If you are not naturally inclined to hound the internet for news related to games that were released over a decade ago as I am, the trending but ambiguous term Black Mesa might be a bit confusing. In order to understand what it signifies, however, you must first learn a few basics of PC videogame design, so now is the time to revel in the knowledge I am about to bestow -- knowledge I have acquired through extensive study on Friday nights while the rest of the world was busy discovering theorems and dating their classmates.
The most respected name in PC videogame development today is Valve Software, developer of the tremendously successful and highly influential Half-Life -- a first person shooter that sees players taking on the role of the unseen, unspeaking protagonist Gordon Freeman as he fights everything from humans to aliens. Due to its immense popularity, the game spawned several sequels, innumerable imitations and was even remade as Half Life: Source, a conversion that utilizes Valve’s “Source Engine.” A game engine, at its basest, is the set of rules that governs what is and is not possible in a videogame. For example, the engine for the original Super Mario Bros. only allows that a collision with a turtle shell immediately defeats an enemy and makes him magically disappear as if he is “falling off the screen.” For Super Mario Galaxy, however, the engine makes it so that an enemy’s corpse (yes, children; you kill the Koopa Troopas that actually have families and responsibilities) actually propels in different directions based on the point of impact with the turtle shell.
Similarly, the aforementioned Source Engine was first used for the sequel to the original Half-Life and succeeded in making several notable improvements, including life-like animations and realistic water effects. Therefore, soon after fans were done with the sequel, they started to wonder what would be the case if the original were made using this improved set of rules. Therefore, Valve decided to recreate the original Half-Life using the engine from its sequel, thus bringing about Half-Life: Source. However, whereas the fans desired a true remake using the most advanced technology available to the developer, Valve never quite committed to recreating the game from the ground up. Instead, their product essentially functioned and occasionally even looked identical to the original, thus disappointing fans with a seemingly half-hearted effort. And while the gamer community is a bit hesitant to criticize Valve (they have a rather likeable company personality and their digital distribution system offers some of the best deals to be found in gaming), no one can deny that they are surprisingly and relentlessly enterprising. Instead of stomaching their disappointment with Valve, over forty volunteers formed the Black Mesa Modification Team and decided to create Black Mesa, their remake of the original Half-Life that is truly a recreation from the ground-up. So, instead of simply adding some physics effects or contextually appropriate shading as Valve had done, the kind volunteers gave us a true remake that serves as a fantastic homage to a brilliant game.
For fans of the franchise that are seeking something to nibble on until the announcement of Half-Life 3 or newcomers that want to see a piece of gaming history but lack the patience to sit through horridly dated visuals, Black Mesa works well as a modern first-person shooter. This is a total conversion, meaning it is essentially a new game built upon the foundation of its inspiration, but it never changes so much as to become indistinguishable. The new graphics are very respectable, although they show immediate signs of being an independently developed game. The gameplay itself is classic Half-Life so it essentially plays with greater fluidity than many games today. The download also includes voice acting and a brand new musical composition, ensuring that fans will have a genuine Half-Life experience when playing through this game.
For those that are still unimpressed and wondering why a fan-made game is getting so much hype, understand that this is an ambitious and detailed remake of what is considered by many to be the best game ever made. Also if the world is allowed to go crazy for something that started as Twilight fan fiction (50 Shades of Dry), I think this is still far more respectable. The gamer community, an incredibly generous group, always works to extend videogames beyond their useful life by providing free content for years to come. Of course, this is no lazy modification or update but, rather, a complete restoration of one of the most influential games of all time. Plus, as aforementioned, it is completely free and only requires that you have an existing Source Engine game downloaded on your PC (sorry Mac owners, you don’t get anything; now go ahead and tell us how cool your are for paying thrice as much for something that does not play most games).
While this does not take the award for best fan contribution to a videogame (that honor going to the wonderful individual that allowed us to give Carmen Sandiego titillating clothing), it is still a fantastic effort. So, in short, unless you have a serious stance against downloading games (I know several people that prefer a physical disc even to this day, myself included), download this free product. If the project finds some success, ambitious efforts like this will hopefully continue and maybe the volunteer developers might even be rewarded in the form of job offers with existing companies. One look at the product and it should become clear that this took determination from the developers; for us, all it takes is a few clicks.