The world might be in the middle of a pandemic that’s forced us all to huddle inside while stuffing our faces and watching Netflix, but there’s one glowing beacon of hope: thirteen years after the last adventures of Gordon Freeman we have finally got a new Half-Life. Except, it’s not Half-Life 3, it’s a prequel. And it’s in VR, so you might not be able to play it. What we have is Half-Life: Alyx, a prequel to Half-Life 2 and a very obvious passion project from Valve. This is a game designed for virtual reality and built to the highest standards. I’d actually be surprised if Valve made a profit on Half Life: Alyx because it looks and feels like a lot of money was sunk into its creation, versus the relatively small audience that can buy it. But that doesn’t matter right now. All we need to know is just how good is Half-Life: Alyx?
The first thing we need to talk about, though, is what I played Alyx on. There’s absolutely no question that Valve would love for you to experience Half-Life: Alyx on the Valve Index with all of its fancy finger-sensing technology and what have you. Since I’m not a millionaire I don’t have the Index, so instead I played through Half-Life: Alyx on the Oculus Rift S and all my opinions will come from that. But I’m going to give a spoiler for this whole review: Half-Life: Alyx is an exceptional VR experience even on the Rift S, so if you are fortunate enough own the Index then that experience will only be better.
I think the real brilliance of Half Life: Alyx is how good Valve are at all the little interactions. Most games go too far in one direction or the either, using hefty assistance to do things or leaving players fumbling around like a newborn baby trying to play the piano. Take the recent Boneworks as an example: it’s driven by its physics system, and thus something as easy as reloading a pistol can result in you gracelessly trying to slam home a magazine, at least until you wrap your head around how everything works. Because it simulates having a body as well you can find yourself accidentally getting caught on tables because you forgot where your non-existent legs were. In many ways it’s quest for more realism is what constantly drags me out of the illusion.
In other games the level of assistance the developers use can mean the gun practically reloads itself. Again, it shatters the illusion of being there. Half-Life: Alyx finds a lovely middle-ground, helping you out just enough to make things like reloads smooth without ever feeling like it’s doing it for you. And this applies to almost everything, from opening doors to spinning handles to moving boxes around and more. The way the physics work let you play around in the world in a believable way, without awkwardly getting in the way. Valve have carefully judged everything, and it makes Alyx feel incredibly polished, thereby also keeping you feeling immersed in the action. The only time that immersion gets shattered is when a loading screen pops up. And be warned, on an old-fashioned HDD those loading times can be a bit long.
Half-Life: Alyx is actually a prequel, taking place between the events of the first two games and following the story of the titular Alyx of whom you will inhabit the disembodied hands of. The majority of the plot revolves around Alyx’s dad being kidnapped and her journey to rescue him, and that’s all I say because the narrative really is a lot of fun and best experienced with no prior knowledge of events. What you should know is that the performances in this game are excellent, and that it’s genuinely funny. And that’s because of the banter between Alyx and the constant voice in her ear, Russel. At one point Alyx is a little creeped out, so she asks Russel to just talk to her about anything, and so he launches into a tale about what a club sandwich is, describing to her this lavish, somewhat ridiculous foodstuff from before Earth’s downfall at the hands of the Combine. It’s a moment that feels believable, heart-warming and funny all at the same time, and is a prime example of how Valve handle the dialogue throughout the game. Whenever you get to meet someone in person the models are detailed and react to your presence, even flinching away when you try to prod them in the eyeball. It’s a real shame that for the majority of the game there’s nobody else around, or at least nobody that isn’t trying to shoot you.
But what if you aren’t familiar with Half-Life? Is this still a story you can follow and enjoy? That’s a tricky question, but I believe the answer is yes, at least for the most part. The majority of the game is simply about finding Alyx’s father, so that obviously doesn’t require much Half-Life knowledge. Where you might struggle is being dumped into a world that’s already been invaded by an alien force known as the Combine. Still, you should be able to get up to speed quickly, even if the first Head Crab that leaps at your face is probably going to scare the snot out of you.
The pacing is yet another area that Half-Life: Alyx excels in, consistently managing to keep the 10-15 hour campaign feeling fun, fresh and interesting. There’s a hefty dose of light horror here, with a lot of your time spent in darkened corridors complete with flickering lights and creepy sounds, slowly making your way through the environments while waiting to see if a head crab is going to leap out to nom on your face. Patience in these moments is rewarded with a few bigger, outside areas and amazing vistas. Indeed, the opening sequence lets you see a Strider making its way across the rooftops of the city, huge cables dangling from its body. It’s a properly jaw-dropping moment.
