A lot has changed in gaming since 1998. The world of first person shooters has teetered back and forth between out-and-out action and deep story-telling, between extensive single-player campaigns and dedicated platforms for competitive multiplayer. However, for many, 1998 still serves as the year that the genre changed. It was the year that Valve Software released Half-Life, eradicating every preconceived notion for what shooters – and video game stories – could be.
Over two decades later, the Crowbar Collective has released Black Mesa, which was itself in development for 14 years. What originally started as a fan project to remake Half-Life has evolved into a stellar first person shooter in its own, adding and expanding onto the original to create something truly worth playing.
"You have your own locker and degree, your own reputation and demeanor, which is all the more reinforced as the story players."
To summarize the story of Half-Life, just imagine protagonist Gordan Freeman in a seemingly hopeless firefight against some Marines. Cue record scratch and freeze frame meme and away we go. “Theoretical physicist becomes embroiled in an experiment gone wrong” works as a nice blurb but Half-Life does so much to dispel any hang-ups over this premise.
You’re not just a nameless gun, walking around levels – you are Gordon Freeman, taking the tram to Black Mesa, passing by all manner of facilities and happenings. Your co-workers greet you. Conversations play out regardless if you’re near. You have your own locker and degree, your own reputation and demeanor, which is all the more reinforced as the story players.
The remake enhances this all the more, filling in all sorts of great story details – like cameos from a young Eli Vance – while maintaining the trademark flow of the level design. Utilizing Source Engine has allowed for spaces to be more open, especially during combat, but without feeling too empty. Enemy artificial intelligence feels more on point, as evidenced by the way the classic Marines flank, utilize explosives and juke past several shots. Of course, the biggest change and addition to the base experience is Xen, fully built from scratch and looking breathtakingly gorgeous. But we’ll get to that.
"Everything that’s been touched up and improved feels like it’s been done so in service of maintaining that signature Half-Life atmosphere and it works marvelously."
Outside of major content additions, Black Mesa may not seem to be doing much outside of remaking visuals. But it’s only when you go back and replay the original Half-Life that you realize how much has been opened up in terms of character interaction, environmental design and detail. Crowbar Collective cannot get enough credit for executing all of this off without sacrificing the core story-telling.
The developer’s approach actually accentuates the original game’s strengths, existing in an almost harmonious balance of old- and new-school. The initial chaos that segues into Unforeseen Consequences; the horror of the Tentacle in the Blast Pit; the sheer tumultuous dive through waste tunnels in Residue Processing; and of course, the skirmishes with the Marines in Surface Tension are all faithfully translated while still feeling fresh.
It also doesn’t hurt that the title genuinely looks great. No, it’s not going to compete against the Resident Evil remakes of our time but the presentation, from the soundtrack and voice-work to the effects, animations and character models are extremely well done. Everything that’s been touched up and improved feels like it’s been done so in service of maintaining that signature Half-Life atmosphere and it works marvelously.
"Xen in Black Mesa is on another level altogether and channels the base game’s mix of combat and exploration while featuring easily some of the best platforming."
Sometimes that balance can shift a bit unfavorably though. Certain platforming sections can be frustrating to properly grasp, especially the “tower” in Lambda Core that requires carefully entering and exiting portals with seamless timing. Other sequences can also be rough if you don’t know what to do (the helicopter over the hydroelectric dam says hello). You might also get lost in certain sections, wondering where to go next.
The majority of combat and puzzles play out in unique fashion though, requiring observation and at times manipulation of your environment to succeed. Half-Life was considered at one point in time to be an “adventure game with guns” as opposed to a straight first-person shooter and that adage still holds up over time, warts and all.
So what about the new stuff, namely Xen? To put it simply, Xen in Black Mesa is on another level altogether and channels the base game’s mix of combat and exploration while featuring easily some of the best platforming. Just like the research labs felt lived in and messy, so too does the alien flora and fauna feel at home in its own natural environment.
"Black Mesa is truly the best way to experience Half-Life in this day and age. I’d probably argue that it’s the best way to experience the classic tale, period."
The story-telling surrounding the Vortigaunts, who live under the oppression of the Nihilanth and its forces, is also masterfully handled and helps tie into the sequel without feeling out of place. The reimagined boss battles against the Gonarch and Nihilanth are also incredible, making the new Xen worth the price of admission alone.
One could go on about how great Half-Life is. The shooting and the distinctive feel of each weapon, the deft balance between quiet investigation and sudden hostility, or the level design which flows from one chapter to the next in seamless fashion without ever feeling monotonous or padded out – so many of these things still hold up over time. Black Mesa doesn’t lean on that heritage so much as honor it and present it in the best way possible, while still having enough room to excel at its own thing. It does all this with nary a technical hiccup or glitch, only stumbling at certain sequences before picking up again.
Black Mesa is truly the best way to experience Half-Life in this day and age. I’d probably argue that it’s the best way to experience the classic tale, period. But no matter which side you fall on – whether it’s wanting to relive the origin of the Freeman or simply playing a compelling first-person shooter narrative – Black Mesa is a triumph in almost every single way.
This game was reviewed on PC.
Excellent graphics and aesthetics. Stellar work in maintaining the signature Half-Life charm. Beautifully redesigned environments and character models. Clever new mechanics with solid gunplay and excellent artificial intelligence. Xen was more than worth the wait.
Some platforming sections can still be finicky. Certain sequences still fall prey to trial-and-error by death. Easy to get lost in some sections, leading to annoying backtracking.