The Half-Life series has a combination of historical significance and fan enthusiasm that few other franchises can match. With this kind of tradition and audience, Valve releasing its long-awaited lawsuit as a VR exclusive is controversial. However, by the time Half-Life: Alyx’s introductory text faded and I opened my eyes to a land infested with a combine, I was convinced. The phenomenal atmosphere of City 17 is evident as soon as you see an imposing three-legged Strider hitting debris while climbing into a building, and this feeling of fear continues until the breathtaking end of the game. Centered on Alyx Vance , a main character in the series made playable for the first time, Half-Life: Alyx is an unforgettable adventure that undeniably advances VR.
The gameplay is a shooter and puzzle game in equal parts, encouraging immersive exploration of beautifully made environments. These components are enhanced by the VR control scheme, which feels tight throughout and only becomes more natural as you play. The story (which takes place between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2) finds Alyx on a journey to save his father from the captivity of Combine; you don’t have to be a fan of the series to enjoy the story, but die-hard fans have their patience rewarded.
The austere world of Half-Life has never felt as alive as it does here. Whether you marvel at the disgusting and realistic viscera on corpses in the sewers or count the teeth on the barnacles ceiling while waiting to suck passers-by, the magnificent setting is immersive. I watched for almost a minute as a crab rushed over a stack of luggage to reach me, pulling bags down and falling on its back in an unscripted display of the game’s impressive physics. Meticulously detailed faces follow you through the conversations, and magnificent views take your breath away. To see the Half-Life staples rendered with modern technology, explorable in virtual reality, is truly magnificent. The experience of this level of proximity and interactivity gives me a new appreciation of the specific brand of the future of the dystopian series.
Controlling Alyx feels good with gravity gloves that help you handle the debris in your environment. If you see a piece of resin (the currency used for weapon upgrades), just reach out and flip your wrist. This sends it flying towards you, then you hang on to catch it when it reaches you. It just keeps feeling satisfying and using it in conjunction with other actions, like storing ammo over my shoulder and handling more complex weapon reloads, instantly feels intuitive and fun to master. In the end, I used my hands independently like a pro, unless an enemy jumped on me and my panics made me pull the trigger on an empty pistol and back up to find a margin to maneuver.
Gravity gloves are technically called R.U.S.S.E.L.S. – named after the technician of the Russell Resistance, a light voice in your ear that guides you through City 17 in pursuit of Alyx’s father. Every time he heard my headset, it was a welcome relief from the oppressive environment. I mostly counted on him for his lightness in some of the most horrible footage, including a nightmarish encounter with a creature called Jeff. Despite its prequel status, the campaign ventures into new territory for franchising and pushes it convincingly. From a story standpoint, Half-Life: Alyx is a nice and essential entry into the series.
The fight is not the highlight, but it always produces exciting moments. You only find three weapons, all of which can be equipped with revolutionary upgrades like a grenade launcher or a laser sight. Combine the soldiers to take advantage of the headshots on the higher difficulties, making careful use of the blanket a necessity. I learned to launch smart grenades, to move carefully in my environment and to plunder the bodies in mid-combat, the latter being improved by lifting corpses with my hands to access the ammunition and health hidden in the pockets back. It is as satisfying as it is morbid. Shooting, reloading and switching weapons are all fun in VR thanks to responsive controls and cleverly designed weapons that subtly highlight the action required. For example, a red glow on the pistol slide that you forgot to back away from can help reduce the frustration of not knowing why your gun is not firing. The duck behind the blanket seems natural and fair, and listening to enemy recharges before leaving is satisfactory.
The freedom of virtual reality on a room scale sometimes comes up against the linearity of the Half-Life: Alyx design. Zombies will not be repelled if you handle a chair like a lion tamer, and in a puzzle, I tried to pull a large crate under a garage door to keep it from closing and I watched the door push the box under the card and closed without hindrance. But if you follow the rules, you are rewarded. Physics puzzles are fun to solve, and shooting for enemy weak spots like the combined gas cartridges results in beautifully sinister death animations when you say goodbye with your hand in the game.
Riddles litter the world, some of which are necessary for progression and others which unlock optional ammo or health caches. One type of puzzle requires you to guide electricity from one circuit to another by pointing your multi-function tool into a room to light up the maze, which is a fun way to explore the environment. However, other types of puzzles quickly wear out, especially by guiding one point to another along a globe while avoiding Tron-like the red lines, or remember the pairs of colors and match them after their disappearance. Some of them are repeated so often that I sometimes skip the optional loot just to avoid repeating the movements.
I have experimented with all the modes of movement offered, which includes blinking for people prone to motion sickness and complete locomotion with the thumb. I finally opted for sliding, an intermediate option where you select your target destination and move there quickly with a complete physical presence. It seemed the most natural and helped me to avoid even the slightest motion sickness during the whole campaign, which is never a guarantee for me in VR. Other options such as sight-based captions and choosing a dominant hand for weapons are well implemented.
Half Life: Alyx is an essential game worthy of the heritage of the series. Despite some puzzles and encounters that sound like filling, the overall experience is strong. The breathtaking decors, the magnificent world and the intelligent writing stand out whatever the medium and mark a return to form for Valve. If you’ve been waiting for a killer app before investing in virtual reality, that’s it.