In 1998, Valve Software released Half-Life; a first-person shooter videogame. It took the gaming industry by storm. It was so good that nearly every other videogame company started emulating the game’s format. As the years passed, Half-Life naturally became more and more outdated compared to newer games. Six years later, Valve released a sequel: Half-Life 2. It was a worthy sequel, and the most graphically impressive game in the world at the time. Perhaps most importantly, it was highly moddable. This allowed a group of fans to create a modern remake of Half-Life 1 using Half-Life 2’s Source engine. After nearly a decade of development, they released the remake called Black Mesa. It is often discussed by the fanbase whether or not new players should play the original game, or the remake.
In order to see whether Half-Life or Black Mesa is more accessible to a newcomer, one should compare the most important points of the franchise: the gameplay, graphics, and story presentation.
Half-Life’s gameplay has aged very well, which makes sense because modern games are still emulating it. Movement feels good; it is fast, grounded, and compliments the flow of the game. An equally important point is that weapons are still satisfying to use. The recoil and damage make them feel powerful, and they have good sound effects. In addition to those two core features, the AI is still intelligent and fun to play against. The AI’s programming is so chock-full of small details that it gets to the point where it almost feels like other people are controlling them. They take cover, form squads, flank, and try to flush the player out with different tactics. All of these combine to make a fun, visceral gameplay experience that people still enjoy to this day.
Because Black Mesa is a remake, the gameplay must be an improvement right? On the contrary—many things were downgraded from the first game. Movement is slower and clunkier, which really ruins the flow of the entire game. Likewise, the weapons are worsened. They tried changing the recoil system and weapon damage, but it did not work out. Because of this, the weapons feel week, and are just unsatisfying to use. On top of all that, the AI has declined from the first game. Enemies pretty much just run straight at the player, without doing anything unexpected or interesting. In order to compensate for the dumbed-down AI, they just made it so they do high damage and have really good aim. It is really a chore to fight them. Overall, the gameplay is a downgrade from the original game.
Half-Life’s graphics obviously have not aged well. In fact, it is so old that a computer does not even need a 3D card to run it. Models are blocky, which makes for ugly characters and environments. Plus, the lighting is ugly. Also, the textures are very low resolution. These can all deter a new player from getting into the game.
Because Black Mesa is a remaster, it of course has better graphics. The Source engine allows for high-polygon models, which makes for almost photorealistic characters and environments. Moreover, they have also implemented a new lighting system that adds dynamic shadows, lens flare, and godrays. Finally, the engine allows for high-resolution textures. All of this comes together to bring the game up to par with other, more recent games. New players will of course find this more approachable from the get-go.
When it comes to story presentation, Half-Life does very poorly. There are no named characters, which any story-driven game should have. Plus, the dialogue is rushed and unclear. The characters just stand there, telling the player what to without really going into any depth. Likewise, the entire plot is hard to follow. Ever since the game was released, first-time players have had no idea what is going on in the plot.
On the other hand, the Black Mesa developers had a huge advantage as they are basing their remake off of Half-Life 2, a largely story-driven game. They added named characters that were retconned by Valve in Half-Life 2. Furthermore, they were able to hire professional voice talent, and dialogue is much longer and more detailed. Correspondingly, the story is now clear and easy to follow. As a result, new players will be able to understand the story—and by extension, the rest of the franchise.
Overall, Black Mesa should be the go-to game to introduce new people to the series. While the gameplay is a bit worse, the vastly improved graphics and story more than make up for it.