Hmm…Black Mesa. Anyone want to take a guess at to what that is?
Easy: the best Half-Life mod the community has ever seen.
On a more serious note: it’s an American research corporation founded in the deserts of New Mexico, within what is called the Black Mesa Research Facility. The writer for the Half-Life series, Marc Laidlaw (now retired), was the one who coined the term.
The facility conducts typical modern-day scientific studies, like radiation, hydraulics, robotics, genetics, and much more, but at the same time, does research behind doors that are a little more dangerous, such as the study of high-tech weaponry, teleportation, and Xen, which, according to the Half-Life Wiki, is “the Borderworld, a plane of existence connecting two or more dimensions.”
You enter the facility via tram station as twenty-seven-year-old Gordan Freeman, who has a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics and is one of the scientists there — a guy who doesn’t utter anything out of his mouth other than groan. While you’re waiting to arrive, you hear through the public intercom that the facility is looking to hire folks like him, as well as biotechnologists and other arts that require the understanding of high-tech scientific studies. In other words, the people who will conduct the more confidential, dangerous tasks.
Later on, he equips the Hazardous Environment Suit Mark IV — a suit that, as the name implies, will protect the wearer from hazardous chemicals, as well as physical damage by means of a shield generator — and inserts a strange material into a large electromagnetic field. For what purpose, I don’t really know, but the results are catastrophic: the facility crashes and burns down, and not only that, but an alternate dimension becomes rifted, to what we earlier referred to as “Xen,” and all the alien life form from that dimension makes their way to earth.
Sound familiar? It probably does if you’ve played the original Half-Life. That’s because Black Mesa (originally Black Mesa: Source) retains much of the core from Half-Life, from weapons, to story, to gameplay, to the red-hat marines, to the people whom you witness die right in front of your very eyes, to the zombies, to the annoying-ass headcrabs, to the scientist who boasts, “Take me with you! I’m the one man who knows everything!” yet gets shot by a marine moments later, and pretty much everything else you can remember, albeit with a few differences.
Besides greatly enhanced graphics, we also have updated weapon models and animations, weapon sway, multiplayer featuring recreated maps from the original game, new voice actors, enhanced AI, blood/gore decals on your gun if you kill someone up close, a new user interface, Steam workshop support, and more. Earlier in the year also saw the addition of Surface Tension: Uncut, which adds three new levels to the existing campaign mode. The developers behind the mod, Crowbar Collective, are actually a series of part-time developers across the world who get together by means of Skype, Steam, and online forums. Unlike a lot of other companies, Valve is actually pretty lax to tolerate and even support mods like these to their franchises. One of the developers of the mod was super kind enough to lend me a key, and while I know the news about the Linux version being released is old news, I guess it’s better late to talk about it than never.
So, what’s the nostalgia like to pick up a game from almost twenty years ago? Well, I can’t really answer that — I never played the original. For the longest time I didn’t even understand why the Half-Life series is so popular. But I can just imagine how stoked the generation of folks from their upper-twenties to thirties must be to re-visit one of their favorite games in high definition, what it must feel to swing with that fancy crowbar, what it’s like to see Freeman reloading the first weapon he retrieves. I even wonder what Gabe Newell thinks about it. Bear in mind, however, Black Mesa is still in development and is in Early Access. Right now, you can re-live the Half-Life experience all the way up to the “Lambda Core” chapter, to the point where Freeman makes the jump (literally) to the Xen world. You currently will not be able to visit the Xen world, at least not until summer of next year when Crowbar Collective releases a massive update with the last chapter of the game. This update will apparently greatly enhance the size of the original Xen map, and will “be the definitive climax to the Half-Life 1 story.” I think I echo the sentiments of many when I say I’m certainly looking forward to it.
Thanks to the updated features of the Source engine, cross-platform support for Source games has been made easier, and a beta version of Black Mesa was distributed for Linux clients on October 27, 2016. You’ll notice that sometimes shadows are casted in places they shouldn’t, and the game might randomly break a few times, but otherwise, I find it is a pretty stable, high-performing release. At one point in the campaign I was unable to proceed without the game crashing on me. I let one of the developers know, in which he quickly found a fix and then I was able to proceed. Cool stuff man.
Interestingly enough, when you first launch the game you will see the Havok logo, an engine in which some of its features were borrowed and implemented into Source itself. Last time I heard, Havok was bought by Microsoft. That kind of raises a red flag to me: wouldn’t Microsoft be against supporting platforms other than their own?
Do yourself a favor and keep the difficulty on Easy. The marines are more brutal than you’d expect.
Throughout the game you’ll see references to name brands, spelled slightly different for what I assume to be copyright protection. For instance, Coca-Cola becomes “Coca-Bola,” Del Monte with “Bel Phoney,” and Mountain Dew with “Alpine Hye.” This adds a touch of humor to a game that otherwise is set in a pretty solemn tone.
I was surprised by the campaign length. What I thought was only going to be ten-to-twelve hours actually lasted about fifteen. It’s impressive, to say the least — it’s hard to find a game these days that will last as long as that, let alone have a campaign at all.
Then there’s the multiplayer. Your mode choices include Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch, featuring weapons from the main game and eight maps that, supposedly, have been “recreated” from the original Half-Life game. You can customize the way your character looks via the main menu, whether you want a male or female, be a guy in a hazard suit or a scientist, or even G-Man himself. If you’ve played Counter-Strike, you’re going to feel right at home: super fast movement, no dashing, and no iron sights (well, except for the pistol). Unfortunately, the multiplayer population is a bit dead as of the time of this writing.
Here’s some footage of the ending of the “Lambda Core” chapter (spoiler alert for those who haven’t reached this far):
Normally I’m against paying for mods. But I’ll make an exception for Black Mesa. You can tell the developers painstakingly put forth every effort to recreate the Half-Life universe with the updated features of the Source engine, and I’ve never seen so much quality and heart put into something like this. With the funds they receive, Crowbar Collective will be able to add more features and improve the quality of the game. If that doesn’t sound well with you, you can always download the legacy version for free (although, there is no Linux version for that one at this time).
“Last time I heard, Havok was bought by Microsoft. That kind of raises a red flag to me: wouldn’t Microsoft be against supporting platforms other than their own?”
Considering Microsoft has joined the Linux Foundation as a Platinum member, and has partnered with Canonical to run a Linux Subsystem within Windows 10, I’d say no 😉 Either way, Havok is used in a TON of games, regardless of platform.
Microsoft is also behind the aggressive patent attacks against Linux and Android (a source of significant revenue over the years), and the fact that they joined the Linux Foundation is more about controlling where Linux goes rather than letting it go its own sweet way – and they have a vested interest in doing so since they use Linux for their Azure services.