To coincide with the release of its upcoming sequel, Valve ported Half-Life over to the more advanced Source engine in 2004 to get a better understanding of the process modders would experience with it. Although it was a stronger tool than the previous GoldSrc engine, the port was met with disappointment by fans for not being the graphical update people expected it to be. The textures and models from the original game were still in place, and many features of Source were not used to its full potential. This prompted a team to band together and create a remake themselves under the moniker of Crowbar Collective, which ultimately became known as Black Mesa.
You know the story by now: Half-Life is the story of Gordon Freeman, an MIT-educated scientist who works at a secret underground government lab in the middle of the desert. An extradimensional experiment goes awry, and hostile alien beings assault the facility as Freeman attempts to escape and stop the invasion. It’s a title that broke a lot of new grounds regarding storytelling and pacing in 3D video games and has been a key figure in conversations about first-person shooters for many years.
Besides the obvious progression over the last twenty years, Black Mesa still feels like Half-Life. The small quirks that made the Source engine unique are still present, while the wit and pace of the original game has been faithfully recreated. I was thrilled to see the chapter ‘Office Complex’ actually resembled an office this time around, with work stalls, photocopiers and chairs littered about all over the place. Additional details such as wet floor signs and passive aggressive sticky notes all add to the authenticity of these areas, showing that the reworking of these stages has only increased the level of detail in clever ways.
Tonally, it largely tries to replicate the same atmosphere as in the original. As you explore the lab, you’re constantly being thrown out of the frying pan and into the fire, and Black Mesa knows when the momentum needs to kept high or low. Still, there are some moments in the campaign that are massively improved with simple changes. Chapters where Freeman fights small armies of marines, such as in ‘We’ve Got Hostiles’ and ‘Surface Tension’ are made to feel much more like action set pieces with the addition of new music tracks composed by Joel Nielsen.
But while this may hit a different beat from the original, it feels consistent with what we now know the series to be. There are retroactive links to Half-Life 2, including both Kleiner and Eli appearing at the beginning with further references to Dr. Breen and Barney Calhoun at certain points. Considering the sequel has notably aged better than its predecessor, it makes sense for the remake to stray closer to that for a steadier back-to-back experience.
This also pairs well with other criticisms of Half-Life that have been fixed, such as the infamous ‘On a Rail’ chapter. It was originally a long, tedious affair that involved you speeding back and forth on different monorail (hey, I just got that) lines. Its 2020 counterpart has been streamlined. It’s straightforward, it’s fun, but it still retains the original tone for the level. It’s an overall massive improvement, but the most dramatic changes come in how Crowbar Collective revamped the Xen levels.
It may be one of the most influential games of all time, but there’s no denying Half-Life’s Xen stages were disappointing. It was abrupt, it had horrible platforming, and it had encounters that never felt important. It certainly didn’t feel like the immensely strange world it was hyped up to be. Black Mesa’s interpretation of Xen is a difference as radical as night and day. These chapters —originally short—have been stretched out into hour-long gauntlets featuring intense firefights and rigorous puzzle-solving. Most importantly, it knows this place is supposed to be alien and fully concentrates on delivering those details. Abandoning the grey, industrial structures of Earth for the tropical, vibrant tones of this extra-terrestrial world is a massive improvement.
Xen probably takes up about a quarter of Black Mesa’s campaign length and feels like the reward you deserve after spending so much time on Earth. These chapters heighten the action and become one big escalating crescendo to the finale. Gonarch is now a lengthy encounter where the scales of ‘hunter vs hunted’ are constantly tipped, and an epic battle with your nemesis is rewarding, not boring. It leads nicely into ‘Interloper’, featuring a huge ascent up a monolithic alien structure as you face some of the toughest challenges thrown at you. Crowbar Collective spent the better part of a decade creating and refining Xen, and it’s completely understandable to see why exactly it took this long. It’s one of the most incredible sequences I’ve ever played in a first-person shooter.
Half-Life is dead, and the culprit is Black Mesa. The original is great, sure, but it’s aged so poorly that there’s no way I’d recommend playing it over this updated revival. The graphics, the sound, the pacing and atmosphere; it’s all an overwhelming achievement. With attention made to all the tiny details, it blurs the lines between a modding passion project and full-blown indie darling, making it the definitive version of Freeman’s story and pairing well with the sequels. One of the best first-person shooters of all time just got a lot better.
Tested on PC
Developer Crowbar Collective
Publisher Crowbar Collective