Review | Black Mesa

Review | Black Mesa

The classic FPS Half-Life receives a long-time coming fan upgrade but it can’t fix everything.

Half-Life, written by Valve Software, was released onto the world in November 1998. Assuming it was to be another casual first-person shooter, it actually turned out to be something rather special.

In Half-Life, you play as the protagonist Gordon Freeman, although, you’ll never see his face as the entire game is told from his eyes, even during scripted cut scene events. The story opens with a tram ride into an underground scientific complex, the Black Mesa Research Facility. As the ride progresses, you can see scientists and security guards going about their daily business. It really sets the scene for the game.

Once the tram stops, you are escorted to the entrance to the laboratory by a security guard where you discover you’re already late for work!

As you progress through the corridors to pick up your hazard suit, you’ll pass other scientists and security guards and talk to them or listen in on their conversations and get a feel of what is going on.

Finally, you’ll get to the experiment itself. Your tasked with pushing an unusual material into a huge machine, the spectrometer, for analysis. Unfortunately, the spectrometer explodes, creating a “resonance cascade” that opens a portal to another dimension, which is later revealed to be known as Xen.

There are explosions everywhere and as you try to make your way back through the debris, surviving scientists urge you to head to the surface. But as you make your way through the remains, you’ll encounter strange alien creatures determined to kill you.

A video look at the graphical differences between the original Half Life and Black Mesa.

I remember being distinctly impressed with Half-Life upon release, especially as I was probably using a 3Dfx card in my PC, a hardware accelerator designed to boost 3D performance. The game was fun (to a point – more later) and extremely well-designed with impressive graphics.

Half-Life changes the narrative once you get clear of the research labs and you’ll encounter squads of marines who are desperate to kill you in order to cover up the whole experiment. This keeps the game’s plot interesting as you progress.

Eventually, you’ll be transported to the alien world of Xen to continue the fight and this was where I originally lost interest because it felt like any other alien FPS by this point. By the time I encountered Gonarch, essentially a testicle with four legs whom I couldn’t defeat on my very first play through (although I have since figured out why), I gave up on the game.

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When Valve Software released Half-Life 2 in 2004, it was running on a new version of their 3D engine known as Source. They even ported the original Half-Life onto the engine but without any visual enhancements.

A group of fans decided to improve upon this by updating the games environments, 3D models, textures and all the graphical trimmings that the new 3D engine could provide. In fact, it was two groups of fans working on the same idea who merged into one team known as The Crowbar Collective.

The updated environments and lighting effects are very welcome and certainly create atmosphere.

Known as Black Mesa, this fan upgrade has been released in various forms over the last few years. This past November has seen the release of Black Mesa: Definitive Edition, the final update to the remake (barring a few more incoming minor bug fixes).

It was even given a blessing by Valve Software to be sold as a retail product in its own right.

Playing Black Mesa is definitely a rose-tinted glass nostalgic play through. The updated graphics, 3D models and new particle and lighting effects look great and yet the original game is still recognizable.

It wasn’t until I started looking back at image comparisons that I realized how basic the original game now looks. Crikey, has it been twenty years already?!

There is a large selection of weapons to use and the updated 3D models look fantastic. As always, some weapons are better than others. Several times I became frustrated with how long it took to reload the shotgun! Also, did anyone genuinely use the Hive Hand as their primary weapon? Even if it does look great in this upgrade, it is still is rather useless.

Now, I’m usually one who campaigns for nice long single player campaigns but I’d forgotten how long Half-Life’s actually was. By the time I had made it to the surface and was making my way across the country to the next scientific research facility, I was honestly becoming a little bored with the game.

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Also, the original game was criticized for its Xen based levels. Half-Life switches tack here and it becomes more about jumping between floating platforms rather than gunning down alien creatures.

Half Life or Total Recall?

The developers behind this remake have openly said they would rework Xen which they have to their credit. But especially towards the end levels, the game drops combat almost entirely and it becomes a mixture of jumping between platforms and solving electrical cabling problems.

This was all before the inevitable final battle with the big bad alien boss who wasn’t that hard to beat thankfully. But this was due to one of Half-Life’s drawbacks that harks back to the original game.

The game has been designed in such a way that it’s always obvious when you’re about to confront a battle of a sizeable scale as you will always discover a large cache of weapons to replenish your personal stock of firepower. It takes a little surprise out of the game.

Finally, a quick word about the sound design, which is of course fantastic with superb voice-over work and sound effects all taken from the original. My only complaint was with the music. As a general rule, there is no soundtrack to Half-Life, the game opens with a short composition as you might expect.

There are further short pieces of music that play out, usually during a big battle event. Whilst this would normally enhance the playing experience, I found them to be distracting as I couldn’t clearly hear other enemies and where they were. I also found the sudden music a little jarring as the rest of the game is practically music free.

So, whilst this sounds overly negative, there are just a few minor quibbles that are relevant back to the original gameplay and none of the good work of The Crowbar Collective team who have put years of hard work into this fantastic remake.

Four out of Five

If you just want a fresh look at a classic game or perhaps want to play it for the very first time, you can’t go wrong with Black Mesa. – 4/5


John Abbitt

About the author | John Abbitt

@UKFilmNerd | John loves film, and he used to write for his own website, The Tydirium Hangar Bay, in the late 1990s. Whilst that website became lost in the passages of time, John's love of film did not. He's back, writing for The Unheard Nerd.