The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games and life converge

Black Mesa: A Reflection and Marvelling At The Refreshed Journey Through Xen

“That’s why I’m here, Mr. Freeman. I have recommended your services to my employers, and they have authorised me to offer you a job. They agree with me, that you have limitless potential.” –The G-Man

Upon arriving in Xen, Freeman is met with the same fauna he’d encountered at Black Mesa, and begins making his way through the floating islands that constitute Xen. Along the way, he passes by numerous research facilities and other HEV-equipped researchers who’d visited previously. In order to continue, Freeman activates a series of portals, eventually winding up in the Gonarch’s Lair. This powerful alien monstrosity initially appears resistant to all of Freeman’s arsenal, but after Freeman lands a few good hits with the rocket launcher, the Gonarch takes off. Freeman is able to prevail over this beast, and its death opens a new portal, leading him to a massive factory that manufactures the Alien Grunts. After making his way up through the facility’s cavernous interior, Freeman reaches a portal that takes him to Nihilanth’s lair. Freeman knocks out the healing system keeping Nihilanth alive and destroys the creature’s brain, killing it in a series of titanic explosions that also knock Freeman out. When he awakens, he finds himself face-to-face with the enigmatic G-Man, who provides him with an offer of employment. Freeman reluctantly accepts, knowing there is probably no other way to survival. This brings Black Mesa to a close, and this was such an incredible experience. Even more so than the revamped Black Mesa complex, Black Mesa‘s Xen missions have been completely redone. The alien segments of Half-Life, once a simple collection of crude floating islands, becomes a massively remastered, reinterpreted set of missions that capture the mystique and scale of this alien dimension. It was an absolute thrill to go through each segment of Xen and admire just how much attention went into every little detail, from the plants to the healing pools. The end result of a re-imagined Xen creates an experience that redefines the Half-Life story, greatly enhancing it and accentuating to give players a greater appreciation of the scale of things that would eventually precipitate the events of Half-Life 2.

The biggest part of the Xen missions that impressed were the inclusion of puzzles that kept to the spirit of the original Half-Life game – each puzzle introduces players to a new concept, and once players have an inkling of how to go about solving a puzzle, Black Mesa ramps it up, adding complexity to each area, forcing players to become increasingly creative in how they approach an area. The end result is that players have a chance to really explore an area while searching for a solution to unlock access to the next spot. Some of these puzzles can be quite complex, but once one figures out what needs to be done, it becomes an immensely rewarding. The original Xen lacked the same level of complexity, and was counted as being a disappointment in an otherwise solid game – Half-Life‘s Xen missions were maligned for its simplicity and lack of inspiration, being a very flat ending to the game. However, by re-imagining the missions, Black Mesa has transformed Xen into a detailed, meaningful and integral part of the game, one that is a pleasure (rather than a schlepp) to experience. It was though the re-imagined Xen I fought through; after killing the Gonarch and slaughtering the alien Controllers enslaving the Vortigaunts, I finally arrived at Nihilanth’s chambers. I swiftly set about destroying the terminals keeping Nihilanth alive, dodging fire and dumping everything I had into Nihilanth’s oversized cranium. After a few attempts, I emerged victorious, and with this, I’ve now completed a game that’s been many years in the making.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • I was so blown away by the stunning scenery in Xen that I spent a good five minutes just standing here, just admiring the skybox and textures. Unlike Half-Life‘s Xen, which was a minimal and miserable collection of floating islands set against a sickly green backdrop, Black Mesa‘s Xen is beautiful, conveying the vastness of this exotic location. Xen is supposed to be a dimensional void, where detritus from other dimensions eventually ends up. Wildlife seen throughout Black Mesa‘s earlier sections call these asteroids home, and for this segment of the game, there are no live humans encountered.

  • Once the initial sense of amazement wears off, it was time to proceed into the level itself. For the first few moments, Freeman is able to travel freely without too much interference. I had exited the Lambda Complex with my health depleted from fighting the alien controllers, my submachine gun down to one spare magazine. Without human enemies it would initially seem that replenishing ammunition would be a problem, but as I continued to explore, resource caches left by scientists would allow me to top up.

