Half-Life 2: Episode Two left us on an agonizing cliffhanger with Eli Vance's sudden death. Now, thirteen years later, the next chapter in Valve's signature franchise is finally here. In Half-Life: Alyx you play as the eponymous Alyx Vance, and she's got very big boots to fill. This return to City 17 is a prequel set five years before the events of Half-Life 2 and the death of her father. Not only is Alyx trying to carry on that legacy and the legacy of Valve as a developer, but it's also trying to bring AAA production values to the VR space. It's a lot to live up to, but Vance gets through by the skin of her teeth
Half-Life: Alyx Review | The Seeds of a Resistance
Alyx starts off with its titular character overlooking City 17 from on high. You head through the streets, taking in the sights and interacting with various objects strewn around. You can grab a marker and draw on a window or throw items around, examples of the wonders of virtual reality. When you finally exit the apartment, you run into a group of Combine arresting your father, ensuring that you join him. What follows is your daring escape orchestrated by a hacked drone courtesy of new character Russell. He fills your ears with his chatter throughout your adventure, and you're quick to respond back. That can be a bit of a problem.
Part of what makes Half-Life memorable is how your picture of the greater world comes from bit players you find along the way. In the first game, you see how disastrous the Xen invasion is to the once pristine Black Mesa research facility and its employees. In the sequel, you learn how oppressive the Combine is not just through dialogue, but by seeing and experiencing it first hand at a security checkpoint. Half-Life: Alyx only really has Alyx, Eli and Russell to contextualize the world, all largely through conversation. You're expected to already understand that the Combine are the baddies, and there aren't really any worldbuilding moments. Once you're off, you'll mostly go from A to B three times while fighting and completing puzzles, all while listening to countless conversations.
Half-Life: Alyx Review | The Dark Souls of VR Gunslinging
The main star of combat is your pistol. An iconic 1911 modified with a fancy tech ammo counter. Joined later by a shotgun and SMG, your offensive weaponry is limited, but they all thankfully feel like satisfying tools of self-defense. Each fits their purpose perfectly, especially when upgraded with Resin, a currency you find hidden around the world. While they're no competition for the best examples of VR gunplay, the pistol still feels complex and satisfying. There's a usable slide release, tactical reloads, and clips that count how many bullets you've fired. Additionally, you can't return partial magazines to your backpack, urging you to make full use of a magazine or leave bullets behind.
While a gun enthusiast may appreciate the detail behind the pistol, the SMG is a different story, requiring you to wholly empty its current charge before you reload. While this simplicity obviously benefits gameplay, it felt a little disingenuous when the pistol has such minute detail and the SMG has such a sheer lack thereof.
On the non-offensive side of things, your multi-tool (dubbed "Alyx") lets you hack various Combine machinery, always in the form of a puzzle unique to the device. When looking to power up or short-circuit something, you look for an access point, from which you can then scan the walls up close and fix the power lines similar to the hacking seen in Watch Dogs 2. Supply closets or upgrade interfaces have their own unique puzzle, each ramping up in difficulty as you progress.
The true stars are the "Russells", named after their inventor. Functioning as the predecessor of the famous Gravity Gun, this pair of gloves allows you to pull items from far-reaching distances. They feel very satisfying despite their limited range of uses. Not having to bend down or even walk close to an item you want to obtain is downright fantastic, becoming second nature very quickly.
Half-Life: Alyx Review | Not for the Faint of Heart
As a series, Half-Life has always rubbed shoulders with horror, but its balance usually tilted in favor of action. In Half-Life: Alyx, that balance shifts in the other direction. Combat situations never overwhelm you with more than a handful of enemies. This seems fair, as Combine soldiers take a few more bullets to down than they used to. On Normal, most regular soldiers take a couple of shotgun shells or a handful of pistol headshots before they expire. Headcrabs often survive their host's demise, even when you focus fire on their bulbous exteriors.
Headcrabs by themselves aren't all that scary. They act much like their Half-Life 2 counterparts, either leaping at you, fleeing or positioning themselves in just the right spot for another leap. Their precision isn't all that spectacular (probably thanks to the limits of VR design), so they often find themselves mouth up after a failed jump. This is good because having one actually find its mark is the most frightening experience in the entire game. You don't have an HEV suit or helmet, so these murderous critters latch on to your eyes and partly obscure your vision, all while you frantically try to rip it off as quickly as possible. Combine this with poorly lit areas and a paltry flashlight on your non-dominant hand, and you've got a formula befitting the best horrors in the genre.
Half-Life: Alyx Review | Visuals, Performance & Bugs
No doubt Valve seeks to push many things forward with Half-Life: Alyx. The ambition is palpable, and the visuals deliver on that promise. City 17, even at the lowest graphical setting, looks stunning and detailed. It is decrepit and lived-in. Abandoned factories and apartments tell a story of their previous inhabitants and the horror of their now alien occupants.
For all its decoration, Alyx does lack interaction in areas you’d expect from a title this ambitious. You can't stuff items into empty cans, you can't grab a suitcase by the handle and the markers you use to draw with only work on specific surfaces. The interaction feels immersive when the developers specifically intend it, but any item beyond that is just decoration and set dressing.
Despite this, Alyx is still rather demanding. I’m running an RTX 2080 but an older CPU and found that there are moments of serious lag, but they only happen during loading screens. During some late ones, there's lag so severe that I’m in the single digits of framerate. When looking back at my physical screen, I notice that it stays this way as long as the main regular screen view didn’t transition to a flat loading screen image yet. Once it gets to that point, it quickly stabilizes itself. It’s very disorienting and certainly a nightmare for any VR user who’s not seated when it happens.
Considering how VR takes up all of your viewing space, lag like this can be horrible to deal with for users who are sensitive to motion sickness. In other VR games that lag or freeze up, it would immediately phase to the transition area unique to Steam VR. It’s a very good solution and keeps anyone from becoming disoriented or dizzy, but it seems Half-Life: Alyx doesn’t make use of this, or can’t.
Half-Life: Alyx Doesn't Count To 3
Half-Life: Alyx finds itself in a very difficult position, needing to not only justify itself as a worthwhile VR game but as an installment of one of the most well-known franchises in the gaming scene. As a VR game, Half-Life: Alyx deservingly should be called the new standard for the VR platform. Most of its individual parts are done better elsewhere, but collectively it beats them all. The visuals are excellent, the combat is anything but fleeting and the atmosphere is rich. The story is short but concise enough to warrant being called more than an afterthought and the length puts it past the perception of a proof of concept.
As a Half-Life game, I would also give it a pass, but only by the skin of its teeth. It hits the same notes as its predecessors but skims on parts that could fully establish it as an undisputed chapter in the series. My memories of Half-Life 2 stem back as early as when I was about 16 years. With no small amount of replays, I feel confident saying the game does not betray the atmosphere, setting or feel of the predecessors. It’s not Gordon we’re playing as, but perhaps that promise may yet be fulfilled later.
Half-Life: Alyx is a prequel. Arguably, it may be the ‘get out of jail free’ card that the writers may need to jumpstart perhaps the final chapter. What's revealed may quite possibly be a promise. Knowing Valve, there’s no telling how long we may have to wait until we finally learn whether we can expect a true conclusion, but Half-Life: Alyx isn’t it.
TechRaptor reviewed Half-Life: Alyx on the Valve Index with a copy provided to all previous owners of a Valve Index.
- Immersive Environments
- Great Voice Acting
- Concise Storytelling
- Entertaining Physics
- Issues With Lag
- Short Length For Half-Life