It’s been almost 13 years since Valve dipped into the depressing and brilliantly explored Half Life series and with their newest entry, Half Life: Alyx, being a VR exclusive title many fans were very skeptical as to where valve were going with this. I am one of the few lucky souls who happened to own a VR headset before the announcement of the game so knowing that my investment has paid off with a brand new Half Life game certainly kept me excited for the title. How exactly is this newest title from Valve and does it match up to their legendary reputation?
Alyx is set approximately 5 years before the events of Half Life 2 and, naturally, follows the antics of Alyx Vance, Gordon’s side character helper from the original sequel as she goes about her days living within the oppressed society of Humanity after their complete domination by The Combine. During the events of the story it comes to Alyx and her father Eli Vance’s attention that the invading force is holding something inside a giant floating containment cell that could be the tipping point in the resistance’s fight to free humanity. So it’s up to you to travel through the occupied city, get to the vault and find out exactly what’s inside and in the process try to save your father from being captured. The premise itself is fairly simple and is ultimately a good way to push forward the narrative as you yourself become ever more curious as to exactly what you are looking for and the stakes to which you are fighting for. The characters and dialogue are absolutely stellar, as might be expected from a Half Life game, as Alyx displays elements of naivety of the world pre-war while also being extremely relateable and fun to listen to. Her radio helper along this journey, Russell, is equally fun to listen to as he rambles on about technology, the old world and other such topics that make the banter between the two characters a joy to listen to. Being a VR game the story also feels a lot more personal as you feel that while you may not have physically travelled far in the game world you certainly feel as though you have experienced a lot of character growth and development within your game time and the methods through which the game not onl;y conveys story but also environmental details which paints a bleak picture of this doomed humanity make it such an interesting place to explore. While we may have been introduced to City 17 in previous Half Life games never before have I felt so involved in the history and daily workings of the city until this game.
The presentation is, quite frankly, the best experience you can have on VR to date. The graphics and environments look absolutely gorgeous and with the ability to pick up literally any object by using your hands as actual physical objects within this virtual space it makes you feel completely immersed and astounded as to the detail of everything. To give you an example as to the amount of detail Valve put into this game, you can look into the bowl of a toilet and see it is fully textured even all the way down the pipe. Now there’s of course no point in the game in which you need to look down a toilet but the fact that it’s even modeled at all makes it astounding to me as to how much work has been done for this experience. The dialogue of each character is very well done and as mentioned before I really love the work that has been done to make Alyx likeable and relateable and that most certainly comes across through her voice actresses’ performance so bravo for that. The music too is a lovely mix of creepy atmospheric pieces when appropriate and when full on battles break out the tracks ramp up and take on a full techo-theme battle soundtrack that is an absolute treat to listen to as you blast down combine. Really the thing this game absolutely nails over pretty much anything else is the atmosphere of the experience. Being in VR means that you are actually walking within these environments and believe me when I say this is perhaps the most freaked out and disturbed I have ever been in a video game as I wander through disgusting alien terrain and horrifying genetic deformities wander about. There’s a particular sequence in the game that I found myself physically holding my breath to keep quiet at despite it of course not doing anything within the game itself. Alyx is by far the best looking VR game to date and knowing that this is just a fraction of the potential of the medium of VR makes me very excited.
Gameplay is where most enthusiasts of virtual reality will no doubt feel most at home. Just like most detailed shooters you can move about the world with a variety of options such as teleporting, smooth motion and you can even choose to play sitting down or with roomscale. I of course chose standing, smooth motion roomscale which helped to make the experience feel that much more immersive. Combat and exploration are all done in real time and require a mix of environmental puzzling and quick tactical thinking in order to be successful. Alyx is no Gordon Freeman and as such she is rather frail and vulnerable which means in direct combat you have to utilise cover and the environment itself to keep yourself safe from enemies. This is especially the case when fighting the mutated enemies as they require things such as using different enemy types to kill each other in order to save ammunition or placing physical objects in their path in order to give yourself time to reload your weapons. The puzzles too are interesting and utilise the biggest advantage VR provides which is the ability to physically explore your nearby surroundings in order to work out things such as a recurring puzzle which requires you to re-wire electrical circuits in order to open doors or activate certain machines. This helps to make the game feel more like a real world with actual solutions you would naturally think to solve issues rather than just feeling like another video game puzzle. The weapon selection is rather small however the way you interact with your guns and the way you can upgrade them makes them feel like fully fleshed out mechanics and as such the small arsenal size doesn’t feel like an issue at all but rather makes it feel as though you are using everything that you need to in order to get through combat. I do wish you could use objects in the environment to damage enemies however I’m sure that would be a massive headache to implement. One thing that Alyx does incredibly well in order to help solve one of the main issues with VR, lack of space, is the Gravity Gloves. These items are given to you near the start of the game and act as a way to literally ‘yoink’ objects from afar into your hands directly. This means that say you’re in a firefight and you run out of ammo you can use these to scan the environment, find a magazine on a table in the next room and pull it into your hand allowing you to reload your weapon and keep the fight going. It keeps the pace nice and quick, helps deal with issues to do with restricted playing spaces and ultimately is a massive addition to the game that I feel elevates it to a great degree. Ultimately the game plays and feels exactly like a normal Half Life game should and all the added VR features only help to further emphasise how detailed and fun the game really is.
When it comes to flaws about the game the only things I can really say about it are technical issues that I personally experienced but it seems as though many others had fairly smooth experiences. I’d suggest then that this is most likely due to my system just being at a medium range when it comes to high-end gaming so any technical issues that I had should be taken with a grain of salt unless you are yourself playing on a less powerful PC or VR headset in which case take these points as precautions. Firstly the loading times for the game were absolutely abyssmal on my end as I found myself frequently waiting upwards of 3-5 minutes between environment transitions or when starting up the game. Now while that may not sound like that much of an issue take into consideration that with the VR Headset on and you standing up and moving around for most of your playthrough the act of simply standing and waiting with this heavy piece of equipment on your head can really tire you out. Frequently I had to cut my sessions short simply because I got too tired or my head couldn’t take any more of the game and this was compounded by the loading times leaving me frequently just lying down on the ground with my eyes closed waiting for the next part of the level to start. I also experienced various issues with pop-in, un-loaded textures and audio delays which got really bad whenever combat started and I had to read the subtitles for the dialogue come up literally after the firefight was over. The game also requires you to do a lot with your arms so even with the ability to pull things from afar using the gravity gloves I still accidently hit walls and parts of the ceiling due to my fairly small playing space and due to the frantic pace and immersive atmosphere it actually became an issue over time, although being so immersed that you hit your hand off of walls might actually be a positive in some people’s eyes. Ultimately these technical limitations are mostly just issues with VR in general but I’m sure as better headsets come out and PC’s become more and more powerful then all these flaws will simply become nonexistant.
Half Life: Alyx then, is a masterpiece. As a crafted, singular experience for VR I would say it is probably the best VR game to date. Sure it doesn’t have much replay value aside from playing on higher difficulties and searching for hidden collectables but as a story you go through and play yourself I can’t imagine recommending anything else other than this game. The story and dialogue is great, the atmosphere is superb, the music is fantastic and the gameplay itself is some of the best VR has to offer. Valve has certainly outdone themselves and aside from the technical issues that I experienced I would say this game has come as close to perfection as VR can give. If you own any kind of VR headset you absolutely must give this game a try. With the implications this story has for the future of the Half Life series I can say with certainty that Half Life is back baby, and by god does it feel good to say that again.