  • Medical and suit recharging stations in Xen are replaced by healing pools and energy crystals, which refill  one’s health and HEV suit energy, respectively. These have unlimited uses, and when encountered, one should always top off to ensure they’re able to survive the next area. The lighting here is mesmerising: star light scattered by the nebulae illuminates the entire area in an ethereal glow. Xen’s first areas proved to have no shortage of sights to behold, and I was impressed beyond words at how the Crowbar Collective had re-built the area.

  • Portals are still found in Xen, being an essential means of travelling through the different areas. Unlike the Lambda Complex, however, the portals of Xen are a bit more straightforward, taking Freeman directly to his next destination. However, unlike the Black Mesa segment of the game, it is not exactly clear where Freeman is headed at this time: the only goal is to kill Nihilanth, but where this ends up isn’t exactly clear. Fortunately, Black Mesa is quite good about guiding players through, and so, I was content to continue exploring Xen.

  • After entering a cave that is gently illuminated by various Xen flora, it was time to put the long-jump module to use. By double-tapping the jump key, Freeman is propelled a considerable horizontal distance, allowing for gaping chasms to be cleared. Black Mesa and Half-Life both feel distinctly like a 3D platformer with respect to how the levels are constructed. Having an extra dimension to manage, however, is a little tricky, and not timing one’s use of the long-jump module could result in being propelled into the void of space. Conversely, mastering the long-jump module will make it easier to clear areas efficiently.

  • Moving through Xen, it becomes clear that humanity actually has known about this dimension for quite some time, and that a considerable amount of resources had been directed towards researching the wildlife and environments of Xen. The implications are that there was something in Xen worth pursuing, if they were willing to put in this level of effort. Exploring the scientists’ deserted quarters and their work will occasionally yield additional ammunition. These details were largely absent in Half-Life, demonstrating how even without any dialogue, things like level design and environment clutter can speak volumes about the lore and story.

  • Venturing deep into Xen, unusual glowing crystals can be seen. One of the things that was a little tricky for me was understanding which crystals served to recharge Freeman’s HEV suit: my intuition had me believe that anything that glowed could be a power source, but this was merely an aesthetic. Over time, I quickly picked up on which crystals were a part of the scenery, and which ones recharged my HEV suit. A classic question in video game design has always been how to indicate whether or not users could interact with an entity in its environment, and while making it clearer improves gameplay, it may also degrade immersion, so a fine balance must be struck between the two.

  • The remnants of the scientists’ research stations and the organic-looking circuitry create for some interesting puzzles: while things may appear different than they did at the Black Mesa Complex, the underlying principles are the same. As such, once one figures these out, they become a simple matter to work through. Here, I ended up using some of the puzzle elements to advance to a new area. The more organic and natural-looking maps in Xen can occasionally mean that where to go next is not clear, but Crowbar Collective has gone with a very clever way to hint at the user’s path: large glowing vines often will point the players in the right direction.

  • Admittedly, there are many sections in Xen’s first chapter that reminded me a great deal of World of Warcraft‘s Outland. The aesthetic resulting from floating islands, exotic-looking plants and a generally unearthy-looking sky, similar to how Outland had some of the most fantastical-looking places in the whole of World of Warcraft on account of it being set in the sundered remains of a planet. It suddenly strikes me that I’ve made no progress at all with regards to exploring the Eversong Woods and Ghostlands with my Blood Elf warlock at the time of writing.

  • Things have been incredibly busy of late, and I’ve not made too much of a dent in my considerable backlog – between real-world obligations, hosting Jon’s Creator Showcase, keeping up with my existing blogging schedule and making my way through Halo 3: ODST and Halo 4 on co-op now that my friend’s gotten their backup machine up and running with The Master Chief Collection, there’s been precious little time for anything else. Having said this, the Halo co-op has been a remarkably fun experience, and because the both of us are now veteran Halo players, we were able to attempt beating the par times.

