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Half-Life: Alyx is a satisfying return to City 17

Prepare for unforeseen consequences

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Half-Life: Alyx is definitely not Half-Life 3. It is a full-fledged game that expands the Half-Life universe. And City 17’s exploding barrel industry is still going strong.

These are answers to some big questions Valve Software raised last year when it announced the first new Half-Life game since 2007 — but exclusively for virtual reality. Many series have VR adaptations or tie-ins, but Valve promised to deliver “the next part of the Half-Life story” in a package that could help take VR mainstream.

That’s setting a very high bar, and, for now, I’m not sure Alyx clears it. The game is fighting VR’s inherent hardware limits, a pandemic-related headset shortage, and the difficulty of building a game for a new platform. While it’s about as long as the landmark Half-Life 2, with my game clocking in at 15 hours, it doesn’t feel as big or as narratively and mechanically fresh. It advances the series’s main plot, but it doesn’t come close to resolving it.

But if you keep these admittedly big reservations in mind, Alyx is a worthy addition to the Half-Life universe. It’s not just a good VR game; it’s a good video game, period.

Half-Life: Alyx is set five years before Half-Life 2, in which protagonist Gordon Freeman wakes from a mysterious 20-year stasis to find Earth colonized by an alien empire called the Combine. Alyx Vance is the daughter of Gordon’s former colleague, and she’s one of Gordon’s most capable companions. Now, in Alyx, she’s the protagonist — a member of an anti-Combine resistance that sees Gordon Freeman as nearly mythical. When her father Eli is captured, she learns about a secret Combine superweapon, which turns out to be more complicated than it seems.

Alyx is set in the same urban dystopia as Half-Life 2: a washed-out and decaying Eastern European metropolis called City 17. While there’s a lot more detail, you’re facing a similar crowd of hostile alien fauna and transhuman soldiers as well as similar weapons and environments — although soldiers give those classic Half-Life barrels a wider berth. The series’s first two installments practically took place in different worlds. Alyx is more like the sequel’s add-on Episodes, extending the plot without starting a new chapter. At the same time, it feels like a very different kind of game.

That’s partly because Alyx is a more human-seeming character than Gordon, and City 17 is nearly the whole setting, not the pit stop it was in Half-Life 2. Where Valve poked fun at Gordon’s stoic ‘90s-shooter hypercompetence, Alyx has more realistic — if top-notch — fighting capabilities. Levels have the same forward momentum and minimal backtracking, but Alyx moves at a slower pace through denser and more fully formed spaces. She’s got a history with the world already, having grown up under Combine occupation, so she can bring some context and familiarity to your journey — until a massive curveball near the game’s end.

Alyx also dwells a little more on the weird dynamic of being a post-apocalyptic teenager (in this game, at least) who hangs out with a bunch of nostalgic old men. Her Resistance mission control is a pathologically cheerful inventor named Russel who rhapsodizes about old-world sandwiches and future business plans while advising her over an earpiece. He’s not as compelling an ally as... well, Alyx herself in Half-Life 2. But in a setting that players have seen already, their conversations help establish how the characters see that setting.

Half-Life: Alyx screenshot

Valve’s approach to VR is perfect for a character who’s very skilled but fallible. It’s tough to make PC or console shooters feel messy yet not artificially clumsy. Unsteady aiming or awkward skeuomorphic controls can be effective, but they seem like handicaps on a “normal” point-and-shoot experience. VR hand controllers, by contrast, mimic your physical motion in a fairly natural way — and players haven’t been trained to expect mathematical precision. It’s easier for games like Alyx to make your screw-ups feel like natural mistakes, instead of a designer stacking their deck against you.

Actual VR headsets, unfortunately, do screw up. Valve’s Index headset is the gold standard for Alyx, but The Verge’s Index ended up in pandemic lockdown along with the rest of our office. Valve promises support for almost any PC-based VR setup. So I played Alyx with the Oculus Link system, which turns a standalone Oculus Quest into a tethered headset. The initial experience was a mess. My PC easily meets Alyx’s specs, but the headset froze or the game’s frame rate massively dropped at regular intervals. After I finished the game, Valve released updates that seemed to mostly fix the problems, but my later sessions still involved stopping for reboots or resets.

That’s not unprecedented for a VR experience, and some issues might be Oculus Link bugs. It’s an experimental feature, so I expect rough spots. Compared to dedicated PC headsets, though, the Quest is a troubleshooting nightmare: a device with its own operating system connected with a detachable cable and enabled with the Oculus desktop app and SteamVR. The Quest is immensely popular by VR standards, so Alyx could be a huge stress test for Link and a potentially frustrating experience for users if anything goes wrong.

I hate how badly the Quest performed because when it did work, I didn’t feel constrained using a non-Index system. The Index controllers can estimate grip strength and the precise placement of each finger on your hand. But Alyx uses broader motions like pushing, throwing, gripping, and, in one memorable section, clasping a hand over your mouth. Oculus’ controllers are more than capable, especially since their stick and button layout — used for things like locomotion — is very similar to the Index’s.

