Why “Black Mesa” Remake Is Better Than “Half-Life”

A screenshot of what Xen’s Lair looks like in the “Black Mesa” remake.
Source: Alec Denston

A screenshot of what Xen’s Lair looks like in the “Black Mesa” remake. Source: Alec Denston

Half-Life” is a game (released in 1998 by Valve) made for Microsoft Windows as the first of eight other “Half-Life” games. In the first game, you play as MIT scientist Gordon Freeman. After an experiment goes wrong causing a resonance cascade of aliens from a different world to invade earth, Freeman must get from his lab, ‘Black Mesa,’ to the neighboring lab, ‘The Lambda Complex’ after finding out how to close the portal to ‘Xen.’ All while dodging aliens and soldiers sent to kill any survivors of the experiment.


But in March of 2020, a third party company called Crowbar Collective releasedBlack Mesa. A 2020 remake of Valves “Half-Life” with better graphics, sounds and tasks. Arguably making “Black Mesa” better than the original “Half-Life.” I will only be comparing the first “Half-Life” game to the remake since the remake is just the first game, but I mention the sequels as lore and context.


Let’s start with the graphics. “Half-Life” was given the obvious disadvantage of being made in the late 90s as opposed to the modern 2020 technology. Nonetheless, it had dull colors and everything sort of blended together. For example, “Half-Life’s” alien world ‘Xen’ was dull and had a brown pallet with creatures that blended into the world. It wasn’t very pleasant to look at.


But “Black Mesa’s” ‘Xen’ was absolutely beautiful. It had vivid colors with a sky full of stars. I found myself so taken aback at how beautiful it was. Even though you’re equipped with weapons, it felt wrong to fire a weapon or to even be holding one in a place like that. All the creatures and plant life were nice to look at and it was genuinely breathtaking. 


There aren’t a whole lot of characters in “Half-Life” that you see a lot. You are mostly on your own for a lot of it to show how empty and dangerous the lab is. But in the beginning, you see some characters from future games.


In “Half-Life” you have no memorable interaction. You run into some scientists, who talk to you, but in future games, you have characters like Isaac Kleiner, Eli Vance and Barney Calhoun claiming to have been some of your greatest friends when you never even spoke to them in the first game. There’s a chance you said ‘hello’ to one another at one point but since all the scientists look and sound the same, it made it impossible to tell if you did or not. However, in “Black Mesa,” Eli and Isaac have their original designs and all the other scientists look different, so you can easily tell it’s them and they engage with you like friends. They share small jokes with you and trust you to send for help. Even though they don’t talk to you a lot, it fits in canon that 20 years later in the second game they haven’t seen you since they sent you for help. 


The little details in “Black Mesa” are amazing. In the radio message from Barney while he’s talking, he’s interrupted by another guard saying that Kleiner locked himself out of his office. This is followed by him saying, “Yeah and guess who’s in the vents?” and we hear Barney stand up quickly and run out of the room followed by swearing and crashing noises. The message ends with the other guard saying, “He’s already halfway there you aren’t gonna beat him.” This relates back to “Half-Life Two” episode one. Alyx Vance mentions to you that you and Barney would race to see who could get into Kleiner’s office first whenever he locked himself out, often going through the vents. She brings it up saying, “I’ve heard stories of you and air ducts.” 


Another detail is Eli Vance’s leg. In the other “Half-Life” games, we see Eli with his left leg missing but in “Black Mesa,” it’s still there. That’s because it’s said in the book, “Half-Life 2: Raising the Bar,” Eli lost his leg after escaping the lab with Kleiner when he got to City 17, the main city in the “Half-Life” universe. He lost his leg while helping Kleiner over the fence to the city to a Bullsquid, one of the aliens from ‘Xen.’ It was never explained in the game why his leg was missing so the research that went into this game shows. 


My last reason why “Black Mesa” is better is because of the final battles. In ‘Xen,’ you must defeat The Nihilanth and some Gonarchs who are the rulers and protectors of ‘Xen.’ In “Half-Life” it’s incredibly difficult too. It took me months to defeat them because there was hardly any ammo, health kits or cover. It was incredibly frustrating, and I almost gave up on doing it multiple times. But in “Black Mesa,” it’s still difficult but we have a constant stream of health kits, ammo and plenty of cover. It wasn’t easy, but it didn’t take me months to do like before. It still had the double ending choice, choosing to join the Gman as his employee or not, but it was way better than before.


Altogether, I prefer “Black Mesa” over “Half-Life.” It’s an incredibly made game and was in the works since 2012. It clearly shows how much work and research was put into it. The “Half-Life” series is one of my absolute favorites, but you have to give credit where it’s due: that the remake is better than the original.