Half-Life remake Black Mesa is a success story that could only have happened on PC

Black Mesa's version of the resonance cascade.
(Image credit: Crowbar Collective)
GOTY 2020

goty 2020

(Image credit: Future)

In addition to our team-selected Game of the Year Awards 2020, individual members of the PC Gamer team each select one of their own favourite games of the year. We'll post new personal picks, alongside the main awards, throughout the rest of the month.

Black Mesa could only exist on PC. A fan-made remake of a high profile videogame, given not only the blessing of the original creator, but permission to sell it on their own digital platform. Most of these projects get hit so hard and fast with a DMCA takedown notice, they're gone as soon as you hear about them. Yet Black Mesa made it to completion without Valve interfering—besides the Black Mesa team being politely asked not to use the words 'Half-Life' in relation to it—and the end result is pretty remarkable. Not only because it even exists at all, but because it's a quality first-person shooter in its own right.

This remake, or reimagining to be more accurate, sticks closely to the source material in terms of structure, but with remixed levels, physics lifted from Half-Life 2, redesigned set-pieces, and some stuff that is completely new—most notably the Xen chapters at the end of the game. This makes it arguably the best way to experience Gordon Freeman's debut adventure on a modern PC, even if it does stray from the original in ways that some purists won't be happy with. But that's always gonna happen when you try to put your own mark on a game as influential as this.

(Image credit: Crowbar Collective)

Xen is where black Mesa makes its biggest statement. In the original game, Freeman's arrival on this surreal, interdimensional 'borderworld' was a disappointing anticlimax. It's perhaps not as terrible as you remember, but the fuzzy, uninspiring art, floaty platforming, and tedious boss fights mark a real downturn in quality after the magnificence of the Black Mesa facility. So it's no surprise the Black Mesa team wanted to redesign it; an effort that was met with several delays, but ultimately proved to be worth the long wait. Against all odds, Xen is good now.

The fight with the Gonarch in the original, which involves firing ten thousand rockets at a poorly animated testicle on legs, is legendarily bad. But in Black Mesa, one of Half-Life's worst boss battles becomes one of its best. The Gonarch is now fast, lethal, and actually quite terrifying, with different behaviours to learn and some really impressive animation. It's one of the best examples of how Black Mesa builds on, and improves, the source material. And on a more superficial level, Xen just looks really pretty—especially the dazzling skybox you see when you first arrive.

I love Black Mesa as a game, but I love the story of its development just as much. How a team of hobbyists and volunteers came together to make their dream Half-Life remake, achieved enough success to transition into a large scale commercial game, and released it on Steam, of all places, with the approval of Valve. That's a true PC gaming success story, and one that would only be possible on this platform. Black Mesa has existed in some form since at least 2014, but this year it was finally 'finished', and has emerged, for me, as one of the very best games of the year.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.