By now, Black Mesa is fairly well known in the PC gaming community. The fan remake of Half-Life originally got started around 2005, and I remember it going into early access around 2012. Since then, most of the game has been completed, with only the Xen levels taking a long time to arrive. But with version 1.0 finally released, it seems Black Mesa has finally reached a complete state.
So I figured it was a good time as any to give my own review of Black Mesa. I’ve been considering reviewing it for years, but always wanted to wait until it left early access. And it seems the day has come. So here’s my review of Black Mesa.
“They’re Waiting For You, Gordon”
To this day, my first encounter with Half-Life remains one of my strongest gaming memories. It was a pretty normal day and I was in an internet café waiting for a friend, looking around on one of the PC’s there. It had the expected games, mostly Counter Strike. But it also had this single player game called Half-Life, since that was required to run Counter Strike.
So I fired up Half-Life, with a lack of anyone else to play with. I found myself interestingly on some sort of tram. “Okay, when does the action start?” I thought to myself. Up until this point, the only first person shooters I’d played were Sin, Duke Nukem 3D, Doom and such.
The concept of starting a game like this was entirely new to me. And I remember spending probably a good chunk of time just exploring the starting area. It was the first time I had felt so immersed in a FPS. The internet café around me disappeared and I was there in that world.
Then I got to the test chamber. I followed the instructions given to me by the scientists. Then the resonance cascade happened. And I was in complete shock.
My first thoughts were “what did I do?”, “what’s going on?” and “do I have to start over?”. I genuinely couldn’t understand what was going on and that frightened me. I legitimately felt like I had messed up the game somehow. Because at this point, this was the only game I had played where the story wasn’t told to you in cutscenes.
Then the game continued, and my friend came by to pick me up. And I couldn’t stop talking about the experience I had just had. All I wanted was to keep playing, keep exploring that world.
At that point I knew Half-Life was unlike anything I had ever played before. And when I later got the game on PC for myself, and played through it, it truly felt like a groundbreaking experience. It’s one of those games I really wish I could play for the first time again.
Nowadays the game is nothing special, as a lot of its features have become common in other games. But it cannot be understated the lasting impact Half-Life had on the gaming industry, and the gamers who experienced it.
Remaking Half-Life was probably no easy task for Crowbar Collective, the team behind Black Mesa. And their approach to the remake has been rather interesting.
Because instead of simply upgrading the visuals and sound, Black Mesa is more of a reimagining of Half-Life. And it doesn’t straight up remake the game as we know it, as much as it tries to expand on it and develop it further.
For instance, it straight up puts Eli Vance and Kleiner in there, ensuring it works much better in the Half-Life 2 continuity. And levels are altered to look more believable and realistic. Which does a lot to make Black Mesa seem more of a real place, instead of the more “gamey” design of the original game.
Raising The Bar
Black Mesa does a lot to enhance the survival horror aspect of the game’s early levels. The weapons are much more spaced out, forcing you to either rely on security guards or flares to survive the hordes of headcrab zombies. And you spend considerably more time with your trusty crowbar before you obtain the pistol.
This is what makes Black Mesa worth playing as a remake, even for those who have completed the original Half-Life. In my opinion, the remake fully embraces the chance to make changes to the pacing where needed. And it all works in the game’s favor. In many ways it feels like what Half-Life should’ve been if the technology would allow for it at the time.
One thing that set the original Half-Life apart was of course the AI. And that’s another spot where Black Mesa shines. Though I notice the AI has been revamped a bit. Grunts seem much more grenade happy, and yet somehow less likely to blow themselves up like in the original.
Black Mesa also tends to add in a lot of the types of puzzles you’d see in Half-Life 2. Like for instance plugging cords into sockets, or physics puzzles. Granted it’s not to the same extreme, but it does make Black Mesa feel substantially different in progression from Half-Life.
The game also features a bunch of quality-of-life upgrades. One feature is the auto crouch jump. This means you no longer have to worry about crouch jumping everywhere, which is extremely handy.
Ladders still have that Source engine quality of not feeling quite right though. It always feels like you just kinda “snap” to them and have to press use to let go of them. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s mind boggling we’re in 2020, and ladders are still problematic in the Source engine.
As in any FPS, the weapon loadout matters a great deal, given you’ll spend most of the game shooting things. There isn’t really any substantial change to the weapons in Black Mesa, though how they sound, look and feel is still fairly different.
The crowbar, which of course is the most iconic weapon in the game despite it only seeing use in the early parts of it, feels as it should. It’s a versatile melee weapon that can be put to good use killing headcrabs, breaking open crates and ventilation shaft covers.
The pistol, the classic Glock from the original game, doesn’t feature much of an overhaul. Though they have fixed the glitch of you being able to infinitely reload it, despite it having a full mag. Like in the original, it has an alt fire of rapid firing bullets.
The magnum, a Colt Python, provides more stopping power at the cost of less ammo capacity. It’s also the only weapon in the game that can be aimed down sights. It helps give you some added accuracy for taking out enemies at a range.
We’ve Got Hostiles!
The shotgun, a classic SPAS 12, provides some much needed close combat efficiency. It’s really good at taking down most opponents though its spread makes it more useful at close to medium range. Its alt fire fires both barrels at once.
The SMG, an MP5, provides some range and versatility. It’s the weapon of choice for most of the millitary grunts in the game. It also has an M203 grenade launcher attached so… it becomes a go-to grenade launcher for a lot of the game.
The crossbow is a classic as well. It fires bolts loaded from a magazine. The alt fire lets you use a scope, making it the game’s sniper rifle. It’s also one of the few weapons that works underwater due to its firing mechanism.
