Black Mesa Review – Raising The (Crow)Bar For Remakes
When I first heard they were remaking the original Half-Life in the source engine, I was pretty pumped. I was also 15. That’s 15 years ago for those of you not currently stalking me. To say that progress on Black Mesa was slow is like saying people are a little worried about the Coronavirus right now. Fun Fact: It took me about as long to buy toilet paper today as it did for Black Mesa to come out. When it started, no one (Crowbar Collective included) thought it would take 16 years to complete. That is a year longer than Duke Nukem: Forever. With such a long development time, it’s almost impossible to meet your audience’s expectations. The technology has just changed too much for you to stay relevant. For some perspective, Black Mesa started development before the PS3 launched. The Source engine of today is not the same Source engine of 2004. If you update engines and rebuild the game, that comes with a whole new slew of problems. You basically have to start the game from scratch. Every mechanic has to be reworked to fit the new systems. Every workaround has to be rediscovered and reimplemented. Your personnel change, the team loses focus, and you’re often left with a game where no one that started it is there at the finish line. How could any game created in this manner possibly be good? For possibly the first time in history, Black Mesa proves that there is a way. Sometimes, it’s worth the wait.
It’s worth mentioning that Half-Life is one of the few games I have nostalgia for. My parents didn’t like that I’d rather play with the Nintendo Boxes than kick a ball (I might be doing this gaming thing as a form of rebellion because I’m too cowardly to get a mohawk). My only outlet for gaming was the family computer, which they foolishly assumed I was using to do homework. Probably because I hid all of my game shortcuts in a folder called “homework.” The concept of renaming files was akin to witchcraft in their boomer brains. Like most kids, I didn’t have a lot of cash to spend on games. The first copy of Half-Life I ever got my grubby mitts on was a pirated version my friend’s shady brother had loaded onto a disk with “Hacked-Life” sharpied on. God, the early 2000’s rocked. I must have played through that game at least 20 times. Then came years of trying out various mods. I’d estimate I spent over 100 hours just perfecting my Scoutzknives headshots.
I tell you all this for one reason: Black Mesa was clearly made by people just as crazy about Half-Life as I am. I am not the kind of nerd that buys every Funko Pop shitted out with the likeness of third-string characters from obscure runs of classic comic franchises. I’m the kind of unpleasable cretin that complains about the sequel. I’m far more likely to dislike something that carries the name of my favorite series than I am to like it. So keep that when I say that Black Mesa is the best version of Half-Life.
We have to talk about Black Mesa in two chunks: Earth and Xen. The Earth segments are mostly analogous to the ones in the original Half-Life. Key moments like the shark cage, trash compactor, and giant flamethrower dude are recreated perfectly. That itself is a feat. Still, Crowbar Collective can’t get all the credit, as they’re just recreating moments from one of the best shooters of all time. Where Black Mesa really impresses in how it improves on the overall look, feel, and flow of the game. Animations, the audio, textures, everything has been updated. What’s crazy is how seamless it all feels. Generally, mods don’t really have the budget to feel like a cohesive product. Something sticks out as repurposed or not fitting quite right. But with Black Mesa, it genuinely all feels like the original Half-Life.
The crazy thing is, it’s actually not. This is not just a copy/paste of Half-Life. Several segments have been remixed to add tension. Most areas have been redesigned to feel more real. Your ability to appreciate these changes will be subject to how recently you last played Half-Life. It had been a few years for me. Running through Black Mesa, I was filled with overwhelming nostalgia and the thought, “man, I can’t believe that this game holds up after all these years!” Then I went back and played Half-Life to get some reference for this review. And by God, have they changed a lot. The incredible thing is that they managed to change the original while still maintaining that same feeling I had while playing it. I rarely noticed they had made a change. It all just felt right. They somehow managed to perfectly recreate the sensation of playing Half-Life for the first time as if it were coming out now in 2020.
