Half-Life: Alyx is the latest instalment in the venerated ‘Half-Life’ franchise and is the first virtual reality (VR) entry in the series. Expectations for this game have been particularly high for two reasons. Firstly, Half-Life: Alyx is a prequel to the widely celebrated ‘Half-Life 2’ and is the first game in the franchise since 2007’s ‘Half-Life 2: Episode Two’ which infamously ended on an unresolved cliffhanger. The second is that this game is among the first attempts by a premier developer at creating a large-budget VR exclusive game.
Accordingly, both fans of the series and VR enthusiasts have been particularly interested as to whether Half-Life: Alyx can meet their lofty expectations. It is pleasing to report that developer Valve has succeeded in creating both an amazing Half-Life game and a tantalising demonstration of what fully-fledged VR games have to offer.
The game takes place in City 17, an Eastern European city in an alternate reality where humanity has been enslaved by an alien empire known as ‘The Combine’. The player assumes the role of Alyx Vance, a 19-year-old whose father is a member of the resistance. Gameplay is entirely first person and your time is typically divided evenly between exploration, puzzle-solving and gunplay.
“The graphical fidelity of the game is impressive and would be impossible to convey on a flat screen.”
Veteran fans of the series will recall the sense of wonder in Half-Life 2 of walking out of the train station into the living, breathing world of City 17 for the first time and the fear of fleeing helplessly from Civil Protection. The opening scenes of Half-Life: Alyx recreate and enhance these emotions with its vision of City 17. From the dominating skyline, to the fluttering pigeons, everything feels real. The graphical fidelity of the game is impressive and would be impossible to convey on a flat screen. The virtual reality format greatly enhances your ability to believe you are really in this fictional world.
Environmental interactivity is also prevalent as it has been in past titles, however here the focus is different. In Half-Life 2, environmental interaction was designed to emphasise the use of the physics engine via the ‘gravity gun’. In Half-Life: Alyx, the player instead has ‘gravity gloves’, which all though weaker and typically less useful for combat, allow for more realistic and intricate interactions with the environment. The game encourages you to search through draws and boxes, which are opened with your virtual hands, in order to find ammunition and upgrade components for your weapons. The game supports finger tracking and the movements typically feel quite natural. Cosmetic objects in the environment may also be picked up and thrown as in Half-Life 2, but again now done using motions you would use to do so in real life. This sort of environmental interaction enhances the already immersive level design found throughout the Half-Life franchise and creates an enthralling experience.
The gravity gloves themselves take some getting uses to, in particular aiming at the object you wish to grab can be difficult due to lack of a targeting reticle (you must rely on the selected object being highlighted), however I found by the end of the game that I had become more fluent in the relevant motions and enjoyed flinging ammunition and grenades towards me (in the latter case before I tossed them back of course).
“Combat itself extremely satisfying and is rightfully one of the main attractions of the game.”
Crouching can (optionally) be achieved by crouching in real life. This feature is best utilised during gunfights where the levels are often designed such that the player can crouch and shoot from behind cover. The process of crouching and standing can become tiring, however ducking from cover then running to new cover to escape a grenade feels more exhilarating than ever when your body is participating in these movements.
Reloading your weapons also is another area where this game utilises virtual reality and motion controls. Each of the three (yes, only three) weapons not only has its own reloading animations, but also reloading controls. For example, to reload the pistol one must first press a button to eject the magazine, then physically grab a magazine from their virtual over-the-shoulder backpack with their non-dominant hand and feed it into the pistol and then cock it. This procedure was more complicated than I was initially prepared for and caused me to die several while I was still learning. However as with the gravity gloves, I became proficient in this after a couple of hours of play and found it very satisfying.
As alluded to, the weapon selection in Half-Life: Alyx is smaller than in previous games. The only weapons available are a pistol, a shotgun, a submachine gun and grenades. It is obvious this choice was made primarily to streamline the experience for VR where less buttons are available and each weapon requires more knowledge and practice to use. Additionally, to make up for the lack of variety compared to previous games, weapons can now be upgraded using materials found by scavenging throughout the game and this new sense of progression introduced to the series is a welcome touch.
Weapons are upgraded at Combine stations which must be hacked using Alyx’s ‘multitool’. The multitool is also used to solve various puzzles throughout the game, such as rerouting electricity to open a locked door. There are several types of multitool minigames and each of these makes use of the VR controls in a different, gimmicky, fashion. Despite this, playing with virtual holograms and solving the puzzles was still fun for the most part, though it can become repetitive on replays.
Combat itself extremely satisfying and is rightfully one of the main attractions of the game. Aiming before upgrading your weapons can be surprisingly difficult at first and accordingly the enemies you encounter for the first part are easy to dispatch. These early enemies tend to approach you slowly, giving you time to fumble ammo as you fail to reload your pistol after emptying an entire clip into the wall behind them. As the game progresses, a wider variety of enemies that pose more of a threat are introduced. Despite this, the aim of the game’s design is less to provide a rigorous challenge and more to provide a satisfying and immersive shooting experience. This is achieved to great effect with realistic enemy models and gun mechanics.
In general, the first-person VR mechanics are not as comprehensive or ambitious compared to other VR blockbusters. However, this appears to be an intentional design choice as Half-Life: Alyx feels as if it was designed to target a general audience that may be new to VR. Given the game’s position in the market as a potential system-seller this would be a smart strategy and Valve has succeeded at this.
The game comes with a variety of locomotion and turning options and the levels are designed in such a way that new players are less likely to experience nausea or dizziness, even when using the continuous locomotion. For those that are particularly susceptible to dizziness or who are simply to find their VR legs still, the teleportation and shift movement options work well and still maintain a feeling of engagement with the in-game world.
Several aspects of movement and VR integration could perhaps be improved upon for those seeking maximum immersion. For example, dismounting ladders, mounting object and jumping results in a teleport-style movement regardless of locomotion settings. However, for the most part these are acceptable concessions given the probable design goals of the game, even if it means certain features found in other games are not present. Veteran VR players will still appreciate that Half-Life: Alyx is an experience greater than the sum of its features.
“Half-Life: Alyx has its flaws, though these are hard to focus on when no other game offers an experience such as this.”
One thing that sets Half-Life: Alyx apart from many other VR games is that it feels like a big budget, fully realised game. The graphics are impressive and run smoothly and the game has the content and features of what you would expect of a single-player story-based shooter. It took approximately 14 hours to complete my first playthrough and the game never felt like it was padded.
One small criticism I have is that in terms of locations encountered in the game, there are few surprises and you for the most part progress through various types of urban environments. Additionally, replay value is low as by the end of the game you will have unlocked most of the weapon upgrades and there are no split paths to make throughout the game. In spite of this, I have found myself reloading certain levels to simply spend more time with the shooting mechanics and I hope the release of the development kit and the generous mod support sees a wealth of fan-made content in the future.
One final aspect that I should address is the story. Many Half-Life fans were likely frustrated that the first new game announced in the series in over 12 years is a prequel and hence may not move the story forward in a satisfying way. Without spoiling anything, I will say that Half-Life fans will be extremely satisfied with the conclusion to this entry into the series and it provides a tantalising taste of what is to come, particularly if one watches through the entire credits.
Half-Life: Alyx has its flaws, though these are hard to focus on when no other game offers an experience such as this. If anything, these flaws show that there is room for growth in the space of VR shooters and it is exciting to think what could come if titles such as this are successful. For now, Half-Life: Alyx is an absolute must-play title for both Half-Life fans and VR enthusiasts, or anyone that has an opportunity to play it.