Half-Life: Alyx Review — Welcome Back to City 17
Through the lens of VR, Half-Life: Alyx is an amazing experience that blends action and storytelling with a profound level of immersion.
From the moment that Half-Life: Alyx begins in the rooftops of City 17, I immediately felt the weight of not only years of anticipation towards returning to Valve’s iconic world, but a sense of awe and terror. That all hit me at once after seeing the vast expanse of the city under Combine control, with an ominous superweapon floating above, literally and metaphorically illustrating the alien force’s grip on humanity. The Vault–the location that players spend the entirety of the game trying to reach–looms over the city to a scale that seems unlike anything that I’ve seen before, with my VR headset making it seem even more daunting and intimidating to witness.
Much like the opening of Half-Life 2 before it, this is just a tiny window into the world-building and immersion that has defined the Half-Life series from the very beginning and made it so beloved. Given that the last we’ve seen of it was Half-Life 2: Episode Two in 2007, it’s an understatement to say that a proper return to Half-Life has been a long time coming. However, while the thought of bringing the series into the world of virtual reality might have seemed like a disappointment to fans at first–or had them ask time and again, “where is Half-Life 3?!”–it’s clear almost immediately in Half-Life: Alyx that VR brings so many new possibilities to the franchise, and narrative-driven games as a whole, that Valve really made the right decision to make this a VR experience.
Half-Life: Alyx is set in-between the events of the first and second game and follows a younger Alyx Vance and her father, Eli Vance, as they mount a burgeoning resistance against the Combine in City 17 to loosen their control of humanity. After certain events transpire, Eli ends up in the hands of the Combine, making it Alyx’s mission to rescue him while working her way throughout the city to deactivate a powerful Combine structure known as the Vault.
Taking place several years before Alyx would wind up meeting Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, to answer your most pressing question right away: no, Half-Life: Alyx isn’t Half-Life 3 in terms of where it immediately picks up in the story. However, without getting too deep into the specifics or spoiler territory, Half-Life: Alyx is an incredibly satisfying experience that weaves together much of the series’ story from past installments, and provides a compelling bridge between Half-Life and Half-Life 2. I really can’t say much more than that without spoiling things, but all that I’ll say is that there is going to be a lot that series fans will discover in Half-Life: Alyx. It provides new context for what has happened before in the series and hopefully paints a bright picture for Half-Life’s future, especially in the game’s incredible final chapter.
While it’s thrilling in its own right to revisit this world again as a long-time Half-Life fan, the integration of virtual reality in Half-Life: Alyx really helps to make this world feel entirely new again. From stepping out into the streets of City 17 and seeing the sheer scale of the Combine facilities and structures over the city, to facing off against headcrab zombies and other enemies in a terrifying, dimly-lit hallway, Half-Life: Alyx beautifully translates the series’ iconic setting and characters to VR and makes this world feel that much more realized and tangible than it already does. I’ve played through Half-Life 2 several times over the years, and yet I still couldn’t help but feel emotional seeing a world that I love so deeply be given a brand new perspective to see it through.
As someone that hasn’t necessarily played a ton of VR games, I went into the experience of Half-Life: Alyx with some degree of hesitation and uncertainty of what to expect from playing this type of game in a VR setting. Most VR games that I’ve played in the past generally felt better suited to being played in smaller sessions, making the idea of playing a 10-15 hour narrative-driven game completely in VR seem daunting. However, I managed to come away surprised by how well-suited Half-Life is for VR, and that Valve clearly put time and effort into making a longer experience like this comfortable to play while also being able to utilize everything that VR has to offer in a more traditional gameplay experience.
To go into the technical specifications, I played through Half-Life: Alyx with an original Oculus Rift headset on a now 3-year-old (but still pretty decent) PC. So, I was far from playing it on what you’d now consider a top-of-the-line VR rig and without using Valve Index, which seems like the preferred way of playing through it. That being said, even though I was using an older Oculus headset and PC, I still came away from Half-Life: Alyx impressed by its visuals and performance. This is on top of the fact that Half-Life: Alyx supports so many different hardware configurations between PCs and headsets, and that its options are incredibly accommodating for VR players of all levels.
Specifically, Half-Life: Alyx supports a number of different locomotion options to ensure that players have a number of settings to make the experience comfortable to play for longer periods of time. While the game is neatly divided into roughly hour-long chapters, I managed to play through Half-Life: Alyx in several 2-3 hour sessions with very little discomfort (especially compared to other VR games I’ve played before that made me prone to motion sickness), and completed the game in about 12 hours. My preferred combination in Half-Life: Alyx was playing it seated and using continuous motion, but other movement options like blinking or teleporting are available alongside support for standing and room-scale VR, making it easy to find the best movement and play settings that will work for you.
