Black Mesa (2020)

Half-Life has always been a blind spot in my gaming record. I remember when it came out and my friend Andrew loving it, I remember bits and pieces of it when I would go over his house and watch him play it. I wanted to get into it so badly that I bought the game without really understanding the minimum requirements were not a suggestion, but a requirement. My PC struggled as I would drop frames on the tram ride to work, and when a science experiment goes awry, my PC grinded to a halt as I get maybe a frame per several seconds.

Black Mesa is a fan Remake of Half-Life 1, rendered in the Source Engine. It uses all the same audio, sound effects and voice acting in the original, but improves on the original game in many small ways. Since I only remembered a bit of the original game to begin with, and never finished it, I couldn’t tell you everything that was different, but I do know there are slight differences. I actually played a bit of the original back to back with Black Mesa just to see the difference. I wish there was a button to switch back and forth between the two graphics, kinda like some remakes do (Halo Remasters, Monkey Island, ect.) but because this isn’t a 1:1 remake, they couldn’t do that, and I’m sure there is some legal issues with using a game that the company doesn’t own.

For those who aren’t informed of what Half-Life/Black Mesa is,it is a standard First Person Shooter.You control Gordon Freeman, a theoretical Physicist, who works at a government facility called Black Mesa, you begin your day with a nice long tram ride, when you get to work, you are told to don your H.E.V suit and help out with an experiment. As you start the experiment, something goes wrong and a gate to another dimension opens up, transporting other-worldly creatures to your facility. You take it on yourself to try and find a way to the surface and get help.

There are three main environments in Black Mesa, the facility, Outside, and Xen. The first two are fairly common, and as you start getting bored with one environment, you shift into the other. I really liked the back and forth of trading off going from offices to outdoor traversal and back again. Every place seemed neat and interesting. Since Black Mesa has lots of government classified things going on, you stumble across things like labs doing experiments and large nuclear reactors and even radioactive areas. It’s all laid out fairly well, with lots of places to explore off the beaten path.

The third environment, Xen, is a different dimension/planet. And the game takes a hard left turn and there is a fairly big part of the game that takes place there. At first it’s so bright and beautiful, that it really is just breathtaking. But its awe wears off very quickly, as most of the area becomes a First Person Platformer, which just never feels very good in first person games. Jumping from thin tree branches, to using vents to boost you into the air to land on floating rock chunks.

I remember hearing about Xen a lot, and you get a quick glimpse of the endgame area and the aliens you battle with at the very beginning of the game, but alien planets have never interested me anyways, so the entire back half of the game felt extremely boring to me, and no amount of blue and purple galaxy skyboxes will change that for me.

Near the end, Xen takes another turn and drops you into a red atmospheres area, with many gestating and “breathing” landscapes. Everything moves and slithers and is wet, like peeled flesh and muscle… It feels like the game becomes Doom. And not in a good way. There literally is pretty much just red and brown for the last 2-3 hours of the game, and the difficulty curve ramps up in a way that feels unearned.

The game repeatedly starts throwing way too many enemies that surround you, and you will constantly start running out of ammo. There are plenty of health and armor areas, so dying is only a minor inconvenience, if you happen to die, which didn’t happen to me all that often. Especially with the use of liberal quicksaves it makes the game really more of an adventure, than pounding your head against the wall over battle arena areas.

The final boss battle also was a letdown, as I really had no idea what to actually expect. Somehow, over the last 22 years, I have been able to keep myself spoiled-free of the last boss in Half-Life. What you encounter at the final area of the game, after traveling dimensions, fighting aliens and demons, and soldiers, zombies and lady assassins in full leather outfits…. Is a giant floating deformed baby. It’s lame, stupid and dumb. Yes, I know this game came out in 1998, but even for the time, I think that would have been a let down. I never need to see another baby demon boss who yells “You Die Now!” ever again.

Other than the Xen world (which truly is impressive, but just not my thing, and feels like a completely different game) I really enjoyed playing through Black Mesa. I finally really know the Half-Life story now. I know what happened at the Black Mesa facility, and understand the G-Man a bit more than I did before (still not all that much)

There are two reasons why I finally played through this game right now. First, because the game finally came out of Early Access after 5 years, I owned the game for years, but held off till the game was finished. The second, is because Valve finally released a new Half-Life game, 13 years after leaving the franchise dormant. Half-Life Alyx, a VR game that I got for free because I own a Valve Index, released today, March 23rd, 2020. And since it’s a middle chapter between Half-Life 1 and 2 (Kinda like Shadows of the Empire takes place between Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), I wanted to actually play the first game so I know what is leading up to this new VR game.

I really enjoyed Black Mesa, and am really impressed with the game. You can tell the team at Crowbar Collective really loves the Half-Life game, and lovingly recreated the game, and changed a few things to make it their own interpretation of the extremely iconic game. Having a modern remake allowed me to jump right in, and not always go “Oh yeah, this is a 22 year old game!”. I was able to just immerse myself in the game, and I am glad I finally can say I finished Black Mesa and know the Half-Life story.