Black Mesa, the unofficial-turned-official fan remake of the original Half-Life has been trough a lot. Upon release, it was missing the last portion of the game, Xen, a portion that many fans of the original (myself included) agree was the weakest of the game. The team’s idea of remaking it was noble, but there was always some concern it would fail. The original game was designed by professionals, and while they did a fantastic job modernizing the gameplay and looks, Crowbar Collective was still following the path Valve laid. By choosing to remake Xen, they would walk uncharted territory, all on their own.
Having just finished it, I’m happy to say, they did it. These madmen actually did it.
The first thing you’ll notice is that Xen is freaking gorgeous. The original incarnation was visually uninteresting at best, and a boring slog at worst. Long stretches of nothing, bland colors, that sort of thing. Black Mesa’s Xen shows its colors right from the get-go. Literally. This Xen is a foil to the gray, industrial and cold corridors of the Black Mesa installation in New Mexico. The sky is brimming with color, alien life both hostile and friendly populate the place, weird crystals replenish your energy suit and blue goo heals your wounds. It’s appropriately strange and at times, mesmerizing. Please do stop to take in the view while you play. Especially when the music by Joel Nielsen kicks in. True to the spirit of Half-Life, the music composed for Xen is only used to punctuate certain moments, and boy does it punctuate. Most of them share a motif that really ties not only the beginning and end of your journey on Xen, but also ties Xen itself to the rest of the game seamlessly. Very good job Joel, my ears thank you.
Also appropriate is how the presence of humans in this realm is made way more apparent. It’s clear that Gordon wasn’t the first of our species to set foot on Xen, and unlike the original where you would find only the occasional corpse here and there, this time you’ll spend the first third or so of Xen exploring what remains of the previous expedition. Restoring power to open doors, blowing up walls with explosives, and killing some poor fools with headcrabs for, well, heads. And as you make your way further and further into this hostile world, the human presence gradually decreases, and I love how they reflected that in gameplay too. You can rely on good old human-made lead for the beginning of Xen, but as you progress, mundane ammo becomes scarce and you’ll quickly switch to the more experimental side of your arsenal. It is thematically appropriate and a lot of fun to just hold the trigger button with the gluon gun and watch the aliens disintegrate.
So this Xen is beautiful, I’m glad we established that. It also plays well, which is good, otherwise, this would be meaningless. Crowbar Collective proved they understand what makes Half-Life tick, and the level design reflects that. I particularly like how they managed to improve certain set pieces, like the first uses of your jump jet in Xen, going from floating platform to floating platform, or the battle with Gonarch, that was greatly expanded to spam multiple smaller arenas, with the beast pursuing you in between. It’s frantic and I like it. If there is one thing that bothers me, is the team’s reliance on this one puzzle model, where you get stuck in a “hub” and have to solve smaller puzzles to open the way forward. It’s standard Half-Life stuff—convenient path back to the start included—but I couldn’t help but notice that this part did that a lot. I wonder if it’s just because of the short duration of this chapter, compared to the rest of the game. It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but I would’ve like to see more inventive puzzles.
Speaking of set pieces, one chapter I was dreading was Interloper. This was by far my most hated part of the original game, with its conveyor belts and stupid spinning elevators. Black Mesa fixed my issues. You’ll make your way through the lowest part of the “factory”, something equivalent of a sewer system, passing through the “assembly line”, and ending in an intense climb all the way to the top, where Nihilanth awaits you. On the way, you’ll receive some aid from the Vortigaunts, solve puzzles with energy cables, and get the local Controllers in an intimate relationship with your gluon gun. And speaking of Nihilanth, the final boss battle was reworked into something way more intense than its previous incarnation. That is to say, the boss now presents a real credible threat, so expect to load a save a couple of times.
All of that said, Black Mesa’s finale turned out much better than I expected. Crowbar Collective pulled trough and delivered a conclusion worthy of the Half-Life name, proving once again that there’s nothing fans can’t do. Whether you’re returning to the HEV suit or putting it on for the first time, Black Mesa is a love letter that deserves your time.
Now go. They’re waiting for you again. In the test chamber...