Black Mesa Source Review

With patience you can travel across the seas. Patient people can expect fantastic rewards. Hard work produces marvelous results. No matter what, keep having hope that you will succeed. These all seem to be worthy attributes of Valve Time. Valve Time has been known to bring some fans to their knees, begging for new releases. Some fans go guerilla style and start flame wars on the forums, where hot debates occur. Others quit in complete resignation, feeling that it’s futile to consume any more energy on the hope of a new release.

I can safely assume that Black Mesa Source was produced in an alternate time dimension, Valve time. Being 8 years in production, several sites( notably Wired Magazine) catalogued this mod as vaporware. What’s with all the fuss? A good mod needs time to be developed, tested, then tweaked. It’s people that get exaggeratedly hyped around something they love.

Although not hardcore, I consider myself to be a Half-Life fan. I’ve completed the series, and yes, I am waiting for a continuation of the story. I don’t remember all the chapters, I don’t know every line, I don’t know every scene, but I do know the story overall and I like it. And, sure, I also get excited whenever something big is announced in the Half-Life universe. When I first heard about Black Mesa Source, I didn’t give much attention. I don’t know exactly, but I guess attempts at porting stuff from HL1 to HL2 have been made before. Actually, the official Half-Life: Source, which was a disappointment.

Naturally, I was with the eyes on the counter when the final release date was announced. On 14th September, when there were 5 minutes left, a feeling of intense doubt hit me: “I bet they’ll postpone the release date, or something will surely happen”. And indeed, when the counter hit 0, I was greeted by a wonderful white error page. A massive shitstorm ensued on every forum related to Half-Life and on sites like reddit. Complaining posts poured like a rain in september… It wasn’t long until somebody posted a torrent link, and I was able to download it within a few hours.

Today, I finished it. What can I say?

I am flabbergasted. This mod sets a new level of excitement.

I have to tell you from the start: I thought I’d be subjective when describing my feelings here, but it’s hard to do that. No matter how subjective I’ll be in expressing my astonishment, the objective fact that this is simply a great revival of Half-Life won’t change. Playing through the chapters constantly evoked an intense feeling of nostalgia, and many dialogs echoed through my mind right before they would be spoken. The truth is that several times, when seeing a really familiar scene, or trying the improved equipment, I was like a baby laughing historically in joy. Who didn’t expect this to look fantastic? But who expected it too look like an actual piece of art?

It is clear that it will stand somewhere in the first places of a hall of fame.

F12 got seriously hot during my playing session. I took 167 screenshots, almost out of instinct, when seeing the beautifully crafted scenes.

So, the game starts as usual with Black Mesa Inbound. You expect it to be a soft introduction to the game’s whole new look. But no, it hits you with the fury of a steam engine right in the face. You didn’t even have time to put your hot cup of tea on the desk that your jaw stretches to the floor.

Ok, just a side note here. These descriptions can be seen as a bit exaggerated by some people. I agree, if you’re not a Half-Life fan, or don’t even know what this game is about, or never played it, it’s just another game. And yes, there are more beautiful games than this. But you have to be aware of the fact that this is a major realization for Half-Life fans. It’s bringing the story of a 1998 game on a modern graphic engine. It does this well, and implicitly, it increases the level of immersion in the story.

Anomalous Materials begins with you stepping out of the Tram and getting used with Black Mesa’s “renovated” hallways. The advantage of the newer Source engine is clear: there are fewer loading screens now, because Source supports much larger maps. You head right for the locker room, where the one H.E.V. suit is waiting for you. But first, because Gordon has serious ballz, he starts checking a scientist’s laptop, gets Barney into trouble with a false alarm, plays with the microwave, washes his hands and dries them, and helps a fellow scientist by tossing a toilet paper to him. Yeah, just the usual activities a Half-Life player will have.

Having the H.E.V. suit, you are now authorized to go towards the Test Chamber, where a very pure sample awaits you, along with some impatient scientists who have had enough of your lazy ass. Oh lookie! It’s dr. Kleiner and Eli! I know these guys!

At this moment you start noticing lots of lab equipment, mostly embedded into walls, because hey, it’s Black Mesa. And out of everything that can be criticized, I think this issue deserves a bit of attention. I think the lab equipment is a bit too cheesy. I was expecting more technical stuff, but instead my eyes see some kind of child toys. I think this inconvenient is nullified when we put ourselves the question: “But will it blend?”. The answer is yes: they blend well with the environment, so they aren’t harsh elements.

