It’s not surprising Valve opted against calling its first franchise instalment in more than a decade ‘Half-Life 3’, but what’s most important is that it justifiably could’ve done.
Alyx has in many respects been undersold. Announced via an understated Twitter post late last year, the VR title has appeared in little more than a handful of gameplay videos since – and here we are publishing a review no earlier than the game’s exact deployment time.
The Steam firm is understandably nervous at pushing against nearly 13 years of expectation, especially in a medium that’s virtually still in its infancy. But it needn’t have been so humble.
After just a few hours with Alyx’s campaign, any lingering doubts this might be a limited spin-off are obliterated. The new Half-Life is everything we expected from a big budget Valve title: stunning, inventive and expertly constructed, and to quickly put another misgiving to rest: VR enhances virtually every element.
Forget the calls for a mouse and keyboard version: the Alyx experience simply couldn’t exist without VR, and the first time you snatch an ammo magazine from the floor, and frantically fumble it into your pistol at just the right moment to execute a pursuing zombie, you’ll be utterly convinced.
With the pretty huge caveat that expensive equipment and a sizable room is required, virtually everything in Half-Life is improved by a focus on VR; exploring the world is captivating and immersive, solving 3D puzzles is a unique joy, and gunfights, in which you now catch a grenade mid-air and throw it back with amazing fidelity, are more intense and exhilarating than ever.
Should you buy a pricey VR headset especially for Alyx? The answer depends on the size of your home and whether you’re a big enough fan of this series. But if any game is worth jumping into the medium for, this is most certainly it.
Chronologically, Alyx takes place before the events of Half-Life 2, when the invading Combine alien force is establishing its stranglehold on humanity. The depth of the story is the first indication that Alyx is no mere sideshow – and there are clear implications within its 20-or-so-hours for the main Half-Life plotline.
Although Alyx takes place in City 17, it doesn’t simply retread what we’ve seen before in previous games: the districts you’ll visit are totally new to the series, while the enemies that do return often require different strategies to defeat in VR.
Character dialogue is unexpectedly frequent, led by wannabe Black Mesa scientist Russell (voiced by comedian Rhys Darby), who feels very much Portal-inspired, which is unsurprising since most of the same writing team have handled this game’s script.
“Opening doors and sliding window panes feels revelatory for VR newcomers, and that’s even before you get your hands on the game’s weapons and their many complex, yet satisfying, reload procedures.”
The dystopian landscape of City 17 inspires a wonderful sense of familiarity for fans – but they won’t have explored it like this before. Players first step onto a balcony overlooking the city, with primitive Striders towering over rooftops and a flurry of sci-fi drones attending to the skeleton of what will eventually become the Citadel.
Immediately the sense of scale is totally captivating. Leaning over the side of the balcony will have many players jittering with vertigo, while navigating the clutter of a nearby table feels almost as intuitive as using an analog stick for the first time.
This illusion of presence has always been the strength of VR, and Valve expertly homes in on it as much as possible during Alyx’s campaign. In the early stages of the story the developer intentionally hides ammo boxes behind scenery and inside desk drawers, forcing players to literally lean in and interact with the world, and this incentive to search is maintained with the introduction of cheekily hidden weapon upgrade resources.
Opening doors and sliding window panes feels revelatory for VR newcomers, and that’s even before you get your hands on the game’s weapons and their many complex, yet satisfying, reload procedures. Even the process of using a healing station – previously an act of simply pressing ‘E’ – is now a gratifying (and gruesome) process involving pulling leavers and pulverising alien bugs.
By default, movement is handled with a simple teleportation system, which has players aiming the left control device before blinking to that location. This might sound mundane, but any interaction lost through traversal is overwhelmingly made up for by the amount of options introduced by hand and head tracking. Crucially, it also meant we could play for hours without feeling any nausea.
Experts have the option of activating manual movement, although the majority of players are likely to empty their stomachs if this mode is used for too long.
“With the Valve Index headset and controllers, the tracking of hand, head and player position have become almost invisible to player – and Alyx’s design demands a high level of accuracy.”
If the gravity gun was the star of Half-Life 2, then your own hands fill the spotlight in Alyx. Equipped with a pair of experimental Gravity Gloves (or “Russells,” as our in-ear comrade refers to them), players are able to reach out and magically pluck items from the environment from a distance.
The act of doing so – which has players highlighting an item by pointing at it, flinging their hand backwards to pull it, and then catching it by clenching their hand – feels natural and becomes more intuitive with practice.
By themselves the gravity gloves solve a design issue by allowing players to interact with the environment without having to exhaustingly move around it. But with experience they quickly become an awesome superpower, allowing players to manipulate the physics of the world to clear paths and solve puzzles.
Modern VR tracking has come on leaps and bounds and Valve utilises it masterfully. With the Valve Index headset and controllers, the tracking of hand, head and player position have become almost invisible to players – and Alyx’s design demands a high level of accuracy.
For example, some hacking sections require the player to carry a UI item the size of a golf ball through a series of tiny hoops, with even a centimetre of inaccuracy potentially resulting in failure. Later these sections will have a time limit added to them, or you’ll have to perform them in a room full of explosive barrels and trip wires to avoid whilst manoeuvring your hands.
It’s in these small moments that Alyx cements itself, like the previous Half-Life games, as a title that feels like it’s pushing the video game medium forwards.
Peeking around a corner to spy the zombie lurking out of view; stopping a vodka bottle from rolling off a shelf so not to alert a nearby enemy; holding a window open just wide enough to insert a grenade; and gently pushing a door ajar to lean in and defuse a trip mine on the other side.
It’s in these moments you know that Alyx is truly an exceptional experience, and that not only do fans finally have their new Half-Life, but VR has its killer app.
A stunning return for Half-Life and an essential VR purchase - if you have the required equipment and space.
- The absolute best VR shooter available.
- A stunning return to the Half-Life universe.
- A fantastic roster of characters and environments.
- A story that builds on its predecessors.
- Space and equipment provide a large barrier to entry.