I never thought I’d say this, but after fourteen years in development, Black Mesa is finally complete.
Black Mesa is a fan-made and Valve-sponsored remake of the original Half-Life from 1997, and I’ve been following this game since I was twelve. Needless to say, I’ve loved every bit of it. However, this begs one simple question with a complicated answer: is the original Half-Life still worth your time? Let's try to shed our nostalgia and look at the first Half-Life game objectively.
Half-Life 1 is the definition of a classic. Between the subtlety of it’s storytelling, the consistency of its tone, fantastic gunplay and the emergent puzzle solutions, this game rides the line between a more realistic feeling game like Deus Ex, and the bunnyhopping, rocket jumping action of Quake 3: Arena. As such, this is the perfect example of what’s so great about classic PC gaming. Blood was utterly insane, Quake was the ultimate thrill and Deus Ex was mind-blowing, but Half-Life was legendary. It truly is the poster boy for PC gaming. Half-Life’s genius is hard to define because, well, its genius is vague. The story, while awesome and iconic, isn’t an ounce as good as that of Deus Ex. The gameplay isn’t as exciting as something like Blood or as thoughtful as something like System Shock 2 or Thief. Every aspect of it just sort of rides perfectly in the middle. That consistency is what makes the entire Half-Life series so special. Games like Blood, Quake, Doom and Deus Ex have incredible highs, but they also have their fair share of lows. Half-Life, meanwhile, is all high, all the time. Every moment of the game is filled to the brim with interesting decisions to make, whether those decisions involve tactics, navigation, or puzzle-solving. If you don’t mind a little first-person platforming, there isn’t a single moment in Half-Life that isn’t fun after ten playthroughs, and that’s largely due to the minute details that we’ll get into below.
So, how does that translate to the modern era? Small details that few players will notice are always what takes a brilliant game and drives it home for me. However, details like that have been given less and less importance since Half-Life came out, even in the indie space. You just don’t see things like Snake catching a cold if he stays outside for too long anymore. So, does Black Mesa suffer from the same issue? Yes and no. It’s full of details. After all, the Half-Life series is renowned for its deep and consistent worldbuilding, but compared to the original Half-Life, it does feel a little bit shallow in the places that matter most to me.
I remember a few years ago, back when Black Mesa was a free mod, the amount of HECU soldiers was utterly insane. That, combined with their undercooked AI made them completely unfun to fight. I know it gets made fun of a lot, as soldiers throw grenades at their squadmates and continuously rush corners that their buddies all died on, but the AI in Half-Life 1 is some of my all time favorite. These guys were dangerous. They could kill you in a second without much warning, and so you had to really think on your toes and approach each encounter with the die-hard mentality of trying to get the drop on your enemies. The situation would inevitably get out of your control by the time a fight was over, so all you could do was some preemptive damage control. These enemies were carefully designed for this style of play. For instance, the HECU soldiers will never shoot while moving, meaning that you had some all important time to watch their behavior and learn how they responded to various situations. These guys were designed to be incredibly dangerous, but vulnerable to wits and planning. In spite of all the memes, the playtesting and the amazing weapons, Half-Life was a survival horror game through and through, and the unpredictable nature of the HECU soldiers was a perfect extension of that.
This just isn’t carried over to Black Mesa. The AI is, in fact, my main problem with the game. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, and whole-heartedly recommend it, but these soldiers, even after all the updates, are still just no fun to fight. They rush you in a straight line, firing the whole time with incredibly lethal weapons. They act as nothing more than a mandatory health drain. Whereas the original HECU soldiers were a bit more reserved and preferred grenades over just outright rushing you, these new guys mainly deal damage that can’t be avoided. Say what you will about Half-Life and its brutal hit scanning enemies, you always had some explosives you could flush them out of cover with, then you could get them with the machine gun or shotgun while they were running away, confident that they wouldn’t shoot you while running. This is where a change in tone and player orientation begins, but it goes a bit deeper.
Again, Half-Life 1 was about Gordon Freeman, a scientist who was way out of his element, using his wits and knowledge to get through situations that he was horribly under-qualified for. By watching his first person animations, you get the impression that he’s never fired a gun in his life. Just look at the way he sprays this MP5. He’s going to shoot his eye out if he isn’t more careful. Ammo was scarce, enemies were fierce, but everything had rules to it that Gordon could exploit in spite of his lack of training. Much like the Tau cannon, Gordon’s entire journey through Black Mesa was a slapped together plan. It was a boat being held together with duct tape, but one that just might make it to shore. You used a random crowbar that you found to smash open windows when all the doors were locked. All of your weapons were picked off of dead Army guys or security guards. You used random alien lifeforms as weapons when you needed them. You stopped a reactor from going critical by just flooding it with coolant. You started all of this by pushing a crystal into a beam using a wonky little cart. On top of all of that, you went on this whole journey without your suit’s helmet!
