Published on October 1st, 2012 | by jsdp0
Party like it’s 1998; Black Mesa Redux in Absolute
With development starting in 2004, the legendary vaporware Black Mesa has finally strut onto the gaming scene in 2012. With the development team dubbing this a remix rather than remake, Black Mesa is the Half-Life overhaul we have always desired and deserved. We now have the first eight to ten hours to explore the Black Mesa Research Facility updated and slicked out utilizing the 2007 version of the Source SDK. Welcome back to where it all stated.
Many were dissatisfied with Valve’s update of Half-Life by simply slapping the Source engine code onto the original game and dubbing it Half-Life: Source. The most noticeable differences in Half-Life: Source were the user-interface, water effects, and rag-doll physics; other than a few minute shifts, Half-Life: Source was still Half-Life. But with Half-Life 2 came the Source engine, a flexible and adaptable system. Gabe Newell was not making an empty boast after the less-than-stellar reception of Half-Life: Source when he stated that a full upgrade of the original game was “not only possible…but inevitable.”
Queue the Black Mesa Development Team.
What started as two separate projects eventually coalesced into one large development team. Pooling resources together, the Black Mesa Development Team has been hard at work for the past eight years to bring fans the remake they deserved.
Remake? I meant remix.
Calling this a simple “overhaul” is a gross injustice to the developers. They have redone everything. Custom models, expanded maps, new recorded voice-work, a new soundtrack—they have done it all. While many may be slightly disappointed that the team released approximately the first eight to ten hours (the first part ends with you fighting your way into and upon entering Lamba Core), this initial taste is a gargantuan handful.
As soon as you drop in as Gordon Freeman on that opening tram-ride, the amount of changes is initially overwhelming. While the Source engine may show its age at times, it has aged ever so gracefully and beautifully. To think Black Mesa is running on the 2007 Source SDK is not only astounding and but a true testament to the creators’ collective talents and abilities. Textures are crisp and detailed; a coffee cup here and a can of compressed air there; reflections on the water look pristine; and every NPC has been reworked with new lines and full working facial emotions and expressions. The research facility and its workers feel very much alive. Those who have played the original game know the general path to take, but getting lost, watching and listening will prolong your playtime and give you some gorgeous eye candy and fun exploration.
Before even reaching the anomalous material sector to begin the infamous resonance cascade you enjoy a great array of new features. NPCs have entirely newly recorded lines and conversation points. Keep pestering them for humorous responses or just watch their faces contort with emotion. You notice a key in an elevator lock panel as you go further into the facility. Little things like that flesh out and deepen the immersion. Once Freeman initiates the alien freefall and blood spatters, you really appreciate how the strong gameplay back from 1998 when games did not hold your hand. Many of the puzzles and platforming elements remain, but the team utilized the Source engine to bring our nostalgia into the current age. As headcrabs and their zombie counterparts rush you, you notice your blood and theirs splatter on your hands, crowbar, and firearms. The AI is still just as vicious as it was over a decade ago—more often than not the soldiers will give you a run for your money with their obscene reaction times, marksmanship, teamwork, and flanking tactics. Their behavior is at times a little unbelievable and overly aggressive—they are highly skilled. But once you start remembering your hotkeys and developing good strategies with grenades or banking living alien ammo around a corner, the game is a fun blast.
This is what true first-person shooters are about.
As stated, the game utilizes the Source engine and physics to update the gameplay. For the most part, the game and its levels are recreated in exquisite and faithful detail, albeit with some minor yet welcomed edits. But every now and then you will have to move and manipulate objects to advance. To rehash work from Half-Life 2, the developers used the buoyant barrel puzzle in which players have to elevate a platform. You are not jumping ramps in a hodge-podge speedboat over radioactive rivers, but the homage is a great touch. The same goes for chopper fights that hearken right back to Half-Life 2. The puzzles will definitely frustrate and have you negotiating the facility structure over several times, but you never stop having fun (until you have timed teleportation to confront). Getting lost ends up being a perk in and of itself; when you see how the infrastructure all connects and where you have come, you gain a sense of cohesion from the facility really grounding you in the game.
And, of course, G-Man will be keeping an eye on you every step of the way.
Replay value may seem a little thin right now considering the game has yet to be released in its entirety; however, the addition of achievements will keep you coming back and encourage professional gameplay. The levels tend to be so expansive that combing them over twice gives you a new perspective on your playthroughs. If you want a serious challenge, up the game difficulty to hard. Normal setting can be frustrating at times; hard requires some serious forethought and excellent gunplay. If you thought the Combine in Half-Life 2 were trouble, then you might not be prepared for this good ol’ fashioned human army.
A solid shout out is in proper due order for the soundtrack as well. Composed by one of the game developers Joel Nielsen, the soundtrack provides great ambiance and musical movements to accompany Black Mesa. We have light and intimate piano pieces for those quiet and slow moments, in addition to other melodic portions that lull you into a false sense of security. For those times when you are fighting a group of several soldiers or Xen flora and fauna, Nielsen gives us high tempo industrial Trip-Hop induced chaos to keep you on your toes and the frantic sense of chaos high. The music is rather reminiscent of Ed Harrison’s compositions for NeoTokyo. Considering NeoTokyo is also a Half-Life 2 mod, it would be unsurprising to hear that Harrison was a direct inspiration for Nielsen’s work. In any case, there are excellent tunes here and make for a good separate experience outside of the actual game. Pay what you want or can, otherwise you can cop the album for free.
Black Mesa raises the bar for independent modification in the gaming community. Not only are we graciously given a beautiful aural and visual experience—entirely for free no less—but the developers have brought a PC gaming classic back into the limelight in supreme contemporary form. And it is so much fun to play. If you are a Half-Life fan, go play this as soon as you can. If you never got into Half-Life, now is a great way to introduce yourself to one of gaming’s most cherished series. Better yet, there is more on the way. Sooner or later we will be given Xen to play on, and I have a small inkling of how fun it will. Welcome back to Black Mesa. Time to play and relive. Vaporware? Oh, please. Duke Nukem Forever, eat your heart out!