Fan-made Black Mesa is a remake of Valve’s classic 1998 shooter Half-Life. It’s been in development for around eight years, which is poignant, since it’s been around that long since I’ve played the original.
A lot has changed since then.
For starters, the project’s original goal slowly became almost untenable as time went by. First conceived as a way to remake Half-Life and do it properly – unlike Valve’s own lacklustre effort – as the years dragged on it became less and less likely that the finished product (if it ever was finished!) would look as modern as it had first been hoped. Time was moving faster than the project’s ability to keep up with it.
So, let’s get this out of the way first. Black Mesa does not look like a modern video game. The limitations of both the Source Engine, and the fact its armchair developers were working with someone else’s code, means that things like object density and character animation look like something you’d have seen in 2007, not the kind of thing we’re accustomed to now, even in mods.
That’s not to say it’s ugly, far from it. There are some gorgeous lighting and environmental effects to be seen, and as a foundation Valve’s original art design still looks, in many parts, as fresh as it did when it was first released. But in general, for the majority of your playthrough, you’ll feel like you’re playing, yeah, something from 2007.
Except for the parts where you remember you’re playing a game that’s actually from 1998. Those simply reliving old glories won’t mind, and will probably even enjoy the fact, but for younger players interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, know that the FPS genre moved on from a lot of this game’s staples for a very good reason. You need health packs to survive, not five seconds behind cover, which may make things harder, but often also results in a tedious procession of endless quicksaves. There is still platforming, dominated by crouch-jumping, and it’s still dreadful.
But you know what? None of that stuff really matters. Because Half-Life, like its sequel, is great not for its bullet-point features, but for the way it pioneered the experience of really being in the first-person perspective, and not just using it as a disembodied floating gun platform. And Black Mesa doesn’t just maintain that feeling, it’s where the bulk of the really worthwhile improvements have been made.
This isn’t just a remake. The Black Mesa team, led by Carlos “cman2k” Montero, have quietly gone in and either fixed or added new content all around the fringes of the game to make it more immersive, to really kick up the sense that Black Mesa was a facility where a lot of people worked, and not just some empty, cavernous shooting gallery.
That means more chit-chat and incidental events in the background. More junk lying around. One gun has, gasp, iron sights. Many areas have even been not-so-subtly changed, to make them bigger, or even just to be more impressive.
Which is a gutsy thing to do! There are other developers porting obscure old games who wouldn’t dare mess with the original, let alone something on the level of Half-Life, one of the greatest games of all time. But these guys did, and did it well, so my hats are off to them.
Especially for the end. If you’ve never played Half-Life, know this: the end sucks. I don’t mean that relative to the rest of the game, I mean it really sucks. Terrible first-person platforming combined with a weird storyline twist (that sits at odds with the one of the rest of the series) makes it easily Half-Life’s lowest moment.
Lucky for newcomers (and everyone), then, it’s gone. You don’t play it. The team have cut it from this release of the mod, and instead of plugging it in later, will release it as a standalone title sometime in the future, promising to make substantial changes. It’s not often you can praise a game for leaving something out, but again, making that call must have taken guts, and in the end it was the right call. The Half-Life experience is a tighter and more coherent one without it.
It feels strange playing Black Mesa after all this time. I’d honestly resigned myself to never getting my hands on it at all. It’s also weirdly stressful to be reviewing it; while it’s a fan-made mod, it’s also a remake of one of the greatest PC games ever made, only now I’m reviewing it with 12 years of critical baggage and adoration along for the ride.
Which, of course, must have been nothing compared to the stresses involved in actually creating such a high-profile project. There have been AAA original titles come and go with less scrutiny than this mod, which may explain in part why it’s taken eight years to get the thing into the hands of the public.
Now that it’s here, though, the Black Mesa team has actually delivered. This is Half-Life updated just enough to make it palatable for contemporary tastes, but not so much as to deviate from the original vision. Considering the amount of people involved, the time it’s taken and the legacy of the source material, it’s an amazing achievement.
Almost as amazing as the fact that it’s free.