For years, virtual reality has been the next step in video games that no one is taking. There hasn’t really been that one game worth virtual reality’s high asking price, making its market niche. Since the market is niche, developers can’t put in too many resources into developing VR games. For years, virtual reality has been in this cycle, and even top VR games like Beat Saber can’t seem to break virtual reality out of its cycle. Valve, a company who has invested into VR and has a catalog of IPs, decided to pull Half-Life out of their vault and make a VR game. Ever since the game’s announcement, I believed this game could break the cycle VR has been stuck in, and I still believe that is the case after watching the credits roll.
Half-Life: Alyx takes place five years before the events of Half-Life 2 and follows Alyx Vance in City 17. Alyx and her father Eli have been leading the resistance against the Combine for years, and their new target is whatever is in the giant floating vault in the middle of the city. Early on in her adventure, though, her father is captured. So, it is up to Alyx to save her father and figure out what is in the floating vault.
When discussing virtual reality game, the first thing to ask is how much game there is. Half-Life: Alyx is a full experience, which took me roughly 11 hours to complete. The story does feel a bit like a side story to me, but in terms of content, Alyx is a full campaign similar to other Half-Life titles. It’s rank-and-file for Half-Life, but for virtual reality, it feels like a premium experience. Plus, this is the first Half-Life game in 13 years, which makes this game exciting on two fronts.
Back when Half-Life games were releasing, they were known for their innovations in their space. Half-Life had more realism and a more cohesive environment, and Half-Life 2 made innovations in physics. What about Alyx? This game innovates by offering a highly interactive environment in a triple-a experience in VR. Just about everything in the environment can be grabbed and used in some way. What makes this interactive environment even better are the gravity gloves. How they work is you aim your hand at an object, flick the object towards you, then catch the object. Flicking objects and catching them felt natural, and it made the environment more accessible. The interactivity of this environment made City 17 feel more real, and I enjoyed the ways the developers use the environment to their advantage.
Being able to draw and erase on the window is one of the many cool ways to interact with the environment.
Since Alyx is essentially a normal Half-Life game but in VR, it retains the series’ sci-fi/horror shooter gameplay. Enemies from Half-Life 2 make their return, and there are even some new enemies to fight off as well. Combat encounters between this game and previous games are different, though, because of virtual reality. There are usually less enemies in one place in this game, but encounters between all enemy types are still tense because of VR. Even basic enemies like zombies are a legitimate threat, so new enemy types like a lightning creature that takes over dead bodies make some combat encounters frightening. To fight enemies, there are three guns and two grenade types to use. The variety of weapons felt limited, and I wish there was at least a sniper rifle to use in the game. While the variety is lacking, the weapons themselves are cool to use. All guns are manually reloaded (including pulling back the receiver), and each weapon has multiple upgrades that significantly improve the weapon. Some of the upgrades include a reflex sight on the pistol and smg that shows enemy weakpoints, and a grenade launcher attachment on the shotgun. Other than the lack of weapon variety, the combat in this game is a lot of fun, and virtual reality gives the series a new level of tension.
Outside of combat are puzzles, which can be found throughout the game. The majority of the puzzles are digital puzzles, and they are used for either unlocking something or disarming bombs. There are a bunch of different types of digital puzzles, whether it be trying to match colors on a sphere, drag a ball through hoops, connect power lines together, or others. There are also a few environmental puzzles, and a lot of hidden resources to put time into solving or finding. all of these types of puzzles speak to the benefits of virtual reality and show the interactivity of the game’s environment, and I never grew tired of any of it.
The power line puzzle forces exploration of the game’s environment, and the developers use this puzzle in some interesting ways.
While gameplay in this game is great, the thing that impressed me the most is the ability for this game to tell and develop a story and characters. In many ways, the story in this game is presented in ways similar to non-VR games, but I haven’t played any VR game that nails the story like this game does. The story develops as the game goes on, and there are some neat twists I didn’t see coming. The characters are fun to be around, and I enjoyed every second of chatter between Alyx and Russell, the two primary characters in this game. There are also a lot of cool moments in this game, like fighting a strider or the entire last chapter of the game, that I don’t really get in VR games. As for the ending, while I’m not a fan of cliffhangers, it does set up a new Half-Life game, which I certainly won’t complain about. Virtual reality or not, Half-Life: Alyx has a great story with fun characters and awesome moments worth experiencing.
The biggest issue I had with the game was a technical issue, and I don’t even think it’s the game’s fault. I used the Oculus Rift to play, and while this game is certainly playable, I did have some stuttering. That headset is old though, so I don’t really blame the game. On the flip side of things, I found the options and features around VR to be plentiful. There are multiple movement options which I think will suit everyone’s needs. As someone who gets motion sickness from traditional movement in virtual reality, I found these options helpful. The HUD is cleverly hidden on the gloves or the gun, which made the experience more immersive for me. Speaking of which, the HUD on my monitor would be on the screen like a normal game, and while nobody watched me play the game, I do like the fact that it is there. Finally, even with my old headset, the game looked incredible. On the technical side of things, Half-Life: Alyx should be the norm, but isn’t, making its technical features noteworthy.
This game is a beauty.
In conclusion, Half-Life: Alyx is a Half-Life game. It isn’t a side experience or a little themed area to explore, but a full Half-Life experience that stacks among the rest. This game is what VR games should’ve been years ago, with a triple-a experience that offers a great story and fun gameplay. This is the first time I have kept my VR set-up out for longer than a few hours, and I hope it won’t be the last.
P.S. you can find a gallery of screenshots of the game here.