Great But Late: Experiencing Black Mesa/Half-Life 1

I’ve been told I’m a peculiar breed of PC gamer. Don’t get get me wrong – I definitely possess some of the telltale stereotypes. My Steam library has collected an ever-expanding slew of titles I would never be able to finish in my lifetime, the size of my custom-built gaming desktop rig and accompanying accessories have slowly grown into an LED light-infested beast that clutters my work area, and I find myself perpetually addicted to the benefits of an all-access digital game collection. However, there’s something big which alienates me from the majority of those who have surrendered to the all-encompassing power of the PC master race…

I have never played through the Half-Life series.

half life 2 eli talking

“…did he just say…”

Yes, I am talking about the franchise that put modern first person shooters, intuitive physics-based gameplay, and legendary developer Valve on the map. Perhaps due to my relatively late exposure to the PC gaming world (the summer of 2010), and my admittedly minimal knowledge of the platform and its history prior to that point, my drive to delve into the series (even though it was one of my very first purchases on Steam) was never enough to put the rest of my gaming agenda on hold. I was aware of the acclaim of the series, how often it was regarded as a stepping stone for many (or arguably all) FPS games that followed it, how widely it was considered a staple that all PC gamers must play, and how shamelessly the internet enjoyed beating the dead horse of a joke that the third entry of the series had been confirmed.

I was not aware of how the games handled, what they looked like, what the story centered around, when they had even been released, or why the only mental image of the series I could conjure was a man with a goatee wielding a crowbar.

I tried several times to install the games and give them my best shot, starting with Half-Life 1. I quickly realized the game was more than a few years old when I was greeted by blocky textures and models, and woefully outdated voice acting. I just wanted to get through the first entry to appreciate what the game had done for the FPS genre and PC gaming industry as a whole, but I embarrassingly admitted defeat to the evident age of the game and found myself unable to really appreciate my playthrough. I barely made it 20 minutes into the game.

half life 1 bad graphics cop running

Go ahead. Look me in the eyes and tell me this game has aged well.

A few months later I took a crack at Half-Life 2, the sequel released  in 2004, which is amazingly enough still a good looking game by today’s standards. While I could appreciate the graphics, and gameplay was as tight as more recent Valve games such as Portal and Left 4 Dead, the very first scene of the game threw me into a bizarre monologue with an unknown character that I could only imagine made sense to those who had played through the original. I had a pleasant time navigating through the first hour or two of the game, but without full context of the story I felt I was missing out on a big part of the game’s appeal. I exited out and never returned.

That was 2010. Two years later, a team of dedicated fans would release a project many years in the making which aimed to reconstruct Half-Life 1 and bring it into the modern age of gaming. This year, in 2014, it found its way to me.


Enter Black Mesa

Developed by 40 volunteer contributors, Black Mesa is truly a complete remake of Half-Life 1. The game was developed on Valve’s Source engine with the vision of a more engrossing game environment, more realistic gameplay, and an overall more varied experience. It was released for free on September 14, 2012 after a grueling development process that spanned nearly 10 years.

I was aware of Black Mesa when news spread of its release, but I can’t quite say what made me ignore it for a year and a half or what finally drew me to it several weeks ago. All I know is I have completed the game and feel I have finally gathered a true appreciation for what Half-Life 1 contributed to gaming. 

Right away the (comparably) beautiful visuals caught my attention and did away with any prior sense of age I felt the original game had. While Black Mesa’s graphics tend to look more like the early 2007 development side of things rather than the industry’s graphical standards when it was released in 2012, there’s not much to complain about. Immediately I was pulled into the environment, learning I was Dr. Gordon Freeman and I was on my way to take part in an experiment within the Black Mesa Research Facility. I was enjoying my time exploring the complex, interacting with scientists and other individuals, and really just soaking in the universe that’s had such a huge impact on its fans. But alas, I eventually buckled down and found my way to my station to take part in my experimental duties. I admired the visuals of the game one last time before I initiated the experiment at hand and…


…things went wrong.

black mesa chapter 1 experiment malfunction

Very, very wrong.

I could spend a lot more time talking about the visuals of the game, but since this article is about the significance of the original game, and not the changes Black Mesa made, I’ll transition to other aspects of the game that have remained intact.

As much as Black Mesa breathes new and needed life into Half-Life 1, it should receive equal if not more praise for its respect to the original work. I couldn’t help but appreciate finding myself cursing at my computer after falling to my death 20+ times trying to jump across what appeared to be a simple platforming puzzle. The poorly explained and seemingly unreliable mechanic to jump further and higher while crouching makes a return in Black Mesa, and while I’d certainly damn it to hell if it appeared in a game in 2014, it really added a sense of nostalgia pointed towards an era I wasn’t even heavily involved in. Even the completely daunting and frustrating puzzles which feature some surrounding pedestals and platforms that Gordon will clumsily bounce off of for no particular reason added to my understanding of the limitations the original game faced. Although I was often just one failed jump away from punching a clean hole through my computer monitor, it was hard not to chuckle in the end wondering whether I had solved a puzzle the way it was intended or if I had glitched my way onto a platform I was never meant to touch. 

The platforming and physics in the game are not all that different than games being released today, and that’s exactly the point…

While certain mechanics have been touched up from the original, such as Gordon’s absurdly fast Sonic the Hedgehog movement speed, the majority of how the original game played did not need to be approved upon. I found myself switching back and forth between the original and Black Mesa to take note of differences, and I was amazed to find out that the platforming in Black Mesa, which is still fun to navigate by today’s standards, was nearly identical in Half-Life 1. The platforming and physics in the game are not all that different than games being released today, and that’s exactly the point; Valve greatly contributed to how puzzles and physics should be incorporated into a narrative-driven game, and the impact they made still serves as inspiration to many game developers.

