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Lola's free-to-play review: This is Black Mesa

by Han Cilliers (Lola)  Posted Friday, October 19, 2012 12:59:00 PM

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“I have drained the rich cup and satisfied a long thirst.” C.S Lewis upon reading The Lord of the Rings.

The words of C.S. Lewis echoes through my mind as I try to think of the best way to describe my experience in playing Black Mesa. For years, I have longed to return as the ever silent Dr Freeman; at home in my HEV suit, armed with the trusted crowbar, ready to take on the Black Mesa facility.

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Dr Lola, erh, Gordon Freeman, theoretical physicist…legend (courtesy of one Panda McBearface).

Black Mesa is a remake of the 1998 classic Half-Life, using the Valve: Source engine. It is a testament to the ingenuity, challenge and thrill that marks the first-person shooter (FPS) genre. It defiantly mocks present day triple A shooters with its outdated graphics, while delivering a game that is for lack of a better description, in a class of its own.

Black Mesa is the perfect game and it was done by a group of fans.

The passion of these individuals and their understanding of the sheer brilliance that marked Half-Life as the epitome of the FPS genre can be seen throughout the world of Black Mesa. They captured the soul of Half-Life, breathed new life into it, smoothed out its rough edges and delivered a game that demands respect and admiration.

Black Mesa.JPG

Half-Life lobby (left), Black Mesa lobby remade (right).

As many of you know by now, I am hard to please when it comes to games, especially first-person shooters. I believe that most of today’s titles are boring, fails to challenge and only delivers on the eye candy level. Join me as I take you through my Black Mesa experience.

It left me completely satisfied.

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“User death imminent”, hardcore in Black Mesa, the only way to play ;)

I am not going to walk you through the whole game, instead, I will highlight the aspects that make it a game I will always regard as one of the best in its genre. Please keep in mind that Black Mesa is a remake of Half-Life. The brilliancy of the game must be contributed to the original Valve developers and the extraordinary beauty of Black Mesa to the Black Mesa Modification Team.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Half-Life, a brief introduction.

Scientist does tests on alien life form, test goes horribly wrong. Portal opens from alien world, spawns creatures into test facility. Facility gets overrun by aliens, powers that be sends in military to clean up mess. Armed with special suit, scientist survived incident. Sets out on mission to save the cheerleader, no wait, save the world from infestation. Said scientist battles both aliens and Special Forces who have orders to shoot all on sight.

Black Mesa features a pretty straight forward story, one we have played many times over in different FPS games. So what is it then that sets this game apart? It does everything perfect by combining the core aspects of the FPS genre superbly into one experience.

I am Freeman

You play as Dr Gordon Freeman, a theoretical physicist who works at the Black Mesa Research Facility. Our father who art in Valve, Gabe Newell, created Freeman as homage to the physicist and philosopher Freeman Dyson. At Black Mesa, he works on a top-secret research project headed by his mentor, Dr. Isaac Kleiner. The work Freeman is involved with at Black Mesa is of a secretive, experimental nature.

Freeman is of a different breed than the usual FPS, stubble faced, muscle bulging, trigger happy numbnuts. He is of course, intelligent, being a scientist and all, he doesn’t talk, (not even a grunt escapes his lips), and he never gets the girl. He prefers using a crowbar above the rattle of gunfire and he has a healthy fascination with all things alien in nature.

He is the type of character that grows on you as you become familiar with walking in his HEV boots. His silent, practical approach to trouble is refreshing in a genre that mostly expects of its players to aim and shoot. The one aspect about playing Freeman that stands out for me most is how you really get the feeling of being in the first-person perspective. It’s not about the guns, or the enemies, or the environment, it’s about the player being Gordon Freeman.

