Half-Life: Alyx is only one month away from releasing, marking the first game in the series in over twelve years. There’s going to be quite a lot of people, myself included, who haven’t played the original Half-Life but still want to experience it before Alyx launches. If you know about Half-Life, chances are you know about Black Mesa, the unofficial remake created by Crowbar Collective. After playing the original game and Black Mesa, I feel like this needs to be stated once and for all: people need to stop recommending Half-Life 1 over Black Mesa.
The main argument I see online for playing Half-Life 1 over Black Mesa is that you will appreciate the remake much more. The one glaring issue with this advice is that not everyone has twenty hours free to finish two games. You don’t need to play through two whole games to know that the remake is unsurprisingly going to be a better experience overall
Half-Life 1 was an excellent game back in 1998, but by today’s standards it really doesn’t hold up as well as some people seem to suggest. Visually, Half-Life 1 looks about as dated as every other game released back in 1998. While the visuals don’t break the immersion for me, the audio certainly pulls me out of the experience. Something that a lot of people fail to mention about Half-Life 1 is the quality of the dialogue. Every conversation sounds like it was recorded on a motorway using tin cans.
If you’ve got to choose between the original and the remake, I can’t imagine too many people are going to pick Half-Life 1 over Black Mesa unless they are nostalgic for the original game. As long as the gameplay holds up, who cares, right? Well, that’s the thing… I’ve been playing Half-Life 1 alongside Black Mesa, and there are a number of moments in the original that are flat out bad.
This section of the game involves the player pushing boxes together so they can reach a ladder. I tried doing this initially but because of the way ladders work in this game, it can be difficult to climb up there. What was the solution in Black Mesa? Remove the stupid boxes entirely. Then there’s On A Rail. This chapter is just awful. Half-Life 1 has great pacing for the most part, but this section aims to ruin that pacing by slowing the player down and having them do repetitive tasks. Black Mesa cuts this awful section in half and removes the tedious parts.
How about this laser puzzle that requires you to stop this laser shield? Half-Life 1 has players move a crate to block the shield from coming down. I ended up accidentally solving this puzzle, and even then the game glitched on me so the shield never lowered enough to get stuck by the box. Yeah, but what about Black Mesa though? All you do is unplug the power to the shield.
There are moments in Half-Life 1 that tonally seem very strange, like this clip of Gordon fighting the military for the first time. You pick up an M4 and immediately music starts blasting like you are playing Doom. Black Mesa removes this music because it simply doesn’t fit the scene. Half-Life 1 is an action game, but with the amount of horror elements and gore, I just don’t think the music fits well here.
That’s not to say Black Mesa doesn’t play any music, it does play some of the same tracks, though this is done primarily for nostalgia purposes. Black Mesa knows when to stick to the original script, like the moment in the We’ve Got Hostiles chapter where you have to avoid a helicopter. Crowbar Collective plays the music in this scene and I felt like it’s a nice callback to the original game despite the fact that it doesn’t really fit that well here either.
As I mentioned earlier, Half-Life 1 contains horror elements, however, they don’t come across as well as they should due to the old engine. In the Unforeseen Consequences chapter, you can tell things have gone horribly wrong for the scientists at Black Mesa. In the remake, this sense of dread is highlighted even more thanks to the upgraded visuals and audio. These horror elements in Black Mesa work so much better than in the original as Crowbar Collective can do much more using the Source engine.
Let’s be real, this information shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone. I am comparing a game from 1998 to a remake from 2020. If Black Mesa wasn’t better than Half-Life 1, that would come as a bigger surprise, right? I said it earlier but I’ll say it again: Half-Life 1 is an amazing game for 1998. The pacing of the action, the level design in certain sections, the number of unique enemies, this game does so much right. To think a game as extensive as this was released back in 1998 is insane. That’s why Black Mesa is so great: it modernises Half-Life 1 in a way that makes players nostalgic while tweaking the annoying parts of the original to make you forget they were annoying in the first place.