  • While we weren’t always successful (on a few missions, we missed the mark by a few seconds), co-op missions were a decisive indicator of how team work makes things considerably faster. It’s something that I always value, and Halo‘s co-op made this particularly tangible: my friend and I tore through missions: we covered one another, split up to complete separate objectives where needed and otherwise, were able to equip a wider range of weapons for efficacy at more ranges. I’ll have a dedicated post for this experience another time, and back in Black Mesa, I pass by a healing pool.

  • In the spirit of the HECU Marines’ actions at the Black Mesa facility, the Black Mesa science teams decided that for whatever reason, it’d be a good idea to load laser trip mines into an area filled with explosive plants and head crabs. Their erratic movement sometimes puts them into the path of a laser trip mine, setting off a chain reaction that is impossible to survive: like that explosives-filled building, Black Mesa‘s been implemented such that setting anything off here is a conditional game over rather than dropping a player’s health count to zero to result in a game over event.

  • While some of Xen’s fauna and flora are putrid in appearance, others look visually stunning, such as these bioluminescent plants hanging from a cave ceiling. Back at the Black Mesa complex, some parts of the levels, especially ventilation ducts, began filling with Xen biomass, and it always imparted a particularly unpleasant sensation because of the marked contrast between alien and terrestrial plant and animal life. However, in Xen, native flora and fauna look considerably more natural, and this sense of revulsion was noticeably absent.

  • Making my way through Xen, I pass over regions covered with liquid water. Despite the seeming hostility of Xen’s conditions, it turns out that atmospheric pressure and gravity are largely consistent with Earth’s. The precise physics behind how Xen works is not explained, but for gameplay purposes, it’s not too big of a deal. Here, a flock of boids can be seen: these flight-capable aliens are absolutely harmless, and named after their in-game files, which were in turn named after Craig Reynolds’ BOIDS, which was a computer program that allowed for complex flocking and movement behaviours to be defined based on a simple, finite set of rules.

  • The behaviours that BOIDS exhibit are known as emergent properties, where systems exhibit complexity much greater than the individuals and their rules would suggest are possible. This is a very exciting area in computational research, and had been one of the reasons I became interested in multi-agent systems as a topic of research. I was able to apply concepts from BOIDs to create a model of microtubule assembly and disassembly in Unity3D that was very faithful to how it is thought that the cytoskeleton dynamically adjusts itself in a real cell. This model of microtubules ended up being a part of my graduate thesis, which aimed to combine mathematical models with agent-based modelling to visualise complex biological systems.

  • Of course, it’s been quite some time since I finished, and while I still remember the gist of what I’d built, I imagine it would take a little bit of effort to go back in and get the projects updated before I’d be able to extend them now. With this in mind, I’ll return the discussions to Black Mesa, where after clearing the first chapter set in Xen, I arrive in the level where I am forced to fight the Gonarch. This arachnid-like monster is supposed to be the final step of a headcrab’s life cycle, and the beast itself is remarkably resilient, being able to shrug off direct hits that would bring down a combat helicopter.

  • After sustaining enough damage, the Gonarch will run off into the next area, with Freeman in pursuit. Unlike the original Gonarch fight, Crowbar Collective completely redid this mission such that it became an entire level that takes some time to complete: originally, the Gonarch would fall after a comparatively short fight. Besides being able to spit acid a considerable distance, the Gonarch can also birth small, speedy headcrab offspring that can rush the player. Whenever this would happen, I immediately swapped over to the rocket launcher: the explosions can also set these small headcrabs on fire, damaging them before they can get too close.

  • While the extended fight with the Gonarch was intended to emphasise how powerful this foe was, during play-testing that Crowbar Collective did back in the summer of 2019, players found the mission to be a chore to fight through; while the first area proceeded in a relatively cut-and-dried fashion, later engagements left players with a severe disadvantage: rockets and satchel charges, the most effective weapons against the Gonarch, are always in short supply, and common weapons like the shotgun or submachine gun aren’t particularly useful for dealing direct damage to the Gonarch.

