Half-Life is an influential title in many ways,
and perhaps the biggest — and most important — impact it had was in the mod scene.
Valve embraced fan modifications of its games, and provided players with the tools to make them,
a practice they've continued to this day.
Almost immediately after Half-Life's release, third-party mods ranging
from simple graphic swaps to custom levels to full-on total conversions began popping up,
inspired by a love for Half-Life and a desire to create.
This continued with the release of Half-Life 2 and the Source engine,
which has seen an impressive number of mods in the years since its release.
And for many, one of the most anticipated Half-Life 2 mods was Black Mesa,
a remake of the original Half-Life on the Source engine built from the ground up.
The project began life in 2004, was initially released as a standalone mod in 2012,
and was finally released into its 1.0 version in March 2020.
It took sixteen years, but the long-awaited remake of Valve's seminal game is finally complete,
and it's not just a well-done remake of a classic,
but it also shows the passion and dedication a game can bring out in its fans.
But was it worth the long development time? Let's find out.
Black Mesa's origins lie in Half-Life: Source,
Valve's official port of Half-Life from the Goldsrc engine to Source released in 2004.
This port is probably most famous now for its glitches,
though most of them were introduced in later versions of the game,
but what people did have a problem with at launch was that the port was just that: a port.
People expected that it would feature more graphical enhancements or updated level design,
more in line with a remake than a port.
They knew that Source was capable of creating an entirely new kind of experience,
and Gabe Newell himself even proclaimed it was inevitable that fans would recreate Half-Life in Source.
And only months after the port came out, work began to make that a reality.
One mod team announced Leakfree in September 2004,
and another team announced the Half-Life: Source Overhaul Project one month later.
The two teams decided to combine their efforts and unify both projects under one group
that would come to be known as Crowbar Collective.
The mod was soon titled Black Mesa: Source, and the team received an endorsement from Valve,
though they requested the "Source" be dropped from its name since it wasn't an official Valve release.
Crowbar Collective's goal was to both recreate Half-Life in the Source engine
while taking advantage of the new engine's capabilities
and to improve on aspects of the original that were poorly received.
In particular, the group wanted to drastically redesign the Xen levels,
which are often cited as the worst part of the original game.
In keeping with Half-Life tradition, the game was announced to be released in 2009,
and then the release date was pushed back.
The developers emphasized perfecting the game over getting it out quickly, and as Valve updated Source,
Crowbar Collective needed to ensure the game would work on the new versions
and still pass their quality control.
The game was first made available in 2012, with a free standalone release
that contained the entire game up to the Xen levels.
From there, Crowbar Collective decided to go with a commercial release with the approval of Valve,
and Black Mesa entered Early Access in 2015.
The game received continuous updates and refinements until the developers began releasing the Xen levels
into beta in 2019, with the full game reaching 1.0 status on March 6th, 2020.
Since the game is on Source, it obviously plays more like Half-Life 2 than the original,
with features like sprinting, holding onto objects, and the less slippery controls transfering over.
Weirdly enough, the sprinting and flashlight don't consume any energy, which seems odd,
but maybe that's just because I'm so used to Half-Life 2.
Most of the gameplay ideas from the original translate over more or less intact,
as weapon and enemy behaviors are, in most cases, identical.
The HECU soldiers are the biggest example, as their AI was updated
to be more advanced and way more difficult than in Half-Life — so much so
that Crowbar Collective had to alter the AI to be less challenging.
But even enemies like the Alien Grunt and Controllers were buffed,
as the Grunts can now jump onto and off of ledges
and the Controllers are able to mind control peaceful Vortigaunts in Xen to attack you.
While most of the weapons have minor adjustments to factors
like max ammo or reload times, they typically don't have any major changes.
The sole exception to this is the Long Jump Module, which is now activated while in the air
and allows for better mid-air movement,
although you're now limited to three jumps before it needs to recharge.
It feels less awkward and fits better for the new level design of Xen, but we'll talk more about that later.
The core gameplay isn't that different from Half-Life 2, even if it marks a significant evolution
from the original game, but in terms of the level design and aesthetics,
it's almost a complete departure from the source material.
Black Mesa follows the same storyline as Half-Life, as you still play as Gordon Freeman
trying to escape from the titular research facility after the resonance cascade begins wreaking havoc.
Your journey is the same, but Black Mesa expands on dialogue present in the original
that incorporates nods to other games in the series
and occasionally makes snide jabs and self-referential jokes Ã la Half-Life 2.
SECURITY GUARD: You know, Barney's been pretty scarce around these parts.
[tsk] Guess his bar tab must've finally caught up with him.
The game doesn't change anything to the overall structure,
but instead alters the game's maps and locations to create a game
that is familiar yet also clearly its own thing.
Many of Half-Life's set pieces are still present, but they've been changed
in minor or major ways that put a slightly new spin on them.
The end result is a game that is alternatively familiar and brand new at the same time,
balancing a one-to-one translation and a complete reimagining while never going too far one way or another.
I was worried that my knowledge of Half-Life would make it hard for me to figure out how to proceed
through redesigned areas, but thankfully, this ended up not being the case.
Whenever an area is significantly changed, the game makes sure to direct you where you need to go,
and maps often have new scripted sequences to help guide players unfamiliar with Half-Life.
