Have you ever got goose pimples from a videogame? Not the cold sort when you’ve stepped outside on a winter’s day but those from sheer excitement. If that’s a no and you’re about to play Valve’s latest epic, Half-Life: Alyx, then prepare yourself for that possibility. Even if this was a normal videogame the anticipation for Half-Life: Alyx would be enormous, the fact that it’s exclusive to virtual reality (VR) makes it even more palpable because Valve has created a title every VR gamer needs to play.
Right from the main loading intro Half-Life: Alyx is made to conjure up feelings of stepping into an ambitious experience as if you’re about to put one foot on the moon or walk through the gates of Mordor. One of the first images Valve released was a wide scenic shot of the Citadel being built and that’s exactly where you find yourself, looking out from a balcony to see City 17 around you, only this time it’s a living, breathing entity.
Not only is this setting the mood for the grand adventure that awaits but Valve immediately lets you know you’re part of this world, and can, therefore, interact with it. Your hands are made for picking stuff and playing with it so there are all manner of items in this near vicinity to help you get acquainted with the videogame, from tuning a radio to marker pens to draw on the window. Valve has even gone so far to ensure your fingers wrap around the corners of items. Simple little things but they all add to the experience, building that sense of presence which can turn VR gaming into an addiction.
What the hell is going on?
For those who aren’t dedicated Half-Life fans this latest instalment isn’t a sequel to the highly celebrated Half-Life 2 from 2004. Half-Life: Alyx is set between the two titles where the mysterious alien race known as The Combine have enacted a brutal occupation of Earth. You play as titular character Alyx as she and her father Dr. Eli Vance are mounting a resistance force to help save humanity.
While you may already know the outcome if you’ve played Half-Life 2 – which has been free up until the launch of Half-Life: Alyx, it’ll still fill in gaps for those which are interested. At the same time, those new to the Half-Life universe shouldn’t feel too lost, although a little story intro would’ve been nice.
Shoot first, interrogate later…maybe
Just like its brethren Half-Life: Alyx is a first-person shooter (FPS) with puzzle elements, offering plenty of action interspersed with hunting down resources and not letting anything suddenly hug your face.
Valve seems to do what it likes, how it likes and be damned if you don’t follow suit. The Valve Index for example – the Half-Life: Alyx headset of choice, if you can get one – wasn’t designed for easy consumer adoption it was built for supreme VR gaming quality. Likewise, you shouldn’t expect Valve to follow the same VR blueprints other developers have employed in their shooters.
For example, most VR FPS’ tend to feature a gun belt so you can put a pistol on your hip, maybe a grenade or two. None of that here. While you do have a backpack for ammo and resin, Valve has kept everything menu related nicely minimal. Guns can be selected from a quick hand-oriented menu which can be tailored in the options while two ‘wrist pockets’ act as singular storage locations, ideal for grenades and health injectors. There’s no hoarding of these latter items as each wrist can only hold one, so you have to choose, do you want to cause loads of damage or live to keep fighting.
And there’s plenty of that. Your pistol becomes your new best friend with the shotgun and Combine rifle offering their own unique advantages. Half-Life: Alyx being the premium Valve experience it is the guns work beautifully, especially when you start upgrading them with the resin expanding the ammo capacity or giving the shotgun the grenade launcher ability – so useful against the heavily armoured Combine soldiers as well as being fun. All the weapons feature some sort of manual reload, so you have to plan your attacks where possible or risk a dangerous second of so reloading.
Most group enemy encounters aren’t too overwhelming, the soldiers tend to appear in teams of three or four. These are more like set pieces, where you’ve got plenty of room to run into cover or find a flanking position. The fluidity of this heavily influenced by the locomotion scheme you’ve settled on as running isn’t an option.
Choices, choices…how about the fluffy slippers?
Before you’ve even stepped into Half-Life: Alyx you’ve got a lot of choices to make, relating to comfort and personal preference. Sometimes it’s just easier to start playing the thing first and then tweak various components as you get used to the experience.