  • The Gonarch’s ability to absorb punishment, in conjunction with its surprising agility and speed, makes it a difficult foe to fight all around, even when ammunition is common. The developers evidently took this feedback into account, because by the time I reached this point in Black Mesa, I was able to figure out a pattern for pushing the Gonarch into the next scriped event without sustaining an unreasonable amount of damage myself. In the retail version, I conclude that the Gonarch fight, while still tough, at the very least, feels a ways more fair than it had been when the level first became available.

  • Black Mesa ended up including some puzzles in the Gonarch mission, during which Freeman would need to unblock water sources to fill a subterranean cavern with water and swim upwards to each the next part of the mission. These segments of the game proved quite cathartic, and act as another fantastic chance for Crowbar Collective to show off their revamped level designs. The variety of props used is astounding and really gives the sense that Xen is an inter-dimensional border world of sorts, where detritus from different dimensions accumulate.

  • The inclusion of underwater barnacles, “beneathacles”, was a new element in Black Mesa absent from the original Half-Life: like regular barnacles, the beneathacles are stationary enemies that pull players in if they should become ensnared. They restrict movement in the water and on the surface, but fortunately, like their standard counterparts, are relatively weak. When they occur in large clusters, use of explosives will defeat them. Individually, I prefer using the pistol on them to conserve on crossbow ammunition.

  • After a lengthy chase through a part of the map where I had to burn through webs to escape the charging Gonarch, I began engaging it with the Tau Cannon, as I’d run out of rockets. While I’ve never played Half-Life in its original form, having watched Freeman’s Mind helped me to appreciate what changed between Black Mesa and Half-Life: the Gonarch mission feels a lot shorter in comparison; while Ross Scott does use damage mods while shooting Freeman’s Mind, and occasionally skips certain areas, he remains faithful to the path that Freeman does take throughout a mission.

  • In Half-Life, once Freeman does enough damage to the Gonarch and prompts it to flee, he makes his way through a much smaller cave system, fights the Gonarch a second time after acquiring more rockets causes it to punch through an opening in the ground, and the faces off against the Gonarch one final time in the caverns’ interior. There is no underwater segment or chase sequence, and overall, the level was much simpler. Freeman’s Mind had Freeman assume that the Gonarch was Nihilanth, and he wonders if killing the Gonarch would allow him to return home.

  • Conversely, Black Mesa‘s fight was much more intense, and on standard difficulty, I ended up exhausting all of my rockets again during the final fight with the Gonarch. Without any explosives left in my arsenal, I turned over to the powerful Gluon Gun in the hopes that its damage output was sufficient to get the job done. The Half-Life fight with the Gonarch is set in a very small cave with pillars, allowing one to avoid the Gonarch’s acid spit, and making the small headcrabs more dangerous.

  • Black Mesa‘s fight, on the other hand, is set in a much larger space, and so, as long as one keeps the Gonarch at arm’s length, it is possible to avoid taking too much damage in the fight while at the same time, dealing enough pain to put this beast away. During my fight, it took me a few tries to determine the best attack pattern, and I barely made it out of my successful attempt against the Gonarch. I’ve heard that during the scripted chase sequences, the Gonarch is actually programmed to be invincible and will only pursue the players or flee after sustaining a certain amount of damage, making this final segment the only place where it becomes possible to deal meaningful damage to it.

  • Once the Gonarch is downed, its remains explode and open a hole in the floor that leads to the next area of Xen. While a challenging fight, the Gonarch mission was also quite enjoyable: it’s clearly come a long way from the beta days, during which multiple threads were opened in the Steam forums discussing the fact that the Gonarch fight had been difficult to the point of diminishing the players’ enjoyment from the game. Since I never tried Black Mesa during its Early Access stages, I cannot confirm (or deny) whether or not the Gonarch was indeed unfairly scripted.

