Because of this and numerous other flaws, the so-called 'remake' was widely reviewed as a disappointing hack-job, made to cash in quick before the release of Half-Life 2 in November of the same year. Frustrated by Valve's behavior, a team of like-minded fans banded together to fulfill the vision of a Half-Life reborn; not as a cheap, half-hearted graphical showcase, but as it was meant to be. For eight years, they struggled, pushing back their release deadline again and again, until their creation, known to the outside world as Black Mesa: Source, was viewed jokingly as vaporware; doomed to forever remain in limbo in a fashion similar to the series' elusive third installment, Half-Life 3.
Finally however, in 2012, Crowbar Collective (as they had come to call themselves) released Black Mesa, a labor of sweat, tears and coding designed to give gamers the truly re-imagined experience they'd so desired. The launch version, released for free on ModDB.com and other, similar sites, featured the almost the entire Half-Life experience, starting from Gordon Freeman's initial accident in the Sector C Test Labs to his desperate leap into the unknown dimension of Xen. The only part not included were the Xen levels themselves, which due to their poor reception in the original game, were to be held back and given further attention until the devs felt comfortable with what they had made.
Despite this minor hiccup, the downloads still poured in, and the project quickly won instant critical acclaim, gaining attention from numerous publications world-wide. Eventually Valve themselves took notice and negotiated to have it officially added to their Steam catalog, where it continues to receive updates and technical support while the creators work on finishing the final chapter. Various other updates have added fresh features, like remixed level design, Steam Workshop support, and an integrated multiplayer death-match mode (a feature originally sold separately for the original Half-Life and it's sequel). For fans of the Half-Life series everywhere, Black Mesa was a glorious moment of triumph, where the passion of the fans triumphed over the cash-driven realities of the gaming industry to breathe new life into an old classic.
Now, over half a decade later, with Half-Life 3 all but cancelled and the Xen chapter still in the wind with regards to a release, the nostalgia that drove the project and those who followed it has largely faded once more. Meanwhile, Valve's new Source 2 engine is rapidly outpacing the capabilities of the aging software Black Mesa was built on (ironic given the code is a veritable tower of duct-tape with its origins stretching back to the original Quake). Perhaps now is the time to ask the stickiest question that many reviewers overlooked in the heat of those first heady days: What is the value of Black Mesa as a game by itself? Is it still fun for those who, pardon the pun, never played the source material? If you want to find out for yourself, it's available on Steam for just $19.99 (and usually less than that during their frequent sales. If you'd rather hear a bit more from someone who's been there first however, read on. With luck, a fresh perspective will help you make a more informed decision…or at least one with less unforeseen consequences.
Written and conceived by Mark Laidlaw, a high-quality science-fiction and horror author, the story of the original Half-Life shares its base concept with id Software's Doom, in that the core of the story revolves around a teleportation experiment that inadvertently causes an inter-dimensional alien invasion (as they are so prone to do). There, however, the similarities largely end. For one thing, Half-Life takes place on Earth, in the New Mexico-based Black Mesa Research Facility, rather than on Mars, and instead than playing as a hulking, nameless space marine, you take the role of mild-mannered MIT graduate Gordon Freeman. This shift in perspective was and is one of the great achievements of Half-Life. In a field of game story-telling dominated by figures such as Duke Nukem and Serious Sam, Gordon's relatively mundane background and surroundings offer a sense of immersion that a muscle-bound action hero could never provide. Furthermore, because of the way that Half-Life tells much of its story through the environment and the events occurring within it, his mute nature is actually a benefit, and allows players to more easily fill his narrative shoes without the obstruction of a preexisting personality. This sets him apart from more chatty protagonists with their own problems and stories that some people might potentially find it hard to relate with. He's a blank slate, with only the world at large to tell us who he is.
Black Mesa directly adapts the story of the original Half-Life, beginning with Gordon's initial tram-ride to the aforementioned Sector C Test Labs and his brief mingling with his co-workers; a sequence that is still being copied years later by countless other games for its ingenuity. In the original game, it was devised as a means of laying out a foundation for the setting and Gordon's role in it. As the scenery rolls past and the automated public address system babbles away overhead, the desert-bound research facility seems less and less like a convenient killing ground and more like a real place. The various scientists you can meet after the ride provide further immersion, giving the 'real setting' some 'real people' to populate it. The overall goal of the opening is to drive home the scope of the disaster when it inevitably occurs. When green lights start flashing and people start dying, suddenly it's no longer just a bunch of mindless bots executing fear animations or featureless corpses with attached text logs, but actual characters whom you were speaking with mere moments ago.
