Review: Half-Life: Alyx Transcends its Medium, is Destined to be a Classic

Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx I used to joke that it would take the end of the world to get a new Half-Life game. I regret those jokes now. But we do have a brand new Half-Life game. And when the initial trailers dropped for it, I stupidly thought, “Too bad it’s a prequel AND it’s VR only!” despite owning a Valve Index, and wishing for a great VR game since I first donned my DK2, which feels like a lifetime ago.  And of course, wishing for a new Half-Life game, which I gave up hoping for. After the flop of Artifact, another part of me was scared that Valve had lost their mojo. They have not. Half-Life: Alyx is amazing. (Note: I played Half-Life: Alyx entirely with the Valve Index headset.) I’ve played some extremely great virtual reality games lately--The Room VR: A Dark Matter is one that immediately comes to mind—but Half-Life: Alyx manages to feel like a great game that you’re playing in virtual reality. What I mean by that is, the story, presentation, graphics, voice acting and almost every other aspect make Half-Life: Alyx feel like it transcends its medium. If Alyx was released as a conventional first person shooter, it would still be a good game. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Half-Life: Alyx is technically a prequel, which is immediately noticeable during the opening vista, as Alyx’s apartment looks upon the Citadel from Half-Life 2 still under construction. I was expecting a lot of cameos, but the number of characters actually remains quite low—though a few familiar faces do return, notably Eli Vance, who has a substantial role throughout Alyx. But the new character of Russell really steals the show, and he’s the namesake of the Russells, which enables a major gameplay mechanic throughout. You probably would know them better as the gravity gloves. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx With the gravity gloves, you feel like a Jedi. You can grab objects from pretty far away simply by selecting them with your glove, and with a flick of the wrist, the object flies into your hand. Well, most of the time—sometimes you’ll lose it to a hungry barnacle or it’ll get stuck on a door or window, and you’ll have to fumble looking for it. But grabbing objects feels great, especially with the Index, and the controller’s haptic feedback does a great job of letting you know when you have something in your hand. In fact, the haptic feedback is incorporated so well you know when your hands are on a wall, with so much detail that it allows you to feel the bumps on a rough surface. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Despite using the most up-to-date virtual reality for years, I was in awe of Alyx. I spent a lot of time merely looking at the environment and enemies, and just touching and interacting with everything I could. Valve has thrown in a surprising number of objects that work as you’d expect them to.  And the Combine objects you interact with have satisfying large red levers, and other points you can grab and twist. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Alyx comes equipped with her trusty hacking tool, and it’s used a lot for various tasks. Opening Combine item boxes, or accessing Combine equipment is something you’ll encounter a lot. I really liked the gameplay mechanic where you have to look for wires hidden behind walls, and connect them to whatever you want powered—or disconnect them from things you don’t. However, I really got annoyed with the puzzles involved with opening the Combine lock boxes, and the upgrade machines. The margin of error is too great, and sometimes I just wanted to keep moving on to the exciting parts. Then again, these puzzles do act as a great time to slow down after intense firefights. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx As you play through Half-Life: Alyx, you’ll find yourself squaring off against Combine soldiers, head crabs and their zombies, and even Antlions. First off, the shooting feels fantastic, and realistic. You'll have to manage magazines, including reloading and pulling slides to make your weapon operate, even when you’re under fire or being pressed upon by zombies. Half-Life: Alyx is full of great ideas, and unique encounters—but it’s also full of throwbacks to earlier Half-Life games, and even old video game tropes—like when you have to find the two different colored keycards. But there were a few moments I haven’t experienced in any game, things that only virtual reality makes possible. I don’t want to spoil it, but there is an encounter with a sound sensitive enemy named Jeff that is really one of the highlights of the game, and is probably one of the most tense and scary encounters I’ve ever had in a video game. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Half-Life: Alyx is so chock-full of intense and scary experiences, it’s unreal. The gunfights sometimes felt a little too real to this combat veteran, and getting trapped inside a darkened room with a bunch of skittering headcrabs is extremely unnerving—especially when you attempt to escape, only to find yourself pressed upon by headcrab zombies. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Everything in Half-Life is now life-sized, and that apparently means everything has teeth. Barnacles are absolutely disgusting, Vortigaunts are unnerving (but weirdly cute) up close, and you really don’t want to look too closely at the underside of a head crab. Alyx is so immersive, and so extremely realistic, it has left me with lingering virtual reality awareness. Sometimes I’ll look for the barrier of my virtual reality space by outstretching my arms when I’m not in VR, or feel like I see something out of the corner of my eye that only existed in game. The level design in Alyx is great, and worth noting. It seems like Valve tried to keep the levels small, and they did this by having your path loop back in on itself in many instances—something that reminded me a lot of Dark Souls level design in a way. The levels don’t feel repetitive, or small, either—but full-sized, varied, and interesting. And always scary—I spent many, many minutes just carefully plodding about, making sure I didn’t get grabbed by a cleverly hidden barnacle. Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx My time with Alyx wasn’t all smooth sailing. Before I get too deep into any complaints for Alyx, I have something I have to admit: I’m not a big fan of the Index controllers. They work well enough, but they’re just not as intuitive as the Vive wands, though you can do more with them. I think the biggest problem I have is the wonky finger tracking, especially since my hands seem to be so much bigger than any VR hand I’ve controlled, and my hands take up so much of the Index controller, it’s hard to hold them in a way to make me extend the finger I’m trying to extend. But my problems with the Index controllers extended into the game itself. There were times I would drop objects, or not grab them, despite the proper hand movement. If I wanted to make sure I was still holding something, I felt like I had to keep a death grip on it. Still, I fumbled through certain actions throughout my entire playthrough—notably, using the health injectors. Somehow, I kept finding the combinations of buttons to take a screenshot instead of gripping and pressing a button like it wanted me to. Still, most everything feels intuitive, and Valve inserted a ton of options to make sure Alyx was as comfortable as possible for as many people as possible. Not only does Alyx run on a whole bunch of different headsets, Valve included options for continuous movement, and teleportation—for those like me who get motion sick in VR. If you get easily motion sick in VR, you can probably still play Alyx—I could. You can even play Alyx sitting, and in a forward-only configuration. If you have a VR setup, and you're not sure you can run Alyx, there’s hope! Everyone should play this game. I can’t believe I just played a new, full-fledged Half-Life game, and it was in virtual reality. It was so good, I can’t stop talking about it, and all I can think about is getting back into it.  Everything from the story, to the voice acting, the presentation-- everything is so well thought out and executed, Half-Life: Alyx is a guaranteed classic. And it ends on an extremely compelling cliffhanger, it had me literally saying out loud, “oh come on, you can’t stop now.” Screenshot: Half-Life Alyx Please, Gabe Newell, let’s keep the momentum. Give us more Half-Life. Because holy shit, can Valve make a damn good game. Half-Life: Alyx is available now on Steam.     If you like the video game, tabletop, or other technology content that Third Coast Review has to offer, consider donating to our Patreon. We are the only publication in Chicago that regularly reviews video games, and we cover lots of local Chicago-based events and more. If you want to contribute to our coverage of Chicago’s video game scene (and more) please consider becoming a patron. Your support enables us to continue to provide this type of content and more.  
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Antal Bokor

Antal is video game advocate, retro game collector, and video game historian. He is also a small streamer, occasional podcast guest, and writer.