That being said, Black Mesa does feel a bit dated during the Earth segments. Shooters have come a long way since 1998. Even the few new puzzles that take advantage of the Source engine physics can’t make up for two decades worth of gameplay innovation. While you might find the lack of iron sights appealing, other issues like unavoidable hits, lack of cover, overabundant ammo, misplaced pickups, etc., are all things that most modern shooters have ironed out in one way or another. It’s still a fun experience, but not one that will reach any modern Top-10 lists. And then you get to Xen.
For some historical context, the Earth parts of Black Mesa were basically done 8 years ago. Xen is what has been taking them so long. Widely considered by anyone with a working brain to be the worst part of the original Half-Life, Crowbar Collective was looking to remake Xen to the standards of the original game. They would have to start from scratch, as there aren’t a lot of Xen-like assets that can be repurposed from other Source engine products. This is the real test of their mettle. If their goal was to match the Earth segments, they overshot their mark by a mile. They took the worst part of Half-Life and made it not only the best part of Black Mesa, but one of the best segments from any modern shooter.
Black Mesa‘s Xen is a breathtaking, pulse-pounding, mind-bending thrill ride from start to finish. I do not like to hyperbolize in my reviews. But this is one of the rare cases where there is really no way to describe it other than incredible. From the moment you step through the portal, the world of Xen will flood your senses with both terror and splendor. The floating islands, flying creatures, curious amoebas, and vibrant colors are just the tip of the iceberg. What was previously a series of weird rocks with some fleshy stuff has evolved into vibrant forests, watery catacombs, sprawling alien complexes, dilapidated villages, and more. Every segment is somewhere exotic, and every moment compelling.
Remember how the Gonarch fight was basically just three arenas where you shot rockets at it until it died? The fight now takes place across an entire labyrinthine level. Gonarch has several new powers, but most importantly ambushes you throughout the level. Walking across a ledge, Gonarch will appear across the chasm to shoot acid. Running through a cave, Gonarch will break through a wall and chase you. Crawling through some tiny passage, Gonarch might stroll above you and drop in juvenile Headcrabs. It went from being one of the strangest and silliest bossfights in gaming history to a legitimately tense horror classic.
And that’s just one example. Every single segment has been either completely recreated or is entirely original. The Interloper chapter now has some of the greatest laser dodging puzzles in modern games. There’s a Vortegaunt village, and the Controllers can be killed to free them. Floating lilypads will slowly dip into the water with waiting Ichthyosaurs below. The Nihilanth fight has been completely recreated to not be total shit. Combine it with the exceptional new soundtrack, and Xen locks you in and doesn’t let you go until the credits roll. If you buy Black Mesa just for these last few levels, it is well worth the asking price.
Black Mesa isn’t without flaws. There are some weird animations for the more agile enemies. The ninja ladies all kind of cartwheel like they’re being rendered on an entirely different grid (to be fair, they also looked wonky as shit in Half-Life). The most disappointing shortcoming is the Ichthyosaur. While the Half-Life 2 model is still just as visually terrifying as ever, there’s a problem with its movement and AI. It almost never connects, and when it misses it kind of just floats past and hangs there for a minute like a dog that overshot a ball it was chasing and needs a minute to figure out where it went.
These moments of bugginess are common enough to prevent Black Mesa from getting a perfect score. But they should in no way diminish the accomplishments of Crowbar Collective. A team of dedicated fans, they tackled the enormous project of updating one of the best shooters of all-time. Not only did they succeed, but they managed to recreate the feeling of the original by seamlessly modernizing it. To top it all off, their original segments turned out to be the best of the bunch. I cannot wait to see what the team does next. This should not be missed by any fans of Half-Life, horror, shooters… really just games in general.
If you want to learn more about Black Mesa, you can watch our interview with Crowbar Collective’s owner here. You can grab Black Mesa now on Steam by clicking here. If you liked this review, please follow us on Twitter @Dread_X_P!
Black Mesa doesn’t recreate Half-Life exactly. It recreates the feelings you had playing Half-Life for the first time over 20 years ago. It’s a monumental accomplishment for a team of crazy fans.
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