Black Mesa recognizes this and takes it a step further, improving not just the environment, but the individuals in it, adding tons of funny and engaging dialogue to the scientists and security guards you meet, who also no longer look like duplicates of the same five characters repeated across the entire game. It also doesn't limit this improvement to the opening sequence. There are tons of new little world-building improvements and interactions to be found across the breadth of the game. For example, an early area charges you with guiding a band of survivors through a gauntlet of aliens where before you had to go it alone. When you finally reach a safe haven, they set up camp and wish you good luck as you move forwards. These small events flesh out the world in unique ways that cutscenes and text boxes never could, leaving you feeling like you haven't just played the game, but have almost lived it (pardon the pun).
Gameplay and Design
As remakes go, Black Mesa stays almost totally true to its roots as an old-school shooter in that there is no upgrade system or collectibles to speak of; only raw action and quick thinking. Like most 90's-era first-person shooters, the core loop of gameplay revolves around the player being given an arsenal of increasingly destructive and weird weaponry while being pitted against ever-more difficult enemy encounters and ambushes, forcing them to employ their wits and cool to stay alive under fire. Regarding the guns, almost nothing has changed save for increased texture and model definition. All the old fan favorites are present, including the crowd-pleasing SPAS-12, the versatile MP5 sub-machine gun, and the Colt .45 hand-cannon. For those who prefer the odder options, such as the alien Hive Hand and the experimental Tau Cannon (both of which are acquired in highly amusing circumstances), those too are also still available, and just as wacky as they were in 1999. There are very few definite changes to mention beyond the addition of the ability to use the iron-sights on the Colt, and the improvements made to the handling of grenades and satchel charges thanks to the application of the Source Engine's improves physics. The latter is probably the largest alteration, and the most welcome, given that thrown objects in GoldSource tended to behave…strangely, to say the least.
As a game, however, Half-Life has always stood on its level design and plethora of environmental options to stand out in the crowd; a trend that Black Mesa continues in spades. Crowbar Collective has distinguished their creation by ensuring that whatever changes they might've made to the layout of the B.M.R.F., the player still has multiple paths of approach most situations, either physically or tactically. The majority of the fights take place in open or semi-open spaces, which helps to offset the largely linear nature of the game's progression (a lesson that many early corridor-shooters failed to pick up on, sadly). Where they don't though, there are air-vents, side passages, and plenty of crates or concrete dividers to serve as cover. There are also an enlarged number of choices when it comes to sowing chaos and tipping the odds. The improved physics means that explosive barrels can be used to set traps, and that later in the game, the military's tripod-mounted auto-turrets can be picked up and moved for your advantage. Your enemies can even be used against one another, as every veteran who has lured a hapless HECU marine into a barnacle's grasp knows.
Of course the integration of these new mechanics to combat is not the sole advantage Black Mesa has on its side. In true homage to Half-Life 2, the devs have also done their best to include the occasional new physics-based puzzle; something else that the entire franchise was once known for. Old areas that were once no more than a slog to find and press a button thanks to limited hardware and design options now feature clever and intuitive spaces that make the player pause and think. Some might argue that this is where the creative liberties Crowbar Collective have taken are most called into question, simply because while the new puzzles add content, they also potentially disrupt the carefully-crafted pacing of the original game. Certainly, there are some spaces that are left feeling oddly arrested.
One good example is 'On A Rail', a chapter that leaned heavily on puzzles relating to Gordon riding an electric tram cart through a disused cargo transport network. The original version of the section went on for a good forty-five minutes which were stretched out by dull and uneventful backtracking through concrete passages that normally would make people cheery to know that the revised version terminates abruptly at the launching of the satellite rocket after only twenty or so minutes of running and gunning. When held up against the community-created 'uncut' version of the level however, which features a massive train-yard battle to keep the action flowing, one can't help but feel there were some lost opportunities on the part of the developers. Still, at the end of the day, the final experience is up to the player and their endurance. As with 2016's revision of DOOM, Black Mesa is a rather long game that involves doing one thing over and over in as many ways as possible. Whether or not that's something the player can endure or enjoy is an open question that only you can answer.
There's not much else to be said about the meat of the experience. It's impossible to deny that as a remake, Black Mesa had a limited window for innovation to begin with, but it is equally impossible to refute that what was produced was nothing less than brilliant given the tools and artistic space on hand. It is undoubtedly a throwback, and more likely to pick up points with those who feel a deeper connection to gaming's past, but that doesn't make it less valuable for those looking for something new. Gordon' adventure is an action-packed one, and its subtle mysteries and breadth of experiences to be had make it as enticing as any modern FPS. Even the soundtrack, whimsical and sentimental as it so clearly is, easily stands on its own for all the inspiration clearly present in its construction. In short, Black Mesa is a good game, not just for long-time fans, but for new ones too. It's a testament of how far we've come, and how much further we still have to go in the field of game-making. So grab your HEV suit (no helmet included), and slap on some glasses, because as every action movie worth watching has taught us, at the end of the day, it's always down to the nerds to save the planet.
|+ Improved level design, graphics and physics.||– Some pacing issues with new level design.|
|+ Classic gameplay and feel.||– Geared towards fans of old-school shooters.|
|+ Excellent storytelling; both visual and environmental.|