I remember when Half-Life came out. I convinced my mom to buy it for me “for Christmas” around its release in November. I couldn’t possibly wait a whole month to play it, so I did what any reasonable kid would do: once it was wrapped and put under the tree, I got an exacto knife, and surgically cut the tape and removed the CD. The only person who noticed I was playing a game that wasn’t familiar was my brother, and he was delighted at my subversion of Christmas norms. And for good reason: Half-Life was transcendent. I had never played a first person shooter that took the time for… well, anything other than constant action. Half-Life’s beginning tram ride was more outside-the-manual world building in a first person shooter than I had gotten in the entire library of games I’ve played before it. And when the action did come, it felt like a desperate survival horror bid to escape turned into an action movie where your only goal was to survive. There really hasn’t been anything like it since. So years ago, when I heard that it was being remade with updated graphics in the Source engine, I was thrilled.
I remember hearing about the Black Mesa fan recreation of the original Half-Life back around 2009 or so, maybe earlier. According to Wikipedia, it’s been in development since 2005—about a year after Half-Life 2 released. Despite following its progress, I’m not too familiar with the almost fifteen year development history of Black Mesa. What I do know is that at some point around 2013 the developers, Crowbar Collective, were approached by Valve to turn Black Mesa into a commercial product, and not just a fan recreation. It was released in Early Access in 2015, and its 1.0 finally dropped yesterday. I don’t remember the first time I played Black Mesa, but I do remember I rode the tram, walked into the facility, and turned it off. It was so good, I couldn’t spoil it: I wanted to wait until it was complete to enjoy it fully.
And now, I’ve gotten the chance to finally play it to completion. I find it a fun coincidence that not only has Black Mesa released, it has done so within weeks of a whole new Half-Life game being released, and in VR, no less, something that I would have scoffed at back when I originally heard of Black Mesa. In anticipation of the release of Half-Life: Alyx later this month, I played through all of the main series Half-Life titles, so when I got to Black Mesa, the original Half-Life was still extremely fresh in my mind. And let me tell you: Black Mesa has to be the best way to experience Half-Life.
Don’t get me wrong. Even the original Half-Life is still surprisingly playable, despite its age. But it is old—so old that one of our other Games & Tech writers was born AFTER its release—so it may not be a draw for younger gamers trying to see what this Half-Life nonsense is all about. Black Mesa, on the other hand, is a great stepping on point. It still feels aged—it’s been in development for around fifteen years, after all—but being made in the Source engine, it has nearly modern lighting effects and other graphical bells and whistles to make it feel almost like a modern game. Don’t expect down-the-barrel aiming, though, as Black Mesa keeps itself pretty close to the original game on which it is based, before the practice was popularized. (Okay, the magnum has iron sight aiming, don’t @ me.)
Black Mesa is such a faithful recreation, that every iconic moment from the original is there, but in greater fidelity. Developer Crowbar Collective has taken some liberties with level geometry, pacing of action sequences, and even the story. There is additional dialogue, set pieces, and just loads of detail that wasn’t there in the original Half-Life. And that’s even before you get into the last chapters that involve the border dimension of Xen, with Xen having the most alterations.
I always found the original Half-Life to be more horror-themed than the later games. Sure, Half-Life 2 has Ravenholm, but nothing tops the initial chaos of the resonance cascade, and then the ensuing horror of the headcrabs. Not only do the scientist headcrabs look great, they’re joined by security guard and soldier headcrabs—though I wouldn’t consider these new enemy types, more like classic headcrab zombie behavior with more lore-appropriate headcrab accommodations. In fact, seeing classic enemies in Source glory is half the fun of Black Mesa.
Black Mesa brings loads of quality of life improvements, and there is a ton of context that just wasn’t as apparent in Half-Life. There are also a ton of small little details that makes Black Mesa feel like the definitive precursor to Half-Life 2, like the lore added for the Vortigaunts, and important Half-Life 2 characters being uniquely voiced and named instead of them just being generic scientists that share the same character model. But the most work has been done on the finale of Half-Life: Xen is almost completely different.
When I stepped into Xen for the first time, it was one of the most spectacular moments I have ever had with a video game. It was part nostalgia, part anticipation (I avoided any Xen spoilers) and part genuine awe: Xen is amazing to step into, and the improvements they made to the levels makes it a far better experience overall. The bossfight with Gornarch is improved, and the end fight with Nihilianth is almost completely changed—mostly for the better.
While the original Half-Life had the Vortigaunt slaves working within an alien factory, Black Mesa massively expands this part of Xen, and adds a whole lot of lore in the process. You actually get a chance to fight through Vortigaunt villages. There is a noticeable difference in Vortigaunts who are forced to fight you, and those who have control of their minds. That’s all great stuff. And there are some great moments that reminded me of the Citadel section where your Gluon Gun becomes continuously charged, allowing you to use the powerful weapon to wreak havoc.
Unfortunately, despite how much work was put into Xen, it massively overstays its welcome. I found myself just wishing Xen would be over. The overworld sections are gorgeous, detailed, and full of surprises I don’t want to spoil for those who haven’t seen it, but the factory sections become a real chore. The way forward usually involves sabotaging something, and then holding off waves of enemies until you can proceed again. Xen is great, but it needed to be pared down slightly. I know they really wanted to improve the infamous last levels of Half-LIfe, but everything Xen? I don’t think so.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Black Mesa was its AI. In Half-Life the enemies seemed determined to find me, and kill me. They would flank, outmaneuver, and just make my day a lot harder than it had to be—especially when fighting waves of HECU Marines. In Black Mesa, the enemies were not as formidable. AI is not nearly as clever or aggressive, and some enemies just didn’t seem to want to behave in the same way as their Half-Life counterparts.
Black Mesa ends up being the best way to play Half-Life. Now, I’m not saying avoid the classic shooter—but if you can’t stomach such an old game, or want to see it faithfully recreated to more modern standards, Black Mesa is an absolute must-have as it improves upon Half-Life in almost every way. Xen overstays its welcome a bit, and the AI doesn’t seem as ruthless and clever as in the original, but Black Mesa deserves every accolade it gets. It was fifteen years, and worth the wait.
If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more. Patreon.com/3CR