Review: Half-Life Returns With Black Mesa

Reverence. That is what I, and most gamers, feel towards Half-Life. Released in 1998, it was revolutionary. More importantly, it was fun.

Playing now, though, is nearly impossible. Not because of any technological limitations (it was ported to Steam), but because the 14-year-old graphics make you want to weep.

At least they have until now.

Movie buffs are lucky. Any time they want, they can re-watch old favorites. Even if it's "just" on DVD, the picture quality is still pretty good. The same isn't true with games. There's no going back, so to speak. Or to quote one of the best lines from one of my favorite movies: "You can never go home again, Oatman, but I guess you can shop there."

It's not just trying to get programs from earlier versions of Windows to run on the latest Microsoft offal, but older games lack the high-res textures, high polygon counts, and fancy lighting techniques of modern games. In other words, they look like crap.

Behold: Black Mesa

This is no high-budget port. This is the work of a bunch of dedicated fans of the game, who have painstakingly rebuilt Half-Life from the ground up. Think of that for a second: Just a handful of people rebuilding something it took Valve itself years to make. When the screen faded in, and I saw the new high-res tram, I was giddily transported back to the moment I first saw that screen 14 years ago.

But how much has changed: I played the original Half-Life on a 14-inch (was it 12?) CRT (CRT!) monitor  with a JVC mini-system for speakers. I played the remake on a 102-inch projection screen with a full 5.1 system (in my house 3,000 miles further west, but I digress).

A tiny part of me was a little worried. After all, with nearly a decade and a half to build something up in your mind, how could it possibly live up to that standard?

Here's the insane part: it totally does. It is every bit as amazing as it was back then. Now I'm not saying if Half-Life was released as-is today it would stand up to some of the better competition. I'm saying it's clear how much the game influenced nearly every game that came after it. It's easy to see how any why it was so groundbreaking, and easy to see how modern games smooth some of its more "quirky" edges, but yet it's still a fantastically fun game. With Guild Wars 2, the Planetside 2 beta, and Battlefield 3 all ready on my desktop, every night I chose Black Mesa over all of them. Now that's saying something.

I mean seriously, could that opening tram ride be the gaming moment of the year? Again? Or the first time you see a headcrab? Or that helicopter.

Thank you, thank you, thank you, Black Mesa team. This game is a gift of the greatest kind to gamers everywhere.

A few last notes. I am amazed how much I'd forgotten in this game. Before I started, I'd have said I remembered almost all of it. Nope. Not even close. There are parts and areas I don't remember in the slightest. So there's a brilliant mix of amused high-res nostalgia, frustrated "why can't I remember this puzzle" and "man this is a great game" moments.

By far the worst for me was seeing in the opening credits that I am now exactly as much older than Gordon Freeman as I was younger than him the first time I played. This was not uplifting.

Lastly, and there's no Xen yet, just Black Mesa up to and including the final portal. They're still working on Xen (and Deathmatch!). So it's almost the whole first game.

Black Mesa runs on the Source engine, not the shiniest of new gaming engines, but one that's holding up surprisingly well given its age. You only need any Source-based game to run Black Mesa, which is available for free at blackmesasource.com.

Now my reversion to my college years would be complete if someone would just re-skin Counter-Strike. Oh wait

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