For years (actually more than a decade!), the world eagerly waited for a new game in the »Half-Life« franchise, well knowing that there may never be such a thing. So imagine everyone’s surprise when not one, but two games are released within a few weeks in March 2020! One of these is the official prequel to »Half-Life 2«, the VR game »Alyx«, and the other one is the somewhat inofficial remake of the first part of the series, called »Black Mesa«.
Since I’m a die-hard Half-Life fan, you bet I downloaded and played the finished version of Black Mesa on the very day it came out. 20 hours of playing later, I’m done and can give a verdict on how good it is.
How it came to be
Let’s start with a short lesson in game history: In 1996, a few Microsoft engineers left the company and founded a new one, called Valve software. Their goal: Create the ultimate first-person shooter game. To this extent, they licensed the Quake engine from id Software and modified it beyond recognition, adding skeletal animation and other goodies. When the game was finally released under the name »Half-Life« in 1998, it was not the best title from a technical point of view (it had been overtaken by Epic Games’ »Unreal« ca. half a year earlier), but it worked well enough. It didn’t need to be graphically excellent though, because its main claim to fame was that it very much established the concept of »environmental storytelling«: While FPS games so far were often called »Doom clones«, with only a very thin layer of story as a pretext to killing hordes of monsters, Half-Life (and, though to much a lesser extent, the aforementioned Unreal) was much more story-driven, and the player and NPCs were really part of the environment. The story wasn’t told in the manual or in text screens, but as scripted sequences and dialogue with other characters, directly in-game. With its nice variety of locations, good controls and engaging combat, Half-Life was pretty much the perfect game for its time. It was followed up by two official mission packs by third-party developers called »Opposing Force« and »Blue Shift«, the former of which is every bit as excellent and innovative as Half-Life itself.
A few years after Half-Life, Valve set out to release a sequel. Understandably, expectations were extremely high; nevertheless, after some delays and a leak of a beta version a year before release, they managed to do it again and released another near-perfect game in 2004: »Half-Life 2«. In 2006 and 2007, they followed up with two short sequels called »Episode One« and »Episode Two», which were both significantly shorter than the original Half-Life 2. And then … nothing. Neither Half Life 2: Episode Three nor Half-Life 3 materialized, and many people think they never will.
For Half-Life 2, the old Half-Life engine (retroactive called »GoldSrc«, after its directory name in the code repository) was modified some more, leaving only mere traces of the old Quake engine behind. The main improvements of the new »Source« engine were good fake-HDR lighting (replaced by »proper« HDR later in the Episodes), a superb water shader (which I still consider the best one ever made), generally higher fidelity and details and a physics engine. When Valve released »Half-Life: Source« a few weeks after Half-Life 2, it was hoped to be a remake of Half-Life 1 with the new engine. Technically, this is true, but it’s not what people hoped for: It’s basically a direct import of the HL1 assets into the HL2 engine, changing little more than the water surface shader.
After the disappointment of HL:Source, a few people outside of Valve wanted to do better and set out to remake HL1 properly, with updated assets and remade maps. In fact, two separate projects formed, but they ultimately joined forces to produce »Black Mesa: Source«, an HL2 mod. Development took much longer than expected though: in 2007, they rebased their code to the Episode 2 version of the Source engine, but it took them several more years to finally release the free »Black Mesa« mod in 2012 (the »Source« suffix was dropped on Valve’s request). At the time of release, the mod was not really complete: it ended after the »Lambda Core« chapter, at approximately three quarters of the HL1 game, and the »Xen« section was missing. Some other sections were also significantly shortened, making the mod version of Black Mesa only roughly half as long as the original Half-Life.
After the mod release, Valve contacted the developers (who called themselves »The Crowbar Collective«) and convinced them to make the final version of Black Mesa a commercial title, with full access to the latest version of the Source engine, and thereby giving them their blessing to make Black Mesa a somewhat official part of the Half-Life franchise. Development of that final version took another eight years, most of which went into completely reconstructing the missing »Xen« chapter, but in late 2019, Crowbar Collective finally did it.
Two games in one
The end result is a game that is very clearly split into two parts: The »earthbound« chapters are more or less direct remakes of the corresponding parts of HL1, while the later parts that take place on the alien »border world« called Xen have been completely redesigned, with only a few inspirations taken from HL1. As a result, I can’t help but review the two parts separately from each other.
Earthbound: Halfway between then and now
I said before that Black Mesa is a remake of HL1, and it’s mostly seen as such, but let’s be clear that it doesn’t just copy the maps from HL1 verbatim and only changes a few textures and props. All the maps have been remade from scratch, but the general layout of the original HL1 maps is kept where it makes sense, and deviated from where it doesn’t. The level of detail has been improved a lot compared with HL1: There are much more props, more details and more stuff to discover; however, the overall atmosphere is pretty close to the original, which is a good thing.