The following scenes are, of course, the big experiment. That will fail. This is, I think, the trademark of Half-Life, and is the central scene that sits in every Half-Life player’s mind. Expect a big tempest.

Damn scientists! They always like to play with the fire and they never get prepared for Unforeseen Consequences. This chapter, along with Office Complex and We’ve Got Hostiles were never my favorite chapters of the game, but they’re a must for introducing you to the situation. And introducing you to the realization of how much work has been put into this mod. Almost everything is a custom asset, and only rarely you can spot some stock props or textures. Every texture is crafted with such immense attention to detail that you simply start staring at walls… The team behind BMS surely did a good work with the bump mapping, it’s gorgeous.

Another thing to point out is that they didn’t simply copy the layout of the original game and then just added improvements. They started from ground up, and the areas just resemble the original game, but they are freshly designed. They did a good job at making you feel that you’re in a real place. They specifically added more elements that help enhance the credibility of certain places, like doors, control rooms and others. For example, remember the hall of hanging crates? It used to be just a big concrete room with little detail of what’s the importance of that space. You’re going to see a big difference in BMS with many areas like this.

The NPCs also look superb. There’s not much to talk here, they simply look realistic.

Blast Pit is the first area where you start having some fun. At the beginning of the chapter there’s a scene that shows just how much attention to detail there is in this mod. I am talking about the shadows. The default value of the lightmap grid is set to 16 in Source, but I’m sure they cranked up the resolution as far as 2, the maximum one. At the cost of increased compiling time and bigger map file sizes, you get these absolutely beautiful shadows cast on the walls.

You’ll meet the refreshed train for the first time that now has controls which actually stick out of the control panel, not just a texture. Also, the green radioactive waste? It strangely looks very appealing…

The health charger and the H.E.V. charger are now animated models which offer an intuitive display of how much reserves are left in them.

You take matters into your own hands now, and decide to go around the facility and activate Oxygen and Fuel pumps. Needless to say, in this little adventure you’ll be exposed to the architectural beauty of the place. At some point you’ll be passing through a water tunnel. The reflections on the water and the overall aspect of the scene just left me wondering how is this still possible on the Source engine, which is itself old. The answer is skilled craftsmen.

The pit monster is reduced to ashes.

Power Up is the chapter where you have to seriously run for your life for the first time. You meet this awfully big monster named “Gargantua”, and you watch in horror as it cooks fresh roasted soldiers.

On a Rail is a party of beautiful visuals. The area has been redesigned to be more intuitive and it includes less boring activities. It’s worth stating that the BMS team made extensive use of the power of the physics engine and added lots of interesting puzzles. The puzzles are never hard to solve, as they mostly involve pushing buttons or fixing something, but it really spices up the gameplay, and it’s what makes Half-Life unique.

Your objective is to head towards the surface at launch site, where you have to send a rocket into orbit in an attempt to reverse the process of the resonance cascade. Once there, it won’t be easy: the special forces are prepared to stop you no matter what.
Fortunately, a 27 years old Gordon( well, at least he was in 98′), a theoretical physicist with no known training in combat, will crush them all. H.E.V. suits are magical, I suppose. I have to say that the balance of staying a lot underground, then finally making it to the surface is brilliant. BMS enhances the feeling of having a breath of fresh air. The outside areas are landscapes worth of putting on your desktop.

Apprehension started very nicely, by crashing the game. I had to restart the game 3 times until I could continue, and crashes have happened in other areas too. Other people complained about this. Fortunately, the game was playable, and crashes occured only after hours. Hours you say? Well, yes, didn’t I already tell you that the beauty of this mod makes you stand and stare even at walls?

You will come face to …jaws with a terrifying monster, in a place where humans are helpless: water. The Ichthyosaur is quite a threat, but you are now armed with a powerful crossbow. Although there are specialized tools for checking cubemaps, the crossbow is a traditional tool among mappers for this due to its reflective scope. One of my friends who played BMS was tricked into thinking the reflections are real time… I verified this and I found out that they’re still cubemaps. The increased the resolution of them too. It makes sense, since a lot of textures are doing a great job in simulating wet environments.

