Report Card: Black Mesa (REVIEW)

Reviewed on PC

Chris Berto

More than 20 years after its original release, 1998’s Half-Life remains a masterclass in gameplay and storytelling in the first-person perspective. Back when games relied heavily upon pre-rendered cutscenes, and endless pages of dialog for players to sift through, Valve, who at the time was a far cry from the powerhouse studio it is today, crafted a world so rich in detail, and so meticulously designed, that storytelling was left to the player. The opening monorail scene serves as the narrative backdrop. However, a combination of the overhead intercom system welcoming franchise hero, Gordon Freeman, to his new worksite, Black Mesa, and the visual storytelling as Gordon passes through seeming miles of underground tunnels, watching as scientists conduct various experiments with varying degrees of success and the first signs that not all is as it seems. 

Over the course of 19 chapters a horror story involving interdenominational aliens, government black ops, and a mysterious figure known only as G-man, culminates in one of the best boss fights I’ve ever experienced. Even more so from an FPS. The only game more influential to the genre is the equally impressive, and somehow more bizarre sequel, Half-life 2. But how does the original stand the test of time? I recently embarked on a journey through the semi-official, Valve-blessed, “fan recreation” of the original Half-Life known simply as BlackMesa from a studio called The Crowbar Collective.

First-Person shooters typically come in 2 flavors, run and gun action with split-second reflexes making the difference between life and death (Doom, Quake, Counter-Strike, UnrealTournament, and their ilk), and what I like to call, “combat action,” think Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo. Half-Life expertly merges the two into a tight-knit combat flow that forces a player to understand what type of enemy they’re facing, which weapon will be most effective (while also understanding ammo scarcity), and the ability to adjust on the fly as groups of enemies are often a mixed bag of human and “alien” counterparts each with their own strengths and weaknesses. Combat is fast and frenzied, and thanks to the upgraded visuals of the newest Source engine, dismembered bodies rag-doll hilariously across the environment leaving scientific offices and alien worlds alike strewn with limbs and brains from those unfortunate enough to cross paths with Gordon Freeman and his ever-growing arsenal of badass-dom.

Starting with the iconic crowbar, Gordon quickly amasses a gun-nut’s wet dream of weaponry ranging from the hilariously overpowered .357 magnum and MP-5 machine gun, to the “obscene to carry on ones back” laser-guided rocket launcher, and fan favorite Gluon Gun, aka “The Egon.” Think about Ghostbuster’s character of the same name, and you might get an idea of this prototype weapon that emits a constant stream of energy that literally disintegrates anything in its path. It’s insane, and I absolutely loved using it anytime I was at maximum ammocapacity. Also, while the game isn’t inherently difficult, I did find myself dying more than I would like to admit. Thankfully, the game comes with an easy to use quick save feature, allowing you to save at any point with the push of a button so, if you escape a particularly difficult combat scenario, you can quickly save your progress and prevent any unnecessary do-overs in the event of an untimely death a few minutes later.

Unlike modern games that seek to wrench control from the player in order to play an elaborate cutscene, Half-Life lets the player dictate how much or how few story-beats they choose to hear. The Black Mesa compound is alive, and NPCs do their thing irrespective ofGordon’s presence. Before the triggering event that sets the world crazy, NPCs will carry out conversations that, if you’re present for, will help flesh out their individual backstory, otherwise you can ignore them and go about your primary directive. That directive, by the way, is simply to survive. Having never experienced the original, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I booted up the game, but what I found was one of the most nerve-wrecking experiences of my gaming career. More than any game I’ve played in the last decade, Half-Life had me at the edge of my seat, dreading every step forward. The ambient sound of the aliens combined with an incredibly revamped soundtrack had my heart racing and my nerves pinned with anticipation of turning down a new corridor only to be faced with a previously undetected enemy attempting to claw out my eyes while scrambling to find the right weapon for the job.

This game excels at doing something, so few others dare to attempt, and that’s visual storytelling. Where other games, even by today’s standard insist on telling the player what’s what, Half-Life prefers to show you, and lets the story unfold through the eyes of Gordon Freeman. Your hand is never held, no map is available, and you won’t get any hints unless you were paying attention to that one NPC that you thought was just some dumb security guard stuck in cage.

The last thing I was to talk about is the final chapters. I had to do some research into this one, but what I’ve learned is that the chapter called Xen in the Black Mesa remake, and the original Half-Life are not the same. After some light reading on a few respectable, and knowledgeable review sites, Xen (spoilers incoming), the mysterious alien world that Gordon is transported to, was originally several hours shorter in length, and widely considered to be the worst part of the game thanks to dull (even by 1998 standards) visuals, bad platforming, and underwhelming boss fights. It appears that the Crowbar Collective wanted to change players opinions on this and the following chapters because what I played was nothing short of mind-blowing.

To say that the visuals have been overhauled would be a gross understatement. I haven’t been awed by the use of colors and the sense of space since watching Avatar (no, not that shitty anime). Seriously, the colors on this world are so vibrant and beautiful that I caught myself standing on the edge floating space rocks and just admiring the space around me. This may not be on the bleeding edge of next-gen graphics, but the art direction is unparalleled. Speaking of unparalleled, can someone please contract the Crowbar Collective to design boss fights for games that still use boss fights? Once again, I can’t speak for the original, but if the fights against Gonarch, and Nihilanth are the same “underwhelming” fights in the original, then I need to time travel back to 1998 and dick-kick anyone who said these fights were boring! These two boss fights, the latter of which being the grand finale, were white-knuckle encounters throughout their duration and were the most intense parts of an already insanely intense game.

I can’t speak highly enough about my experience here and I’ll especially think back on the fight against Nihilanth with the same reverence I have recalling boss fights in games like Metal Gear Solid and the first 3 God of War games. Black Mesa stands as a monument to what is greatly considered one of the most influential games of all time. Higher frame rates, support for 4K resolution, and a totally revamped visual overhaul make this, in my opinion, the best way to experience a classic if you haven’t played it before. With Half-Life: Alyx recently released and bridging the gap between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, there has never been a better time to jump into the franchise and see what all the fuss is about

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