Oh City 17, how I’ve missed you.
When Valve Software announced Half-Life: Alyx I was truly surprised. When they said it was for VR only, I was floored. I know Valve had a few titles in the pipeline when they released the Valve Index headset, but I don’t think many people thought a Half-Life title would be one of them. Yet here we are. Not only did they announce it and a release date, but they hit that release date without any delays. "Valve Time" happened before the reveal and what we have is an on-time release of an amazing VR experience that can be considered the first must-have title in the VR space.
Half-Life: Alyx takes place between Half-Life 1 and 2, putting you in the hands/shoes of Alyx, super sidekick of Gordon Freeman. And that’s all I’ll say because a great deal of the fun is uncovering the story—and who wants their fun spoiled?
The campaign will take about 11 hours or so, and for me that includes getting stuck on a few puzzles. You’ll encounter your fair share of action, horror, and physics-based puzzles, and with the inclusion of your hands in the world, Valve was able to breathe some new life into how to solve some of these puzzles compared to the previous games. Also, anything that can go wrong will go wrong, so don’t expect an easy or straightforward path to the end game. Also: I hate Jeff. Play it and you'll know what I mean.
Being able to interact with the environment with your hands in various ways really immerses you into the game world and it almost feels like you’re walking around in City 17. You don’t just press an action button to grab a wheel and place it in a spot. You physically pick it up with your hands and perform the action as if it were in real life. Until you truly experience it yourself, it’s hard to describe how fun it is. Valve does a good job of presenting a lot of puzzles that get you involved physically.
Besides some physics-based puzzles, there are some that involve you using a multitool to manipulate a sphere with moving icons, partaking in a plumber-like game where you funnel power to an area by manipulating its path, and matching invisible icons, just to name a few. They are a nice break from the action and having to constantly be on guard from incoming Combine or zombies.
It was truly incredible to be able to walk through the variety of environments in virtual reality. Valve produced some of the highest fidelity visuals currently out there for VR games. The models, the textures, the details, everything comes together to make Half-Life: Alyx arguably the best looking VR game out right now. The Combine are pretty recognizable, and in the Source 2 engine they are even more imposing and detailed. Seeing the massive striders walk over you is truly a sight to behold. Only a few games come close to how great it looks and, credit to Valve, they were able to make this game run well from low-end systems to the highest ones out there.
There’s so many little details in Alyx that make the world come alive. Alyx’s hands are your only visible trait, which are wonderfully animated to react to certain situations. Glide your hand across a surface and your hand will flatten out allowing you to run them along a surface. Place your hand on a healing station and you’ll get some haptic feedback as needles poke and prod your hand while restoring your health. The back of your left hand shows your health and ammo, which is easily accessible and doesn’t take you out of the world by giving you a HUD like most games.
The environment isn’t static as you’re able to interact with a great deal of objects that you see. You’re able to pick up almost any piece of garbage lying around such as empty cans, bottles, and boxes. Some items require both your hands to move, simulating heavy objects. Here, Valve makes a nice UI decision by color coding handles red to let you know you can grab them to lift. The way it’s done makes it seem like they are just a normal part of the world, yet the shade of red makes it stand out a little bit to tip you off that this is what you want to grab.
But that’s not all. In the background of many scenes, there are things that’ll happen that make the world come alive. Pigeons react to you walking towards them by flying away. Ant-lions crawl around in the rubble at a distance. Alien foliage sways back and forth and sometimes reacts to you coming close to it. There are tons of little things everywhere that, while it won’t affect you, does add to the illusion of being in City 17.
For Valve’s first full foray into VR gaming, they’ve given the user a few options to make it as comfortable as possible. There are four ways to move around in the world: teleporting, blinking, normal walking-based locomotion on controller orientation, and normal walking-based locomotion on HMD orientation. Being a veteran in VR, I jumped right into locomotion with smooth turning (which was made available after a recent patch) and was able to move about without getting sick.
There is no running, so enjoy the slower pace while taking in all the beautiful scenery in every chapter. The slower movement may help curb some motion sickness as well, but I would’ve at least liked the ability to run.
Whatever you choose, one common denominator in all the movement options is how the game handles jumping. You pull back on the right stick and an indicator shows you where you “jump” to. If you see yellow feet, you’re good to go. Anything red and you’re dead if you decide to proceed. While there is no running in the game, you can move faster by chaining jumps. That’s a suitable substitute for running in my book.
As mentioned before, your hands are the only thing visible and you’ll acquire gravity gloves early on. A lot of VR games incorporate what’s called "force pull" where you point at an object and, like Luke Skywalker, motion the object to fly to your hand. Once you get the hang of it, it lets you easily pick up items without having to fight the environment. Some objects are hidden in areas that are hard to reach, but not when you wear the gravity gloves. After an hour or so, I was pulling objects left and right into my hands with ease. For a series known for its gravity gun, the gloves are a great addition and one that takes advantage of VR controls really well.