Even if you’re coming to Half-Life: Alyx relatively fresh to VR like I was, it does an amazing job at easing players into its mechanics and play style gradually, especially given some of the more complex actions you can do later on. While the opening of the game is deliberately slower so that players can acclimate to moving around environments and exploring, it isn’t too long before Half-Life: Alyx opens up to the elements that make it truly feel like a fully-realized Half-Life game with the added benefits and interactions of VR.
The most notable of these additions are the “gravity gloves” that players obtain from Russell, a scientist and engineer (humorously played by Flight of the Conchords’ Rhys Darby) that works alongside Alyx and communicates to her throughout the game via headset. While he likes to call them “the Russells,” the tech-powered gloves functionally feel similar to the gravity gun from Half-Life 2, allowing players to pull in objects from afar while playing a vital role in exploring each area. Most importantly, these are especially useful in combination with Alyx’s multitool, allowing her to find hidden circuits and to complete environmental puzzles.
In the same way that Half-Life 2’s use of physics gave players a whole new vocabulary of solving puzzles and exploring environments, Half-Life: Alyx’s integration of VR and being able to physically interact with nearly any object provides a similar sense of engagement and challenge. With the added benefits of scale, perspective, and interaction, Half-Life: Alyx uses virtual reality to its full potential by making its environments not only exciting to explore and wander through, but also vital to progressing through the story and gaining a deeper understanding of the world and setting.
The puzzles and environmental challenges in Half-Life: Alyx especially do the best job at highlighting what VR brings to the series that most likely wouldn’t have been possible with a more traditional play style. For example, Alyx’s multitool comes in handy for a number of puzzles and interactions throughout the world, most often through finding circuits in walls to restore power to objects in the environment. With the multitool in hand (and your preferred VR controllers), you’ll have to reconnect circuits and trace power lines to their sources, sometimes having you open cabinets and drawers to find the next circuit, or having to complete complex interactive puzzles to open up supply caches and weapon upgrade stations. Given that the multitool doesn’t get any upgrades throughout the game, instead Valve relies on giving the player new challenges to use Alyx’s toolset in different ways to keep the experience of Half-Life: Alyx interesting and engaging throughout.
Alongside its puzzles and environmental challenges, Half-Life: Alyx also expertly adapts the series’ combat to fit the nature of playing in VR. Appropriately, the combat in Half-Life: Alyx is slowed down to an extent (compared with past games) to combat motion sickness, but still retains the elements that would feel right at home in Half-Life 2. While Half-Life: Alyx feels in line with what players might expect from previous games in terms of the combat and gunplay, having the ability to freely move or position your body to make that perfect headshot or grenade toss feels better than ever, and unlike any other shooter that I’ve played before.
Though the roster of weapons in Half-Life: Alyx is smaller–limited to the pistol, shotgun, and a Combine SMG–each weapon still manages to feel immensely satisfying to use with their own purpose and advantages. Over the course of the game, players also have the opportunity to upgrade each weapon with new attachments and abilities with acquired resin, and eventually gain access to other useful items like stimpacks, containers for health stations, and grenades (which especially benefit from use in VR). Thankfully, Half-Life: Alyx continues the tradition of the Half-Life series having the most satisfying shotgun in gaming, but even more so, having to physically reload your guns (and seeing their intricate designs and moving pieces) adds a greater tactile feel to the combat of Half-Life: Alyx.
In the sense of gameplay mechanics and storytelling, Half-Life: Alyx manages to perfectly capture all of the qualities that makes the series so compelling. If you’ve been hoping to see what a Half-Life game looks like in 2020, you surely will be satisfied. But what Half-Life: Alyx really captures so effectively is how it uses VR to make an already impressively-detailed world feel that much more believable and tangible. Seeing the sheer size of Combine architecture looming over the skyline of City 17 and the dust particles in the air, or traversing through alien pathways filled with bizarre creatures and luminescent light particles from Xen; it all feels that much more real through virtual reality, and a perfect match with the world of Half-Life.
As an experience built from the ground up for immersion and creating a fully-realized world, Half-Life: Alyx is truly a game-changer for VR. This is not merely “Half-Life VR,” but an incredibly crafted game that shows how VR can be used to elevate more in-depth narratives to even greater potential. And, as the game goes on, you’ll see how it becomes a crucial part of the Half-Life universe. It’s been a long 13 years, and yes, it may not be Half-Life 3, but I can assure you that Half-Life: Alyx is entirely worth the wait and is an experience worth seeing for yourself, if only to find out what comes next.
Rise and shine, Alyx Vance.