Half-Life: Alyx employs three main locomotion systems, Continuous, Shift and Teleport. The latter designed to be the most comfortable while the former is far more immersive. Yet there are times where – moving between cover especially – continuous just isn’t fast enough. So shorter teleport movement is also on hand rather than tucked away in the menu. This proves to be massively useful because there are points when quickly hiding out the way is required, plus the fact that Half-Life: Alyx isn’t some flat world. There are times when you have to jump through a window or gauge a drop-down, so Valve wants you to have those options.
The company also wants as many people to enjoy Half-Life: Alyx. So you can play it using full roomscale but what if you can’t? There are options if you’re seated to bring Alyx up to head height when required, or what happens if you can only use one controller? No problem. Not only is there a one-handed mode but the gameplay has been designed so there’s a minimal handicap. All the guns are used with one hand with the option then aiding mechanics like reloading.
It could be said there are too many options and a good portion of the videogame early on is fiddling with these rather than enjoying the experience. However, getting it right does aid the gameplay so you can settle in for the long haul as there are plenty of hours to fight through.
‘Scared? No, you’re scared’
The atmosphere is an important part of any VR experience and Half-Life: Alyx has an appropriately mixed selection. With plenty of grand sci-fi architecture to gawp at Half-Life: Alyx is gorgeous to admire when out in the open and suitably menacing when in the shadows.
There are areas in Half-Life: Alyx which evoke a proper sense of claustrophobia and dread, where stepping out into the open air feels as refreshing and liberating as in real life. This will likely be the first time anyone has even come close to being scared in a Half-Life title, with sequences featuring just your flashlight and a lovable creature called Jeff offering some memorable moments.
Equally important is the writing which has always been of a high calibre in Half-Life. Half-Life: Alyx is no different, with conversations between Alyx and her resistance colleague Russell fliting between the serious to comedic banter as she endeavours to keep her spirits up.
Do I cut the red wire or blue?
Puzzles form an integral part of the Half-Life: Alyx experience, generally opening a door, item case or upgrade station.
As previously mentioned Half-Life: Alyx is a hands-on experience and so are the puzzles, grabbing holographic projections to spin and manipulate them into place. Not overly complicated or fiddly to solve, there are about four variations which do lead to plenty of repetition if you really do scour each location. Highly important to get that vital resin for upgrades.
Out with the old and in with the new, apart from that…and that
Valve may want to provide a fresh experience for Half-Life fans but there are plenty of old favourites from the previous videogames which make an appearance.
Headcrabs, if you hated them in the other Half-Life’s you’ll hate them even more in Half-Life: Alyx. The most prolific of any enemy thanks to their ability to reanimate corpses they provide excellent target practice when attached to some unfortunate person’s head and rather annoying when scurrying on the floor. Such is their abundance that you’ll find new ways to kill them, like making them jump into barnacles.
Another fan favourite, the ceiling-mounted barnacle can be an absolute bane if you’re not paying attention. Also, a lot of fun when employed correctly. Enemies can be lured into their grasp saving you ammo for more important encounters plus they can hide useful items. It’s this gameplay mixture between the different Half-Life: Alyx opponents which ensures you shouldn’t get bored throughout.
Half-Life: Alyx did rehash one item from the Half-Life universe and that was the Gravity Gun, now replaced by the Gravity Gloves. These form an important part of the Half-Life: Alyx experience, grabbing almost any item within a reasonable distance. Insanely useful, there’s a slight knack in flicking then grabbing an object was it comes towards you but it makes gathering items so easy you’ll wish you had a real pair. The gloves also serve up your health indicator – which look like Legend of Zelda hearts – and your ammo counter. They also happen to be intricately detailed, showcasing how much thought and effort Valve has put into Half-Life: Alyx.
And now the end is near…
You know perfectly well that Valve wasn’t going to make a flagship VR title using its beloved Half-Life franchise and do a half-arsed job. A stunningly rich experience from start to finish, Half-Life: Alyx is one of the best VR titles available, a perfect showcase for what VR gaming is capable of. It doesn’t exactly break new ground, instead providing familiar Half-Life gameplay all wrapped up in a highly polished VR gift bag. Let’s just hope this is the start of things to come and Valve decides to make another Half-Life: Alyx.