The date is June 1st, 2004. Half-Life: Source is released on Steam in the lead up to Half-Life 2 to generally negative reviews.
Fans and critics alike lambast the game’s port to Valve’s new Source engine due to the sheer amount of bugs, odd changes made by the team, and general lack of treatment compared to the ports of other games such as Counter-Strike.
As a result, a group of unassociated mod developer teams would come together to form the Crowbar Collective with one goal in mind: to develop a true remaster that the series and its fans deserve. This effort would eventually culminate in the critically acclaimed community remaster known as Black Mesa.
Crowbar Collective’s journey is nothing short of spectacular. It took them from aspiring modders with nothing but the passion, drive, and access to Source SDK, to well-respected developers working alongside Valve itself. In that time, the labour of love has culminated into one of the most admired community remasters of its time.
Becoming the second most downloaded Half-Life 2 mod, as well as being among the top 100 Steam games of all time, hasn’t come without its hardships. The team has felt as much glory as it has pitfalls in the process of Black Mesa’s development. The newly-released Black Mesa: Definitive Edition shows how far it has come more than anything.
A full reimagining
Ever since its first release as a community mod on the site ModDB in September 2012, Black Mesa has been touted by the community as the way to play Half-Life in the 21st century. The project has morphed from an interesting little titbit in the depths of the Valve community to a must-have in the hearts of the mainstream gaming fanbase.
In the attempts to remaster Half-Life’s lovable but aged look, Crowbar Collective constructed an experience that manages to stand on its own legs. Black Mesa can only really be described as a reimagining rather than a simple HD remake. Even during early releases prior to its commercialisation onto Steam in 2015, Crowbar Collective put extra care into translating the more nonsensical parts of Half-Life over to the source engine.
This can be seen everywhere, from the added research labs in Sector C to an elaboration on the infamous “box room” section in the later parts of the “Unforeseen Consequences” chapter. The section has now been turned into a bustling cargo loading bay with a security office to boot.
It’s not just the levels that have been given a fresh, source-based facelift, either. The game’s narrative and general theming has been revamped while still maintaining its core structure. The alien vs human conflict in “Surface Tension” is more nail-bitingly unnerving as ever, with incredible sequences that give the world some much-needed depth.
However, it’s not all as spectacular as could be hoped. Black Mesa still finds itself falling into several of the pits that the original did, with certain chapters like “On a Rail” still feeling more like filler than meaningful content. It has its own set of issues too; Black Mesa’s attempt to reinvent the Half-Life atmosphere means that it ceases to have that bitter charm that the original did.
Black Mesa’s entire development cycle has hinged on this premise of taking those base ingredients that made Half-Life a smash hit, cutting the fat, and adding new trimmings onto an already fine dish. This desire for the utmost care being implemented in Black Mesa’s design has meant that the cycle from announcement to release has been long; almost Half-Life 3 levels of long.
Obligatory Half-Life 3 jokes aside, a lot of this wait was down to the Xen chapters, which saw the notoriously dreadful final section of the original game completely reimagined in almost every possible way. Crowbar Collective would see Xen go from a one-hour slog to a four-hour powerhouse of game design.
Turning 12 maps into 21 would come at a cost for the studio. In the whopping five year development period that Xen had, the notion of its release would become nothing more than a joke within the community. The game itself was still heralded with the status it still holds, but the entire project was seen as laughable.
Despite the progressively negative response to the time that Xen took, its eventual release was met with exalted praise all across the board. After gradually releasing each chapter in chunks over the course of four months, Xen released entirely on 6th March 2020. The Xen update saw Black Mesa skyrocket in popularity, with its average daily player count rising by over 6,000 from the previous month.
“Nothing short of beautiful”
Xen’s reimagined chapters are nothing short of beautiful. The clash of a striking colour palette mixed in with the lovably strange fauna that shroud the ferocious beasts waiting to hunt you down is such a staunch contrast to the alien dimension’s more antiquated look in the original.
Gameplay-wise, Xen maintains that Valve-grade quality that players have come to expect from Black Mesa. The art of visual storytelling is very much alive here, with Vortigaunts in shoddy huts conveying their hierarchical inferiority in this society, as well as the ominous tower that protrudes in the distance reminding you of your objective: to kill the Nihilanth.
Things do start to feel rather stale once you reach the Interloper chapter, however. It’s by far the biggest let-down in Xen, with an odd choice of puzzles that feel repetitive and dull. It really does beg the question of why Crowbar Collective took the worst chapter of the original Half-Life and doubled its length.
With Definitive Edition only further improving the game however, things have never felt better. It’s uncertain as to what is next for Black Mesa; will Crowbar Collective will continue to support the project, or will they will move onto new horizons? One thing is for absolute certain though: Black Mesa is at its absolute peak right now, which is something to behold for an already stellar experience.
There has never been a better time to run, think, shoot, live.