Intelligent Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Black mesa Remake.JPG

Half-Life (left), Black Mesa (right)

Now this aspect of Black Mesa rocks my FPS world. Since it’s a remake of a 1998 game, I was preparing myself for a major disappointment with regards to the AI, I have after all been spoiled with 2012 triple A AI. But Black Mesa did not disappoint. Back in the day when I played Half-Life I squealed with delight at the challenge the enemy confrontations provided and, with Black Mesa, I returned to that exact thrill.

Each type of enemy in Black Mesa comes action-wrapped in its own level of intelligence. The Barnacle has 0 intelligence (it eats you only if you careless enough to walk into it), the headcrabs are ridiculously stupid, with the Zombie only slightly more direct and aggressive in its approach. The Houndeye, Vortigaunt and most of the other aliens push the confrontation up a notch by following you, its aim increases and the way it works together if in a pack.

Then there's the human AI (HECU Marines and Black Ops Assassins) with its deadly and precise intent. These enemies approach Freeman with a plan; some will flank, while others will try and flush you out, and the rest of the squad will patiently wait for you. As I’ve mentioned before, I played Black Mesa on hard mode. With the human AI, this meant there was no room for error. They are capable, sneaky bastards, and I loved the challenge of outmaneuvering them.

Adjusting the game rhythm with puzzles

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A puzzle solved

Black Mesa breaks the usual monotony of the FPS genre by throwing in a variety of puzzles. Some are mixed with a deadly boss type enemy, like the tentacle beast in the Blast Pit, while others require the delicate dance of crouch jumping between rotating platforms. The puzzles provide a welcome change of pace in the game and again succeed in challenging the player on a different level.

The environment as a character

One of the most notable achievements of the remake is that the facility comes to life. As you walk through it, you genuinely get the sense that the place was filled with a bustle of activities, secret experiments and a variety of people.

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Black Mesa has a personality, the building tells a story.

It’s as if the communal life of the workforce seeped into the walls itself. Each section you have to navigate through on your way to the surface holds its own secrets, challenges and history. The remake also beautifully captures the different environmental changes in each section as it was affected by the incident. Be it the sharpness of glass scattered over a lab, the freezing chill caused by broken equipment or the sparks of broken electricity as it plays across a flooded hall. The remake didn’t just smooth over a few things; it’s a complete re-imaging of the game with new level design, character models, textures, voice acting, overall sound, music and gameplay. 

It’s Half-Life as you remember it, just with more...life.

The usual suspects

Black Mesa also comes with the usual suspects of the FPS genre; an inventive arsenal, a good story, captivating music, pumped up action, and then it adds, the ever illusive G-Man. He is a character that watches Freeman’s progress throughout the game. Where Half-Life ended with Freeman’s choice to either work for the G-Man or die on the alien planet, Black Mesa ends as you enter the portal to the alien world.

Closing thoughts

Should you play this game if, like me, you want to relive the Half-Life nostalgia? Hell yes. Should you play Black Mesa if you are new to the series? Firstly shame on you for not having played it yet, and secondly, get cracking, it is after all free-to-play on PC! The download size is 3.03 GB, 8 GB uncompressed.

Minimum System Requirements

  • Operating System (*): Windows XP, Vista, or 7.
  • Processor: Pentium 4 - 3.0 GHz, or AMD processor.
  • RAM: 1GB (1024 MB)
  • Graphics Card: Shader Model 2.0 capable, ATI 9600, NVidia 6600 or better.
  • Sound: DirectX 8.1 compatible.
  • HDD: At least 8 GB (Not including the Free Source SDK, installed separately)

Ideal System Requirements

  • Operating System (*): Windows XP, Vista, or 7.
  • Processor: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4GHz or AMD equivalent.
  • RAM: 1 GB (1024 MB)
  • Graphics Card: Shader Model 3.0 capable, ATI X1600, NVidia 7600 or better.
  • Sound: DirectX 9.0c compatible.
  • HDD: At least 8 GB (Not including the Free Source SDK, installed separately)
Black Mesa: Website | Twitter | Facebook | YouTube | Download for free

Check out the official trailer.

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