You get access to three different guns and two different types of grenades. While that might not seem like a lot, each have their purpose for most situations that you’ll come up with. The pistol is a great weapon that can easily take down ant-lions, while the shotgun delivers powerful blows up close and personal. The SMG offers up a nice amount of firepower at a good clip to help you deal with Combine soldiers.
All weapons are upgradable providing some nice improvements, such as a grenade launcher for the shotgun, laser sight for the pistol, and an auto-loader for the SMG. You’ll need to find resin throughout the world to use as currency in upgrading weapons, which you can do at weapon upgrade stations. Hence the importance of looking everywhere in the world as a lot of these resin items are hidden.
The regular Combine grenades are fun to use. Put one in your hand, press a button on the controller to prime it, and toss it at your enemies. They’re pretty standard and easy to operate.
The Xen grenades frustrated me though. These biological grenades are provided by an alien tentacle you find throughout the game, and while Xen grenades come in an unlimited supply, I had issues using them with my Index controllers. See, you activate these grenades by squeezing them, which looks goods on paper, but in reality the game sometimes didn’t recognize me squeezing the grenade. I would have one in my hand and squeeze the Index controllers and...nothing happened. I can’t tell you how frustrating this is when you’re caught in a firefight or if a group of headcrab zombies are bearing down on you and you want to try and quickly dispatch them with a grenade. If the grenades were more consistent, I think they would be a nice addition. But in their current state, they were my least favorite weapon to use.
There are no melee weapons. Valve purposely went this route. You can take down headcrabs and zombies by throwing certain objects at them, but you can’t, say, pick up a pipe and bash enemies to death.
While I am a little disappointed there’s no melee, the action is truly out of this world. The gunplay is top notch and the amount of ways you can dispatch enemies with not only your guns but using environmental objects (like explosive barrels) makes for a great time.
The action and visuals wouldn’t be complete without great sound and Half-Life: Alyx delivers in spades. The directional sound makes you feel like you’re in the middle of the action and really helps when you’re trying to figure out where something is located. I don’t know how many times I heard someone shuffle up behind me and I was able to turn around and take them out before they did any damage because of how great the audio is. And for Half-Life veterans, you’ll get nostalgic when you hear that iconic Combine chatter and high-pitch sound when they die. Everything sounds high quality and really adds to the already incredible visuals, painting a complete VR picture that turns the level of immersion up a few notches.
So, what didn’t I like about Half-Life: Alyx? There isn’t much, but some of these things aren’t unique to Alyx. The general jankiness of your hands in reacting to the world will appear often because of how the geometry can be, and there’s nothing preventing your hands from clipping through any area.
Bethesda has been criticized before for not featuring arms or full body modeling—and here it’s the same issue. Yes, sometimes having arms in the game can really look funky as you can see some really weird angles when a hand and arm are in a certain position. Take a look at Blade & Sorcery or Boneworks as examples. But I know a lot of VR gamers enjoy having more than floating hands in their view. Perhaps some modder will come in and add arms to Half-Life: Alyx, but for now, you only have detached hands.
A lot of the game takes place in close quarters, or seems to, and a lot of those levels are dark. You can get a flashlight later on, but I don’t know why you don’t have the ability to manually turn it on or off. It’s only activated on some levels. There are a few outdoor environments, but Half-Life: Alyx is a close quarters type of game. If you’re claustrophobic or afraid of the dark, you're going to have a bad time.
I was surprised I didn’t encounter more bugs in my 11 hours of gameplay. A few times I fell through an elevator or through the game world to my death, but those were few and far between. Overall, I was happy with how well it ran and I was only frustrated a few times by the bugs.
I tested the game both on the Valve Index and the Samsung Odyssey+. The majority of my time was using the Index and the Index controllers and, let me say, it’s the best way to play the game. Having individual finger controls and hand presence makes the Index controllers the preferred peripheral. The Odyssey+ does a great job as well and I was able to transition to those controllers pretty quickly. I do like the colors on the OLED screen of the Odyssey+ better than the LCD screens on the Index, but I preferred the FOV and 120Hz refresh rate of the Index instead. Valve spent time to make sure it plays well on a wide variety of VR HMDs, which I commend.
Was it worth the almost 13-year wait for a new Half-Life game? For me, it’s close. It’s definitely a brand new experience and something that’s unique in the Half-Life series. And Valve’s always tried to take video games up a notch with each Half-Life release. It’s a big gamble to make a VR-only game, but what Valve has is a game that lives up to the hype and is well worth owning a VR system for. I truly hope we don’t have to wait another 13 years for a Half-Life game and we get to see more in the series, even if it’s not going to be in VR. For now though, if you can afford a system, get Half-Life: Alyx and experience how great a true AAA title can be in this medium.
I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. After writing for a few different sites that went under, it's nice to bring back a site that's not dependent on revenue and just wants to deliver news and reviews of products.
I'm married, and enjoy first person shooters, sports games, and real time strategy games.