Review – Black Mesa
It has been over 20 years since the original Half-Life first released, a classic beloved by many in the PC community and one of the most influential shooters of all time. Ever since 2005, an ambitious fan-made recreation of the original game, with the support from Valve nonetheless, has been in development, and after almost 15 full years, Black Mesa 1.0 has finally come out with the promise to deliver an experience that lives up to the original whilst providing something fresh.
Of course the story is pretty intact, with very few changes, but here’s a brief summary for the uninitiated. You play as Gordon Freeman, a scientist working for the Black Mesa corporation. During a live experiment, things go horribly wrong and an infestation breaks out, turning the Black Mesa staff into zombies. As you progress through the labs onto the giant surface complex things get much worse, with alien forces arriving and the military set on wiping everyone out.
Visually, this is a full-fledged remake, not a remaster, so this isn’t just a resolution upscale. Everything has been redone, while still maintaining the familiar environments we all know and love. The visual design is still intact and you can clearly see it is still a Half-Life game but with more detail than ever before, from the underground bases of Black Mesa and Lambda to the beautiful surface areas all packed with so much detail that makes the world feel more alive. The new updated gun models are clean and great to look at, with the new assault rifle being a personal favourite of mine. Though this is not perfect. The game is still running on the old Source 1.0 engine, and you can clearly see signs of age with some low quality textures, character models and some occasionally poor animations.
This remake doesn’t stop there. The gameplay has been modernised as well in a good way. Shooting has more weight to it and generally feels really good, whilw the AI has been massively improved. Enemies will flank around you and communicate with each other, for instancee. There is also the fact that Black Mesa makes use of the Havok physics engine that later Half-Life games helped popularize, making the environments much more interactive than ever before.
Whilst the game still feels like Half-Life,with its structure and general room design remaining the same, there are some major changes that set it apart from the original. The levels themselves have been rebuilt from the ground up. On A Rail, one of the levels in the original that dragged on for way too long, has been significantly cut down, for example. Some changes are bigger than others but they all work well together to improve the game’s overall flow. Not once did I feel like the game was slowing down for too long and everything was perfectly paced. Each of the original’s iconic moments have been improved in some way, but the developers made sure to keep their overall vibe intact.
Then we the have Xen. They are often regarded by the community (and Lord GabeN himself) as a disappointing finale to an otherwise excellent game. How did this remake handle the Xen? This has been on everyone’s mind since the early access version initially launched in 2015.
The first thing you will notice is just how beautiful the new Xen areas are. Whereas the original version was dull and brown, this new one feels completely different, with bright and vibrant colours and exotic plant life that makes it feel much more alien in nature. It feels like an actual lived in place with its own ecosystem. First impressions are really good stepping out of the portal (with the exception of a soft lock): its beautiful new art direction is striking and allows The Crowbar Collective to really flex their creative muscles. And that’s without even mentioning the gameplay-related improvements to this area.
To put things simply, it plays a lot better. The opening chapter of this act, simply titled “Xen”, was an absolute blast and an improvement over the original in every single aspect, blending together exploration, platforming and sweet but simple puzzles together in a perfectly designed section. It’s amazing to think one of the weakest parts of the series is now up there with the best.
Sadly this eventually loses steam in the following chapters, although to a lesser extent than before. Boss fights are still underwhelming, with Gonarch being as lame as ever, though a new sequence that splits up the two phases was a treat. Then we got Interloper, the one part of the original game where things got much worse. Sadly it’s a similar story in here. I won’t spoil the specifics of the chapter because there are some great surprises to be unveiled, but once you reach the factory, things all go to hell with awkward platforming, repetitive puzzles and harsh difficulty spikes with the worst enemies in the game.
Sound design, for the most part, is pretty good as well. The soundtrack hits hard with some rock bangers during action-packed segments, and then changes to mystical, primitives chants when you first meet the Xen, a change that feels perfect for the environment. Elsewhere we have some improved weapon sounds that give them more impact, though the voice acting still isn’t that brilliant.
Black Mesa is a project made out of passion and that can easily be seen throughout the entire playthrough, being çovingly crafted to keep the core and the spirit of the original game alive while also fixing some of its shortcomings. Being fans of Half-Life, The Crowbar Collective knew exactly what needed to be done to improve on the original. Not only is this a great game for fans of the original, but this is a perfect new entry point into the franchise.
Even though it’s still running on the original iteration of the Source engine, I was constantly impressed with Black Mesa‘s art style, staying true to the original vision whilst giving it much needed depth and detail.
This is still Half-Life. The excellent level design is still here with some major improvements including better AI and physics based gameplay.
A great soundtrack that suits each moment wonderfully mixed in with some nice new sound effects.
Fun Factor: 9.0
A few disappointing moments aside, this is a remarkably big improvement over the original and should be played by everyone.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Black Mesa is available now on PC.
Reviewed on PC.