When the news of Half-Life: Alyx first appeared people grumbled that it wasn’t Half-Life 3. But, as we’ve discovered, that’s not the way to think about it, for Alyx is something more – a virtual reality adventure at its very finest.
We’ve donned our Oculus Rift S headset, grabbed our controllers, and enjoyed every moment re-investing in the Half-Life world once again.
The perfect atmosphere
“Oh wow” – that was the first uttering heard by our family as we left them to their Coronavirus isolation to escape into the VR world of Half-Life. Before we’d even started playing properly we were blown away by the visuals. Not just because Alyx is a staggeringly beautiful game, but because it’s also thoroughly nostalgia-inducing.
We have hazy memories of playing the original Half-Life games all those years ago and being struck by how epic the graphics were for the time. And that, in our mind, is why it makes so much sense for Half-Life to start off its new life in VR. Yes, a standard game might reach more people, but it’s unlikely to wow in quite the same way.
Half-Life: Alyx’s attention to detail is utterly magnificent. Every inch of the game is superbly crafted: from the clearly legible tiny lettering on posters that litter the game world, to the fine feathers of the local pigeons, to the excellent draw distances.
Characters are incredibly likeable too. Sure, you might not be playing as Gordon Freeman, but Alyx is quirky and fun. Her distant companion for most of the game – that’s Russell, who is voiced by comedian Rhys Darby – adds plenty of hilarity to the adventures, even when you’ve got an occasional head crab stuck to your face.
And that brings us to another reason why we love seeing Half-Life in virtual reality: the atmospheric experience. VR is so much more immersive than the traditional gaming experiences and Half-Life: Alyx capitalises on that in numerous ways.
Head crabs have always made our skin crawl and that experience is amplified a thousand times when you can hear them in the air vents above you or scurrying about somewhere unknown nearby. We’ll happily admit to panicking more than once when they lept out of the dark to grab our noggin and turn us into a brainless zombie.
This is exasperated by the classic first-person shooter problem of a lack of ammo and worsened by the fact that there’s no melee weapon or crowbar to fall back on. It’s bullets or nothing. And when one of these creatures leaps out at you from the dark when you’re on your last mag it’s a real goosebumps-enducing thrill.
Don’t get us wrong though, Half-Life: Alyx is not a horror game. It’s certainly not scary like other VR games we’ve played that were designed to frighten. It’s just brilliantly atmospheric.
The story leads you on a quest through a quarantine zone (how appropriate, eh?), various underground locales, and even an old broken down vodka distillery, all the while facing various nasty creatures from head crabs to ant lions and more.
There are also numerous encounters with Combine forces, some sporting some serious firepower and even energy shields. The fights are nothing short of challenging, especially with sparse ammo reserves.
In order to progress, various relatively straightforward puzzles cross your path. Whether those are to unlock weapons cabinets, open doors or disable forcefields, we found them, for the most part, to be satisfyingly crafted. There’s nothing worse than a puzzle so difficult you can’t get it solved without a YouTube tutorial to help.
The puzzles come in various forms, but mostly involve using a multitool to activate some sort of interactive puzzle. These include things like rewiring power cables by tracing cables around a room, changing electric junctions located inside a wall, to more hands-on puzzles.
Our favourite puzzles spawned holographic spheres before our very eyes. These require you to do things like grabbing one point of the puzzle (a virtual key) and moving it to the other (the virtual lock) around the edge of the sphere while dodging danger points. You’re encouraged to move the sphere with one hand while also moving your multi-tool with the other. The result is a fantastic use of VR mechanics.
Straightforward resource management
Many of the things in the Half-Life: Alyx world can be interacted with, picked up, moved or thrown about. You can pick up pens to draw on whiteboards, throw bricks through windows, toss empty bottles to distract enemies, and more.
But Valve, the game’s developer, hasn’t fallen into the trap of making everything lootable. You can only really carry a handful of things – ammo, medical syringes, weapons, grenades, resin (for weapon upgrades), power cells and the odd squashable alien creature in a cylinder – and the rest is just fodder. You can only store two items (that aren’t your guns) – and even those are stored in your wrists (which is somewhat odd and takes some getting used to).
Ammo can be grabbed and chucked over your shoulder to store it which is superbly simple. To refill you simply reach over your shoulder again to grab what you need and you’ll get the ammo for the weapon you’re holding. Those weapons are limited to very few – a pistol, a shotgun, a liberated Combine gun, and grenades – so both weapon and ammo management is easy as pie.
Most VR games allow you to store guns in leg holsters, over-shoulder storage, or on your waist. Half-Life: Alyx does away with all this nonsense in favour of an easy access weapon wheel that can be activated by pressing one of the control sticks and simply moving your hand in the right direction. It’s simple mechanics like that that make the game superbly satisfying to play.
There are no melee weapons and the classic crowbar is sadly absent. However, you can grab world objects to bash things – we smashed windows with all sorts of things – and you can even find hammers, screwdrivers and more scattered about the world, but not use them in combat. We found out the hard way when we tried to use a hammer to cave in a head crab when low on bullets – but it laughed at us and tried to nom on our brains.
Alyx starts out the game equipped with some nifty power gloves that allow you essentially force-grip objects from a distance, flick them into the air and toss them towards you before you grab them.
So you don’t even find yourself constantly bending over or twisting awkwardly to pick up ammo from the ground, high shelves or other locations. We got so used to this mechanic that we missed the ability to do it when we came back with the thud to the dull reality of daily life.
When looting your way through the world you’ll also find resin scattered about that can be collected and used to upgrade the weapons in various ways. Improved sights, extra ammo storage, burst fire modes and laser sights all make it easier to outshoot your foes.
The decision to make this outing of Half-Life a virtual reality experience might have been a bold one by Valve – but it was the right decision.
Alyx is everything we could want from a Half-Life follow up, with fantastic highlights that include satisfying puzzle games, staggering visuals and a sublime story.
It might be a little short for some – we completed it in around 11 hours – but we were thoroughly engaged in its atmospheric world. If only the classic crowbar was still available, then we’d have more-or-less zero complaints.
Half-Life: Alyx is a brilliantly crafted and atmospheric game. We think it’s VR’s greatest triumph to date.