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Black Mesa is the Best Remake of Anything, Ever (and You Will Love It)
Posted on Friday, October 19 2012 @ 14:26:46 PST

This member blog post was promoted to the GameRevolution homepage.
Black Mesa, the Source remake of the original Half-Life, has been out for just under a month at the time of this writing. This game (and it is that: a full, triple-A, capital ‘G’ Game) is everything a remake should be: It captures the soul and essence of what made its forefather the most groundbreaking FPS since Doom, while being unafraid to apply over a decade of advancements in game design towards crafting a better experience, as opposed to merely a modern one. 

Entire treatises have been written on Half-Life’s revolutionary designs and how they moved the FPS genre out of the corridor and into genuine world-building—this article will not be one of them. Rather, this article is for the generation of gamers that never played the original Half-Life and therefore sees no reason to sink time into what on its surface might appear to be to be a hi-def reskin of a 14-year-old game. To you all I say: This game will rank in your top single-player FPS experiences for this year or any other. The Black Mesa team has given you the opportunity to play one of the best games of all time in its best form, and they’ve given it to you for free.

Let me show you what they did. Spoiler alert, duh. (Click any image for fullscreen).


The opening Black Mesa station is teeming with detail and life, despite only being visible for three seconds as the tram pulls out.  Black Mesa is more than an HD texture upgrade—it is a bottom-up rebuild of the original game with all the polish one would expect from a leading developer. 


Character models look and act like they were plucked straight out of a modern FPS (and given that the game is built upon the Half-Life 2 asset base, maybe a few were). Heads track motion, lips are synced, and animations are top-notch.


In the original Half-Life, the majority of the indoor game environments are whites and grays, giving the research facility a clinical feel. Conversely, the Black Mesa team chose to use a much wider array of colors, assigning many rooms their own palettes and lighting. Both approaches create a distinct feel: The sterile look of the original makes the monstrosities that follow feel out of place and disturbing, while the Black Mesa remake has more distinct visual themes accompanying each gameplay segment.


Of course, some areas of Black Mesa have a palette almost identical to the original Half-Life. This is the test chamber, where the player’s actions yield unforeseen consequences. The openings of both games up to this point are almost identical in terms of structure and dialogue. A wise choicefew other games have ever come close to matching the mounting tension of Half-Life’s first 10 minutes.


The Black Mesa team added several new areas not found in the original Half-Life. Allowing the player under this specific door has the advantage of adding to the story’s internal logic and giving the player a guard station to raid, but the additional freedom comes at the expense of leaving the player less directed at an early point in the game.


All the enemies not pulled directly from Half-Life 2 assets received a complete revamp in Black Mesa. Where Half-Life had to represent the Houndeye’s sonic attack as physical blue waves, Black Mesa uses a gorgeous distortion effect coupled with improved animations and sound. In addition to enhanced models and attacks, enemies are infused with more personality via AI and game design. This elevates the Houndeyes (my favorite remake) from four-legged AOE enemies in Half-Life to creatures that truly feel like they were plucked from an entirely different ecosystem and forced to adapt to a new environment.


In some cases, the stylistic choices in Black Mesa traded off against game play. In the top screen, the original Half-Life artists use deep shadows and a bright white back wall to draw the player’s attention to the window, which must be broken to progress. In Black Mesa, these decisions have been reversed, presenting a more ambiguous picture to the player.


On the other hand, most Black Mesa additions strongly enhance gameplay. Both versions of the game hide HEV Energy in the same area below the bridge, but where Half-Life only requires a box to be broken, the Black Mesa team built out a mini-puzzle room that trains the player to use the blue box (which only reappears during push puzzles) in a zero-pressure environment.


Another example of improved puzzles in Black Mesa: Where the original Half-Life featured a simple button press to turn on the above oxygen and fuel lines, Black Mesa built out a richer missing valve wheel scenario with more interesting enemy placement and environments. These types of enhancements are found all throughout Black Mesa.


This is a Gargantua. He is scary as hell in either version.


In the original Half-Life, the red arrow on the left can be shot to switch the track of the rail cart. Black Mesa replaces this mechanic with a Source-based puzzle involving outlets and electricity.


The amount of ambient detail put into each area is breathtaking.


A trapped life form in an experimentation chamber. Half-Life uses the same model as the player encounters in combat, but Black Mesa strips the alien of its armor and weapon, as it has been captured and is being experimented on. These subtle touchesand there are a number of themshow Black Mesa for the labor of love that it is and help to further enrich the story.


The Black Mesa team added a few extra combat events as well. All the objects on the right side of the graphic were added by the team to provide layers of tactical cover for an upcoming firefight. All the Black Mesa weapons have been rebuilt and rebalanced from the ground up. They are deeply satisfying to fire and are one of the most immediately noticeable improvements over the original game.


The medical device that the player must dodge and deactivate. Watching the Black Mesa version animated is an absolute treatit slices, spins, and jolts like a practical machine gone haywire. The original Half-Life device looks like it was built specifically to kill adventurous MIT degree-holders.


One of Half-Life’s most oft-cited contributions to the FPS genre is drastically improved vertical gameplay, with the textbook example being a battle up and down the mesa cliff face. Black Mesa extends this section and turns a battle down a pipe (seen from Half-Life in the image above) into an enormous set piece.


Did I mention the puzzle enhancements? Touching any one of those trip mine lasers blows up the entire game, by the way.


This grid control launches mortars at the targeted point on the map. The one-button joystick controller from the original game has been updated with a slick point-and-click cursor interface one would expect from a polished 2012 release.


I’ll close with a screen that is 100% from Black Mesa—no Half-Life fade-in here. This is the remake of the second assassin encounter and one of the areas that best represents what is so great about Black Mesa.

In the original game, there are two assassin encounters, both similar beyond the architecture of the room. Assassins are agile enemies that snipe from cover and can leap incredible heights in a single jump. They also react to the player’s movement and sound, which grants two distinct approaches—aggressively running and gunning as the assassins dash behind cover and backflip across the room, or quietly stalking the assassins while they do the same to you.

Both of these encounters exist in Black Mesa, with a few tweaks. The first and most noticeable is the updated acoustics—dead air suffocates the entire room, muffling the assassins’ footsteps and building a dreadful sense of tension. The second is the design of the assassins themselves: They are faster and more slender, making them much harder to spot and hit. The Black Mesa team balanced this advantage by giving each assassin glowing red headgear that briefly traces her movements. The first room’s dark colors make these flashes of glowing red a great way to visually track the assassins as they dart through the environment, and the player quickly learns to keep an eye out. A pretty cool change, I thought.

And then I got to the second assassin room.

Small, glowing red lights pepper the entire area. They are nestled into high corners and walls, arranged to catch your eye as you navigate the labyrinth of walkways and shipping containers. Getting shot from behind and turning to find a door lock or a warning light grows an insidious paranoia, and the encounter meshes that nervousness with all the prior enhancements from the first room to create a memorable experience all its own.

That’s probably the highest praise I can give to the Black Mesa team—they not only remastered Half-Life for a new generation, but took the risk of innovating upon what many consider the best-designed shooter of all time. The end result is a game that any modern developer would be proud to count among their body of work.

And if you have the opportunity to experience—for free—this fantastic, seminal, flat-out fun game for the first time in your life, you would be crazy not to take it (

The opinions expressed here does not necessarily reflect the views of Game Revolution, but we believe it's worthy of being featured on our site. This article has been lightly edited for grammar (sliverstorm included the images himself!). It has been submitted for our monthly $20 Vox Pop prize. ~Ed. Nick
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