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Black Mesa: Half-Life's Amazing Source Remake
Date: Sep 18, 2012
Author: Joel Hruska
It takes serious guts to try and remake Half-Life. Valve's 1998 first-person shooter didn't change FPS gaming, it redefined it. Before Half-Life, blockbusters like Quake and Quake II were lone gunman affairs with little to no interaction with non-hostile NPCs (Non-Player Character). Half-Life took that entire model, and blew it apart. The train ride into Black Mesa gave players a glimpse of a vibrant, functional world. Scientists and security guards roamed the halls, interacted with panels and equipment, joked with each other, and expressed nervousness about the upcoming experiment.

Inbound, To The Black Mesa Complex

Half-Life used scripted sequence to illustrate the desperation and humanity of innocent researchers trapped beneath the surface, the callousness of the military sent in to cleanse Black Mesa, and the fundamentally alien nature of the G-Man. In amidst all that positive, there's just one major modern flaw -- the game has aged like crap. Built on the original Quake engine, the game's visuals show poorly now. Valve did a half-baked port of the game to the Source engine years ago, but without updating any of the character models, sound effects, or other details.

Black Mesa is the result of years of effort from a team determined to bring Gordon Freeman's first adventure into the modern age without compromising Valve's original artistic vision. It's one of the finest examples of fan-built mods that we've ever seen. This is no high-resolution texture update or lighting effects package. This is Black Mesa  -- and it's going to remind you why you fell in love with Half-Life fourteen years ago. Take a look at the original entryway for Sector C. This is right at the beginning of the game; you've only just gained control of Gordon. By 1998 standards, this was good stuff.

Black Mesa Lobby, Then

Here's Black Mesa:

The New Black Mesa Entry Point Lobby

Closeups on Barney and an unnamed scientist from original HL on the left, the BMS versions on the right. Note that in the original game, all security guards looked like Barney -- in BMS, the first thing a guard tells you is that Barney called in sick.

Original Game Characters (left) - Black Mesa Environment and Characters (right)

And the suit that started it all...

Let's get to it...

Black Mesa is Brilliant
Black Mesa isn't an exact remake of Half-Life -- and it shouldn't be. Valve's official Half-Life: Source barely scratched the surface of what Source could deliver; one of BMS' goals was to fully utilize the underlying engine.

Old familiar faces, everyone you meet

Characters and Environment:
New features include the addition of female scientists, an excellent soundtrack, iron sights for certain guns, and more interactive elements. Source's physics engine is used to good effect -- jump from suspended crate to suspended crates, and the storage containers realistically rock to reflect your movement.

The new scientist dialog is hilarious, enemy turrets can be picked up and repositioned, and Schrödinger's cat even offers a cameo appearance.

The new dialog and whimsical tidbits like the above are the work of a team who knows how to have fun while maintaining a consistent level of excellence.

Weaponry, Enemies and Combat:
The list of weapons mostly mirrors Half-Life, but there are subtle differences in capability and placement. The secondary fire mode of the Glock 17 is gone, and the crowbar isn't the first weapon you encounter. The first zombies and headcrabs must be taken out with flares, which weren't available in the original game. Zombies will fling things at you, as they did in Half-Life 2, and igniting them with flares will trip the emergency fire suppression system depending on where you are in Black Mesa.

The 357 Magnum shows up much earlier in BMS; it's the second gun you'll find (in Half-Life, the shotgun came first). All of the weapons retain their original characteristics -- the 357 packs a massive punch, the Glock is best for long-range fire, the MP5 is a great all-around option and the underslung M203 grenade launcher delivers an immensely satisfying explosion.  

Just a Dash of Half-Life 2:
Technically, Black Mesa is a total conversion of Half-Life 2, but the authors chose to flavor Black Mesa with HL2's capabilities, not dump them in wholesale. There's no Gravity Gun, and no way to port one in. Characters that weren't in the original game don't make any appearances here, and while Source's enhanced physics are used well, the implementation is subtle. Certain monsters, like the Zombie Security Guard, are new additions to the original game, and some creatures have had their powers tweaked. Vortigaunts, for example, charge much more quickly than in the original game.

Subtly reworking a beloved classic is far more dangerous than a straight port. Black Mesa chose to clean up, modify, and amend Valve's classic design, while keeping the memorable scenes and essence of the original. From what I've seen thus far, they've succeeded brilliantly. The original tram ride, the doomed guard just outside the entrance to Sector C, the cry of "Don't shoot -- we're on the science team!" -- they're all here. Environmental puzzles and little side rooms with upgrades for the eagle-eyed? They're here, too. You'll find helpful guards and scientists with ammo and a bit of healing to spare when you need them, and it's up to you how much trouble you go to when it comes to saving their lives.

And so, it begins

Sure, there are a few rough spots. The cube-map reflections don't always work perfectly, the military voice-overs are a bit flat, and you can't hurt zombies or headcrabs by throwing trash cans or crates at them. None of it matters. Black Mesa is what Half Life Source could've been. It tweaks and yes, improves on the original game, while keeping everything that made Half-Life great. If you liked HL in 1998, you're going to love Black Mesa. If you couldn't get into Half-Life due its age, you'll still like Black Mesa.

In fact, a recent survey has proven that the only people who don't like Black Mesa are card-carrying members of PETH (People for the Ethical Treatment of Headcrabs). The rest of you -- get going. There's a crowbar with your name on it and the G-Man has his eye on you.

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