It's really not necessary to say anything about the original Half-Life. It's all been said before. Valve's shooter has gone down in history as one of the most iconic games ever made, just like the sequel that followed it. Not only that, but it's also considered to be the template that a lot of popular linear single-player campaigns followed. In many ways, the game serves as a form of father figure for all that's come after it and that's not something you can say for most games.
Still, it must be said that there's an incredible force of energy surrounding the Half-Life series these days, which is particularly exciting now that it has been dormant for so many years as Valve has spent its time and resources on other initiatives. However, that's all about to change when, later this month, the series continues via the VR-exclusive Half-Life: Alyx. Before that, though, after five years in development, the ambitious fan-made remake Black Mesa is out of Early Access and thus, finished.
So what is Black Mesa? The game started out as a fan-created passion project. A mod that went by the name Black Mesa: Source back in 2012, which tried to recreate the original game by using a more modern version of Valve's internal graphics engine, the Source Engine. Such projects pop up all the time, so what's different about this particular one you might ask? Well, instead of shutting the project down, Valve chose to give the game a green light to be sold commercially, and so began a development process that, after eight years, five of them in Early Access, and thousands of volunteer man-hours, has now resulted in a final official launch on Steam.
The game, of course, includes all of the original chapters with a number of crucial visual updates added to them, but the team behind the project, working under the banner of Crowbar Collective, has also tweaked the parts of the experience that were received poorly in the original, namely the so-called Xen part, or the end of the game. It can be considered a remake on the basis that it has been altered and improved upon. The team did not have access to the original source files, yet it resembles a remaster in practice. In short, it's a clear but not complete modernisation of the iconic Half-Life.
And so to the question you're all asking - should you buy it? Well, that's a complicated question to answer, but after playing the game through, our immediate response would be a resounding "YES". But why? Well, Black Mesa, although it may not represent the visual quantum leap that many have been hoping for, is the most modern, most seamless and most satisfying version of Half-Life that one can play, and even after all these years, it remains a tremendously well-crafted single-player game filled with great sequences, great storytelling, and excellent action.
Of course, technical flaws are still present, even in this final version of the game, and we ran into some bizarre physics here an there and also experienced a slightly annoying recurring pause that read "Loading ..." for five seconds before we were allowed to continue. Other than that, the game runs smoothly from start to finish and it's pretty easy to hop into this world to experience Gordon Freeman's nightmarish journey through the alien-infested research facility, something we're sure would have been harder if we'd started the original up after all these years.
If you decide to look at Black Mesa as a way to relive the experience of old, then Crowbar Collective's work will be more than enough and you can safely invest the approximate $20 / £15 it costs to play the final experience. What you should not expect, however, is a true "remake", as having that particular word imprinted in one's brain might bring you to compare Black Mesa to visual experiences such as MediEvvil, Final Fantasy VII: Remake, Crash Bandicoot: Nsane Trilogy and Resident Evil 2, and that won't put Black Mesa in a fair light. It's technically a remake, but it behaves like a remaster. However, it's the return of a masterpiece, so that's worth keeping in mind.
That being the case, if you buy Black Mesa you can expect a fantastic single-player campaign filled to the brim with mystery, beautiful music, great staging and intense shooting duels for your buck, and while you may feel the age of the game it's mirroring, it's equally easy to see the influence the original has had on modern shooters.
Black Mesa is made with love and it's also the product of unconditional love for Half-Life. You can sense that as you go through the game. Fortunately, it feels like an Ultimate Edition of sorts - the ultimate way to experience a classic. However, we couldn't completely ignore the minor technical bugs here and there, and if you were to hop into the game expecting a remake, then you could potentially be a little disappointed that Crowbar Collective wasn't able to take things further.
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