Even as I write this, I am unsure of what angle I should approach it from. I’m very conscious of what it means to be a critic of Black Mesa, which has been a touchy subject over the years. I haven’t been a Black Mesa apologist (but I’m not so sure about Vic), and so I’ve occasionally been on the receiving end of nasty comments from those who believe that it is exempt from criticism. But alas, it is free, and the people who have worked on it have done so with amazing dedication and passion over nearly eight full years. Likewise, a large number of Half-Life fans have awaited its arrival with great anticipation. How should one honestly critique something that’s free and taken so long to make without undermining that investment? All I can do, I think, is be honest.
While I have always admired the team’s ambition to transform one of the greatest shooters ever made – which I’m sure we would all agree is no small feat – I haven’t ever been able to look past the simple fact that it is a remake of someone else’s creative property. While the team does demonstrate a little creative license throughout the experience, it is still only within the constraints of an established framework. The core Half-Life experience is mostly unchanged and the fundamentals mostly intact. I haven’t ever bought into the hype, and I feel that the praise Black Mesa received with regards to re-inventing or augmenting the Half-Life story has been just a little too generous and inflated.
This has become especially obvious recently. In five years, there hasn’t been any word on when Valve will release another Half-Life title or what it will entail. Black Mesa, therefore, is the first fresh and significant Half-Life experience fans have had in half a decade. That deprivation has arguably skewed the way people are responding to it.
Again, though, I don’t want to sell it short. I finished Black Mesa about a week ago, and I was thoroughly impressed. I had few expectations and each of them were exceeded. Vic, too, felt that the game had vastly surpassed his expectations, which were even more significant than mine. I admit, I can’t even see myself ever returning to the original Half-Life. Not so much because I think Black Mesa is better but because I enjoyed it, and I can’t say I’ve properly enjoyed Half-Life in years. I love and appreciate it immensely, but I don’t think it has aged well, and I don’t just mean graphically.
It’s difficult for me to play through because so many sections are poorly designed by today’s standards and are a chore to complete (On a Rail and Residue Processing quickly spring to mind). I don’t blame Half-Life for that, of course, but I feel I can defer to Black Mesa because it’s fun and it’s faithful enough to the original even in its reinterpretation of things.
In doing so, I can ignore some of the questionable changes the development team has made and accept some of the more rewarding ones. And a lot has indeed changed. The moment-to-moment development of the narrative has received a lot of attention. Additional dialogue and more elaborate character interaction dramatically alters the flavor of the experience. The result is a mixed bag.
On the positive side, while Half-Life was only loosely populated with characters, Black Mesa is teeming with life. Nowhere is this more noticeable than throughout Anomalous Materials. Security guards and scientists can be seen interacting with each other at every turn; sharing concerns, venting frustrations, even bickering with one another. Some of the writing is surprisingly clever and humorous, and there are a number of delightful referential inside jokes knowledgeable fans will pick up on. A few had me bursting into laughter.
Later in the game, individual characters even respond to specific events if you bring them along with you. The team’s custom-made Face Creation System makes each new scientist or security guard look like a unique individual, even across different playthroughs, while remaining subtle and discreet. Gone are the days of identical-looking scientists perpetually coming back to life in different parts of the facility, breaking the immersion time and time again.
The world, in many ways, is now fully realized, and it feels just as organic and cohesive as the realms of Half-Life 2. This is arguably the best thing about Black Mesa. The characters are no longer cannon fodder or toys that you can mess around with by killing them in imaginative and comical ways (I used to set up hundreds of tripwire mines as a kid throughout Anomalous Materials, just to see the death and carnage). They now feel like actual characters – people I want to protect and save – and some of them even have distinctive personalities.
One of the more significant changes is the insertion of Eli Vance and Isaac Kleiner in the Anomalous Materials and Unforeseen Consequences chapters. This concept, which serves to augment the introduction of both characters in Half-Life 2 in ways Valve could not have possibly foreseen in 1998, is well inserted and amazingly seamless. Both characters have received convincing makeovers that genuinely make them look 20 years younger. This helps integrate Black Mesa into the overall fiction of the series, making it feel like a more solid representation of the original Half-Life’s narrative.
Kevin Sisk and Mike Hillard, who voice the security guards and male scientists respectively, pull off such exceptional voice acting there are times I can’t tell them apart from Mike Shapiro or Harry S. Robins. The intonation of their performance is usually dead on, uncannily so with Kleiner. The only questionable performance is Kevin’s attempt to emulate Eli’s voice, which is more than a little subpar. He sounds more like an African-American security guard than anything else. He’s only in the game for several minutes though, so it is a minor annoyance.
This does, however, raise an interesting issue. The new dialogue wasn’t written by anyone at Valve, and so what we’re listening to when we hear it is an interpretation of what these archetypes would say and not necessarily what Valve would have them say. This might seem obvious but I think it can be an easy thing to forget. This means that certain characteristics are misinterpreted, and I think this is especially obvious with the U.S. government’s military detachment, or as we have to come to know them: the Human Grunts.
