“Black Mesa Source” was starting to become something of an urban legend among PC gamers. The announcement that a group of modders were going to recreate “Half-life” with new visuals, using Valve’s latest Source Engine, was greeted by some hesitation. This hesitation grew, as little to no information was released, give or take a few text updates. No screen shots, no videos. It took years for the first video to surface showcasing the game play. And it took another four years for the game to be released.
The grueling eight year development of “Black Mesa Source” mod was understandable, as an AAA developer wasn’t backing the “Black Mesa Source” development team. But even if the game was eventually released, could it retain the balancing act between combat and puzzles that the original “Half-Life” managed so well? The answer is a resounding yes, as this free mod provides fans of the franchise and newcomers a chance to experience one of the most ground breaking shooters of our time.
“Half-Life” is regarded as the quintessential first person shooter of PC gaming but the roughly 12 year old game has started to show some age. And it’s allowed it, but for a younger generation, used to cutting edge visuals, it’s understandable. Fortunately, a team of dedicated modder’s and more importantly, fans of the original, have re-created a faithful and visually stunning homage to the original. The mod is a complete single player reproduction of “Half-Life” with enhanced visuals and minor tweaks to environments.
“Half-Life’s” story is a simple one, though introduced in a unique way. It starts out just like every other day. Protagonist Gordan Freeman boards his tram car that takes him to his research lab, within the confines of the Black Mesa Research Facility, located somewhere in the New Mexico Desert. Except today will be unlike any other day of Dr. Gordon Freeman’s life, as an experiment goes horribly wrong, creating a portal to an alien world sending the Black Mesa facility into utter turmoil. To complicate matters, the government has sent the Army to wipe out the aliens along with the Black Mesa staff. Gordon Freeman, one of the few survivors, must attempt to stop the alien forces as well as making their way to the surface.
The simplicity of the introduction to the game is one of the most memorable introductions in all of video games. There are no explosions or over the top action sequences, which was certainly the norm back in 1999 and is still true of many modern games. You actually don’t even get a gun for the first 30 minutes or so. What made “Half-Life” so memorable was that it planted you in the shoes of an unlikely individual that would evolve into a hero, all without saying a single word throughout the entire game.
The game play is what is praised here, not the story. As soon as you boot the game up everything feels familiar, yet slightly different. This is largely due to the face lift the game has received. The game simply looks gorgeous. Environments are dripping with detail and although they may appear different at first glance, for the most part, the environments have been meticulously and faithfully recreated. The interior environments are no longer bleak shades of black and grey, but rather the corridors are semi-illuminated and are inhabited with characters and enemies that are so detailed; they’ve become their own characters, no longer carbon copy clones of each other. The updated visuals have given life to environments in such a way that it gives the Black Mesa Facility an identity, and while there are no new areas to speak of, the game feels incredibly fresh. Granted, this is probably due to my not playing the original in about seven or eight years, but then again, I’m assuming that’s true for many.
While the game’s graphical overhaul is commendable and the meticulous attention to detail is simply amazing, the mod isn’t without its faults. This includes the scatter-brained artificial intelligence pared with the fact the game still features many elements of ‘90s game design. Get used to crouch jumping, a lot of crouch jumping. Enemies will usually stand still or have sudden suicidal tendencies to run straight at you. When you’re not shooting moronic enemies much of the time is spent looking for missing levers, turning off gas valves or solving maze-like environments and while these puzzles are simplistic, they help the overall pacing of the game.
Don’t misunderstand my qualms with the mod as a reason not to play “Black Mesa Source”, as the game provides some intense set piece shootouts, fair amount of intermediate puzzles, and as a whole is an enjoyable experience. The problem with releasing a mod that is so similar to its 1999 counterpart is that while the graphics have adapted, the older style of game play and design choices may not be adaptable for more modern gamers. “Black Mesa Source” is a love letter to fans of the original, while giving newcomers to the franchise a more graphically appealing starting point.
Black Mesa Source is a free mod that requires Steam SDK 2006 and files available for download on the Black Mesa Source development teams website.