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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Review: Black Mesa

Finding out that Black Mesa came out this past weekend was a little like finding out that another Inception movie had come out or something - I know people said it was going to happen, but I didn't think it would be this soon, and I had never quite believed it would happen in the first place. (also, I would be completely OK with Christopher Nolan directing Half-Life 3, should it ever make an appearance.)

Black Mesa (formerly Black Mesa: Source) is a fan-made recreation of the original 1998 game Half-Life, made using Half-Life 2's engine. If you never played anything in the Half-Life series, you should have. First-person science fiction shooters, they follow MIT physicist and incredibly good-looking guy Gordon Freeman through alien-destroying adventures. In the first, he explores the Black Mesa science facility as it is being torn apart by aliens and the military in hopes of stopping an extradimensional invasion. The sequel introduced one of the best physics engines ever seen at that point, and would have been a fascinating and terrifying shooter even if it hadn't done that.

These are the kinds of games that inspire so much love that fans would try to meticulously reconstruct the original using the tools provided by the second. It's a little like if someone tried to recreate Morrowind using the Skyrim engine, or to recreate Super Metroid using Metroid Prime 3's engine. (If anyone's doing either of these, by the way, let me know. I want in.)

The following side-by-side might give you an indication of what kind of improvements they've made graphically:

As seen in Half-Life . . .
 . . . and fourteen years later in Black Mesa.
Upgraded as the graphics are, it's a little inescapable that Half-Life 2's graphics are themselves eight years old, so things do look a little dated. Still, though, the physics are impeccable, and it's still really fun to watch a  flaming headcrab running around in circles. If you played either game, you'll feel a pretty strong nostalgic pull - the cramped corridors of Black Mesa are as creepy as ever, and the visuals and myriad ways to use physics to your advantage capture the feel of HL2 very successfully. If you haven't played either, it's a fine place to start, with all the best parts of both games (though I'm not sure I can tell you in good conscience to play any game other than Half-Life 2 immediately if you haven't played it yet).

Both games are about fifteen seconds of anything related to a PhD from MIT and the rest is mainly blowing things up.
As cool as I think Black Mesa is, I haven't found a lot that really ties me to it yet. I loved Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and I played through each several times, so that now I'm not sure that there's much to see here I haven't already. What impresses me, though, is the liberties that the team did choose to take. From a guard accusing Gordon of cutting off his ponytail to the random nerdy pseudo-science spouted by the physicists to some dialogue snippets between two major characters in HL2 (who weren't really explored in the original), there are little flourishes that feel extremely in character with the franchise. These are the things keeping me playing Black Mesa even though I've already been through the facility many times. The amount of love that went into this mod/remake is evident in every detail, and it's heartwarming to see so many expectations finally met.

If you've been waiting for Black Mesa, it's what they said it should be, and you should go play it. If you didn't know about it, go play it. You'll need the Source engine to play it (details below), and it's otherwise free. If the Half-Life universe is totally new to you, check it out. It's a staple of video game history, and this should be a very visible marker of what a fan community can do with a well-loved and well-crafted story when they get the chance.

Black Mesa: http://release.blackmesasource.com/
How to get Source (requires Steam): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ijuERFX-tY4


  1. Never did play the original or 2, and I've got a copy of The Orange Box - seems like now's a good time to start. Also, I feel like I post about how I haven't played the title in question a lot on your blog - I *swear* I do actually play games!

  2. I know you do! Starting with the Orange Box is great, I definitely recommend it - if you get a chance later to go through Black Mesa as well, I recommend that also. Excellent stuff :)