When you reload a gun, you physically mimic reloading it. A simple pistol makes you reach over your shoulder for a new magazine, slot it into the gun, and then snap the slide lock shut. If you eject a half-full magazine, you’re just discarding the bullets, so you’ll have to un-learn any reflexive reloading habits. Shotguns get cracked open and loaded with individual shells.

You have only a handful of weapons, so fighting is a constant game of counting shots, swapping between guns, and almost inevitably fumbling a few reloads with a zombie swiping at your face. The system sounds awkward on paper, but you can develop the muscle memory quickly, making it just a normal part of the game’s rhythm. (It also remains easier than loading a real gun.)

Aiming is harder than with a mouse or stick, and you can’t knock back enemies with a crowbar or Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun. So the small, fast-moving, but easily dispatched enemies from earlier games — like flying manhacks and headcrabs — become minor but infuriating threats. Big battles become tense shootouts as you reload and scrounge for more ammunition while crouching behind cover. And yes, I mean literally crouch unless you enable a special accessibility feature. This game will make you look ridiculous. Embrace it.

Alyx isn’t aiming for gritty realism, though. You can move continuously by holding an analog stick, but the “Blink” setting — a common VR locomotion option — offers near-instant teleportation. The game feels designed for these impossibly sudden jumps into and out of danger, and even with the former option, you’ll use a blink-like system to jump across gaps. Incidentally, I got absolutely no motion sickness with the Blink option, which is (unfortunately) noteworthy for a movement-heavy VR game.

Half-Life Alyx

Alyx also has a pair of “gravity gloves” that replace Half-Life 2’s more powerful Gravity Gun, letting you pull objects from across a room. Instead of just pointing and clicking, you extend your hand toward something until it glows slightly, then pull the trigger, flick your wrist, and grab it from midair by squeezing a grip button. It’s occasionally tough to grab the right thing, but it’s tremendously satisfying — like having telepathic powers, not just an unusual gun. And while the gloves aren’t an offensive weapon, they’re useful when you’re scrounging for ammo during a fight or lobbing an enemy’s grenade back at them.

Unlike Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun and physics, though, the features above don’t feel revolutionary. Some are well-established VR shooter conventions. Valve owes a clear debt to indie projects like Arizona Sunshine and Budget Cuts, which helped pioneer combat and exploration in the medium.

But Valve has tweaked and perfected a lot of these elements, especially with its famously meticulous level design. Alyx’s spaces reward interaction. You can push doors open just a little to look for threats. Being able to hunker down and grab distant equipment is key to winning fights. And Half-Life’s common Barnacle enemies, which catch passersby with a long, sticky tongue, are actually much more interesting in VR — where they’re harder to avoid but easier to distract with gently tossed objects. The more compact levels offer fewer huge cinematic set pieces, but Valve delivers a couple of unique and incredibly clever close-quarters fights.

Alyx’s worldbuilding feels like more of a missed opportunity. The Half-Life series features some of gaming’s most memorable creature designs, but Alyx’s new enemies feel a lot like some familiar survival horror monsters. The game offers a well-executed update to existing designs, and it makes clever use of VR — you have to physically pull headcrabs off of your face, for instance — I just wish it had a more distinct aesthetic of its own.

Half-Life: Alyx screenshot

It also opts for more traditional puzzles than Half-Life 2’s physics conundrums. Alyx has a multitool that lets her hack containers with spatial puzzles (which are sometimes frustrating but often optional) or closely scan an area and reroute power cables in its walls. They’re less interesting than navigating the game’s physical geography, although they do help encourage that exploration.

Valve is nonetheless taking a step forward here. Alyx is a well-designed alternative to the never-completed Half-Life 2: Episode 3. And despite being a prequel, it does slightly advance the story from Episode 2 while teasing a yet-nonexistent true sequel. (Seriously, please don’t get your hopes up for Half-Life 3 again.)

But even some diehard Valve fans might not want to try Half-Life: Alyx at launch, or maybe at all. And that would be a rational decision.

Playing a great VR game is often like visiting a Michelin-star restaurant where the waiter continuously pokes you with a fork. Valve hasn’t fixed the bulkiness and grainy screens of current-generation headsets, the annoyance of getting a cord wrapped around your ankles, the likelihood that you’ll accidentally ram your hand into some furniture, or the frustration of setting up new and sometimes complicated hardware.

The Index has a relatively good screen and comfortable fit, but it’s wired, it requires an awkward external tracking setup, and it costs nearly a thousand dollars. The $399 Oculus Quest offers a good value since you can use it as a standalone or PC-tethered headset. But even discounting the issues I experienced (which I hope were flukes), it’s front-heavy and uncomfortable.

Moreover, you can’t buy the Quest or Index right now since the pandemic has thrown a wrench in hardware supply chains. Alternatives like the HTC Vive Pro and Cosmos are in stock, but if you’re more excited about a different headset, buying these to play one game at launch — no matter how good it is — is an iffy decision.

I still think Alyx is genuinely worth the trouble of finding a headset, if that’s feasible, and overlooking its flaws. This isn’t Valve at its most revelatory — but after waiting more than a decade, it’s the Half-Life story I didn’t know I wanted.

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