In terms of graphics, I’m afraid to say that Black Mesa doesn’t look like a game from 2020. This isn’t a surprise, as it’s based on an Direct3D 9 era engine from 2004 that has only been slightly improved until 2013, and most of the level design has been done between 2007 and 2012. Between the mod and the Black Mesa release, the graphics have been moderately improved in a few places (notably, better tessellation of rocks and slightly improved lighting), but the maps seem to be mostly the same. Ambient occlussion is generally missing, many objects lack proper shadows, faces look anything but realistic … on the whole, I’d say it’s only a tad above HL2: Episode 2 level, so it feels consistent with the other Half-Life games at least. The upshot is that performance is good enough to get solid 60 fps most of the time even on my nine-year-old system.
The parts that have been added after the mod release jarringly stand out: They have even more detail and effects, and they are significantly more taxing on the hardware. They are also much more fun to play, with lots of interesting aliens-vs-marines infighting you can watch from a vantage point.
Admittedly, it has been a long time since I last played the original Half-Life, but to me, it seems as if Black Mesa’s difficulty level is significantly higher, to the point where combat against certain enemies is just no fun any more. Houndeyes charge too quickly and are much harder to hit than I remember, and HECU soldiers are also moving far too quickly.
The thing that irritates me most is the omissions. Back in the day, I played HL1 approximately a dozen times, and I remember quite a few things that are just missing in Black Mesa. For example, in »Power Up«, there was a scripted sequence where a soldier was pulled into a hole in the wall by a bullsquid, breaking one leg in the process. This is just gone. Even a few physics puzzles have been removed, which I find particularly strange, as one of the Source engine’s strong points is its improved physics engine …
The parts of »Surface Tension« that were missing from the mod (including a pretty iconic sequence where the HECU troops throw a bomb right into your face while crawling through a tube, forcing you to crawl back into a water tank to survive the blast) have thankfully been restored in a most excellent manner, even including a few new rooms.
What’s still missing, and what makes me really sad, is most of the »On A Rail« chapter. I loved that part of the game, but many other players seemed to feel otherwise, and Crowbar Collective reacted on that. They flat-out replaced the chapter by a rough facsimile of what it used to be, with only the parts around the rocket launch and the overall look being recognizable as such. In Half-Life, there was a proper railway network, with shootable switches, and many more varied HECU encounters. All gone.
Xen: It’s a new game, period.
Things take a drastic turn once you teleport to Xen. As already said, this whole part of the game has been made from scratch by Crowbar Collective, again as a reaction to the (overwhelmingly negative) reception of the Xen chapters in the original Half-Life game. The chapter structure and a few main elements have been taken over from HL1, but all the levels, all the graphics, and most of the gameplay mechanics are new. It’s also significantly longer, taking a third to a half of the overall campaign length now, compared to a quarter or a fifth in the original game.
Xen in HL1 was a rather frustrating experience, relying thoroughly on platforming puzzles with unfamiliar low gravity and awkward long jump controls. Black Mesa too does a lot of platforming, but the gravity is normal and the long jumps are much easier to control, reducing (albeit not eliminating) frustration in that department. Apart from that, there’s so much new stuff to see and do: In Black Mesa, the human explorers have built proper labs on Xen; it’s not just some dead scientists in HEV suits laying around here and there. There’s lush foliage everywhere, some new enemies (underwater barnacles, some new Houndeye variations), lots of alien switch-and-wire puzzles with both organic and industrial-looking »wiring«; you get to visit a Vortigaunt village, you are chased by the Gonarch and (later on) by a whole army of Gargantuas … it’s really dazzling, and chock-full of creative gameplay ideas. On the flipside, it’s not always immediately clear where to continue, and in one situation, I was even stumped by a bug (which I only noticed when comparing my game against a walkthrough on YouTube, and which I thankfully could resolve by replaying from an auto-save point).
Graphically, Black Mesa’s Xen is also a totally different affair from the rest. It just looks gorgeous; there’s so many details, everything looks so organic, the color grading is spot-on … some set pieces almost look like paintings. This is really pushing the old Source engine to its limits; in a way, it’s the ultimate swansong of the Direct3D 9 era. Sure, it might look even better if it was made in Unreal Engine 4 or something like that, but not by a landslide.
By remaking one of the best computer games in history, you can’t do much wrong; consequently, on an absolute scale, Black Mesa is a really, really good game. Go buy it; no reservations. The graphics in the first half may look dated by now, and combat doesn’t always feel fair, but that’s mostly nitpicking. If you’re still unsure and need a convincing argument to buy it, let Xen be that. That part looks and feels totally fresh and works even without all the Half-Life background.
Speaking of Half-Life: This is exactly what Black Mesa is not. It’s not a direct replacement for the old classic – even though HL1 aged really badly in the technical department, gameplay and balancing still feel a little better, and Black Mesa leaves out too many parts (and changes others) to be comparable. So, while Black Mesa might be the best way to relive the story of Half-Life 1 today, it’s not the same as playing the game Half-Life 1. Mind you, this is not necessarily a bad thing, especially not for the Xen part, which is objectively far superior in Black Mesa. I’m just saying that we can’t simply forget about
Freeman HL1 and have Black Mesa take its spot on the shelf; we can, however, comfortably put both games right next to each other.