This is where I think Black Mesa might be too polished for its own good. The whole appeal of Half-Life’s brand of survival horror is that aspect of figuring out a solution using whatever tools you have. Gordon is way out of his element, but he’s smart enough to make it work. In Black Mesa, I just don’t get that same vibe. Gordon fires his machine gun like an absolute pro. He aims down the sights of his revolver for perfect accuracy. His grenade throwing is much easier to aim. This is where the game starts to deviate. All of these limitations on Gordon’s abilities were there for a reason. You no longer outsmart your enemies, you simply outgun them, and that’s all there is to it.
A perfect microcosm of this is the ninja fights. In Half-Life 1, you had to really think like a ninja to beat them. You don’t just double back, you have to triple and quadruple back. You need to be fast and mobile so that they don’t get the opportunity to all attack you at the same time. You needed to throw ordinance like an absolute lunatic down every hallway that they might be lurking in. The ninjas made you paranoid and the only way to fight them was to make them even more paranoid. Meanwhile, in Black Mesa, you should just keep your back to a wall and wait for them to come at you. Just bottleneck them and you’ll be fine. In fact, this is the same tactic you’ll be using for almost all of your firefights. It isn’t always a bottleneck, but every fight revolves around waiting for the enemy to push you, rather than the other way around. This is all because of that one simple change to the AI: the enemies can shoot while moving. If you peek the enemies in Black Mesa, you’re taking damage, and there’s no way around that, whereas in Half-Life 1 you were afforded much more opportunity to get offensive, and with offense comes creativity. This is the creativity that separates Half-Life from other games. In other games, you’re a soldier with a gun. In Half-Life, you’re a scientist with a gun.
What I view as negative changes are out of the way, but I really do love Black Mesa to death, so what’s the good? It’d be remiss of me not to mention the visuals. Black Mesa really does have some excellent art direction. The scenery is more diverse than ever, and the clunky, utilitarian Black Mesa has been upgraded to a place that you’d actually want to work. Sure, being underground, it has its fair share of concrete corridors, but between the logos, posters, banter between scientists and the believability of the security guard uniforms, the immersion that can be had from simply walking around Black Mesa’s levels is miles above anything Half-Life 1 could have accomplished with its technology. Along with the facility itself, the chatter of the enemy soldiers has been cleaned up in a nice way. Before it was pretty difficult to understand them, now they sound much more like actual humans, all without losing the campy charm of the original game’s soldiers. The guns still feel excellent and incredibly dangerous. It’s impossible to get your hands on the new and improved gluon gun and tau cannon without getting a huge smile on your face, and my personal favorite weapon, the hive hand, has been buffed to make it more useful than ever. Not to mention that when you first get the hivehand, you see what may very well be my favorite animation in gaming.
Then, of course, we have the biggest, and most ambitious part of the game: Xen. Other than the excellent and insane Titanfall 2, this may very well be the most ambitious thing I’ve ever seen on the Source engine. Firstly, we’ve got utterly beautiful environments. We’ve exchanged the barren and desolate Xen of Half-Life 1 for a downright luscious landscape, full of wildlife, fauna, waterfalls and above all else, danger. Save for the controller aliens, Half-Life 1's Xen was actually pretty easy and anticlimactic in terms of gameplay, but that’s not the case in Black Mesa. It’s downright hostile here. Everything sentient or otherwise is contributing to tomorrow’s bruises, and it’s just lovely. Part of the reason that I love the original Xen so much is that it’s the perfect footnote to Half-Life’s core message about humans meddling in forces they don’t understand. That’s captured incredibly well in Half-Life 1, but in Black Mesa, it’s perfection. You don’t understand anything that you’re seeing from the beginning, and you’re constantly stumbling into your human peers who died in Xen while trying to push their boundaries too far, too fast. Then, we have my favorite hour of content I’ve ever played on the Source engine: the Gonarch fight. While it was a pretty straightforward “attack the weak point” boss fight in Half-Life, here it’s an hour long game of tug-of-war between you and this horrifying alien. It’s something akin to the battle with The End in Metal Gear Solid 3 or some a colossus from Shadow of the Colossus. There are so many scenes in which you have the upper hand on it, and it has the upper hand on you, and the cat and mouse dynamic that plays out over the several maps this fight takes place is just beautiful, and it captures that feeling of being out of your element better than Half-Life 1’s Xen did by miles and miles.
If you’re new to Half-Life, which game should you start with? That ultimately depends on preference. Do you want a hyper-polished game that’s full of absolutely fantastic visuals, and some incredibly intense moments? Then Black Mesa is the game for you. Do you want a deeply immersive run and gun shooter, whose gameplay loop can best be described as “run, think, shoot, survive”, and which has that classic impenetrable nineties pillow fort atmosphere? Then Half-Life should be your pick. They’re both two incredibly different interpretations of the same core premise, and they’re a fantastic case study of the butterfly effect in game design. Sure, the game got a huge visual overhaul, but aside from all of that, just a couple adjustments to the weapons and the AI have completely changed the tone of the game, the rhythms of combat, the pace of the overall experience, and even the lessons we can learn from the way the story plays out. Remember, when it comes to game design, you can’t take a single thing for granted.
To answer the ultimate question question of this article, while Black Mesa is utterly incredible from beginning to end, it still doesn't capture that feeling of danger, adventure, and wonderment that Half-Life supplied. They both deserve a playthrough, but Half-Life can never be truly emulated.