You get a rocket launcher as well. It’s manually loaded with rockets but has a laser homing system as its alt fire. I pretty much never dumb fired this thing, so having the laser guidance system on at all times is recommended.
The Tau Cannon is one of the more experimental energy weapons found in Black Mesa. It’s essentially an assault laser cannon, capable of firing off either rapid bursts of energy, or charged shots. Though it has the potential to overcharge, which results in the gun exploding in a rather spectacular fashion.
The Gluon Gun is another experimental weapon. Unlike the tau cannon it fires a constant stream of energy. It becomes very useful in the latter parts of the game where conventional ammo is sparse but energy is very commonly obtained.
There’s also the hornet gun. This is a biological weapon used by the alien grunts in the game. It doesn’t deal spectacular damage, but it does have a self-replenishing ammo supply, meaning you’ll always have ammo for it.
The grenades can be thrown, and explode after a certain period of time. The alt fire lets you do a low throw, while the main fire is an upper throw. You can “cook” the grenades by holding down the trigger for an extended period of time.
Satchel charges are remote detonated explosives. The main fire throws one and the alt fire detonates any charges you have placed. Pretty simple.
The trip mines are mostly used by enemies to set up traps. I didn’t find much use for them in single player, but in multiplayer it can be fun to use them against other players. They send out a laser beam that when tripped causes the mine to explode.
The Snarks also make a return here. They’re basically biological grenades, in the form of beetle-like creatures that explode after a while. They typically stalk enemies in packs. They are also the cutest weapon in the game.
A Gorgeous Remake
There is no doubt that Black Mesa pushes the Source engine to its fullest potential. While the game does look a bit dated, mostly due to the engine, it does still look really good for its limitations.
On my rig, even with everything pushed to max, I get a pretty consistent frame rate of around 140-200 FPS so it seems the game isn’t very taxing on most modern computers. I mean, you probably could run the game on even PC’s from the late 2000’s to 2010 and still get a decent framerate.
The game uses a ton of baked shadows and dynamic lighting to really improve the presentation compared to the original Half-Life. Especially the early parts of the game look absolutely stunning and really bring forth the survival atmosphere.
Xen – The Borderworld
Of course the highlight of the final release is Xen. After a long wait, these levels finally made it into the remake and this is where the game truly deviates the most from its source.
Xen was arguably where the original Half-Life fell apart. The levels had a rushed feel to them, with a lot of awkward platforming that didn’t really feel at home in the game.
And while the Xen levels in Black Mesa still retain a lot of that platforming gameplay, they have been expanded massively. Filled with more puzzles and a ton of new environments, the Xen levels feel almost like its own game in terms of length.
World Of The Nihilanth
What I enjoyed the most about the Xen levels in the remake is that they truly make Xen feel like a more developed environment. You see a lot more of the creatures that only showed up briefly in the original game. You also see a lot of camps set up by the scientists who originally explored the place.
And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. You meet new exclusive variations on enemies like the houndeyes. You explore a vortigaunt city and get to see their culture more. And the game even makes it even more obvious that the vortigaunts are slaves, and even rewards you for not killing them during the Xen portion of the game.
In my opinion, Black Mesa fixes nearly everything that made the original Xen levels such a chore to get through. Even the final boss fight with the Nihilanth is made a lot more enjoyable, without all the random warps that made it really annoying to begin with.
That being said, they do feel a bit too long in places. And while I enjoyed exploring them, they dragged on a little too long for my taste. I feel some cuts could’ve been made to ease out the pacing a bit.
But what can be said? They knocked it out of the park with Xen. It truly feels like exploring an alien world and it feels like something taken out of a dream. It’s just an incredibly fascinating place in Black Mesa, and such a departure from the original vision in Half-Life that I can’t help but admire the dedication.
The Soundscape Of Black Mesa
I really have no major complaints when it comes to the sound. The music is very different from the original game, but is really nice and adds a lot of emotional weight to the game that I feel is needed. It also follows the general rule of Black Mesa, which seems to be “reimagine” rather than “recreate”. And I kinda like that.
The voice acting isn’t great, but far from the worst I’ve heard. It feels professionally recorded and the voice actors do a great job imitating the original voice actors from Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Especially I have to give props to the voice actors for Kleiner and Eli who do a great job.
The weapons all have really good sounds too. Especially the shotgun, which just has a really satisfying OMPH to it. And I never get tired of hearing the cute chirps of the snarks as they get higher and higher pitched.
Black Mesa is an amazing reimagining of Half-Life. But of course, there’s a big question to ask as well. If you have never played either Black Mesa or Half-Life, which one should you play first?
To that I definitely will say that you should play Half-Life first. It’s way easier to appreciate the changes and improvements in Black Mesa if you’ve already experienced the original game. And I also feel that Half-Life still has a unique atmosphere that’s not entirely intact in Black Mesa.
Because as much as Black Mesa is an astonishing game in its own right, as a remake of Half-Life it kinda feels too different to really be recommended over the original. It has more its own vibe, and feels more like a different take on the original story, rather than some kind of replacement for it. So… definitely play both of them.
I did have a few problems with some bugs and slowdowns, and the ladders leave a bit to be desired, but overall Black Mesa is a great experience. And I wholeheartedly recommend it to any fan of the Half-Life series.
So go grab your HEV suit. They’re waiting for you, Gordon. In the test chamber…
An astonishing fan reimagining that provides a different take on the original Half-Life game. The Xen levels alone makes it worth playing through. After being in development for over a decade, the final result is definitely worth it.
- Lengthy solid campaign
- Expands upon everything from Half-Life
- Great music
- Gorgeous visuals
- Occasional bugs and slowdowns
- Source engine ladders.
- Xen levels can drag on a bit too much.