Their portrayal in Black Mesa is extremely one-dimensional. They are overly evil and malicious, and I don’t think that was the case at all in Half-Life, where they were simply following orders and were genuinely disturbed at how you were butchering their friends. They were confused about their mission, but they carried it out with ruthless precision. For them, it was strictly business until Freeman started massacring their comrades, at least.
But in Black Mesa, things have changed. There’s one scene in Questionable Ethics that stands out for me. Two soldiers are walking across the lobby and allude to raping a female scientist. I found it disturbing, unnecessary and not at all in tune with the way Half-Life presented them. Generally, the Grunts sound less like ruthless military specialists with a grudge, and more like immature mercenaries right out of a B-movie action flick. This isn’t exclusive to scripted sequences. It is reflected through their voice acting in general.
The developers of Black Mesa rationalize this by suggesting that players needn’t feel any empathy towards the Grunts, but I do wonder if the narrative required this new angle. Certainly, the government soldiers were not the primary antagonists of the original Half-Life – they were simply cleaning up the mess at Black Mesa and combating the malevolent onslaught of the Nihilanth’s alien armada. For better or for worse, they were the lesser evil in an inter-dimensional power struggle they could not have imagined in their wildest dreams. But in Black Mesa, they’ve been erroneously established as the greater threat, not just from a narrative point of view, but also gameplay-wise.
The Grunts are much more difficult to fight than before. Their AI isn’t quite as emergent or as active as it was in Half-Life. They seem to hold down their cover, leaving the player to pick them off from a distance, and this detracts from the rewarding and engaging close-range combat encounters of the original game. They rarely use their grenades at all, and they also have absurdly accurate aim; and as a result, the combat doesn’t function as well as it does in the original Half-Life and nor is it as engaging as the combat with the Overwatch forces in Half-Life 2.
This raises a noticeable problem. Since the soldiers have been given a more significant role, and are now at least somewhat overpowered, most encounters with alien troops end in overwhelming victories for the Grunts. Moreover, very rarely do we see the corpses of fallen Grunts before we pass through an area. There is no indication that the military has suffered significant losses to the aliens. In Forget About Freeman, however, the ground forces somehow seem to be losing and are in the process of desperately withdrawing from the facility in favor of air strikes. This paradox impedes upon the credibility of the narrative.
Of course, all this begs the question of whether Black Mesa is actually a remake or, rather, a massive reinvisioning of the original game. Indeed, I’m not sure even the development team knows the answer to that. The flow of the experience does, at times, hint at an incongruence of design goals. There’s an obvious desire to remake Half-Life as it is for a modern audience, but it goes beyond simply updating the graphics. The team has altered large portions of it. Sometimes this works very well.
Unforeseen Consequences, for example, has seen a significant structural overhaul. The crowbar has been moved further ahead, forcing the player to rely on a security guard for support and small stockpiles of emergency flares. It is a wise choice that pays homage to Episode One’s Lowlife with an emphasis on survival horror and the usefulness of human companions. There is also a much smoother visual transition between Sectors C and B; and there are numerous other areas in which some very significant, and very effective changes have been made to game pacing and structure.
One of Half-Life’s more notable chapters: Questionable Ethics has also received extensive revisions. It is almost unrecognizable. What was originally a series of lengthy corridors and nondescript rooms is now a meticulously constructed and sumptuously decorated biological research lab with greater detail that doesn’t sacrifice efficiency, flow and practicality. Designer Chris Horn has taken advantage of the opportunity and inserted extra testing areas for players to experiment with. There is also a small Xen habitat, which is one of only two glimpses in the game of the Borderworld.
On the other hand, some sections have been excessively streamlined. The Resonance Cascade set-piece isn’t as powerful as it was in Half-Life. It remains an impressive spectacle that adequately sets the stage for the conflict ahead, but the scale of the disaster and the imminence of the danger it poses is tarnished by inadequate visual cues. In Half-Life, the loss of containment, disruption of lighting and the powerful explosions were subtly contrasted by the whining sound of a powerful system being over-stressed, the green lightning emanating dynamically and violently, and the distinctive sparks of exotic portal energy dispersing all around you. In Black Mesa, this doesn’t happen – comparatively, the sequence feels a little too safe, too static, and too artificial.
This problem extends to the sequence in which the player is momentarily teleported to Xen. Our first look at Xen from a pool of water in front of a few Bullsquids is conspicuously absent, and the Vortigaunt reveal is especially underwhelming. Rather than materializing in the middle of a pitch black area surrounded by four dangerous-looking Vortigaunts, in Black Mesa, three Vorts walk out from the shadows of an inviting cave, approach the player, and begin chanting peacefully, while they gesture in prayer. In contrast, their presence is too amicable and welcoming, rather than startling and disturbing.
