There are only a handful of games that I can refer to as a childhood favorite of mine, and even fewer which I have gone back to play as I got older. Games like Perfect Dark, Super Mario World, and Half-Life.
Half-Life itself carries with it a number of noteworthy memories. It was one of the first games I bought for PC; I bought the five-disc Platinum pack containing Half-Life, the Opposing Force and Blue Shift expansions, Team Fortress, and Counter Strike. It was the first game where I learned to make my own levels, and I cheated a lot. “Impulse 101” was my friend. You can’t not abuse the use of infinite Snarks…
So imagine my excitement when I learned that a team of fans of the series, named the Crowbar Collective, started work on remaking the original game in Valve’s Source engine, which is the backbone of Half-Life 2.
Well, it has been a while since the original announcement has been made, those maniacs did it. They
blew it up finished the game!
Return To Black Mesa
Most remakes and remasters go only as far as to update texture resolutions, or adding features. Even the Source version of the original Half-Life stopped at including physics and higher resolution support. The difference between the original and Black Mesa though… It’s jarring, but in a good way.
Again, Crowbar Collective didn’t stop with just making the game look more modern. They updated level designs, added far more detail, utilized the physics of the Source engine to make puzzles more engaging, introduced a metric ton of lore from the sequels, and injected dozens of little Easter eggs into the game.
First off, Black Mesa looks absolutely incredible at max settings with all the bells and whistles enabled. While I do remember what the original looked like (it isn’t like they had to try very hard to make an improvement) they went far beyond what was absolutely necessary to make the Half-Life look like a modern shooter. I’d even go so far as to say that it looks leagues better than Half-Life 2, but I’d really need to go back to play that again to say for sure.
Though it’s hardly the only example, the moment that comes immediately to mind is the sequence where Dr. Freeman needs to launch a satellite into orbit to enable the Lambda team to help him stop the alien invasion. In the original game, launching the rocket leads to a massive shutter closing down over the window of the launch facility, confining your view to a tiny part of the rocket as it flies off into orbit. This was done to hide the truth from the player, that the rocket was basically disappearing as soon as it began to leave the field of view. Evidently, Crowbar Collective decided that this wasn’t adequate, so they did away with limiting the view and made it a scene that showcases the massive improvements they’ve made over the original.
Now that I think of it however, the last few levels that take place in the borderworld, Xen, have been almost completely revamped. Instead of being a confusing mess of mindless slaughter, Crowbar Collective took the opportunity to bring in some of the explanatory lore of the second game. For instance, instead of wandering through each area and wiping out Vortigaunts left and right, Dr. Freeman is regularly aided by passive Vortigaunts who are quite clearly being shown as unwilling participants in the inter-dimensional war. Their role in the world of Xen is further exhibited when the weird, floating brain-things (also known as Controllers), begin attacking Dr. Freeman in the presence of Vortigaunts. During these fights, the Vortigaunts are shown as being under the psychic influence of the Controllers; something that was entirely missing in the original game.
All-in-all, Crowbar Collective added so much context that was missing in the original game.
Aside from the lore additions, the developers of Black Mesa included entirely new areas to the game, along with heavily modified versions of original levels. For example, while the original only showed the occasional scientist’s corpse in an HEV suit as a way to spread out resources for the player, Black Mesa shows that the teams sent to Xen had a much more established presence. There are more boss encounters, and those encounters consist of more than just the bullet-sponge design. In fact, the Gargantua fight in Xen is completely replaced with one helluva chase sequence.
As with the other Half-Life franchise games, guns are probably the biggest tools in your… well… arsenal. Given that you’re fighting off not only a horde of headcrabs and zombies, but also entire platoons of U.S. Marines and extra-planar soldiers, Dr. Freeman needs all the munitions he can gather. While there really isn’t anything new added to the game, it’s fun to see how they’ve improved the combat in their remake. Enemies actually tend to behave intelligently most of the time, and that makes them rather dangerous. While many of the foes you face go down pretty easily, they generally don’t stand in one place to have lead applied directly to their forehead. That’s always a good start, and a significant improvement over the original.
Honestly, I feel like all I’ve been doing this entire time is just comparing Black Mesa against Half-Life… So how does it stand on its own?
Sure, there were many moments that I looked at Black Mesa with rose-colored glasses, and remarked to Jennifer about the vast differences between Black Mesa and its predecessor (even though she had zero context for either game to draw comparison). However, once I stopped boring her with talking about every time I noticed something I recognized from the original, or mentioned how this one section was completely different, I started just playing it for the sake of playing it.
And it was a treat. Sure, there are a number of industry standards that are missing, like the ability to aim down the sights of your weapon, being able to holster your weapon, or melee enemies without the crowbar equipped. Still, the combat is engaging without being a total drag, since every major combat area is littered with ammunition, health packs, and suit batteries, not to mention the multiple occasions where you can fully restock. In later levels, a ton of enemies are thrown at you, but you’re also given what is essentially infinite ammo to account for this.
I love that Gluon Gun!
There’s definitely a sense of old-school game design present too, because there are no hints or guidance to complete puzzles, though the solutions are usually readily apparent.
Perhaps the one sticking point is the stability though. Black Mesa crashed on me perhaps a dozen or more times during my playthrough. The game was so unstable that I couldn’t even make it to the in-game resonance cascade before I experienced a critical failure of my own; my game locked up right as I was introduced to Eli, and I wasn’t even able to get Windows to focus on task manager so I could force the game to quit. I eventually realized that I needed to keep another application running in the background to give me something I could switch to before opening Task Manager, or I’d be forced to restart my computer.
That was a common occurrence.
Thankfully, the lockups were relatively infrequent, but I did notice that trying to quicksave the game and going back into the menu afterwards seemed to cause the entire thing to stop working. That turned out to be partially my own doing, as Black Mesa exits the menu after quicksaving, and I would often tap the Esc key out of habit with the intention of exiting that same menu, even though it was completely unnecessary.
Maybe the game just didn’t like me, which is disappointing, because I liked it so much personally. Apparently the feelings weren’t mutual.
Memory Lane Is Treacherous
You may be wondering to yourself now: “So should I buy this game?” That you’re even asking this question is…
Nah, I’m not going to do that. Honestly, the one thing I will say that may convince you to take a trip back to Black Mesa and Xen, is that this is probably one of the most robust remakes I’ve ever played, of any game. Despite the numerous stability issues, it runs like a dream (most of the time), and it’s downright stunning at times. Don’t take that to mean that this is only the type of game that fans of the series should experience however, because it holds up extremely well even by modern standards.
Black Mesa is chock-full of lore tying itself to Half-Life 2 and its following episodes, and would make for an excellent game for anyone looking for some first-person shooting action. This deserves to be experienced.
Have you played the original Half-Life? Would you pick up Black Mesa or have you already? Let me know what you think.