It's a rare thing to get a new Half-Life game. It's rarer still to get two in a single month. Neither are the mythical Half-Life 3, but both Half-Life: Alyx and Black Mesa are a chance to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with this long-running sci-fi game series.
Half-Life: Alyx is a VR-only game, so you'll need a VR headset and good amount of open living room space. It's easily the most-anticipated virtual reality game of the modern VR era. Black Mesa, on the other hand, is a standard PC game, available via Steam. Unlike the $60 Half-Life: Alyx, it's a more reasonable $20.
The other key difference is, while Alyx is an official Valve-produced entry in the Half-Life canon, Black Mesa is a fan-made remake of the original 1998 Half-Life game. The project has been around in one early form or another since 2012. Valve, owner of the Steam PC game storefront and creator of the Half-Life games, gave the creators of Black Mesa its official blessing to release a commercial version of Black Mesa, and that version 1.0 release hit the Steam store this week.
I played the first few hours of Black Mesa with frankly low expectations. Classic games are almost never as good as you remember them, and what felt revolutionary in 1998 would almost certainly feel dated today. The game starts with the same long tram ride as the 1998 original, which I've frankly been through enough times to skip at this point.
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Even though the game has been recreated from the ground up using newer technology, no one will mistake this for a new game with all the modern graphic bells and whistles. The geography is blocky, the animations awkward, and your progress is stiflingly linear. At the same time, the textures and lighting have gotten a major upgrade, and most of the movement and controls have a modern-enough feel to be playable.
Despite my misgivings, once the experiment scientist Gordon Freeman is conducting goes horribly wrong and the action kicks off, I was sucked right back into the world of Half-Life. The pacing remains excellent, little narrative touches provide excellent world-building, and there are just enough tweaks and subtle changes to the maps, puzzles and encounters to not feel like a shot-for-shot remake of the original.
I was surprised to find myself still playing hours later, promising to quit after just one more section of the Black Mesa facility. For a $20 fan-made labor of love, that's high praise.
If you're waiting for Half-Life: Alyx, which requires a VR setup, or even for Half-Life 3, which will probably never happen, you could do a lot worse than spending a few hours in this modernized remake of the classic that started it all.