That Half-Life: Alyx gameplay sure looks fun, huh? Too bad it’s not out until March 23rd, and even then, only for those of us lucky enough to own certain VR headsets. Worry not though, because whether you’re losing your mind over the wait for Alyx, or are weeping at the price of a Valve Index, there’s a new Half-Life game you can enjoy right now, and it’s called Black Mesa.
What is Black Mesa?
Developed by Crowbar Collective, Black Mesa has been on a long journey. It began nearly 10 years ago as a simple mod, aiming to bring the original Half-Life game to the Source engine with updated graphics, physics and gameplay. Now hold up and put those pitchforks down – before you claim this is just a remake and not a new Half-Life game, give us the chance to explain.
Valve already made the engine jump themselves with Half-Life: Source, but Black Mesa dared to be much more than just a port. First made playable back in 2012, it’s been updated in increments since, and has proven successful enough to be officially sanctioned by Valve.
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Finally, after 8 more years of development, Black Mesa received its official 1.0 release on March 5 and is available to play via Steam. The Half-Life series is one of the most iconic in gaming, but with the original releasing back in 1998, we’ve no doubt many modern gamers haven’t experienced Gordon Freeman’s maiden adventure.
The story – for the newbies among us – sees scientist Freeman caught in the midst of a dimensional overlap at the Black Mesa research center. Headcrabs, vortigaunts, barnacles and all manner of alien creatures are invading the laboratory halls, transforming scientists into zombies and generally making a mess of the place. If only the army were here! Oh wait, they are, and they also want you dead. Guess it’s time to escape on your own.
With the release date for Half-Life: Alyx cresting the horizon, Black Mesa is the perfect chance to grab that famous crowbar for the first time and get swinging. Even for the seasoned theoretical physicists among us, there’s plenty of new content here that makes a return trip far more than a nostalgia ride.
So what’s new in Black Mesa?
Black Mesa is much more than a simple graphics update, though that’s obviously the first thing you’ll notice when jumping in. The blurry textures of the late ‘90s have been updated and replaced to offer up crisp, clear visuals at a smooth framerate. This is no graphical powerhouse, mind. Black Mesa is intended to run on most PCs, and the graphics fall much closer to Xbox 360 and PS3 levels. Think of it more as staying true to the ‘90s style, with a touchup to the paintwork helping to meet the expectations of our rose-tinted glasses.
So the graphics may not blow you away, but this retro revival is packed to the brim with updates to the core game as well. The jump to the Source engine grants access to a wealth of extra physics options, and Crowbar Collective has taken full advantage, adding plenty of new physics puzzles similar in style to those found in Half-Life 2. These are introduced to original areas, as well as brand new or expanded levels.
That’s not it either, voice acting and a fresh soundtrack by Joel Nielsen add a wealth of atmosphere to the game at crucial times. Updated AI makes enemies more challenging than ever, and some particularly ugly alien faces are even sporting some deadly new moves. Finally, you can even challenge your friends in updated multiplayer which includes maps from throughout the Half-Life Universe. Oh, and there’s also this little thing called Xen.
Xen – Take 2
Okay, so here’s the big sell. If you weren’t aware, the original Half-Life is almost entirely beloved. Almost. All except for the closing Xen section which saw you bouncing around an alien landscape before launching rockets into a giant baby’s open skull. Yeah, it was weird, and more than a little bit of rubbish.
Black Mesa includes an entirely reworked ending to Half-Life, massively developing the closing Xen level to add entirely new environments, puzzles, boss fights and objectives. Even if you’ve memorized Half-Life off by heart, Crowbar Collective’s take on Xen will put you to the test. For many, this will be the core reason to dive into Black Mesa, even if it takes the full game to reach it. The Black Mesa Xen section also wraps up the story in a way that connects to the subsequent games more directly.
It may not be Half-Life: Alyx, but hell, many of us without VR Headsets might not get to play Vale’s latest release for a long, long time. Until then, or until Half-Life 3 finally arrives alongside the heat-death of the universe, Black Mesa will be waiting for you, Freeman.
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Henry Stenhouse was formerly a PhD physicist before being born anew in the fires of game journalism. An unashamed Super Smash Bros. fanatic, he’s still waiting for the rest of the editorial team to accept his daily challenges for an Ultimate showdown. Other genres of interest include FPS, RTS and western RPGs. You can follow him on Twitter at @Fernoface