The past few years have not been terribly kind to fans awaiting the third chapter of the Half-Life saga. Plagued with rumors and misinformation, development time on the next Half-Life game is beginning to get dangerously close to Duke Nukem: Forever level – though, maybe this time, the wait will be worth it this time. Despite being around for nearly a decade with nary a true sequel to be found, Half-Life 2 still has an incredible following and arguably some of the most dedicated modders – a group of which has just completed an 8-year-old journey re-telling the original Half-Life story.
When the sequel to Valve‘s game-changing FPS emerged in 2004, so too did their port of the original game to the Source engine. While Half-Life: Source did make use of pixel shaders and the new physics engine, the graphics and gameplay were largely unchanged, leaving a bad taste for many fans. This prompted Carlos Montero and a group of other talented individuals to take matters into their own hands, thus creating Black Mesa, one of the biggest game modification projects in recent history.
The wildly-anticipated mod released its first version a week ago — at 8:48am, no less — re-introducing players to the resonance cascade that started it all. Even from the moment the game opens, it’s very much like Valve’s masterful work. The opening is beautifully recreated, and the iconic tram ride is much more poignant. The feeling of deja vu crossing wires with uncharted territory creates a remarkable tension that is simply lost on anyone who has not played the original game, and for that reason it is imperative that they do revisit the first game before playing Black Mesa.
As the first few notes of the well-crafted soundtrack hit, players will begin to find themselves running from one end of the tram to the other, trying to catch a glimpse at everything that has changed since the last time they played. Pushing the limits of the Source engine, the Black Mesa team has faithfully reconstructed every set piece from Half-Life, while also adding their own unique yet necessary details – which turn out to be one of the most memorable parts of the mod, and only take place within the first few minutes of the game.
Graphics and visual effects in Black Mesa, while not quite on-part with current-gen shooters, are still leaps and bounds better than the original Half-Life, and the team puts them to great use. The on screen visual effects after taking a hit are particularly interesting (pausing in the middle of an attack reveal an interesting RGB blending effect, not unlike flicking your eyes past a projector light). The Source engine is hard at work here and plenty of faithful texture reconstruction results in a much more detailed experience than your average game mod.
Gameplay is largely unchanged, though players may find themselves tinkering with the physics – that moment of pure power when you realize you can hurl objects at NPCs and break innumerable objects with the legendary crowbar. The transition of Half-Life gameplay into the more physics-dependent Source engine is otherwise seamless, however, and helps create a more realistic experience – something the Black Mesa team was intent on delivering. Even the smallest moments of the original title make an appearance, and blowing up that microwave has never been more satisfying.
The sound and music are particularly impressive, and while the team opted to stick with sounds from the original series, an all-new soundtrack has been produced for the mod – another substantial feat, considering Black Mesa isn’t a studio-sponsored endeavor. However, a few of the songs don’t exactly find a proper fit within the game, like a triumphant, Call of Duty-esque rock number when defeating the tentacles in the rocket testing chamber. The default music balance can also be overpowering, as it is much louder than any of the sound effects. Many of the new voice-overs emulate the originals perfectly and the use of the same voice across several different character types – specifically the scientists – is both charming and nostalgic.
While nearly everything comes together perfectly in Black Mesa, there are a few issues that should be noted, if only briefly. Given that the mod is based on the Source engine, every limitation in that engine will be a limitation in any game that uses it. That said, while the graphical effects and level design are as good as one is likely to get from the current engine, there are still frustrating loading times that occur, due to the level size issues within the engine itself. Though fans of the original Half-Life will see them coming, as the mod is nearly identical in this regard, new players may not – which could be particularly annoying.
Music volume issues and level size limitations aside, as amazing as Black Mesa is, it’s still not quite finished — leaving players with an abrupt good-bye once they cross the threshold to Xen. The team was forthcoming about the abrupt ending and is working fervently to finish the 8-year-long project (and it will still be free). The developers have actually rejected donations for the mod – mostly because they don’t have a commercial license for the Source engine. Considering though can’t profit from the creation, Black Mesa definitely shows the dedication of Half-Life faithful. The mod definitely delivers an experience that should satisfy both fans and newcomers alike.
Black Mesa was released for Windows PC on September 14th, and is absolutely free of charge - only requiring that players already own a Source-based game. So what are you waiting for, Ranters? Go out and get it today!
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