Bioshock Logo

What would we have missed without Half-Life?

Although platforming is a major factor in how you navigate levels in Black Mesa, the series is an FPS at its core. This is one aspect of the game that, even when playing the aged original version of the game, is incredibly fun, well-executed, and satisfying. The varietal potential of guns in the game is plentiful and matched by a wide variety of enemies which require different tactics to conquer. There are some alien creatures that pose more of an annoyance than a threat, such as the headcrab which can be vanquished by a single strike of your crowbar. Other opponents will require more planning and caution, like the Marine soldiers who carry a variety of guns, are more intelligent and lethal, and are very rarely without backup. Black Mesa’s other alien enemies, like the Vortigaunt who can blast Gordon from a long distance with energy beams, carry a wide variety of threats and demand different weapon tactics to effectively manage.

The game does a strong job of mixing up fast-paced firefights with a single well-placed enemy waiting for you at the end of a sharp corner. Both kinds of encounters quickly left me with little to no health if I didn’t promptly adjust myself. There’s something powerful to be said about 15-year-old game design that thrills the player with deadly and well-placed enemies, and not just by relying on deafening sound effects and jump scares to instill momentary and forgettable suspense. My time with the game made it very clear to me where the strengths of Valve’s Left 4 Dead series came from.

black mesa three aliens green lightning

It reminded me that video games once heavily valued the idea of rewarding players for handling a fight well, and not just handling it.

Your health gauge comes in two layers; a shield and your actual HP, which require different items to replenish. Unlike today’s age of forgiveness and replenishment à la Call of Duty and Borderlands, Black Mesa made me painfully remember I had forgotten to reload and spent 30 seconds clumsily fumbling through my guns when I found myself overwhelmed by enemies a couple rooms back. Neither my shield or health slowly crept back up to full after I spent five seconds behind cover. Instead, I was left with only hope that I would be lucky enough to find a medical dispenser or health drop, and that I could neutralize the next enemy I encountered before they capitalized on my now dwindling health. It’s a simple enough mechanic that was not new to the original game, but it added a sense of tension and isolation to my playthrough knowing no invisible mother figure was going to come rid me of my wounds. It reminded me that videogames once heavily valued the idea of rewarding players for handling a fight well, and not just handling it. I thoroughly enjoyed Black Mesa’s only offer of another chance being a manual reload of my latest save. 

Half-Life 1 didn’t generate as much buzz as it did based on gameplay mechanics alone, however. Rather, it introduced such groundbreaking gameplay through a well-told and well-paced story that made the player want to be a part of what was going on for reasons beyond just completing the objective. I will not spoil the intricacies of the story for those like myself who may have avoided Half-Life 1 up to this point, but expect a premise comparable to the Dead Space series; an experiment at Black Mesa goes wrong, aliens invade, employees are dying, the facility is in shutdown mode, and thanks to the protections his hazard suit grant him Gordon Freeman must venture out to the other side of the massive facility in order to reach the surface and seek help.

black mesa screenshot rpg helicopter

When in doubt, panic and use rockets.

It’s certainly not the most involved story I’ve ever experienced, but I was able to easily connect with it and want to progress out of genuine curiosity for what came next. While the ultimate objective is to make it to the surface, I found myself learning the most about Black Mesa, the failed experiment, and the origin of the creatures I was fighting through eavesdropping on conversations, exploring and interacting with my surroundings, and taking my time in the game’s environments. It’s a brilliant characteristic of storytelling in videogames and one that made me first fall in love with the Bioshock series- my most cherished gaming experiences of all time. As much as I believe Bioshock will be remembered as a breakthrough in environmental storytelling in videogames, it was powerful to realize it would not have existed without the impact Half-Life made.

Unfortunately, in its current state Black Mesa differs from the original Half-Life in one major way: the final few chapters of the game are entirely absent. The developers of the remake have since announced that the concluding chapters will be added when the game sees its official release on Steam. I was unaware of this when I reached the abrupt conclusion of Black Mesa and was completely caught off-guard. This was mainly because the opening cutscene of Half-Life 2 which I had previously played through still did not make ONE DAMN OUNCE OF SENSE.

black mesa ending green portal

“See that glowing green portal over there? Pretty ominous, right? Thanks for playing!”

My journalistic drive prompted me to refuse that a game held on such a high pedestal would end so abruptly without so much as the slightest goodbye. Sure enough, my proficiency in Google searching informed me that I would need to switch over to the original in order to finish the game.

Several chapters and one graphically mundane final boss later, I reached the game’s conclusion. When I expected the credits to roll, I was instead greeted by a horribly unsettling character who appeared human but spoke in mysteriously vague and stuttered business terms. It was the same horribly unsettling character whose face is first to be seen in Half-Life 2’s opening cinematic, and suddenly the pieces fell into place. While saving as many spoilers as possible for those as lame as me who have yet to experience this freaking spectacle of a game, it changed everything about the future of the game’s story and made me want to dive face first into the game’s sequel Hungry, Hungry Hippo style.

half life 2 title screen crosswalk

I’m coming, sweetheart!

Maybe I’m 15 years too late to the party to pretend I “get” why Half-Life was such an enormous success for its time, and maybe I’m not a true fan for having played the improved remake instead of the aged original that persistent fanboys still try to convince me stands the test of time. I don’t care. I am happy to have experienced a beautifully structured and fantastically imagined piece of gaming history, even if in a form that I could more easily engage with.

To sum up over 2,000 words into under 25, if you haven’t yet played the original Half-Life, or better yet any game in the series, Black Mesa is an incredible place to start. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to continue my adventure in a gorgeously modded version of Half-Life 2.

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