Review – Half-Life: Alyx
It almost feels surreal reviewing a new Half-Life entry after the long and torturous wait Valve put us through. Alas, here we are in 2020 and not only do we have a new Half-Life game, but it’s also only on a niche platform? It almost seems cruel to the vast majority of gamers who played their games so long ago, only now to tell them that they must spend a significant amount of money to experience the latest installment. What’s even more disheartening is that a very large portion of the gaming world won’t ever experience a game that absolutely should be played. Whether it’s financial reasons or you just don’t handle VR well, it’s a damned shame this magnificent game is left to YouTube streams just to see how it tied into the Half-Life world. Regardless, the fact remains: Half-Life: Alyx is a must play.
In Half-Life: Alyx you play as the titular Alyx Vance, someone who Half-Life players should be familiar with. The game is set between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and we see Alyx’s struggle with the oppressive Combine. The Combine have become more powerful after the Black Mesa incident and are looking to capture the best minds to further their tech and control. Alyx is set on the offensive against the Combine when they come to take her brilliant scientist father, Eli, back to their floating prison.
This being a Half-Life game, things aren’t as simple as they look and story twists will happen. There is a bit of a pacing issues in the first quarter of the game when it’s setting things up, as well as getting you use to the VR mechanics and rules. However, once things get rolling it is an extremely satisfying ride that ends up tying itself into Half-Life 2: Chapter 2 really well.
It’s refreshing to have a VR game that has a focus on story and not just a tech demo for its gameplay mechanics. My first playthrough on normal mode still took me 11.5 hours to complete and that wasn’t with wasted time or multiple death situations. That being said, Half-Life: Alyx still features some of the best VR gameplay. Unfortunately, the rules it sets up sometimes work against it with them being too strict. This can pull you out of the immersion when things are arbitrarily locked for seemingly no reason, but I’ll get to that a bit later.
One of the best gameplay features in Alyx are the Gravity Gloves. These not only serve as your UI telling you your health and ammo, but they also allow you to grab and pull most items towards you. Aiming at a distant ammo magazine, pulling the trigger, and flicking your wrist makes it come flying towards you allowing you to easily grab it mid-air and store it in your backpack. Not only is this necessary for a lot of hidden items and Resin upgraded material, but it makes it convenient for sitting players.
Speaking of upgrade Resin, this is the material used to upgrade your weapons. The amount of upgrades per weapon is nice and they’re all each worth upgrading. However, there isn’t really a large amount of weapons to choose from. You have a pistol, shotgun, and sub-machine gun. These are spaced out enough through the game and offer cool upgrades like laser sites, grenade attachments, auto loaders that each alter the look of the gun to keep things fresh.
Outside of the main weapons, there are grenades that you can pick up, but you can only hold one at a time unless you store them in your wrist inventories located on each hand. However, you’ll likely want to store stim-packs in those spots. There are also no melee weapons, which is odd from a series that has an iconic crowbar wielder. Not even a pistol whip works on enemies.
With that note, this is where my problems with Half-Life: Alyx begin. When you first start the game you pick your dominate hand, which is normal for VR. However, Alyx then locks your dominate hand to the only hand that can actually wield your weapons. You can’t simply toss your guns between hands to shoot around corners, and you can’t dual wield your weapons. This just doesn’t make any sense in a VR world. You can only store ammo and Resin over your left shoulder, and you can only wield your scanner in your dominate hand.
Most of the world has a sense of weight and gravity, but picking up a 2×4 or metal pipe when it can’t be used as a melee weapon is confusing. Hell, there isn’t even any melee in the game. It doesn’t allow you to climb up waist high ledges, instead you must wait for an indicator. Platforming is as simple as holding the right joystick to prepare a jump, line up the foot indicator at the end, and letting go to complete the jump. All of these rules (some of them for comfort reasons) arbitrarily lock you in and hampers the immersion. It is something you do get used to as you play, but it is worth noting that Valve has waited this long, and in some gameplay elements other games have already done it better.
Visually Half-Life: Alyx is the most impressive VR game I have seen to date. It will push your PC, but the level of detail and texture work is extremely well done. The variety of industrial, residential, and alien art work is superbly presented and offers some crisp visuals. On top of that, the lighting is well done and really helps set up some eerie scenes. There are some pop-ins you’ll notice here and there as you quickly turn, but nothing jarring or bad textures lingering. One thing hard to do in VR due to screen door effect is handling particle effects without it looking like pixel artifacts and Valve nailed it here. You’ll be putting your face up close to all sorts of nasty looking alien life just to check out all the slimy details.
With the superb visuals come the fantastic audio design. What’s the point of having gruesomely detailed alien life without equally creepy audio? Each enemy whether it’s walk, crawling, or environmental, all have their own distinct audio cues. And each one is delivered in full 3D audio impressively. Spatial sound is used well giving you an idea of the direction and distance an enemy is coming from. At no point did I have that annoying issue of hearing an enemy on top of me, but it is actually in another room.
The soundtrack hits right with up beat combat tunes, but knows when to mellow out for the more ambient creepy stuff. In addition the voice work is also very well done, minus a couple line delivery issues, but over all it is very well voice acted. The variety of weapons, and items all pack a nice punch from the heavy hitting shotgun to the small needle syringe stim-packs. Actually, one of the more stand out sound effects I noticed is from the health stations where a live bug is squashed inside a tube and then needle injected into your hand. Something about the visual and audio feedback of it all is really intriguing.
Half-Life: Alyx is a superb experience that I wish didn’t have such a barrier to experience, but it really does need to be experienced. It may not fully impress VR enthusiasts with its gameplay rules, but it offers so much more to the VR space. It’s refreshing to have a game that focuses on telling a full fledged story experience on a platform that is mostly stretching its legs with gameplay tech demos. It just so happens that this full fledged story is also a Half-Life game that also lives up to its predecessors and ties in nicely with them.
This is visually the best VR game I have seen. The level of details in the environment are amazing and the quality is very crisp.
The controls work great and everything is fairly intuitive. A nice variety of gameplay mechanics, and plenty of weapon upgrades. However, weapon variety itself is low, and the VR rules are too restricting.
From the voice acting down to the ambient music and sounds from the environment, everything is extremely well done.
Half Life: Alyx is a full fledged game and its narrative focus is a nice change of pace in the VR space. Pacing is a little slow in the beginning, but the story pays off big time tying itself nicely into Half Life 2: Chapter 2.
Final Verdict: 9.5
Half Life: Alyx is available now on Steam VR, Oculus Rift, Valve Index, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality .
Reviewed on Oculus Rift with an i7-9700k, 16gb RAM, and RTX 2070.