Is It Really That Time Again?
LOW The hacking minigames can be a little irritating.
WTF The, uh, “fuel” for the med stations.
Half-Life has always been a pioneering franchise, using burgeoning technology to create worlds that feel corporeal and alive. It’s a series where engaging stories aren’t told, so much as they just seem to happen.
While there was a bittersweet feeling when the long-awaited new Half-Life game didn’t have a ‘3’ in its title, what we got instead feels like a more faithful successor than a direct sequel would have been. Taking a series known for tech-driven world-building and adapting it to virtual reality – a medium where immersion is the entire point – is such a perfect pairing that it feels like this was the plan the whole time.
Half-Life: Alyx is both VR’s biggest killer app and a marvelous return to form for Valve, a company that’s been out of the single-player field for nearly a decade yet somehow hasn’t lost its touch. All of the usual hallmarks are here – slow escalation of action, rich environmental storytelling, and a constant focus on unique setpieces that never feel overdone or extravagant.
Beyond all of that, Alyx applies triple-A production values to a medium that’s largely been explored by studios with extremely limited resources. Valve is showing us what VR could regularly do if it became a mainstream staple, and it’s incredible to behold.
Alyx is set in City 17 five years before Gordon Freeman re-enters the picture. The resistance is still young, and our titular protagonist – voiced by a new actress who sounds uncannily like the original one – wants to infiltrate a floating structure called the Vault. The Combine are supposedly storing a weapon there that could change the dynamic of the war. As with the Citadel in Half-Life 2, the Vault is constantly visible in skyboxes throughout the game, a recurring point of reference as to the player’s progress.
Valve’s traditionally measured pace in campaign structure has always done a wonderful job of making its eventual eruptions of all-out action feel more impactful than something that beats us over the head with gunfire from the start. In Alyx, though, it also serves the purpose of easing us into a control scheme that still feels a bit alien, even to someone like me who’s been playing VR games for a couple of years.
To reload, for example, I need to push a button on my gun to release the empty magazine, reach over my shoulder with my free hand to pull a fresh clip out of my pack, slide it into the grip, and then cock the gun. It’s satisfying as hell, but also a lot more work, and this is how everything is in Alyx. Healing involves pulling a syringe out of my arm-mounted inventory, sticking it into my hand, and pressing on the plunger. Throwing a grenade means arming it and physically chucking it, perhaps cooking it for a few seconds beforehand.
It’s a lot to juggle in intense situations, so it’s several chapters before we’re even shooting at enemies who actually shoot back. And even in Alyx’s most hectic gunfights, we’re rarely facing more than two or three soldiers at once. When Alyx finally turns into a full-fledged actioner during its spectacular climactic sequence, it feels manageable because we’ve slowly been building our comfort with the detail-oriented control scheme.
It obviously wouldn’t be a modern Half-Life game without a strong emphasis on physics-based objects, and that’s where Alyx’s coolest innovation comes into play – the gravity gloves, or “Russells,” named after the amusing supporting character who invents them. Players can use either of their hands to highlight items from afar. With a closed fist and a flicking motion, they can draw that item toward them and catch it out of the air.
Using the gloves feels every bit as tactile and revelatory as the Gravity Gun did back in 2004. For one thing, it allows us to sidestep the issue of maneuvering one’s hands around shelves, cupboards, and other obstacles that aren’t physically there. It’s also just an endlessly enjoyable action to perform, to the point that I was constantly scooping up empty bottles and shattering them just because I liked the feeling of it. As a jaded gamer who’s seen almost everything, it’s rare for me to merrily engage in a mechanic that doesn’t offer a material reward, but the Russells had me like a kid in a sandbox.
The other advantages to playing Half-Life in VR should be pretty obvious. It’s more cathartic to shoot an enemy by physically pointing a motion controller than it is to use a joystick or mouse, and experiencing City 17 – one of gaming’s most intricately detailed settings – in this format is nothing short of breathtaking. I used to be intimidated by the striders when they were on my PC monitor, but that’s nothing compared to looking up and seeing one of them tower over me during Alyx’s opening level.
Along those lines, Alyx is easily one of the scariest games I’ve ever played, and much of that is thanks to the hardware — once-trivial threats like headcrabs and barnacles look massive and horrific when they’re in the player’s face.
Alyx’s best chapter takes a well-worn horror trope – the blind monster with excellent hearing – and turns it into a roller coaster of alternating relief and despair as Valve continually fools us into thinking we’re through the worst of it, only to yank us back in with a degree of cruelty that borders on dark humor. It’s arguably the single strongest level that Valve has ever produced, and considering their resume, that’s high praise.
Although the scale of the project is much smaller than something like Half-Life 2 due to VR’s technical limitations, Valve’s signature pacing and eye for varied environments and encounter designs ensure that Alyx remains surprising and exciting from beginning to end. Each area presents not only a distinct look, but a thesis and a new twist on what we’ve been learning.
In terms of play, Alyx really is the glorious return of Half-Life that we’ve been demanding for all of these years, but there’s also the question of the story. Episode Two left us with a bastard of a cliffhanger, and Alyx, being a prequel, certainly isn’t going to resolve it. All I’ll say is that Alyx is not a side-story or a distraction, but a crucial piece of the puzzle that lays a clear path forward, and it sent my mind absolutely racing during its final moments.
That Half-Life: Alyx even exists is the result of tremendous risk on Valve’s part, and there was no guarantee that it would live up to the high bar set by the series given the experimental nature of VR and the developer’s longtime dormancy from story-driven single-player content. However, I can’t overstate that Alyx is not a gimmick or a tech demo, but a full-fledged, 10- to 15-hour campaign that’s consistent in quality with the best of Valve’s prior output.
When all is said and done and everyone has had the chance to play it for themselves, I have no doubt that Alyx will be held in the same lofty regard as the first two Half-Life entries. It really is that good. Of course, I still want Half-Life 3, but it turns out that I wanted this even more and didn’t know it.
Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Valve. It is currently available on PC. This copy of the game was obtained via paid download and reviewed on the PC using Vive. Approximately 12 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: As of press time, this game has not been rated by the ESRB. It would absolutely be rated “Mature” for graphic violence and imagery, including countless mutilated and disemboweled corpses strewn about the environments.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Subtitles are available for all dialogue. Directional audio is extremely important in dangerous situations, when players are called to listen for monster noises or enemy soldiers’ chatter to be aware of threats, and while captions are available for certain sounds, there’s no indication of where said sounds are coming from. It is not accessible.
Remappable Controls: No, this game’s controls are not remappable. There is no control diagram. On the Vive’s motion controllers (which are what I used), moving is performed with the left trackpad while the right trackpad is used to turn, crouch, equip weapons, and line up a jump. The triggers are used to grab items and fire guns, while the grips and menu buttons are used for various other actions like arming grenades or emptying chambers.