That pacing extends to the gameplay itself. One minute you’ll be fighting head crabs that leap toward your face and shambling zombies, the next you’re in a firefight with the Combine, ducking and weaving to avoid the incoming bullets. Valve know exactly when to let the game breath with exploration or clever dialogue, and when to stick you in a fun fight or have you solve a puzzle. It meant that across the 15-hours it took for me to play through the campaign I was never bored and never got fed up with a particular idea.
Key to the way that you interact with the world of Half-Life: Alyx are the gravity gloves given to you early on. With these stylish hand warmers you can point to a distant object and then, with a sort of flick of your wrist, send it whizzing into the air in a lovely arc toward your hand where you can neatly catch it. It takes a few minutes to get the gist of how it works and occasionally you’ll struggle to aim at something specific, but once you get the hang of it the whole process feels smooth, easy and satisfying. We’ve seen mechanics like this in other VR games, but the fact that you have to flick your wrist and catch the object makes it feel more engaging in Half-Life: Alyx. And before long you’ll be firing a pistol in one hand and summoning ammo in the other.
There isn’t a huge arsenal of weapons to pick from, but each feels distinct and look fantastic. My personal favourite of the three is the shotgun. You reload it by cracking open the barrel, feeding in slugs and then flicking the gun to snap it closed, then finally you pull back on the handle to prime it. And when you pull the trigger you’re rewarded with a satisfying boom that bounces off the walls and gives you that lovely low-down tingle. But the pistol also has a nice pop when you pull the trigger and is the gun of choice for accurate shooting. Finally, there’s a Combine weapon that’s essentially an SMG for spraying bullets. Good use of vibration through the Rift S controllers and excellent audio design ensures that all three guns feel great to use.
Likewise, while the enemy variety isn’t massive they all feel different and interesting to fight. It kicks off with the Barnacles, which are stuck to the ceilings with their long tongues dangling down, waiting to drag you up to your death. They provide an easy start, a static target that you can hone your skills on. Plus, it’s great fun to lure enemies into them, or feed them an explosive barrel. Then come the head crabs, the classic Half-Life foe. These little bastards leap toward your face, and scurry around on four legs. They aren’t exactly a huge threat, it’s really just their creep-factor that makes them intimidating. The slow-moving zombies that have been taken over by a head crab are a simple foe to battle as well, again acting more like a way of easing you into the combat. Plus, some of them have the pesky armoured head crabs clinging to their face. Then there’s the Combine themselves who engage you in heated gunfights where you can use the full extent of VR to hunker down behind cover or lean out from behind walls. I’ve got limited space in my house to play in, so I can only imagine how much more fun the fights would be if you had loads of room to move around.
I love how the combat plays out in Half-Life: Alyx. Popping out of cover to deliver a few well-aimed shots to a Combine helmet feels awesome, as does that slightly panicky unloading of shotgun shells into a surprise head crab. I also love the way you reload ammo by grabbing it from over your shoulder, presumably from some sort of infinite backpack, the same place you store all the bullets you hoover up. Slamming home a magazine or hastily feeding shells into the shotgun never gets old. Really, the only thing I didn’t like about combat is that it’s a bit easy. Even on the hardest setting you’ll likely only die a few times, and that means the fights don’t feel as tense as they probably could. But ultimately that feels like a tiny complaint given just how immersive and exhilarating the fights feel.
It’s clear that Valve want you to take your time and explore the world they’ve created, and to encourage them ammo is scarce unless you actually go looking for it. You’ll typically find ammo hiding in boxes, on top of shelves, in drawers or cheekily glinting off in the distance. Plus, exploration rewards you with Resin, the material needed to upgrade your weapons at special stations. And if nothing else exploration is worth it just because Half-Life: Alyx looks bloody good and is packed with details where ever you look. I kept stopping off to stare at the alien fauna which would react to my presence and even occasionally try to bite my fingers. Huge set-pieces are rare but when they do occur they look amazing.
If you do happen to run out of ammo entirely, which is a possibility if you’re a bit twitchy with the trigger, then that’s when you’ll discover that Half-Life: Alyx doesn’t have any sort of melee system. Sure, you can use a chair to smack a head crab out of the air or throw a box at a Combine soldier but it won’t actually do any damage, and the Combine will probably just look at you like you’ve lost your damn mind. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed that there isn’t even a rudimentary melee system, and actually found myself reflexively grabbing things to smack an enemy with before remembering it wasn’t possible. However, Valve said that they did spend a long time trying to fit melee into the game and simply couldn’t find a system they felt worked, which is understandable. Thus far the only games that have done melee well in VR have been built almost entirely around that one idea.
