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Black Mesa (PC) artwork

Black Mesa (PC) review

"Without a truly compelling reason to pay for the game, what we have on Steam is no more than a patch for an otherwise serviceable, and even fun, experience."

They were never going to win every one over. Black Mesa has the unenviable task of delivering the Half Life: High Definition experience to us, and while it has all the trimmings the Source Engine can offer, its Indie roots choke the tree of its beautiful fruit.

Quickly, since just about all of us know the premise: You assume the role of Gordon Freeman, BCIT graduate and Physicist employed in the Black Mesa facility. In this First Person Shooter, you unwittingly cause the Seven Hour War during which the Combine conquer the earth. The consequences of which are dealt with … mostly … in Half Life 2 and its subsequent Episodes.

Back in the present, alien, human and environmental threats can easily curtail your attempt to return to the surface for help. You’re no fainting flower, of course, and warchest of weapons will enable to you gun down anyone who gets in your way. Yes, Valve’s writing is more than savvy about this point, and Breen will later roast you verbally in an attempt to slow your progress – with guilt.

Meanwhile, in this Indie developed remake, progress has been much a sticking point. Rather, it is with me. Black Mesa was, before its Steam release, a community developed re-engineer of Half Life. Calling it a “modification” would be a mistake, as original assets were designed, vocal talents recorded and levels made. It was released to the public as Black Mesa: Source in 2012.

There were two releases, but I came late to the party and played them both as one. Oh yes, I played it … twice. Its pace encouraged exploration and education. Yessir, I wanted to learn the lore and know the story. Half Life: Source wasn’t stable on my system, and is in an abandonware state, unlike the sequel, HL2. Some puzzle were frustrating, such as trying to escape the first water trap with the cage into the next room. Dozens of deaths and a lot of annoyance.

Most combat scenarios encouraged thoughtful play and encouraged you not to squander low stock ammo supplies. This was part of the story as well, and didn’t feel like a flaw. Who really expects to be invaded? Other real flaws, like stone dumb AI and glitchy hit detection I accepted as part of an imperfect product by an inexperienced, and inconsistent team.

Apparently Black Mesa experienced many delays between its conception right up to its release on Steam as an Early Release product. Thanks to Greenlight, we could directly support the people who put so much time and energy into a story we all loved. In fact, it was a six year cycle from conception to Steam, according to Wikipedia. Take a minute to download and listen to the soundtrack, and tell me that wasn’t composed by someone who has the utmost respect for the source material.


Crowbar Collective, however, has made some interesting changes to the Steam release. Now, keep in mind that the free version is still available for download in parallel with the Steam version. If at any time you don’t like the updated mechanics and brand new glitches, you can download the old one and experience those.

Black Mesa makes use of the Source Engine, and gives you some interesting options, such as God-rays for lighting; a customizable protagonist, which is broken, but this is likely for Multiplayer. Which, isn’t supported. Why you’d need to customize the player model … is a great question and stands out as an example of the poor direction under which this title has been helmed.

Gore, amateur at best, slapstick at worst, can be toggled. I’m certain if I were playing for the dismemberment, I’d pick up a copy of … oh, search Steam for an example, you’ll find one. I’ve experienced numerous crashes at launch, during play and when switching out of game to the desktop. Some games tolerate that well, others don’t, and Black Mesa just isn’t very stable.

What it does do well is story, but the power of discussions have struck hard, and changes have been made. Combat is much faster, more akin to Call of Duty or Doom (2016), and reflexes or chance are your only allies. Instead of combat success resulting from well executed tactics, random fire and explosions can quickly decide the outcome of battle for you. Do I have a problem with reflex based combat?

When I review Megaman Zero I’ll get into that, but there’s your hint. I did complete that one. It wasn’t that hard.

The twitch combat conflicts with the intellectual style of the character, and yes I know he is a vessel for your personality, but … c’mon. Story! Isn’t that what drew us to Half Life? Black Mesa has a conflicting duality: It wants to be a hardcore corridor shooter with super rich lore laden environment, but what time do you get to appreciate it?

Like I said, if you don’t like the new glitches …

While we’re on levels: The environments have gone from faithful to the spirit of the original re-inventions, to try-harding to be a real world. When you smash crates open they can burst like pińatas with bottles of cleaner and other real items. Too much stuff, and what is with the single strike to break open crates? They feel like player reward switches; one whack and you get a treat. Useful, occasionally, but too much of this quickly wears down your suspension of disbelief.

Crowbar Collective has nicely addressed some easily exploitable sections, but without a truly compelling reason to pay for the game, what we have on Steam is no more than a patch for an otherwise serviceable, and even fun, experience.

What’s Fun
The environment is rich with detail; spaces feel lived in; combat is lively and varied. The soundtrack rocks pretty hard and sets the tone with awareness of the story. Level design takes story elements into account. Gordon Freeman is hard core, and that’s a good thing.

What’s Not
The Steam release of Black Mesa is no more stable than the free-to-download Black Mesa: Source. Player customization is pointless and broken; combat feels rushed without a real sense of deliberation. The asking price is too high when essentially the same game can be added to your library for the legitimate cost of your time and bandwidth.

If you enjoyed Black Mesa: Source and want to support the continued development of Black Mesa, including the forthcoming chapter of Xen, wait for a sale. The lack of polish is discouraging to returning players. If you’re not sure, download Black Mesa: Source.

hastypixels's avatar
Community review by hastypixels (November 22, 2016)

At some point you stop justifying what you play and begin to realize what you're learning by playing.

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