Say Goodbye to Real Life With Half Life: Alyx
As an industry, we have some of the worst terminology. Bullet hell, Metroidvania, there’s a lot of them. Most of all though, I detest Killer App. It makes me dry heave just typing it. But alas, virtual reality has been waiting for that one title, that one *shudder* killer app that ties everything together. That makes it all make sense. Half Life: Alyx is that game. Boasting incredible production values, a compelling story, and gameplay that makes VR truly compelling, Half Life: Alyx is a remarkable achievement. Valve’s chops are sharper than ever: this is the best VR game to date.
I honestly doubted we’d ever see more Half Life. Episode 2 came out almost 13 years ago, and despite the constant internet howling about Half Life 3, I wasn’t entirely convinced that the appetite was there for more of Gordan Freeman and the Vances. Unless… Unless Valve could pull off another expectation shattering miracle. With Half Life it was first person storytelling, while Half Life 2 made physics a permanent gameplay staple. A new Half Life title would need to be similarly groundbreaking to have a hope of satisfying the insatiable internet. Half Life: Alyx doesn’t do anything I haven’t seen elsewhere. Instead, it does almost all the amazing things we’ve seen in VR at the same time, with an obscene level of style and polish.
I won’t rehash the whole Half Life story here, but Alyx occurs 5 years before the events of Half Life 2. As Alyx Vance, you’ll venture into the Quarantine Zone outside City 17 to save your father, Eli. Every bit of Half Life lore you might want is addressed either directly or through allusion: the Combine, Vortigaunt, Black Mesa, and of course a metric ton of head crabs. No spoilers here, but believe me when I say this adventure stands tall within the franchise. Fan of Half Life or not, it’s a tense, spooky, and electric thrill ride from start to finish.
Immersion is everything in VR. The format itself is such that a few polygons and simple models can produce a good effect, but the challenge has always been bridging the gap. Our lizard brains are easily tricked, but my inner higher primate has always wanted to believe I’m part of the world. I want to be fully jacked into the Matrix, and remarkably, Half Life: Alyx mostly makes that happen. Tonally, there are two parallel tracks at all times. Magically, and to great effect, those two paths never interfere with one another.
That has to do largely with the writing and characters you’ll meet along the way. From the outlandish Russel – brilliantly played by Rhys Darby – to the mysterious Vortigaunt, Half Life: Alyx is written with the intent of keeping you on your toes. It works marvelously. You’re constantly a single beat away from new emotional resonance, be that deep sadness or uproarious laughter. The pacing is laser precise. Never predictable, never unwelcome, each new sequence feels fresh and important even when centered around gameplay contrivance.
Ridiculous Levels of Polish
Yes, fidelity is still a limitation but the design and craftsmanship of Alyx’s world is tremendous. The windows can be written on with nearby markers with shocking accuracy, pianos can be played with recognizable tunes, and head crabs can be shaken around like raw chickens. Nothing truly new there, but with such silly pieces of interactivity woven in such a dense way and within such an oppressive world, it brings an almost surreal quality to proceedings. The way the world is built is still rooted in reality, though. The places you’ll visit feel like real places, albeit containing some truly fantastic technological designs. It’s believable that such a place could exist, and such a situation could arise. Perhaps more importantly: Alyx really feels like part of the world, and you truly feel as though you’re inhabiting the character. It’s a sensational feeling that’s unique to this title.
Alyx does an exceptional job of leading players into discovery. The invisible hand of the developers is ever present, but never felt. Instead, levels have carefully placed clues that encourage experimentation, and in the end I felt gloriously free despite the often claustrophobic setting. Subtle audio cues hint at unseen discoveries to be made. The tactility of everything is noteworthy, even amongst other VR titles. Grasping, turning things over, setting them down, moving them hand to hand – even these incredibly basic VR mechanics are finely tuned. Case in point: grabbing a bottle. Alyx’s hands adjust to your approach with surprising realism, pinching the spout if you so choose, and rarely resorting to the weird telekinetic adjustments objects can make in lesser experiences. The exception to that rule is trying to pick up and move bodies or shake them down for lunch money, which can be a little unnerving but also janky. But hey, when you can frisbee dead head crabs around I’m willing to give a bit of a pass.
Moving around the space offers enough options for all levels of VR tolerance. For the strong willed/stomached, the stick driven continuous mode provides the most combat mobility, while the Blink option is likely to work for just about everyone thanks to a quick dip to black during teleports. I found the Shift option to be a nice balance of comfort and speed, and spending a couple of hours at a time under the dome was perfectly comfortable with a Rift S. I’m happy to report zero compatibility or tracking issues using the Oculus here.
In the end, this means a whole lot of looking around at things, even in high pressure situations. It’s all gorgeous, dynamic, and alive, whether near or far. There’s not a whole lot of openness here, but despite that linearity I felt extremely satisfied with the agency Half Life: Alyx offers. You can’t often literally go ‘over there’, but simply wondering what might be there is enjoyable. It’s a testament to the level design that even though I explored every area meticulously, I didn’t often end up trying to go through a dead end.
Half Life has always had puzzles, and the trend continues here. As expected, they’re often tactile, and consistently interactive. Again it’s nothing I haven’t seen in isolation in other experiences, but having fun (if not super challenging) puzzles baked into a ridiculously engaging plot and standout world makes them feel leagues better. I particularly liked the multitool puzzles, where hologram manipulation is a key component. Importantly, running across a puzzle never feels like a burden.
Encounters That Could Only Happen In VR
When you aren’t simply looking at things or screwing around with the physics, you’re likely to be engaged in combat. There’s some dynamism to the encounters, where tactical moves between cover points often makes sense, combined with room scale based dodging and hiding. Again, tactility is everything. Slamming a new clip in mid battle feels incredible, but not because it hasn’t been done. It’s every aspect working in seamless harmony. The animation of the guns and Alyx’s hands, the sound design, the control scheme. Nothing works at an imperfect level, and that makes encounters feel truly dependent on your abilities.
It’s inevitable that someone will mod Alyx to work without VR, and anyone playing it in that capacity will undoubtedly be disappointed. Half Life: Alyx is the kind of experience that relies heavily on each element of it’s design. It’s a robust design, but removing the presence that VR provides would be a tragic fate to hand such an impeccably built and frankly world class accomplishment.
I do question some design choices and what I feel is unnecessary streamlining. Alyx can only carry two items at once, and her pack only stores ammo and resin for (very fun) weapon upgrades. You’ll never truly need more than that though, so maybe those choices are key parts of the brilliant balance. Still, I think there are more paths to be explored, and layers that could be put on top of these bones in subsequent games.
When all the mechanics aligned and I started to execute with finesse, I came to a stirring conclusion. Half Life: Alyx didn’t need to do something unexpected. It needed to prove that all the tools for making a brilliant VR experience – one with an impactful story, fun and fluid combat, and an entrancing world – already exist, and then execute. It has done that, and it shattered my expectations from start to finish. If you’ve yet to make the VR leap, Half Life: Alyx is an extraordinary reason to do so. It’s the best VR game yet, and maybe, just maybe, the best in the Half Life franchise.
**Review code provided by Valve**
- Incredible world and sense of place
- Outstanding characters and writing
- Absolutely gorgeous
- The best VR to date
- Very minor physics jank
- Storage limitations