I briefly mentioned upgrading your weapons, which is something else Alyx does exceptionally well. Like the guns themselves the upgrades available aren’t extensive, but each one makes a big difference and choosing between them is a genuinely tricky choice. The auto-loader for the shotgun lets you load in slugs so much faster, the laser sight for the pistol is a God-send when you’re aiming for headshots against the Combine and the mag-extender for the SMG makes blind-firing around cover a doddle. Yup, hunting down all that Resin is worth the effort.
One little thing that did bother was how you swap weapons. By pressing in the right stick you bring up a menu, and then choose your weapon by moving your whole hand up, down, left or right. For the most part this works fine enough, but when you’re in the middle of a hectic firefight and need to quickly swap weapons it becomes awkward and clumsy. Quite often I’d be trying to keep my eyes on my foes while changing weapons only to discover I’d accidentally select the multi-tool instead of my shotgun.
Outside of shooting stuff in the face and generally messing around with the game, Valve use puzzles to help break everything up. Usually these pop up in the form of containers that need opened or pesky doors that refuse to open. You might, for example, have to use your handy multi-tool to trace and reroute wiring, or spin a globe around as you try to navigate a light to another light. There’s a few different kinds of puzzle and Valve dishes them out at a nice, steady pace, though I will admit that I let out a sigh on occasion when face with one particular type of puzzle involving moving balls of light around.
I’ve also got to give a shout out to some spectacular moments like stumbling around in the dark using a tiny wrist-mounted flash light, or a sequence dedicated to Jeff which is just bloody amazing. Trust me, you’ll learn who Jeff is and why his level might just go down as one of the best in recent memory. But truthfully many of the best moments came from just playing around, like when I caught a jumping head crab in a bucket, or when I realized I could summon a grenade off of a Combine soldier mid-fight. Half-Life: Alyx isn’t a crazy sandbox or anything, but there’s still room to just mess around.
The performance can occasionally be a tad patchy, too. Running on my GTX 1080Ti, Ryzen 1600 and 16GB of RAM I found myself dropping the settings to medium. Even then, there was some noticeably stuttering here or there, especially in the larger open areas toward the end of the campaign. And throughout it all my computer sounded like it was trying to become the next Chernobyl.
And I also run into one major problem where the game would get stuck trying to load a level in one of the later chapters. Selecting an earlier quick save and playing past that point solved the issue, though.
This isn’t the game we’ve all been waiting for. It isn’t Half-Life 3. And for those who just wanted any new Half-Life it may be frustrating that their patience hasn’t been rewarded with a brand-new game for the masses, instead it’s a VR game that loads of Half-Life fans won’t be able to play, perhaps for years to come. After all, virtual reality is not cheap and only a small percentage of gamers currently have the privilege of owning a VR headset. That tiny percentage is utterly dwarfed by the amount of fans who have been frothing at the mouth for years for a new Half-Life game.
So why is it only in VR? Having played it, I can confidently tell you that it could work as a regular FPS, and indeed a mod already exists that lets you do just that. And it would be…er, okay. The story and characters and setting would all still be fantastic, but the gameplay would be standard first-person fare – hardly exciting. But like the Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2 it’s VR that makes Alyx special. Valve themselves said that they see Half-Life as a series that was always about pushing the limits of what technology can do, and with VR they really have done that.
With that saidm, Half-Life: Alyx is not the big new revolution in VR. It doesn’t push the boundry of VR in the sense of trying radical new concepts, and that’s fine. We have other games that are trying out completely new things, and they are amazing, but the thing we’ve all been waiting for is for VR to get a proper, honest video game. We’ve come close with stuff like Asgard’s Wrath, Boneworks and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners, but Half-Life: Alyx feels like the first true God of War or Halo – a big-budget blockbuster that’s polished until it gleams. You probably shouldn’t buy into VR just for Half-Life: Alyx in the same way you probably shouldn’t purchase a Playstation just for God of War. But you should definitely buy into VR for Half-Life: Alyx and then for the many other amazing experiences that exist, and for all the ones yet to come. It’s simply the best VR game out there, and has raised the bar of what we know to be possible.