Residue Processing is the next chapter. I believe Valve not only created memorable areas to accommodate the story. I think many scenes are a showoff for their engine capabilities, and a way to convince the player’s eye that this game is really good. Areas like the residue processing facility is what makes this game classic. As you expected, you will find the whole area redesigned, but still following the original layout. At the beginning you can actually have a look at the desert landscape for the first time. My opinion? A piece of art. The green slime that is mixed around the facility captures your eyes in a hypnotizing way.

The signs in the original Half-Life were more an esthetic feature, lots of them could hardly be read at all due to the low resolution. Now the whole Black Mesa is covered with readable sings, some of them quite comical.

The next chapter is Questionable Ethics, with its memorable blue hallways and nice lab offices. The central puzzle in this area is activating a very powerful laser(Tau cannon) that is used for testing purposes. You will find obvious clues for the name of the chapter’s title: Xen creatures are tortured and studied everywhere around here. The Tau cannon makes no exception, but… oups… YOU FORGOT THE PROTECTIVE WALL, and now the cannon is POWERING UP. WHAT TO DO? HOLY… yep, it blasted right through the wall. The level of immersion in the game has been increased so much that I was about to grab my camera and take a macro shot of the molten wall. Seriously, the BMS guys did a great job with everything and they have ridiculous attention to detail.

The Hydroelectric dam is, again, a central piece of the game. It’s a show of Source’s power, displaying beautiful visuals. The only thing I could argue on this scene is that a lot of effort has been put into this, but Gordon passes through the area too fast. Sure, there’s a military confrontation and a helicopter, but besides opening the dam to go to the other side, I found little else to do than stare at the landscape.

Surface Tension, along with the aforementioned hydroelectric dam, is a place of eyegasms. A true spectacle of virtual landscapes. The devs really deserve a lot of praise for this. Source has a lot of advantage over the older GoldSource because it has the 3D skybox feature. You will not feel a moment that you’re in a map floating in the sky, but that you’re in a real place. The bump mapping on the cliffs enhance the realism to the point that you actually feel the fear of falling of the cliffs.

Forget About Freeman is the chapter where the military realizes for the first time that they’re in a losing battle against the Xen. They send a crying shout for everybody to bomb the site and get out of there. As you advance, a Gargantua follows you, but you hopefully escape by climbing on the water tower. The gargantua tries to get you off by shaking the whole tower. You discover a dead’s soldier tablet-like instrument for pointing an air strike. In a desperate attempt to save yourself, you point this thing dangerously close to you. Fire! A terrifying wheezing noise is heard. You look towards the sky and see the bomb approaching rapidly. The Gargantua is reduced to pieces. So is hl2.exe which crashes again :). Do you remember that in HL1 this device used to be controlled by two joysticks? Well, HL1 didn’t feature advanced capabilities, and the strike point was actually pointed by 2 moving entity brushes. In BMS, the position is shown by a cursor overlayed on an actual video feed of the zone.

And finally, the last chapter, Lambda Core. This isn’t the last chapter in Half-Life, but as the name implies, BMS is focusing on the Black Mesa facility. I think I’ve used most of my praising words here. This last area will simply overwhelm your brain with it’s visual awesomeness. It’s a concentrated dose of visual perfection. This area has the last major puzzle that is spread across several maps. Your mission is to activate the Core generator, but the pumps are all stopped and you have to activate them. The sheer amount of work is blowing me away: the level of detail is astonishing. The big rooms are encompassed by deep pools of water that emit an energizing blue light. It’s a pleasure to just sit and enjoy the view. It is the final evidence that this mod is far from an amateur level. I almost feel bad about playing this for free!

Once the Core is activated, the scientists give you the mission to stop that “something” that is keeping the portal opened from the other side. They start a big machinery that creates a portal. As you jump in the portal, the game ends.

Well, this was quite long. I’m sorry I couldn’t be very objective, but this release was surrounded just by excitement. I haven’t spoken a word about sounds and the music. I don’t have to, I think you can already guess the soundtracks are excellent. The dialogs have been recorded again, with voices that sound just like the original. Every sound is new, but stays in the same Half-Life theme.

All in all, this was excellent. It’s just a piece of artwork that simply make professional studios look embarrassing. Especially “you know who” Forever.

I really recommend you to play this mod. It’s free, it’s excellent, it’s a shame not to play it!

Just go to their site and download it:

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