And most overhauled levels were in need of improvement anyway,
either because of outdated design or making certain sections feel less tedious.
Surface Tension is a prime example, as it has been significantly expanded
to now be double the length of the original.
But the levels are redesigned in ways that feel natural and mesh well
with the spirit of the original while also establishing Black Mesa's own identity.
Even minor tweaks like the trains in On a Rail shutting off if you leave the platform does wonders
for making the level less frustrating, and improvements like that are prevalent throughout the game.
But as I stated, the Xen levels are where the game really deviates from the original,
as Black Mesa's Xen section is quite a significant enhancement.
Black Mesa pulls out the basic principles from the original Xen levels —
specifically, low-gravity platforming in natural terrain that's a complete contrast
from the research facility — and constructs an entirely new experience around them.
Xen introduces some cool new lore that builds on details from the original,
including why Black Mesa scientists were interested in Xen in the first place
and how the aliens have reacted to the human world.
The Xen levels are much longer than Half-Life's, taking around four hours to beat
compared to the original game's one hour, and while the levels feature many of the same segments
as the originals, comparing them to each other seems almost unfair.
There's no doubt that this Xen is better purely thanks to the level design and better long jumping...
but I still think it's the worst part of the game.
The first two levels are definite improvements, as Xen gives you a much better feel
for the low-gravity platforming over a few maps instead of the original game's one.
And Gonarch's Lair expands the boss fight into a level-long chase
that emphasizes putting you in danger rather than just letting you pump the Gonarch full of ammo.
Even the Nihilanth is a better fight, taking place in one arena and removing sub-areas,
as well as giving the boss many more attacks than before.
But Interloper, the second-to-last chapter, is where I feel like Crowbar Collective got way too overzealous
in trying to make something new, because this level just drags on forever,
especially in the Xen factory that takes up most of the chapter.
I mean, the Gargantua chase is awesome, and the first half of the factory
is all well and good, but afterwards, I was just exhausted,
and the elevator at the end is just tedious to the point of frustration.
There were so many instances where I just wanted the level to be over, and it didn't help
that there are plenty of times where it looks like the chapter is going to end
only for you to enter another giant room.
I get that this is the penultimate level and it should be big and epic,
like the Citadel was in Half-Life 2, but it just goes way too far overboard.
Xen does look amazing, however, updating the duller but still appealing look from Half-Life
and making it much more vibrant and colorful.
Thanks to the Source engine, the backgrounds are much more dynamic
and mark a significant upgrade over the "floating platforms in a box" approach.
And each section has its own color scheme that helps set the varying tones and moods of the area,
so if nothing else, Xen is definitely visually varied
and was almost worth the wait on its art direction alone.
That's not to say the rest of the game doesn't look good, though,
because Black Mesa's graphics are certainly an upgrade over the original's.
I don't know if I'm a fan of the character design, but the environments are top-notch,
perfectly recapturing the essence of the original game while not being afraid to differentiate itself.
Even maps that are entirely different still maintain that same Half-Life feel,
showcasing the same demolished landscapes with a noticeable glow-up.
I also like how for the most part, Black Mesa doesn't reuse Half-Life's sound effects,
which are certainly iconic but would be counterintuitive to what this remake is all about.
Instead, the sound design is heavier and more industrial, with weapon and environmental noises
having a distinctly heavier sound than the originals.
You really appreciate how the sound design creates an atmosphere
that may produce a similar result as Half-Life's but is different in execution.
Complementing this is the soundtrack by Joel Nielsen, which goes in a different direction
than Kelly Bailey's work, especially the original's music.
Black Mesa's soundtrack features a more electronic-orchestral style
that also mixes in hard rock in the vein of Kelly Bailey's later tracks for the series,
and have a darker and more somber and melancholy mood overall.
The songs may not sound like they belong in a Half-Life game, but that's to Black Mesa's benefit,
as it helps to create a unique experience, using Half-Life as a basis to explore new ideas
rather than as a template to copy.
And that's what Black Mesa really is; not a straight remake of Half-Life, but a means to show
just how much the community cares about this franchise and what it's inspired them to make.
Even if it was intended at first to recreate the base game in the Source engine,
it's since come to represent the love and passion that Half-Life has instilled in its fanbase,
but even as a game itself, it's a great experience that was absolutely worth the wait.
It won't replace the original Half-Life, as that game is still worth playing,
but Black Mesa provides a unique take on the game
that helped pioneer the modern first-person shooter and reinvents it into a whole new creation.
I can't say that it's perfect, as the difficulty isn't as fair as in Half-Life
and Xen does stretch on way too long, but the quality of what we've got is impressive to say the least.
Now, if you're a Half-Life fan, you've probably already played Black Mesa,
but if you were on the fence about it, it is definitely worth playing.
I hesitate to call it the definitive way to play through Half-Life
because, again, it's too much of its own thing to be compared to the source material.
It should be appreciated on its own and not just be held up to the classic that inspired it,
but if you couldn't get into the original because of how dated it is, Black Mesa is a better option.
With all that said, I'm curious to see where Crowbar Collective can go from here with another project.
They've proven that they can make a great Half-Life game,
but whether or not they can evolve beyond that remains to be seen.
Hopefully it'll be on a smaller scale, considering how long this game took to complete,
but if Black Mesa is anything to go by,
the developers have the potential to become a force to be reckoned with.