Before I began my experience with Half-Life: Alyx, one question continuously lingered in my mind. Thirteen years after the release of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, we have finally returned to City 17. Will it be worth the wait? And after spending several hours with the game and witnessing the jaw-dropping ending, my answer is a resounding yes. Yes, Half-Life: Alyx manages to deliver an exceptional and revolutionary experience that can stand toe-to-toe with its spectacular predecessors.
Taking place five years prior to Gordon Freeman’s arrival in City 17, the game puts you in the shoes of Alyx Vance, who is on a mission to procure a reactor from the clutches of the Combine. However, things expectedly go awry and Eli Vance, Alyx’s father, is captured. During the course of the game’s story, the narrative weaves one impressive moment after another.
From surprise character appearances to one of the most astonishing endings in video games, Half-Life: Alyx delivers an intriguing plotline that never lets up until you see the conclusion. In short, Valve have nailed the story in Half-Life: Alyx with such aplomb and style that hardcore fans will likely forgive them for the lack of a new Half-Life for over a decade. Fans of the series are in for a treat, and that is all what I am going to be saying about the story.
“One crucial point to note here is that the game tends to drift towards the horror side of things by putting Alyx in pitch black areas and narrow corridors, and playing in VR can make these scenes rather uncomfortable and scary for some players.”
Half-Life: Alyx, although similar in themes compared to its predecessors, follows a different approach in delivering its experience. It is developed with VR headsets in mind, which means you won’t be able to play it if you don’t have a decent enough headset, and free space to move about in your setup. In short, there is a barrier to entry with this product, and for this reason alone, many players may get turned off. However, if you meet these requirements, the game gives you a number of options to play the game in VR, ranging from sitting to standing positions, both teleportation and locomotion movements, along with finger tracking or trigger based controller inputs. As far as VR options are concerned, Valve has you covered.
When Half-Life: Alyx was announced late last year, there was a genuine concern about the lack of it not being playable outside of VR. I was one of those who felt that the game needed a non-VR mode, but after experiencing the game, I finally get it why Valve went with a complete VR approach. To put it simply, Half-Life: Alyx is designed for VR through and through- right from simplest of actions, such as picking up an object, down to the several puzzle solving mechanics, all of these actions simply would not have had the same kind of impact had this game not been designed around virtual reality.
Every Half-Life game has been characterized by a signature item. In the original Half-Life, it was the Crowbar. In Half-Life 2, it was our trusted Gravity Gun. Half-Life: Alyx features a similar Gravity Manipulator Tool, called the Gravity Gloves. Developed by Resistance member Russell, Gravity Gloves can be used for a wide range of physics-based activities, ranging from simple tasks, such as procuring Resins (a material used for in-game upgrades), to stealing a grenade from an enemy solider. Furthermore, the gloves display the player’s health and status effects, thereby reducing on-screen HUD elements.
“Experiencing the game on Normal difficulty, the enemies lacked coordination and strategy to take out Alyx, and most combat encounters boiled down to simple actions of pointing and shooting, which did dampen their otherwise excellent nature to some extent.”
Then there is Multitool, which helps players in solving the game’s several puzzles. If there was one thing that I found lacking in Half-Life: Alyx, it was its several tedious puzzles. Often presenting no difficulty, these puzzles were more like gameplay obstructions rather than something that enhances the experience, and as such, I found them to be an annoying nuisance at the worst of times. Half-Life: Alyx does a barrage of things perfectly, so it had to do something wrong, right?
Speaking of the things it does do right, however- Alyx excels in delivering excellent combat scenarios through some brilliantly implemented gunplay mechanics. One crucial point to note here is that the game tends to drift towards the horror side of things by putting Alyx in pitch black areas and narrow corridors, and playing in VR can make these scenes rather uncomfortable and scary for some players. You have your trusted pistol, a shotgun, and SMG, some grenades, but there isn’t really much here in terms of firepower. You can collect resins and upgrade your weapons using the Combine Fabricator (which, by the way, is also locked behind annoying puzzles).
Although your options are limited as to how much you can customize, Valve have ensured that all the necessary options are included here. From adding a laser sight to your pistol to adding a grenade launcher to your shotgun, the limited number of options works really well within the context of the level design. Add to that the fact that the guns sound great, and the immersion factor of the gameplay experience – especially in combat encounters – gets heightened even further.
“On the visual front, Half-Life: Alyx is an impressive looking game. Powered by the Source 2 engine, the game features in-depth character models, excellent lighting effects and detailed environments.”
Enemy design is something else that Half-Life: Alyx excels at. From the returning Headcrabs to the eerie Barnacles, Valve have expertly designed the game’s enemies. There are also a number of new enemies along with a new pursuer type enemy who is a complete menace, to mention a few. Of course, I won’t be talking about them too much, since I don’t want to spoil your experience with them, but what I can say is that these monsters are a terrifying menace, and will scare the hell out of you.
Despite the excellent enemy design, I found their AI to be lacking. Experiencing the game on Normal difficulty, the enemies lacked coordination and strategy to take out Alyx, and most combat encounters boiled down to simple actions of pointing and shooting, which did dampen their otherwise excellent nature to some extent.
On the visual front, Half-Life: Alyx is an impressive looking game. Powered by the Source 2 engine, the game features in-depth character models, excellent lighting effects and detailed environments. As you play through the game, you will come across pitch black areas with minimal light and this is where the Source 2 engine shines thanks to its post processing and particle effects. The engine seems to be adhering to a complete physical based rendering pipeline although I cannot say this for sure. The new engine also allows for in-depth interactivity with environmental objects thanks to some great use of physics toolsets and framework.
Half-Life: Alyx has a number of merits, but perhaps its highest of the highs can be found in its excellent music and soundtrack. Mike Morasky, the man behind Half-Life: Alyx’s sensational soundtrack, deserves a lot of credit for delivering an absolutely bonkers musical score. From the eerie score that accompanies the hunt for Headcrabs to the track that plays when you’re running and escaping from a certain enemy in the game, the music adds to the tension of an already adrenaline-fueled experience. The music is accompanied by some convincing voice acting by Ozioma Akagha, the voice of Alyx, and Rhys Darby, the voice behind the lovable Russell.
“In the end, Half-Life: Alyx is a watershed moment for VR gaming, just like how its predecessors were for the first person shooter genre as a whole.”
In the end, Half-Life: Alyx is a watershed moment for VR gaming, just like how its predecessors were for the first person shooter genre as a whole. It can be an unbelievably scary game at times, thanks to its level, and enemy design, and eerie music, or it can be an excellent shooter, thanks to its solid combat and decent yet effective customization options. But more importantly, beyond those two things, it’s an exceptional VR game that focuses on and impressive number of intricate little details, and gives players so much to interact with that it almost feels unreal.
Welcome back, Half-Life. You were missed. Now, let’s hope you won’t take another decade and a half for your next return.
This game was reviewed on the PC.
Solid combat and customization options, great enemy variety, excellent plot and ending, that one menacing enemy which will go unnamed in this review, mind-blowing soundtrack, great voice acting and level design.
Puzzles seem shoehorned to increase gameplay time, enemy AI isn’t all that great.
Half-Life: Alyx is a triumph for VR games and sets the benchmark for other developers to follow suit.