The prequel to Half-Life 2 is nothing anyone ever wanted. But for what Alyx actually is, is something extremely special. I’m not the biggest Half-Life fan, heck I didn’t even play the first one to completion (Until a few weeks ago), but even if I was, Alyx’s announcement was a bit of a dissapointment, as Valve really needed to just go and do what they said they would have done for the last 15+ years and make Half-Life 3/Episode 3. Instead we get a game that takes us all the way back to before 2004’s Half-Life 2… but with one singular gimmick… Virtual Reality.
I’ve been invested in VR since around April of 2014, when I bought an Oculus Development Kit 2. Ever since then I was hooked, and couldn’t tell people enough good things about VR. And sadly, 6 years later, VR is still very much in its infancy, and people really won’t get a proper understanding until they try it. Half-Life: Alyx will get people who initially groaned at VR to purchase a headset, and once they put it on, they finally will understand.
Half-Life: Alyx puts you in the shoes of Alyx Vance, the breakout character from Half Life 2. Set some time before the events of Half Life 2, you are living in City-17 with your dad, on your way home, you and him get kidnapped by the combine. Luckily your dad’s ol’ pal Russel is there to help break you out. Sadly, your dad wasn’t able to get rescued along with you, so it’s your job to find him, before the Combine kills him.
That’s the plot of the game, and it’s pretty straight forward. The game has a much smaller scope than the other Half-Life games, and one would assume, since this is a VR game, it’s not going to tie into the main titles, nor is it going to be more than a couple hours long… like most VR games. But luckily this game just goes for it, in a way that you kinda don’t expect, especially since Valve has been pretty much docile since 2011.
Alyx is something of both a huge game, but also a smaller title at the same time. It’s a very linear game, with not much on/off the beaten path. And that is why this game is MADE for VR. With a 2D, flat screen mod, allowing anyone to play the game without a VR headset, it’s going to disappoint a LOT of people. Because with VR, you get up close and personal with every square inch of the game. A single hallway now becomes so much more real, and you spend a much more significant amount of time in awe with every step you take in VR. Playing it out of VR, you would be hard pressed to even pay attention to 80% of the game’s world.
The main way you interact with the game world is with gravity gloves, which aren’t just novel, but a new standard for VR interaction. Point to an object, make sure it’s highlighted, and flick your wrist. The object flies at you and you can catch it. Like a 1 man game of catch, it’s addicting and surprisingly enjoyable enough that it never gets old. Being able to “pickpocket” zombies and armored guards is just an absolute blast. And even though games have been doing it forever (the original Medal Of Honor on Playstation was the first time I remember doing it), grabbing an already live grenade and tossing it back at the enemy is so fun, because you are actually the one doing it. 1:1 movement is such a huge thing in these types of games. And while I say it doesn’t have to be there for people to enjoy them, it’s becoming more and more a requirement, as doing the motions and actually moving behind cover really immerses you in a game unlike anything before.
As I got about 1/3rd of the way into the game, I realized that the universe of Half-Life really is something different and amazing. I can’t quite describe it, but the way the environments are lovingly crafted, the design of the Combine and Vortigaunt are all based in Sci-Fi, but in a way that still feels new and exciting. And with the added fidelity of VR, being able to get up close and personal with a headcrab has never been as terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Even something as benal and boring as a construction site takes on a whole new aura when dropped into it in VR.
I could go on and on about how real everything feels, but there was one chapter, a single area of the game that made me stop and realize how special this game is. Chapter 5 takes place in an overgrown/taken over hotel called The Northern Star. While going deeper and deeper into the hotel, it descends more and more into an Alien world, as the alien spores have turned a hotel into a living nightmare. Parts Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror, and parts of The Last Of Us’ abandon urban environments… This level really brought to life something that I’ve always been fascinated with. Older Art Deco architecture, taken over by nature (or in this case an alien species). Honestly if the entire game took place in this one level, I’d be more than happy to plop down $60. But the game keeps going, and giving incredible places you’ll only get to experience in a video game.
And it doesn’t stop there. The final level, which takes all your guns away and becomes more of an experience for a bit, really shows off what I actually expect from Half-Life, even though I didn’t really think I did. Again, the game turns into something that only would be seen in a Twilight Zone episode, and really gives you a feeling that you are experiencing masters at work. This is what I expect from Valve and the Half-Life franchise. The words jaw-dropping don’t even begin to describe the way the end of the game works, and again, if the game was only that last part, I’d think I’d happily pay much more than I did for the game. It’s just mind blowing in a way that you really can’t describe. This is an experience that anyone who is a fan of Half-Life needs to play, and the fact that it IS locked behind VR is a bummer for those who can’t. But honestly, it really is a game that can only be truly appreciated in VR. I hope for a day that VR becomes more easily accessible and that everyone who wants to play this game can, because I think it sets up Valve to do something even more incredible than they already have.