Wednesday, June 28, 2023

First Play Review - Black Mesa: Definitive Edition [2020]

Half-Life's hype reached epic proportions when it was shown off at E3 in 1997 promising extraordinary level design and outstanding enemy AI. Even the Die-Hard meets Evil Dead of the story and gameplay set it apart and upon release it clocked up over 50 Game of the Year awards. While it endured in comparison to it's contemporaries at the time, it has now alas aged considerably graphics wise over the past 25 years. While Half-Life is an expertly designed game it's sometimes difficult, even with nostalgia to brave its legendary 15-hour campaign. To much disappointment, a 2004 port to Half-Life 2's Source-engine was not the remaster that most thought it would be. While it did go a little way to improve graphical fidelity, it was basically a simple asset port, and no true incorporation of the advances in technology to the new engine such as physics, lighting or particle effects were to be had.

The lack of a serious remaster by Valve for the game and the fact that CEO Gebe Newell said that it was "inevitable" that someone would fully mod Half-Life into the Source engine, prompted a group of modders called Crowbar Collective to work for some years on a true remaster of the game which they called Black Mesa. It was never intended for commercial release and was missing the Xen chapters but it was released in 2012 to much praise. It was subsequently voted to be released on the Steam storefront by fans though Valve's 'Greenlight programme'. Valve also approached Crowbar Collective with a proposal commercially release the game in the newer version of the Source engine which they agreed to so they could fully realise the game as it was meant to be. In 2015 an early access version was first released and a full Definitive Edition release now including the Xen chapters launched on Steam in 2020.

It wasn't until this was promoted and sold that I took notice. I don't have time to investigate too many mods for games or I'd never get through the backlog but this was certainly a unique case and for a beloved game. One of the best shooters ever melded with the full engine upon which one of my favourite shooters of all time was built. The accolades and review scores were positive so it became 'essential'. Before I had finished Black Mesa the game was over I knew I could never go back and play Half-Life  ever again.

Crowbar Collective did not remake Half-Life with the same level design, enemy placement and give you only the tools to experience Gordon Freeman's adventure through the Black Mesa complex, out to the surface and eventually to Xen exactly as it was. No. That would be a small step up from what Valve did in 2004 for their own game. Here, Crowbar took the 'essence' of Half-Life, the major set pieces, events and battles and created a new take on how Gordon makes it there. It's still the same Half-Life - not to a staunch purist perhaps - but it's so polished and professional that it's hard to come to terms that it's just a glorified mod. They expanded the game to about 20 hours which is not unwelcome as the both the new and familiar environments are exciting to traverse and fight through.

All of the original elements are stunningly realised but with new twists and turns and puzzles. The puzzles don't have Valve's genius behind them but again the essence of what they did is present, the use of gravity for example, as an aspect of being able to manipulate the environment is made possible through the Source engine and is used in ways not even conceived when the original game was created. The level of detail in the broken and sparking underground complex is realised to a more modern level. While the limitations of the engine as it stands may not be on par with games of the 2020's it's still years beyond the late 90's fidelity - or lack thereof.

Despite the accolades afforded to Half-Life upon its release, it's only real issue was the Xen chapters. The setting for Half-Life's final act received the most criticism at the time, and over the successive years. Filled with bland textures and boring zero-gravity jumping puzzles, Xen was lacklustre especially when directly compared with that had come before in the game. Crowbar Collective however took five years to reimagine Xen and it's truly the crown jewel of Black Mesa. Xen is now awash with colour and activity, it begs exploration and it truly now feels otherworldly. Unlike the science facility which is instantly recognisable, Xen is almost nothing like the original save for the main set pieces which even then are quite different. It was genuinely a delight to explore and unlock the secrets and expanded plot of Xen including the exhilarating and terrifying new realisation of the major boss-battles: The Gonarch and The Nihilanth.

Final Verdict: This is not Half-Life as you remember it, it's both the same and very different. But in most ways, all the ways that really matter, it's better! This is the way I'll consume the Half-Life game going forward, embracing this polished masterpiece from a dedicated team of developers who clearly had a passion for the game and wanted to make their ideal version of Valve's original classic. It's time to commit Half-Life to memory and acknowledge that without it, we would not have Black Mesa today.

Technicals: 22.3 hours through Steam on RTX4070Ti @ 3440x1440 / 175FPS

Bugs: None

Availability: Black Mesa: Definitive Edition is only available from Steam for €14.99. Review copy purchased in Oct 2017 for €7.99.

No comments: