In the hands of the bold a reinvention can either be very effective or very dangerous. Is redesigning a classic worth the risk of falling short or tarnishing the original? And what of the legions of fans who hold such games so near and dear? While many welcome HD updates of their favorite titles, others allege there's sacrilege in meddling with something that was perfect to begin with. After nearly 14 years, Valve’s debut game Half-Life has remained a pinnacle of video game achievement. What began as a polished FPS game soon became a benchmark by which all future shooters would be measured by. When it was announced in 2005 that a team of volunteers and community developers would utilize Valve’s Source engine and completely redesign the iconic PC game, cries of joy were tempered with concerns that such a team might not pay proper respect to the original or even create a maligned experience that resonates Half-Life in name only.
Seven years since then, such fears have been put firmly to rest as Black Mesa is a masterful culmination of tribute, precision, and design that pays proper homage to Half-Life while adding a dash of gameplay ingenuity that strengthens the pacing. Marred only by frequent game-crashing glitches and technically still incomplete (the final chapters will be released sometime in the future), This re-imagining of Gordon Freeman’s original tale of survival against all odds is bested only by the superb job done by the dedicated community team behind it.
From a graphical standpoint, Black Mesa is far beyond the original game, as every character model, environment, and level design was reworked from the ground up utilizing the Source engine used in Half-Life 2 and the Portal games. While the difference is vast, the graphics are still noticeably dated when compared to current PC titles out there. This is to be expected, however, as the Source engine is approaching its eighth year. Yet Black Mesa looks and feels surprisingly good considering Source’s age, and the attention to such minute details around every corridor and office is staggering. From the most banal office corners to the HEV and first-aid power nodes, nearly every detail was retooled, tweaked, and updated to exist comfortably in our HD, 1080 progressive world. Memorable set pieces like the catastrophic resonance cascades that open the alien portal or battling an attack helicopter are all perfectly recreated and feel more visceral than ever. As the Black Mesa complex crumbles into chaos, you feel more than ever the sense of dread and impending doom as Gordon Freeman becomes the primary target of both the aliens and the government seeking to contain the invasion.
In the gaming industry, music and audio effects are often overlooked in favor of stunning visuals and high-octane firefights, but Black Mesa expertly expands upon both elements. Many of the trademark monsters from the Half-Life games retain their familiar grunts and gurgles from before, while others were tweaked just enough to bring forth that little extra impact. Shuffling zombies snarl with more gusto and torture than ever before, and the enslaved vortugants now sound identical to their peaceful counterparts in Half-Life 2. More impressive is the voice-acting and soundbites added to various scientists and the government forces. As the game progresses, soldiers grow more and more violent with their voiced opposition to Freeman, reinforcing the overall threat they represent. Small conversations can be heard between them revealing that even they aren’t sure what makes Gordon Freeman so important, yet such moments fuel the tantalizing immersion into the many mysteries that surrounding the famous protagonist.
Perhaps most impressive among the updates is the soundtrack accompanying the game. Whether it is the haunting piano strokes as you traverse a warehouse wired with dozens of laser-tripped mines, or the adrenaline pumping guitar riffs and electronic squeals as you face off against another squadron of soldiers, Joel Nielsen has performed a dazzling feat of marrying ambient and melodic tempos with the context of each chapter Black Mesa takes you into. No matter the situation, each track succeeds at building on the emotional tone set by the corresponding actions taking place in the game and at times are simply chilling. Feeling the hair stand on my arms as the track “Questionable Ethics” kicks off an ambush from repelling soldiers was an absolute thrill, and many other tracks induce similar feelings throughout the rest of the game.
While so much of Black Mesa was produced with such precision and expertise, it is frustrating to see just how frequently the game will crash due to the numerous bugs throughout the chapters. Problems of this nature highlight the importance of game testers and quality assurance as you will undoubtedly find your game glitching out frequently. The majority of them crop up during scripted events and have rather odd solutions, but some players will come across missing panels or locked doors that fail to open after a certain event takes place, forcing a reset of the event or, in severe cases, reinstalling the entire game. Though an occasional bug here and there can be forgiven in major releases, the sheer quantity of them in the 10-hour experience is Black Mesa’s biggest flaw, and future updates should make debugging a huge priority.
Lastly, Black Mesa is still incomplete as the final chapter and the climactic ending have yet to be completed by the community team. Unfortunate as it may be, the 10 to 12 hours of game play you do get are still highly polished and incredibly satisfying to Half-Life veterans and shooter fans alike. If nothing else, the lack of an ending will give players plenty to be excited about as they wait for the team to finish the incredible final minutes of Gordon Freeman’s first tale of survival.
When it comes to passion projects and labors of love it is often too easy to lose yourself to a vision without properly realizing it. What starts as a jubilant excitement to see the finished product debut to millions of eager fans can easily change into a hastily-designed appeasement that doesn’t deliver on its potential. But with great patience, steadfast design, and an iron-clad commitment to paying Half-Life its greatest compliments, Black Mesa is a near-perfect remodeling of a near-perfect game. The adventure might be the same, but the experience is still one of the purist forms of video game entertainment ever achieved. Much like any product that comes from Valve these days, the wait was long but worthy every minute.
See you in the next level,
Support Local Journalism.
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club
Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.