  • The alien factory was probably my least favourite segment of Xen: unlike the expansive open spaces of earlier segments, things are set in the cavernous interior of a factory that manufactures the alien grunts. Much of the mission consists of platforming and puzzle-solving, making use of pistons to continually reach higher elevations. Vortigaunts can be found in large numbers during this mission, and unless the alien controllers appear, the Vortigaunts are non-hostile. There’s actually no reason to waste ammunition on them, since they won’t attack Freeman.

  • Conversely, once Freeman disables something in order to clear a path to the next area, alien controllers will appear and force the Vortigaunts to attack. In these situations, the best thing to do is attack the alien controllers and do one’s best to leave the Vortigaunts alone: there’s an achievement one can unlock if they can make it through the entire level without killing any Vortigaunts. Similarly, if one can kill an alien controller but leave its Vortigaunt entourage alive, another achievement can be unlocked.

  • To avoid any collateral damage, I found that the Tau Cannon was very effective against the alien controllers. Two shots from the Tau Cannon are, on normal difficulty, enough to take one down. Alien controllers, like Halo‘s drones, are difficult to fight not on account of their attacks or durability, but because they are airborne enemies. I’d previously used automatic weapons on them, but they do move quickly enough to require some degree of skill in tracking them. Conversely, the Tau Cannon’s consistent damage makes it a solid choice when dealing with groups of alien controllers: its high damage per shot and semi-automatic firing means that one is able to place their shots with greater certainty and without the same ammunition expenditure as an automatic weapon.

  • Once inside the alien factory, Freeman has nowhere to go but upwards by means of pistons that need to be activated in order to reach greater heights. Occasionally, getting a piston up will also cause it to overload, and a membrane must be punctured in order to remove the electric field buildup, in turn rendering the piston safe to stand on. This segment of the game took me some time to complete: a handful of the puzzles do require a bit of creative thinking to work through, and studying the environment can often yield insight as to how one can go about reaching the next area.

  • While impressive in scale, I ended up finding the ascent through the alien factory to be a bit of a repetitive one. Throughout Black Mesa, the pattern of clearing a set of puzzles, heading into the next area and engaging in a firefight to render it safe, before exploring means of sorting out the puzzles is widely used, but thanks to the interior of the alien factory, things did feel a little stretched here. Fortunately, just before things became too tiresome, Black Mesa introduces a new mechanic that puts the fun back into things.

  • Towards the final segments of the alien factory, Freeman will encounter crystals that top off one’s U-235 supply. Because the rate of regeneration is impressive, players essentially have unlimited ammunition for their Gluon Gun and Tau Cannon. U-235 had been relatively rare throughout Black Mesa, but here, the time has finally come to put the game’s most powerful weapons to use: even the durable alien grunts disintegrate quickly before sustained fire from the Gluon Gun.

  • Having unlimited ammunition thus made the latter parts of the alien factory remarkably entertaining, as I was able to simply keep my trigger on the finger and melt any alien controller or grunt that was standing between me and the game’s final sections. I reached this point in Black Mesa just a shade under a month ago, during Super Bowl Sunday: that morning had been a particularly chilly one, but the weather had been gorgeous.

  • That afternoon, I’d been set to make some homemade nachos ahead of the game between Kansas City and Tampa Bay: in the midafternoon, I’d prepared all of the vegetables and nachoes themselves. Half an hour before the game started, I threw everything together and baked it at 400°F for seven minutes. We’d finished with just a minute left before the opening coin toss, and subsequently found the nachos to be quite delicious. In retrospect, I could’ve added a little more cheese, and having some black olives and jalapeño peppers would’ve spruced things up.

  • In the end, while I’d been cheering for Kanas City, they got wiped out as Tampa Bay secured enough touchdowns to cement their lead. Of course, NFL games aren’t quite as exciting for me as the NHL, and so, the Super Bowl is something that I’ve ended up checking out for the spectacle more than anything. In order to have the time to prep everything, then, I set my sights on finishing Black Mesa as quickly as I could. Having near-unlimited Gluon Gun ammunition really helped, especially in areas where I needed to fight alien controllers.

