Black Mesa: Source mod finally released

Black Mesa: Source screenshot

Steam Greenlight, the new initiative from Valve to make independent games available on the Steam Marketplace, could shut down tomorrow and it still would’ve been a worthy project.  Because whatever else it may release in the future, Greenlight has now brought a long-awaited title to gamers’ waiting hard drives.  Black Mesa: Source, the long-gestating total conversion of the original Half-Life, is now available.

The Black Mesa project was born from gamers’ dissatisfaction with Half Life: Source, Valve’s 2004 updating of their 1998 hit.  HL:S implemented better physics, effects, and lighting, but fans were disappointed when it didn’t update any textures, models, or level architecture.  Between the unhappiness players expressed with Valve’s port, the vast modding community built around Valve’s Source engine, and the company’s tolerant attitude towards fans playing with their intellectual property, even Valve CEO Gabe Newell admitted that a fan-made rebuild of Half-Life was “not only possible… but inevitable.”

However, getting the project to completion with an all-volunteer crew wasn’t going to be easy, or quick.  The Black Mesa: Source team announced their plans for a better conversion of the classic in September of 2004, and for years, they had nothing but a few screenshots to show for it.  Wired Magazine put Black Mesa: Source on their Vaporware of the Year list for two years running, joining such anti-luminaries as Duke Nukem Forever and L.A. Noire.

But now, all three of those games have arrived.  DNF was a critical and commercial disaster; L.A. Noire was a modest but ambitious hit.  As for BM:S…  Well, it won’t be uncontroversial.  While most updated ports are just recreations of an original game, the BM:S team decided to “improve” on the original with larger maps, re-balanced weapons, new music, and new voice acting.  They’ve also left out Half-Life‘s innovative Xen level — although they promise a massively-expanded version of Xen is on its way, but it remains to be seen if that will take another eight years.

It’s also hard to say if gamers will be quite so excited about this game as they would’ve been eight years ago.  Although the trailer looks good, and it’s certainly an improvement over the original graphics, the Source engine is showing its age, and making a game from 1998 look like a game from 2005 is rather less compelling in 2012. So far, though, the forums are full of delight, with gamers enjoying both the elegant pacing of the original Half-Life and the self-referential jokes of the mod. It helps that the developers have been extremely open about their recent builds, and willing to change the game in response to constructive criticism.

Gamers are also pleased by the open distribution of the title.  Getting through the Steam Greenlight process means the game can easily be purchased and installed through Steam, but for the more adventurous, the mod is freely available on a tremendous number of torrent trackers, as well as quite a few direct download links

It’s impressive to see this labor of love (almost) completed, and it’s equally impressive to see how supportive Valve has been. It’s hard to imagine another gaming company that would not only let fans’ recreation of their game go forward, but actually distribute it themselves.