Black Mesa 1.0 review – the definitive Half-Life experience
The fan-made remake of the classic Half-Life is finally complete, and the end result is a major improvement on the iconic original.
Half-Life may be one of the most influential video games ever made but to be honest, we’re not sure how many people have really played it. First released in late 1998, it not only revolutionised the single-player first person shooter genre but had an enormous impact on every type of game. The level of immersion and environmental interactivity was years ahead of anything else at the time and its influence can still be clearly felt today.
But while there was a PlayStation 2 version three years later (adapted from a canned Dreamcast port) it wasn’t particularly successful and most console gamers only know of the game indirectly, though its name and its impact on the industry. It was a similar story for Half-Life 2 in 2004, which turned up, in much reduced form, on Xbox a year later and Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 two years after that.
In short, Half-Life is for all intents and purposes a PC-only franchise; one that seems intent on making itself even more obscure by releasing the first new entry in 13 years as a VR-only title. Even before they started Steam, it’s never seemed as if developer Valve really care about that sort of thing, and even this remake of the original has nothing to do with them and has instead been created by an army of fans.
Valve’s lackadaisical attitude towards their franchises has always been a puzzle, although given what the Half-Life franchise probably would’ve turned into in the hands of a different publisher it’s arguable that their approach is still best. Black Mesa (named after the research base from the game) was first released as a fan-made mod in 2012, before Valve gave it their blessing as a commercial release. Much like Valve themselves, they’ve not exactly rushed this final version, but given the quality is similarly comparable to Valve it’s difficult to complain.
With the upcoming release of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve has suggested fans reacquaint themselves with the cliffhanger ending of Half-Life 2: Episode two. Given how much time has passed since it first came out, all but the most committed fan will likely have forgotten what happened by now. And while Valve didn’t say anything about the original Half-Life the release of Black Mesa, after all this time, hardly feels like a coincidence.
That makes us hesitant to go into too much detail on the plot, even though it’s actually very simple. Ordinary scientist Gordon Freeman turns up to work one day at his top secret research facility, when an accident opens up an interdimensional rift from which aliens immediately pour out (it’s a little known fact that the story was inspired by Steven King novella/movie The Mist and an old Outer Limits episode).
Although the plot in the sequel got more involved, in the first game it’s almost Doom-like in its simplicity and the primary appeal is the way the storytelling works rather than the story itself. The tutorial at the start, where you learn the controls and put on your power suit as if you’re going through a real-life orientation session may seem ordinary today but that’s only because it was so influential when Half-Life first came out that every game since is still copying it.
The start of the game, with the now elongated tram journey and the tutorial, sets up an approach that continues throughout, where every attempt is made to make the game world seem as real as possible, with a minimal user interface and a physics engine that has been updated to be closer to Half-Life 2.
Black Mesa’s action and level design can still seem a little stiff and restrictive at times but given the age of the underlying game, developer Crowbar Collective has done an incredible job. But the most impressive aspect of Black Mesa is that it goes further than most remakes by actively improving and reediting the original design. Not only is there a lot more detail to the geography of the levels (there are lots of minor new areas and security stations and the characters are no longer just clones of each other) but many chapters have been edited down to improve the pacing.
The chapter Surface Tension removes one of the main monsters and On a Rail is considerably shorter, and both work very much better as a result (oh, how we wish someone would take a similar approach to this with Alien Isolation). The most significant change though is to the game’s final four chapters, which despite Half-Life’s classic status were always rubbish. Remaking them is one of the main reasons Black Mesa has taken this long to complete, and it’s easy to see why given how much has changed.
The final act of the original game took part… in a different location and suddenly introduced a lot of low gravity platforming and a disappointingly straightforward final boss battle. There’s only so much Crowbar Collective can do about the latter – although it is definitely an improvement – but the opening chapter in particular has now been transformed into one of the best parts of the game.
Instead of editing down the ‘Xen’ levels, Black Mesa expands them considerably, so they no longer feel like a tacked-on afterthought from a completely different game. The environments are much larger, with new puzzles, some excellently orchestrated new set pieces, and the best graphics in the game. At times it does get a little self-indulgent, and the first two chapters are much better than the final two, but it’s a great demonstration of just how skilled a developer Crowbar are and why they should stay together as a team and create something new of their own after this.
Black Mesa even includes the original multiplayer mode, with the original maps, although it doesn’t seem to be very popular with players and is really only a curio. In less talented hands that could’ve been the fate of the entire project but rather than just modernising the graphics and controls this is a substantially better experience than the original game ever was. It’s still held back by the underlying design and the aging Source engine, but if you want to know why Half-Life is so important and beloved then Black Mesa explains everything perfectly.
Black Mesa 1.0 review summary
In Short: One of the best remakes ever, not because of its loving recreation of the original Half-Life but because it dares to change and improve it.
Pros: Impressive attention to detail, that rivals Valve at their best. Cleverly reedited early sections and greatly improved Xen chapters. Impressive presentation still feels very modern.
Cons: The age of the original game is still obvious most of the time, not least because all of its best ideas have been stolen a thousand times over by now. Source Engine is showing its age.
Publisher: Crowbar Collective
Developer: Crowbar Collective
Release Date: 6th March 2020
Age Rating: N/A
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