The team at Valve Software has taken their sweet time to finally give players a new Half-Life game. Half-Life: Alyx is set in between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Players are put into the shoes of Alyx Vance as she is tasked with saving her father, taking the fight to the Combine. This game was built from the ground up as a virtual reality experience, and it shows. The teams behind Valve's The Lab VR experience and Campo Santo’s Firewatch have come together to create what will undoubtedly go down as one of the best virtual reality games ever made.
New experience with a familiar face
Many gamers out there have lamented the fact that Half-Life: Alyx was made exclusively for PC VR head-mounted displays (HMDs). While it is true that the addressable market of traditional flatscreen game experiences is massive, Half-Life: Alyx would simply not be possible on a traditional gaming platform.
The gameplay experience in Half-Life: Alyx is unlike anything in the history of the series, but the game sticks very close to its franchise’s history of balanced challenges ranging from environmental puzzles to action-packed combat.
Early in the game, Alyx is fitted with two Russells on her hands that give her some abilities that would be hard to execute with a traditional gamepad as opposed to the immersive controllers found in the VR space. While some gameplay mechanics have a bit of a learning curve, they are founded on an intuitive design philosophy that is clearly focused on immersion and hand presence. Valve isn’t doing anything that groundbreaking when it comes to creating best practices in virtual reality as they have clearly benefited from watching the VR developer landscape fumble around with various input solutions over the first few years of this recent renaissance. They have instead put together a well thought out set of controls that take advantage of motion controls in ways that would not be possible on a flatscreen experience.
From puzzles that need to be solved with both hands, to hacks that require Alyx's Multitool, or combat that allows players to be creative with their hands, Half-Life: Alyx treats fans to a brand new experience while creating an environment that feels remarkably familiar. It certainly helps to be in the shoes of a familiar character, as Alyx's voice helps fill in any blanks for fans a bit fuzzy on the story since playing Half-Life 2 over a decade ago. Gordon Freeman, the protagonist in the previous entries of the series, was not much of a talker, and Alyx is certainly a departure from that as her dialogue drives the story forward throughout the game.
A grand stage
Valve uses their environmental design in a way that tells a story without saying a word. This goes beyond the stunning visual graphics in the game, with audio design being a huge factor. The visual experience in Half-Life: Alyx is the best I have ever witnessed in VR, with several areas causing me to stop and look around before progressing. Every corner of each hallway has an attention to detail that helps drive the narrative home without even saying a word. There is a moment earlier in the game when players encounter a seemingly haunted hallway that gave me chills. In fact, several moments in the game gave me actual goosebumps.
The developers at Valve also did a masterful job of creating continuity with the rest of the Half-Life series in Alyx. Most of the same enemies players have encountered before have been given a 2020 spit shine and been rebuilt for VR. For those wondering, Half-Life: Alyx featuers situations very similar to the past games in the series. Tight hallways with Headcrabs, Zombies, and Barnacles present scary challenges that are truly amplified by the fact that players are immersed in the situation. There were several times in my playthrough where I got frazzled by the intensity of the situation, sometimes dropping an ammo clip as I tried to reload, and other times I straight up ran away. It is very apparent that every inch of the game has been designed with a common narrative vision, and the Valve deserves high praise for their execution.
Cardboard has never been so exciting
Puzzles are a huge part of the Half-Life series, and Alyx has some of the most creative and interesting challenges in the history of the franchise. Physics puzzles have certainly been a mainstay of the series, but they just feel different when played in an immersive VR environment. As with any good puzzle-based gameplay, Half-Life: Alyx's puzzles can make the player feel stupid at times and lead to forehead-slapping eureka moments that are truly rewarding.
Another exciting gameplay element is Alyx's Multitool, which allows developers to create all sorts of different challenges for players ranging from hacking electric wires to 3D holographic puzzles that would simply not be as fun or immersive if completed with traditional gamepad controls.
Some of the Multitool puzzle mechanics resemble games in Valve's The Lab VR minigame compilation, and the devs have provided players with a variety of challenges that keeps things fresh. The balance of physical puzzles, hints in the environment, and Multitool solutions really bring a fresh feel to the game. Valve has successfully created new puzzle experiences while staying true to what made the franchise so great to begin with.
Prepare for unforeseen consequences
Half-Life: Alyx is not going to be a game for everyone, sadly. It was built for virtual reality, and with that comes some baggage. There are some squeemish players who will likely run into problems while playing the game, while others will completely miss out on the experience because the game requires a robust PC capable of powering a VR HMD. My playthrough was done on a Valve Index, the headset Half-Life: Alyx was built for, but I did run into some design choices that gave me pause in my otherwise lavish praise for this game.
Elevation change is common in Half-Life: Alyx, with jumps down into sewers, ladders to climb, and fences to navigate around. Valve offers different locomotion options, but it isn't traversal that could lead to a less comfortable playthrough. Jumping in VR while standing in place in real life can be jarring to some people, and it is worth mentioning that there is a decent amount of elevation change in the game. This is certainly mitigated by the way Valve deals with players as they land on the ground. It is similar to how Insomniac Games addressed verticality in their recent VR release Stormland with a more floaty sort of fall to the ground.
Another element of the game that is certain to be offputting to some players is Valve's use of jump scares in the game. Sure, this is a franchise with terrifying horror elements, but some of these moments are almost too scary for virtual reality. I have never felt so scared by a VR game, which speaks the power of the Half-Life: Alyx experience. Perhaps Valve will at least reimburse players for their laundry bills.
The right woman in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world
Half-Life: Alyx is a wonderful new addition to the franchise and sets a path forward for future games to take place in the same universe hopefully powered by this latest iteration of the Source Engine. Valve has showcased a clear way for developers to create a high quality AAA experience built for VR that still hits all the marks of a traditional PC game. While many players will be longing for the days of playing as the silent hero Gordon Freeman, it was an absolute delight to navigate this latest story. "I knew if you both stayed together you could get through anything,“ said G-Man once upon a time, but Alyx showed everyone just how powerful of a bad ass she is when tasked with her own adventure.
This review is based on a PC review code provided by the publisher. Half-Life: Alyx is available on Steam today for $59.99.
- Outstanding graphics
- Masterful sound design
- Immersive VR gameplay
- Environmental settings add to the narrative
- Jump scares made me change my underwear
- Some uncomfortable VR mechanics
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