  • The last segment of the alien factory involves a lengthy elevator ride to the top of the facility, and with a few of those crystals present on the elevator itself, I was able to constantly keep my weapons topped off. At this point in Black Mesa, there hardly seemed a need to use the other weapons the game provided, since the Gluon Gun dealt enough damage to sort out all enemies without difficulty. However, this sort of power can be seen as making the final fight against Nihilanth perhaps a little too easy.

  • This was the culmination of over eight years of patience: after beating the first half of Black Mesa in September 2012, here in 2021, I finally steel myself to cross the portal into Nihilanth’s lair and face Half-Life‘s iconic final boss. Nihilanth is the leader of Xen, and in the lore, its species was conquered by the Combine: despite the species’ power, the Combine managed to overwhelm them, prompting the sole survivor to flee for Xen. Nihilanth would establish itself as the leader, enslaving the Vortigaunts, who had also been escaping the Combine’s reach. Nihilanth’s intents had been to conquer Earth to act as a new homeworld, a sanctuary from the Combine.

  • Possessing the power that keeps the dimensional rift open, it is determined that killing Nihilanth should end the resonance cascade and close the portals to Earth. Nihilanth is initially invincible, but after Freeman destroys the healing crystals, Nihilanth begins attacking Freeman with energy blasts. The trick here is to keep moving to avoid Nihilanth’s attacks, while at the same time, returning fire with rockets and other long-range weapons. Once Nihilanth sustains enough damage, his body weakens, exposing his brain.

  • The final battle against Nihilanth is very taxing and demands a great deal of ammunition, but fortunately, Freeman is periodically resupplied when sections of the Black Mesa facility teleport into Nihilanth’s lair. Resupplying and moving will keep one alive long enough to deal the damage needed to kill Nihilanth for good: upon death, Nihilanth explodes in a green blaze of energy. The impact knocks Freeman out of the chamber, and the gameplay segment of Black Mesa draws to a close shortly after. With this, I’ve finally finished a journey that was years in the making: the final fight proved enjoyably challenging, and I finished with only six health points left.

  • Things suddenly freeze as the G-Man appears and offers Gordon a job. I chose to accept, since this is ultimately what leads to the events of Half-Life 2: while Nihilanth had sought Earth out as a sanctuary world, the Combine take an interest in the planet and subsequently conquers it in what would later be known as the Seven Hour War. The G-Man places Freeman in stasis and will reawaken him when the time is right: some twenty years later, the G-Man sends Freeman to City 17 to aid the Resistance. With this, my journey in Black Mesa comes to a close, and I am certainly happy to have finally tried for myself what is the definitive Half-Life experience. With this post done, my Black Mesa journey comes to an end, and my plans now will be to wrap up Halo 4‘s second set of Spartan Ops, as well as the original campaigns for Left 4 Dead 2 with the K-On! mod, before making a concerted attempt to both finish Skyrim and continue on with my adventures in World of Warcraft.

With Black Mesa in the books, I’ve now completed an essential piece of the Half-Life experience. Black Mesa ends up being much more than a simple remaster, and instead, is Crowbar Collective’s interpretation of what Half-Life: Source could have been. The final product in Black Mesa is a consequence of fifteen years’ worth of effort, being a loving remake of an old classic that modernises the game and really allows the Source Engine to shine. It was absolutely worth the eight year long wait to go through the game in full – the game might’ve been eight years in the making since it became available as a mod, and it still feels crisp, responsive and engaging. Black Mesa definitely lives up to its name as being a proper update to Half-Life. For folks like myself, who’ve got no experience in the classic Half-Life arena, Black Mesa represents a fantastic way for folks to dive right in and check out a re-imagined version of the game that kicked off an entire franchise. Those who’ve played Half-Life will likely enjoy Black Mesa as well. Altogether, Black Mesa is easy to recommend: retaining all of the classic gameplay elements of Half-Life while adding a fresh coat of paint and improving on where the original had fallen short, this is the quintessential shooter that, along with Halo: Combat Evolved, DOOM and GoldenEye 64, are a must play for anyone who is a fan of the first-person shooter genre.

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