Black Mesa Review – IGNMarch 13, 2020
Black Mesa is unique in all of gaming history in that it’s a fan-remake of the original 1998 Half-Life that Valve has actually allowed to be sold as its own full game. That’s unheard of! It is unquestionably great to have a way to experience such a seminal first-person shooter with a little less of its 22 years of accumulated dust, and almost all of the liberties taken from the original design feel like improvements. That said, the project was in the works for so long – eight years! – that now that it’s finally been declared “finished” it feels like it’s a prime candidate for its own remake to bring it up to 2020 standards.
As someone who hasn’t replayed Half-Life since Valve ported it to the Source engine (without updating any of the models or textures) back in 2004, playing Black Mesa and fighting off a familiar interdimensional invasion was like putting on some smudged-up rose-colored glasses. Everything looks a lot better than it originally did, for sure… but not as good as I willfully misremembered. Human character models and animations aren’t quite up to the standard Valve set with Half-Life 2 in 2004 (let alone the new bar about to be set in Half-Life: Alyx) and textures are pretty rough in a lot of places. The most jarring thing, though, is the loading screens. Just like in 1998, they too frequently freeze the action as you’re walking down a hallway for around five seconds, even on an SSD. This is an engine limitation the Black Mesa development team at Crowbar Collective likely had no way of working around, but it still makes it feel very old because you just don’t see that kind of thing anymore.
Even so, the atmosphere and action that made the original game so brilliant is brought out and highlighted even more in this version. Welcome liberties are taken to cut out annoying segments of the original and add more of what works. There are noticeably more NPC interactions that are generally well-acted and include in-jokes that reference the original dialogue, along with tons of environmental storytelling for you to stumble across, telling small stories of the last moments of the Black Mesa Research Facility’s less fortunate scientists and security guards. It makes the sterile lab feel more like a real, lived-in (or at least worked-in) place. It’s great to have real physics here as well – after Half-Life 2 it’s hard to imagine a Half-Life game without them – even though they’re very rarely used in puzzles or combat.
One addition I’m not wild about is the original music, which chimes in to mark most occasions in which you achieve a major goal. It’s not bad music, by any means, it simply strikes the wrong tone for Half-Life. At least, until you reach the alien homeworld of Xen, at which point it feels much more appropriate.
And the weapons? They’re still as good as ever. The crowbar is absurd in how quickly and manically Gordon can swing it to bludgeon enemies or shatter the wooden crates you’ll find everywhere, but it’s certainly useful in a pinch. But what really stands out for me is the loud and powerful .357 magnum – it’s easily one of the best game pistols of all time. This hand cannon might be slow to fire and slower to reload its six-round capacity, but the thunderous sound it makes and the devastating impact on your target makes it more than worth all its limitations. The sniper crossbow packs a similar weighty punch, but from much farther away. And who wouldn’t love the guided RPG launcher that lets you circle a rocket around a helicopter and then come back to score a hit? Then there’s the Ghostbusters’ proton-pack-style Gluon Gun, which just wrecks everything and turns them into floating glowing chunks that eventually evaporate. Things get weird when you acquire alien weapons. They’re not all winners, though – weapons like the trip mine and the satchel charge feel like they were built for multiplayer rather than the single-player enemies, which rarely give you opportunities for setting elaborate traps.
Black Mesa isn’t really a hard game as far as combat goes. Thanks to his iconic, hunting-vest-orange power suit, our boy Gordon is such an absolute beefcake tank when he’s fully charged up that he can go toe to toe with just about anything short of an actual tank. And the run-and-gun combat is still a lot of fun. It’s true, the soldiers you fight no longer feel like a wonder of AI like you might remember them from back in the day, but outside of a few artificial brain farts they usually put up a good fight and die well. Half-Life’s mix of alien creatures, soldiers, super-speedy spec ops troops, and bigger stuff really does remain exemplary to this day – and the long-fingered headcrab zombies will never not be creepy.
Most of the time, though, you’re sorting out how to get from point A to point B across a dozen different environments, ranging from the Research Facility itself to outdoor areas like canyons and military installations. Often, you’re doing this with very vague instructions as to how or even why you’re seeking out and pressing buttons to turn on various machinery. That leads to a lot of aimlessly wandering each area trying to figure out which control panel works, which valve to turn, which tiny gap in a barrier to squeeze through to reach your unknown objective. It’s a good thing Black Mesa is so atmospheric to explore! Taking into account getting lost and groping around for a bit you’re probably looking at around 15 or 20 hours to play through it – I found myself near the high end of that.
A few times I’ve gotten pretty thoroughly stuck and have had to resort to consulting YouTube walkthroughs. Only a handful of those instances made me facepalm over how obvious the solution was – much more often it’s been more like, “How the heck was I supposed to figure that out?” Fortunately, the puzzles themselves are generally smart and varied, outside of a few obnoxious jumping sections that had me making extremely frequent use of the quick-save button.
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Black Mesa saves its biggest and most impressive revision for last: the completely reimagined Xen section is definitely the best looking of all of the levels – which makes sense because it’s the most recently constructed. It’s very much its own, distinctively alien setting, and exploring it was novel even for someone who’s played all the Half-Life games. Plus, it can only really be an improvement over the lifeless, floating rocks of the original. It’s definitely worth checking out.
Finally, Black Mesa even includes several multiplayer modes… but basically no one is playing them at this point.