After 13 years, Half-Life has returned
* Polished gameplay and memorable set pieces
Fantastic visuals and sound immerse you in City 17- the best looking VR game so far.
Highly detailed physics system
Interesting story that dramatically shifts the series' direction
* Combat lacks melee options
Paltry weapon selection
The Bottom Line
It has been 13 years since a Half-Life game has graced our computer screens. That’s long enough for someone in kindergarten to now be in their senior year. Back when social media was an emerging technology rather than the backbone of our cultural consciousness. And years before consumer virtual reality was an available thing.
After Half-Life 2: Episode 2’s gut-wrenching cliffhanger ending, Valve had attempted to close out the series with a third Half-Life game, but all of their attempts were in vain. They were waiting for the right time when they could push the limits of technology again, and with the advent of virtual reality, they finally found an avenue to do so.
Valve’s first single player game in 9 years, Half-Life Alyx is a midquel taking place 5 years before Gordon Freeman’s arrival in City 17. You play as Alyx Vance, the daughter of former Black Mesa researcher Eli Vance, who has grown up all of her life under the oppressive alien regime, the Combine. After Eli is captured, Alyx teams up with a hacker and inventor named Russell in an attempt to rescue Eli from the Combine. She soon finds herself caught up in a larger task that ultimately involves breaking into the Combine’s Vault, a large floating ship above City 17.
Half Life Alyx emphasizes the series’ horror elements much more strongly than in previous games. Compared to the Freeman-led 2D installments, Alyx is a much slower, more methodical affair. Movement speed is slow and platforming is limited to teleportation rather than jump-based movement. Exploration is a much more crucial part of the gameplay as you search in lockers, bins, and trashcans for various pickups along your journey.
Your primary means of environmental interaction are the “Russells”, or gravity gloves. These allow you to pick up small items from some distance away. You simply point your hand over the item, grip the trigger, then make a gentle tugging motion to bring the item to your hand so you can catch it. It is incredibly weird at first, but it gradually becomes second-nature as the game goes on.
The player can utilize Alyx’s multitool to solve various environmental puzzles. These include manipulating power currents in the walls as well as various simple hacking minigames which take place in 3D space. These grant you access to lockers, doors, and Combine upgrade and power stations.
In combat, Alyx can utilize several different types of guns, which are all one-handed so that the player has a free hand to interact with the environment at all times. These include a pistol, a shotgun, and an SMG. Each of these guns can be upgraded at various stations over the course of the game using resin which you can collect through the environments. These upgrades add laser sights, increased ammo count, and alternate fire modes to the weapons. There isn’t enough resin to fully upgrade them all before the game’s end, so you’ll have to be wise in choosing which upgrades you want the most. You have to manually reload each weapon during gameplay, and each one has a different means of reloading. This can be very stressful in the heat of battle. Combat is almost exclusively ranged, so Alyx becomes a game about managing your ammo count closely as you fight enemies. Melee weapons simply don’t exist in the game, and using thrown objects outside of grenades does basically no damage to the enemies.
Each chapter introduces new items, weapons, or enemy types so the game never gets too stale throughout its lengthy campaign. There are a few enemy types that are new to this game, including armored headcrabs which can only be shot in a specific place under their belly. One chapter features an encounter with a single enemy hunting the player that is so terrifying it will be difficult to foget anytime soon.
That being said, its hard not to feel like Valve could have pushed harder in certain areas. There are only a paltry three weapons to use, plus grenades. Melee is completely absent from the game, meaning that you cannot damage enemies with held or tossed objects. There’s a vaguely shallow feeling in the game’s back half, and while the game delivers lots of fantastic moments, its hard to feel like there could have been just a little bit more to the experience. I’ll admit I experienced some feelings of tedium as I got closer to the game’s end as I had to venture through yet another run-down location digging through every drawer and cabinet for ammo and resin.
Half Life: Alyx has been designed with the idea that it will likely be a player’s first VR game in mind. It eases the player very slowly into the game’s mechanics, introducing enemy types and familiarizing players with the tone of the game before cranking things up. Ladders are designed so that simply beginning to climb them will take the player all the way to the top. Entering buildings through windows is done via teleportation. Comfort and playability is a key aspect of designing VR games, and Valve came through with a variety of comfort and locomotion options for the player. These include both teleportation and continuous movement, snap turning, and a crouch button. These options allow the game to be played with virtually any VR setup, including while seated.
As the first real single-player game running on Valve’s Source 2 engine, Half-Life Alyx is easily the best-looking and sounding game in VR to date. From the opening view of the City 17 skyline looking directly towards the Citadel, the series has never looked better. The art style is a bit different, more technological and angular, but in some ways it represents a look that Valve had always wanted for City 17 but couldn’t quite have due to the limitations of technology in the 2000’s. But even judged against other VR titles, Alyx is a stunner. Textures and models are highly detailed from all angles, lighting and shadow is effective, and character animations during certain moments are so life-like you can practically feel yourself in the room with them. There are lots of unique models and objects to look at throughout the game and no two areas look the same. There does seem to be some small performance drops during heavy explosions or large daytime environments, but otherwise I can’t fault the visuals on display here.
Similarly, the sounds you know and love from previous Half-Life games are present and correct, and have been cleaned up significantly from their 90’s versions. The sound design is highly immersive, especially since the game is more horror-based compared to the previous installments. The voice acting is also strong. I have to give praise especially to Rhys Darby, who absolutely nails his performance as Russell. His dry, sarcastic wit brought a smile to my face every time he chimed in over Alyx’s headset, and he brought a real charm to the game that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Valve has yet another to add to their perfect track record of great companion characters alongside Wheatley, GlaDos, and Alyx herself.
While I wouldn’t say that Half Life Alyx is overwhelmingly the best VR game, it is still among the most polished and complete experiences that modern-day VR has to offer. It takes a lot of mechanics seen in other VR games and presents them in a refined package. Make no mistake, this is a landmark title for the medium, but it also shows that there is still plenty of room for it to grow.
by krisko6 (813) on April 4th, 2020