Upon its release in 1998, Half-Life instantly became my favorite game of all time. That wasn’t saying much, really, since we’d only just set up our first family computer, and I’d barely started playing video games. But history has proven my hot take to be a pretty solid one — Half-Life’s blend of first-person shooting and narrative storytelling was incredibly influential, and it went on to spawn a series that stokes near-unparalleled hype and reverence to this day. Just witness how Valve still isn’t able to make enough $1,000 headsets to meet demand for Half-Life: Alyx, which is coming out in a couple of weeks.
Half-Life 2, though, I never really got on with. By the time it came out, I was a student with nothing but an Apple iBook to my name, and PC gaming just wasn’t a possibility for me. The first time I played it was years later when I got an Xbox 360 and decided to check out the original Xbox version. In hindsight, that port was a technical miracle. But it was still a compromised version, and the Xbox 360’s suboptimal backwards compatibility only made matters worse. I could appreciate what the game was doing on an artistic level, and its physics system was clearly groundbreaking, but it felt like a slog to play. Revisiting it on PC now, with its leaden combat and interminable vehicle sequences, I can only feel the same way. (Though I do think Episode 2 is great.)
All of this is to say that, first of all, if you’re priced out of Half-Life: Alyx because of the need for a gaming PC and a VR headset, I feel you. I also know what it’s like to feel like you’ve missed the technological boat on a game. There are lots of examples of older titles that I come to years after the fact and enjoy just as much as I would have upon release, but for whatever reason, Half-Life 2 could never be one of them. And even though I dearly love it, I would understand if the original Half-Life, with its crude ‘90s visuals, couldn’t be one of them for you.
Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. Black Mesa, a staggeringly ambitious fan-made, Valve-sanctioned remake of the original Half-Life, finally left Early Access on Steam this month. It’s not the first time you’ve been able to play the game from start to finish, but it is the first time the developers have felt comfortable selling it as a completed product. And whether you’re a novice to the series or looking to brush up on your lore ahead of Alyx, I would consider Black Mesa both an essential game in its own right and the best way to play Half-Life today.
That might sound like a big statement given there are two other official ways to play Half-Life, both of which are free right now. The original game holds up fine for me and actually looks a lot better than how I played it back in the day. Valve updated a lot of the models with an expansion, and, of course, you can now play it at far higher resolutions and frame rates on modern hardware. Another option is Half-Life: Source, which Valve released in the wake of Half-Life 2; it’s essentially the original game ported to the sequel’s Source engine, with largely identical assets but improved physics and lighting. I think it’s a little redundant, but you might find it to be a bit more accessible.
Black Mesa, however, is a full-on remake whose enthusiast team, Crowbar Collective, started work in 2005 in an attempt to port Half-Life to Source the right way. Valve ultimately decided to give its blessing to the project after seeing how impressive the team’s work was, but it’s been in development for so long that, to be frank, it doesn’t entirely look like a new game anymore. I first bought it in 2015, which is long enough for me to have forgotten whether the opening chapters have changed at all in the final release. Rest assured, it’s a huge improvement on the original game, either way.
As a remake, Black Mesa is a little more extensive than something like the anniversary versions of Halo and Halo 2, though the graphical upgrades are comparable. It’s more than just a visual refresh. The original Half-Life code isn’t plodding along behind the scenes. Crowbar Collective didn’t feel unnecessarily beholden to the original work, either, and it took the liberty of altering the level design in places where it made sense. Overall, though, Black Mesa essentially feels like playing the original Half-Life with better graphics than Half-Life 2.
That means it’s a pretty old-school first-person shooter, with health packs and unlimited weapon loadouts and so on. You’ll often find yourself replaying quicksaves, trying to get that little bit further on your 17 health units so you don’t have to reload from an earlier section. The combat is great, with tightly designed segments that make the most of the menagerie of enemies you’ll come across. Like Half-Life, Black Mesa is at its best when you’re trying to avoid being outflanked by uncannily smart black ops forces.
The storytelling still works, too, even though Half-Life 2’s dystopian horror makes its unashamedly sci-fi predecessor seem campy by comparison. Half-Life was one of the earliest first-person video games that unfolded its narrative by showing, not telling; there are no cutscenes or breaks in the action, and you see everything that transpires from your character’s own perspective. At a time when games like God of War are rightly lauded for pulling off similar tricks, Half-Life’s influence has never been more apparent. Black Mesa preserves its essence.
The biggest change Black Mesa makes to Half-Life is its closing chapters where (spoiler alert) Gordon Freeman is transported to a mysterious alien world called Xen. These levels were universally considered a downer by players of the original, with dull visuals, interminable platforming, and underwhelming boss fights. For Black Mesa, Crowbar Collective has completely transformed Xen, extending the section by several hours and making it one of the highlights of the game.
Black Mesa’s reinvention of Xen is so good that it actually makes the earlier sections look less impressive by comparison. But Crowbar Collective says that it plans to put out a 1.5 “definitive” release that polishes up the art throughout the entire game. There’s no timeline for that, which feels somehow fitting for the seemingly endless story of this project. Even after 15 years and a 1.0 release, Black Mesa remains incomplete.
I wouldn’t let that put you off, though. In kinda-sorta finished form, Black Mesa still ranks as my favorite way to play any Half-Life game. It’s a project that exudes professionalism, not to mention passion for its source material and a desire to bring it to a wider audience. If you’re yet to delve into the Half-Life universe, I strongly recommend you start with this.