Some sections have even been removed entirely; exploring the vents in We’ve Got Hostiles and a whole sequence of events in Surface Tension (to be fair, the latter did not make the cut due to manpower constraints). If the team was conscious of removing some of the game’s more irrelevant material, why on Earth leave all of Residue Processing intact, which is undoubtedly the worst and most useless chapter in the game? Or why keep Lambda Core‘s repetitive and irritating trial-and-error portal hopping puzzle completely intact, without any meaningful attempt to improve it and make it more tolerable? Furthermore, no thought went into expanding the Central Complex in Forget About Freeman. Surely Black Mesa’s Central Command and Communication Center demanded something more than a large signpost, a parking lot, and a series of canals with no discernible purpose or function?
What I find interesting is that even though they trimmed down some of the gameplay, the same cannot be said for level design. A few areas have become so elaborately detailed and expansive that the player’s sight of their goal – their sense of direction – is occasionally sacrificed for the sake of convoluted visual spectacle and complexity.
Don’t get me wrong, it certainly looks aesthetically pleasing. Here, Black Mesa feels like a place that could actually exist in real life, as opposed to the nonsensical Quake-esque dungeons from the original game. But there are moments where it negatively affects the flow and coherence of gameplay.
For the most part, however, this level of detail enhances the experience, offering us areas of staggering scale; the monumental teleport at the apex of the Lambda Reactor, the Hydroelectric Dam at the start of Surface Tension and, later, the Cliffside vista that overlooks the Mesa. In these sequences, Black Mesa’s sheer attention to detail becomes more apparent than ever, and the game begins to legitimately rival numerous modern-day commercial Triple-A game productions.
Great care has also been taken in producing a soundtrack that captures the ambiance that Half-Life is well known for. The opening piece in Black Mesa Inbound, for example, is eerily reminiscent of Kelly Bailey’s work. At the same time, it brings a unique element of mystery to the table through a more pervasive use of instruments. Even the heavier combat anthems that play during pivotal combat sequences work well in places, and it’s evident that a degree of thought has gone into tailoring these tracks for the modernized combat experience of Black Mesa.
However, unlike Bailey’s masterfully subtle ambiental compositions that enhanced the overall atmosphere organically, Black Mesa’s sound designer, Joel Nielsen, at times seems to try and artificially establish sentiments and motifs – and some of the time, it works incredibly well, but other times it simply makes the song in question feel out of place. A few tracks are placed with little consideration. The heavy music that plays towards the end of Blast Pit is arguably the most overtly inappropriate case. Similarly, the music that underscores the player’s first sighting of the Cliffside vista in Surface Tension doesn’t sound quite as iconic or imposing as the original game’s counterpart: the Valve Theme.
Of course, the exclusion of Xen is a hot topic, but I think it is a master stroke. In Half-Life, Xen was so far removed from the rest of the game. The jump from terrestrial environments to such an alien world where the mechanics we’d grown used to no longer applied was jarring and poorly executed. Many agree that the Xen chapters were severely lacking when compared to the rest of the game. Fortunately, the development team is reportedly spending a lot of time making that transition more seamless and ergonomic. What we’re likely to end up with is a separate game – something comparable in size to the Half-Life Episodes – offering an extended experience fleshing things out more thoroughly.
As an unofficial fan-made project, I think Black Mesa is without a doubt, one of the best that is out there. Certainly, as a Half-Life experience, it is surprisingly faithful and refreshing. It isn’t perfect, but I don’t think anyone ever really expected it to be. The flaws that are present would not be so readily evident if the rest of the experience wasn’t so well crafted; and as it stands, I do believe that it is much superior to the original Half-Life.
The only negative thing I see stemming from this is the idea that some people will be introduced to the larger Half-Life series through Black Mesa, which I think would be a serious mistake, simply because they’d be starting off with something that wasn’t developed by Valve – and that would lead to some skewed expectations. That said, the team has brought a unique perspective to its development; they remember what it was like to experience Half-Life for the first time, which is something no one at Valve who worked on it can say.
The result is a very enjoyable experience that has re-vitalised the Half-Life community, and that’s a remarkable achievement in and of itself. I’m sure that some of the people who worked on this have a future in game development, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of them end up at Valve in the near future. And even if they don’t, Valve certainly has very much to learn from Black Mesa. And I think they’ll need it.
Vic tells me we don’t give out scores here at LambdaGeneration. But he says that even if we did, he would still refuse to give Black Mesa a score. He didn’t get to tell me why, but I suppose that certain experiences go beyond the scoring table, both literally and figuratively. Perhaps the best games are the ones you can’t conventionally judge; the ones where you find yourself unconsciously nitpicking at every other thing you see, because of how incredible everything else is.
That’s why the pros of Black Mesa outweigh the cons.