The Half-Life series, developed by Valve Corporation, is perhaps one of the most iconic video game series of all time, despite its last official game coming out more than a decade ago (not counting the VR game that released for Valve’s own VR system), and to this day people still make jokes about Valve not being able to count to 3 seeing that Half-Life 3 (or Half-Life 2: Episode 3) will likely never be developed, along with sequels to other beloved franchises like Team Fortress and Portal. Black Mesa, just fully released recently by Crowbar Collective, is not Half-Life 3; it is in fact, a remake of the original Half-Life. While it is not the sequel that a ton of people have been looking forward to since forever now, it gives a fresh, more modern take on the classic that began it all. I played Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes when I was younger, and I absolutely adored it, although I had a harder time getting into the original as the original game is almost 10 years older than that, being released in 1998. To me, Black Mesa is perfect, as it allows me to enjoy the wonder that is the original Half-Life, but with a fresh coat of paint to keep things exciting.
So I am fairly certain that most avid PC gamers are aware of the Half-Life series and Gordon Freeman’s adventures, but regardless, Black Mesa (or more accurately, Half-Life) is the story of a young physicist, Gordon Freeman, who becomes a key witness in a science experiment that goes horribly wrong, later labeled as the “Black Mesa Incident.” The incident causes aliens from another world to invade the facility and terrorize the researchers and guards inside, and later the military is sent in to contain the threat (and by contain, eradicate all traces including the people involved). With both aliens and the military hunting you, your job is to escape the facility and try to figure out and solve the core root of the problem. It seems like an awful lot of responsibility for a research associate, but sometimes the right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world.
So Black Mesa began as a fan-made mod after Valve released a remastered version of the original Half-Life on Valve’s acclaimed Source Engine (which was used for its sequel). However, the remaster was more or less a glorified port, and a lot of players were rather unsatisfied, so a team of modders who eventually became Crowbar Collective decided to undertake the colossal task of doing a true, proper remake on the Source Engine, including overhauling the last few parts of the original game for an overall improved experience. As a result, if one has played any of the more recent Counter Strike iterations and/or Half-Life 2, one will feel absolute at home with Black Mesa. The physics and gun handling feel just like other notable Source Engine games, and it feels great. Granted, because the Source Engine itself is not exactly the coolest new toy on the block, it’ll certainly feel a bit more dated in comparison to newer games that are coming out recently, and that’s easily noticeable when one tries to climb up and down ladders, which is the only really obviously clunky part of the gameplay for me.
I am also a fan of the overall level design, with a lot of small puzzles to challenge you and keep you on your toes, as opposed to simply letting you run and gun the entire way through. Exploration is rewarded and those who take the time to search every nook and cranny will find themselves with extra health, suit battery life, and ammo to reward their meticulousness. There were definitely a few times in my play-through where I reached an area and got stumped on how to progress because the solution was not particularly intuitive. Well luckily it’s 2020 as opposed to 1998, and the Internet is now a valuable resource one can utilize (props to Youtuber BicMacDavis for getting me out of a few tough spots). However, this can also be viewed from an opposite perspective where progression can sometimes be frustrating and tedious due to how unintuitive some of the puzzles are. This is mainly because the game does not distinguish particularly well what areas you can/cannot access, as there are doors/switches that might look like they can be interacted with but cannot be (and vice-versa), so a lot of times that does nothing but mislead the player. While I do think most of the puzzles in this game are brilliantly designed, there are some issues with how the game mixes up the pace with combat and puzzle solving in the latter parts of the game in that I thought the last few parts of the game were way too puzzle-heavy. The final boss fight more than makes up for that, however, with the encounter being a fast-paced, intense bullet hell.
There is not a lot to say about the writing as not much has changed about it considering the game is a remake, but Black Mesa’s (or Half-Life’s) writing is great, but perhaps not in a traditional sense. The story is fairly straightforward, and while entertaining, nothing that particularly stands out as far as the actual plot is concerned if you look at it surface-level; experiment goes wrong, aliens invade, and the player needs to stop them. What is more interesting is the story’s execution in the game’s level design, and how certain elements in the game add to the atmosphere. With the military constantly trying to kill Gordon, and with each discovery Gordon makes the further he explores the Black Mesa facility, one gets the feeling that there is a much bigger picture at hand. Slowly piecing together that picture is an experience the game delivers really well on. The game also does an excellent job foreshadowing future events if the player pays enough attention to Gordon’s surroundings, in reference to the various points in the game where perceptive players can notice the G-Man observing Gordon’s progress. The overall narrative is definitely more of a show don’t tell one, and aside from some NPC’s giving you instructions on how to progress there is not a lot of exposition in the game, leaving it to the player to figure out what is going on. Black Mesa also has little to no cutscenes, instead opting for scripted sequences so the player is always the pilot, which is also pretty cool when most story-driven games can be cutscene-heavy (not saying cutscenes are bad). If you consider the rest of the Half-Life games, this game also does a solid job of providing a foundation for a fascinating game universe that gets expanded upon more in the sequels and in the same-universe Portal games, which are also excellent games that are absolutely worth playing. Almost everything significant that happens in the Half-Life universe can be traced to the Black Mesa Incident, so it is awesome to experience the event firsthand.
The only inconsistency I find within the plot (and this is not really a critique, more of an interesting observation) is in Gordon Freeman’s combat abilities. Sure, being the player character, how good Gordon is in combat is dependent on the player, but regarding weapon handling Gordon clearly seems like a trained professional. He picks up firearms and is able to wield them with great proficiency despite having little to no military experience prior to the events of the game (his background is a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from MIT). Simply donning an HEV suit is not going to give one the magic ability and combat experience to suddenly fight off both aliens and the U.S. military, so Gordon Freeman must have some insane innate talent for shooting things.
Overall, props to Crowbar Collective for the immense effort they put into Black Mesa. What started off as a fan-made mod eventually turned into a full-blown restoration of one of the classics in PC gaming that still holds up reasonably well today, considering the resources used to bring this remake to life like the Source engine. It’s also packed with content; my play-through took about 20 hours or so which is really long for a single-player first-person-shooter. As someone who loved Half-Life 2, I give Black Mesa a seal of approval.
Rating: Black Mesa is awesome. If you like Half-Life, get it. If you have never played any Half-Life games and are interested in jumping into the franchise for the first time, get it. If you like first-person-shooters with some puzzles and platforming, get it. Also, Black Mesa is only $20 retail on Steam, so it is also very cheap too. Support the awesome developers.