Even enjoyed the "jumpy" parts and the foetus- like end boss. As I grow older and I have less and less time for gaming it's not often that I actually finish a game so maybe I just remember fondly a game that I actually finished back in the day. Either way, I'll miss the ending when I play Black Mesa.

      Xen was part of what made Half-Life awesome in my opinion...

      And I have no idea what he's referring to in the article when he says the 'twist' at the end is at odds with the rest of the series... I guess some people don't pay attention or something?

    Lol plunkett. Quote his own lines for the back of box quote

      That's the point of that section I do believe. The author of the review comes up with some quotes that you might see on the back of the box.

    I'm more impressed by a full article by Plunkett, wow. More of these.

    Really has lived up to the Half Life 2 legacy.
    Delayed and surrounded by uncertainty, yet incredibly satisfying when released.

    Personally I was very happy to see some of the older FPS staples make a return. If not for healthpacks, armour, puzzles and platforming, all you would have is an endless series of chest high walls, shoot, cover, repeat.

    This is more of a thinking mans shooter.

    Personally I found the voice-acting to be one of the greatest parts of Black Mesa. Far better recording quality than HL1 ever used and the actors used sound so much like the voices of the original actors, it's not funny. Not to mention all the added in conversations that were never there in the original, which helped to add to the immersion of it all.

    This game is the perfect game to me.. because it is basically the same game as the one I have fond memories of but it's been spruced up with enough new content to have moments where you go "ahh! That's new!" but not so much that it feels like a completely different game.

    Often I have gone back to a game I absolutely loved in the past.. spent many hours on it in my youth.. only to discover that because it is simplistic and unimaginative by today's standards, I am utterly and thoroughly bored with it within the first 10 minutes.

    Half Life was never a simplistic and unimaginative game.. and having it spruced up makes it not only worth replaying for an old timer like me but playing it for the first time for other people.

    'valve's own lacklustre effort?'

    at best an ignorant statement, at worst arrogant. HL blew the genre out of the water in 1998 pushing story and atmosphere into the spotlight like nothing before. this game actually engaged the player beyond mechanics of fast-twitch frag fests. it immersed you.

    it broke new territory in so many ways and you call it a lacklustre effort? wow - i've never subscribed to all the Plinkett hate, but this? you simply don't know your gaming canon. kotaku hiring processes need review

      The last thing I ever thought I'd do... but, in this case I think he's referring to last time HE played Half Life. As in Half Life: Source. Which was a pretty lazy revision by Valve, and could have been done much better. It is a bit "lacklustre".

      Not that I'm complaining... The Source version is the one I play most.

      PS. Chill out :)

        PPS. The journalist does need some real world writing lessons. He's a terrible writer; his prose is amateur, he never proof reads, and republishes (ahem, steals) most of his stuff from Reddit.

      You didn't bother following the link, did you? Or did you follow the link and not realise that "Half-Life: Source" is basically "Half-Life" with better water effects?

      Either way, the point is that HL:S was a disappointment.

        Word :)

        okay. i did follow the link, but only saw HL. i humbly retract what i did said. where's the delete author's comment?

        damn internet never forgets.

        *bows low*

      I'm no fan of Plunkett, but just to clarify: I believe he's referring to Half Life: Source.

      One of the main reasons the development team behind Black Mesa Source started up the mod was because there was all of this voracious excitement from the fans when Valve announced HL:S - we all had this image in our minds of a completely revamped half-life experience in the same tech league as HL2.

      Instead, we got half-life in the -source- engine, but far from revamped - moreso just using the source engine with the original textures, models and sounds. It crushed everyone's dreams I'm sure, hence: Black Mesa Source.

      Just to clear that up. :-)

      He's referring to Half Life: Source, which was a lacklustre update of Half Life to the Source Engine- as it didnt change the games assets except for new lighting effects, water reflections and rag doll physics. The disatisfaction that Half Life: Source gave to fans, caused the formation of the Black Mesa Project which explicitly stated its goal was to remake Half Life for the Source engine from the ground up.

    Can't wait to get my hands on this. I left it downloading before I went to work tonight. I'm at work until midnight though. It's agony.

    One thing I can't stand about modern FPS is the 'hand holding' and 'endless health' supply of ducking behind a crate. Makes things far too easy. But I suppose a game where you actually have to work out where you need to go and solve puzzles is "backward".

    Oh, and if quicksaves are a 'detriment' just don't use them.

    And the music is fantastic., one of the highlights in my opinion.

    You triggerhappy little bitch, Plunkett! It's a mod, and it's not even finished...

    Please don't tell me that in the event they -do- make the effort to add Xen and finish the mod, you won't post a second 'review' on that as well? -_-
    Graaaghahghghghghghgh.

    I like the way Luke points out the things he didn't like about the original and how there is no mention about anything which made it the genre defining hit that it was. It's almost like his trolling us or he enjoys people hating him.

    I'm playing this at the moment and it's better than I'd dared to hope it could be. I love the extra little offices and vistas, I love the changes in the balance of the combat and, most importantly, I love the price. An all-round stunning piece of work from a dedicated and talented group of developers.

    I think Plunkett has been a bit spoilt lately for visuals. I didn't give a rat's ass that the graphics were comparable to 2007 gaming because the game felt alive and real, and that goes much, much further than fancy visuals. It's why nobody cared about HL's fist-hands and ventriloquist dummy jaws. It's why nobody cares that Heavy Weapons Guy has teeny legs and cartoonish boolits in his bandolier. The game gives you convincing realism in ways beyond visual quality, something I'm surprised Plunkett doesn't really understand.

    Griping about Crouch-Jumping? Really?

    I get pissed when Crouch-Jumping *doesn't* work in FPS games... that is, if they even ALLOW you to jump at all :-P

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