The long-delayed Xen chapters of Black Mesa - Crowbar Collective's remake of the original Half-Life - feel tantalisingly close now. In a Steam blog post yesterday, the devs warn that "If you want the polished, complete Xen experience, you should wait. It won’t be long!", but if you're ready for your first taste of their re-imagined alien world, you can try it now. The first three (of nineteen) maps are available to play as an opt-in beta, with the intent of testing how badly PCs buckle under the extensive changes they've made under the hood. Below, some thoughts on the new Xen.
I really like what they've done with Xen. It's now a living, busy landscape with lots of (mostly) non-hostile wildlife. While hinted at by resource caches in the original game, Black Mesa has you retracing the steps of past science teams, exploring human outposts among the floating islands. There's a lot more use of the long-jump suit upgrade, which is a lot easier and more satisfying to use. Jet-boosted leaps activate with a quick double-tap of jump, its thrusters audibly decelerating you if you reverse mid-leap. I don't think I've missed a jump or lost any health to fall damage yet.
The three beta maps are a short taste of the larger weirdness to come. There's some new puzzle elements introduced, with players interacting with alien machinery and finding alternative ways to power damaged human systems. There's also a new enemy variant that I liked, even if it wasn't very threatening. Even with its new palette of teals and oranges (although that changes later), the environments are unmistakably Xen, even if they feel like they're from a sequel, rather than a remake. Honestly, losing the old Xen is no great loss, and I'm eager to play the rest of this version.
Crowbar Collective's dev-blog warns of a bunch of known bugs that are already fixed in their internal development builds. Not a bug, but also noteworthy is that whatever changes they've made to the game, they reckon that your PC will struggle if you try to crank the resolution up to 4k at maximum settings. Hopefully they can squeeze a little more life out of the old workhorse yet, but I get the feeling they're pushing it as nearly far as it can go here. It's genuinely impressive to look at whether compared to Half-Life or not; not bad for a part-time production.
Black Mesa is going extra cheap in the Steam summer sale. You can snag it here for £5.99/€7.19/$7.99, though it's still in early access, and there's no hard release date on the remaining Xen levels. If you want to try the Xen beta maps, see this developer blog post for instructions.