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Welcome to Black Mesa

Half-Life

Much like Valve, the 40-man volunteer development team working on Black Mesa took their time. Announced back in 2004 shortly after the release of Half-Life 2, Black Mesa’s development has been a long road full of numerous delays, dwindling updates and the kind of jokes commonly associated with Half-Life 3’s lengthy absence. It’s been an eight-year endeavour for these diehard fans, and when you see Black Mesa in motion its constant delays become completely understandable. This concoction of volunteer programmers, animators, level designers, texture artists, voice actors, and so on, have dedicated their time to a labour of love on par with some of the biggest retail releases of the year. And it’s free.

It almost feels like stealing.

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For those unfamiliar with Black Mesa, it’s essentially a remake of 1998’s seminal first-person shooter Half-Life. It fully encapsulates everything that made Valve’s game so fantastic, from the exciting variety of its combat, the exploration of this vast underground research facility, to the horror of an alien invasion and its oftentimes hilarious brand of dark humour. And it sprinkles in imaginative changes and a visual overhaul that modernises a classic and keeps it fresh for new and old fans alike.

You’ll instantly recognise the most memorable moments and the added graphical fidelity provides additional attention to detail and a phenomenal sense of scale; the opening five-minute train ride showcasing this to perfection. The re-worked character models, texture work and shadows are all superb, pulling the original game in-line with its sequel. It consistently looks fantastic and provides a new way to appreciate Half-Life’s exceptional design, transforming what was once an oversized room with a few tables into a highly detailed cafeteria; its vending machine stocked full of all your favourite faux snacks. Packet of Cheese and Onion flavoured Ramblers anyone?

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Black Mesa also successfully maintains everything that made the original so much fun to play. It methodically introduces all of these different mechanics – like the shooting, how each weapon performs and the platforming – and then tests you with various enemies and objects you can interact with within the environment. Once you’re comfortable with how everything works it throws a bunch of different variables and scenarios at you, forcing changes in the way you play, whether it’s fighting a new foe or dealing with a room full of trip mines, turrets and Headcrabs. You’re always being forced to think and adapt to what’s happening around you.

And that’s especially true when you consider the team has also added their own improvements, subtly re-designing certain sections and areas to fully utilise the capabilities of the Source engine. This oftentimes involves replacing archaic platforming sections with physics based puzzles more akin to Half-Life 2. Objects can be thrown to disorientate enemies, or flares used to set them on fire. It makes Black Mesa feel more contemporary and enjoyable, changing parts that would have felt flawed or dated.

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It’s for that reason alone that the latter levels on the alien planet of Xen are missing in Black Mesa. It has become popular opinion that Xen serves up the worst Half-Life has to offer so the development team have been attempting to re-work the endgame or design something completely new. Rather than delay the game even further it has been released now with the hope that the game’s ending will arrive sometime in the future.

Nevertheless, you’ll still get a good 8-10 hours out of Black Mesa, and a lot of that will be spent exploring this vast research facility. Certain areas have been expanded, particularly those that take place on the surface, so there’s a much improved sense of scope and immersion as you explore its vast suite of labs, rickety ventilation shafts and gargantuan tunnels filled to the brim with luminous green radioactive liquid. It’s a lengthy adventure as you make your way through the bowels of the facility, and you’ll meet plenty of fellow scientists and security personnel along the way. This is where some of Half-Life’s more memorable moments would arise as you watched your hapless colleagues meet their demise in an array of gruesome yet hilarious ways, and Black Mesa doesn’t disappoint with its own faithful renditions.

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They’ll follow you, hoping for safety, all the while reciting numerous new lines of dialogue and doing their best to recreate those of old. Generally speaking the voice acting is perfectly serviceable for the most part, and the new dialogue maintains the wit and dark humour Valve have become synonymous with. But it’s hard to complain about poor line delivery when you consider the amateur voice actors behind it.

And for that reason it’s hard to complain about any of Black Mesa’s flaws, for which there are surprisingly few. This is an extremely polished mod, a phenomenal achievement and a showcase for what a group of talented fans can do to a game they hold dear. It blends the old and memorable with a new reimagining that somehow manages to improve on a classic formula in some really interesting ways. That’s it’s free shouldn’t matter, Black Mesa is a game you need to play.

Black Mesa is now available to download at http://release.blackmesasource.com/

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in June 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @richardwakeling.

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