the Andrew Bailey

Black Mesa

Once upon a time, Valve released Half-Life: Source. Everyone expected it to have improved visuals, but were disappointed that it was merely a port. The water looked better, but since you're not looking at water for 99% of the time, that's not an improvement. Some industrious fans decided to make what they expected it to be, calling their project Black Mesa: Source. They set to remake Half-Life to a standard comparable to Half-Life 2. After practicing some mandatory Valve time, it appeared as a mod in 2013. A blogger wrote about it in 2014. Valve blessed the project, even granting permission to sell it on Steam. It released in 2015 with the same levels as the mod. They promised the ending Xen levels, which released in 2020. Said blogger bought this months ago, and it has been mocking him from his Steam library ever since.

Screenshot of Xen's alien landscape and scenery, with an ominous tower in the distance.

The extra dimensional world of Xen was the most contentious part of the original game. Crowbar Collective (the people behind Black Mesa) had very different ideas. They stole all the story beats from the original, and scrapped about everything else. Good riddance, because you were jumping around poop-smeared alien origami. Xen has been reborn into some of the most gorgeous places I've ever seen. It's an alien wilderness bathed in eternal twilight. It's like an acid trip to synthwave heaven. If it wasn't for the hostile wildlife, the tower of Mordor looming in the distance, and not being real, I would be tempted to live there. A science team had that idea, but they all met a grisly fate.

The original levels feel the same as the mod, which all feels like the original Half-Life. You relive the traumatic experience that made theoretical physicist Doctor Gordan Freeman mute. Every level has Valve-like design cues, like introducing a new gameplay feature in a safe environment, then gently making you to use it for real in a dangerous situation. The infamous jump-crouch maneuver appears, which can go die in a fire. (I'm sure that no one else's games use it for a reason.)

Having acclimated to shooters that limit your arsenal, I'm annoyed at games that let you carry a whole armory with you at all times. Fully decked out, Gordon carries about 15 weapons. There doesn't have to be so many. I didn't use the snarks (alien beetles that bite enemies and you for a few seconds), nor did I have any use for the laser tripwire mines. It seemed like the only use for those were for the level designers to create obstacle courses with them and explosives. (Gordon is trying to save the universes, not pull off a museum heist!) The tau cannon and muon gun confuse me, and they seem to be equally effective, aside from charging a shot versus constant fire.

After the first level or two, there were no levels that were only characters talking to you the whole time, but there were several sections where you weren't fighting anything. During downtime, you solve puzzles, jump around platforms, or crawl through ducts. It happened often enough I wondered if I was playing a Batman game, or maybe F.E.A.R.

The voice acting is solid enough. Since the original material had only a handful of unique character models and voices, I excuse Black Mesa for doing the same. The character models themselves are well-designed and look good. Just before things went to hell, I heard that smooth man's voice I can't forget, but was disappointed that he never mentioned Stanley.

In my last article, I noted that the music was fantastic and I had been listening to it for years. The music for the Xen levels puts them to shame; the music there is as beautiful as the landscapes. The sound effects are plentiful and varied. While the sound assets are great, the sound mixing system is awful. The game plays music way too loud, and the menu needs turned down, too. If someone's standing almost next to me and talking, I can't hear them if I'm not looking directly at them. (Even then, I only heard dialog out of the front left and front right speakers of my 7.1 setup.) Who knows how many interesting tidbits I missed because of that.

Having had more time to reflect on Halo, Black Mesa's pacing comes to a crashing halt when you have to heal up. Health and (rarely) energy stations dot the Earth levels, and healing pools and pods dot Xen. To use them, you need to walk up to them, press a button, and wait a few seconds while you stare at a wall. I imagined that it would be better if you were instantly charged instead, like health and energy pickups. Maybe it heightens the tension, but almost every station is in enemy free areas, and pickups can be in the middle of firefights. Unlike Halo, Black Mesa has boss fights, during which you are regularly replenished.

Disclaimer: I've only played Half-Life: Source, not the original 1998 release, so I know the disappointment that inspired Black Mesa. From my memory of playing it, Black Mesa is not a remaster of Half-Life: Source, but a remake, and an excellent one at that. I remember that you could step on cockroaches in the original, but I was not able to here.

The achievements for Black Mesa are peculiar. There's no achievements to reach specific levels, but there are separate achievements for the two endings. Most others are rewards for failure.

I wholeheartedly recommend Black Mesa for any shooter fan. It goes for $20 normally, but I got it on sale for $10. I imagine that Crowbar Collective would remake Half-Life 2 to the standards of Half-Life 3, if that one ever happened. If they decide to do something original, I'm game.

EDIT March 2022: Noclip just released a Black Mesa documentary, check it out!

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