Bree somehow managed to weasel her way into a game design degree, is perpetually writing, and hasn't stopped playing Skyrim since it first came out.
Oculus, HTC Vive,
March 23, 2020
What is there to say about the Half-Life franchise that hasn’t already been said? A series beloved by fans that ended on a cliffhanger over 10 years ago, where the anticipation for the newest edition became so great that it spawned countless memes. And hey, while Half-Life: Alyx doesn’t have the number three in it, it’s a new Half-Life game and that’s something to be excited about regardless.
The Half-Life series has a very special place in my heart. It’s not the first game I ever played, but definitely one of the first I experienced. My dad loved the games, I used to sit on his lap while he played. He was one of the many people gut-punched by the announcement that the game would be a VR only title. The hardware is still expensive and requires an equally expensive computer setup to run. Valve like to be pioneers, so it makes sense they would want to be one of the first companies to develop a fully VR AAA experience, but VR is a tricky mistress. Can a game created using this new tech hold up to traditional hardware? Let’s find out.
Half-Life: Alyx is set in between the original Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Five years before Gordon Freeman wakes from his well deserved 20 year nap to find Earth colonised by an empire of hostile aliens called the Combine. You play as Alyx Vance (as you might have guessed) the daughter of Gordon’s former colleague Eli, and well loved NPC from the Half-Life 2 games. She’s currently working with the resistance to loosen the Combine’s grip on society when her father is captured and she learns about the existence of a Combine super-weapon. The game focuses on saving your father, and then taking down this weapon before the Combine have a chance to use it.
The game opens on a balcony overlooking the very familiar City 17. I was immediately stunned by how real and gritty everything looked, spending much too long playing around with all the objects in the area. It really was a great way to start the game, letting players get familiar with moving in VR and picking up objects that can be played around with. There were even some markers that could be used to write on a window, and then you could clean the window with an eraser. One thing I love about the game is that it takes place during one very bad day. Alyx begins her journey in the early morning standing on that balcony and finishes it just after the sun has set. It really feels like one long day too, with moments out in the sun being few and far between. Everytime you pop outside the sky has grown a little bit darker to help show the passing of time.
Walking through City 17 was a rush of nostalgia. The aesthetic of the almost oppressive Eastern European city was so familiar and yet so much more impressive. Craning my head up to look at the cables hanging above the buildings, crouching behind a dryer in a filthy laundromat to avoid the Combine, it was everything I remembered and more. When the first Strider stepped over me and the building shook under my feet, I found myself reeling, I just had to stop and watch. The Strider’s giant feet sunk into the rooftops as it lumbered past me. You leave the city for its quarantine zone quite quickly, from there the majority of the game is spent underground. There’s very little comfort underground, except for Russell, your new best pal. Alyx meets Russell in a brief face to face encounter where he gives her the game’s first weapon and the incredibly important gravity gloves.
I loved this little interaction, I tried to reach out and touch his face, he waved me away as if to say, “please don’t do that.” From this point on, he is in contact with Alyx through a headset that he can use to see through her eyes. Rhys Darby gives a stellar performance as Russell providing jokes, subtle hints and commentary through the headset. I really loved the way his interactions give Alyx a chance to develop further, you get to learn more about what it was like for her growing up in a world already in the grip of the Combine. In one very poignant moment, she asks Russell how he would have rated life on Earth out of ten before the Combine invasion and Alyx is shocked when he only says “six”. Together they agree to try and bump it up to an eight.
Now, I won’t spoil the ending. Even if you don’t have a VR headset I would still recommend watching a playthrough on YouTube to get the full experience, because the last hour or so of the game was outstanding. I will say that the ending has very important implications for where the Half-Life series will continue (fingers crossed that it does) and that it changes things in ways I never would have expected
On the surface, the core gameplay loop of Half-Life: Alyx isn’t so different to the one in its predecessors. But apart from being a first person shooter with gravity mechanics, the game actually feels a lot different. One of the biggest changes is how important ammo management is in Alyx. The original Half-Life games all had the iconic crowbar as a backup if your ammo ever ran out. Half-Life: Alyx does not have this luxury. In the early levels when I only had the pistol and didn’t quite have a handle on aiming in VR yet, I was running out of ammo a lot and when you run out of ammo, you have to reload. Something so small as the press of a button in a normal game becomes an integral part of gameplay in Half-Life: Alyx. Each of the three guns you acquire has a completely different reload action and during an intense moment with three zombies clambering towards you, you’ll be fumbling and dropping clips all over the place. Eventually though, it becomes as easy as breathing, dropping the clip from the pistol, loading another and pulling back the slide will be like second nature and this is where the gameplay loop really changes from previous Half-Life games.
“Running out of ammo and spotting a magazine on the other side of the map, tugging it towards yourself and loading it into your gun. It makes you feel like a badass.”
Every action is just as important as the last. When everything is directly controlled by your own hands it feels visceral and real. Reloading becomes just as fun as shooting, and speaking of fun – let’s talk about the gravity gloves. Though you’re going to be using your guns for combat, your gravity gloves are what really sells the game. Holding your hand outward in the direction of an item locks the gloves onto it and with a quick flick of the wrist, it comes flying towards you where it can be grabbed. It feels so natural and so cool, running out of ammo and spotting a magazine on the other side of the map, tugging it towards yourself and loading it into your gun. It makes you feel like a badass, even if in reality you’re crouched on the floor of your computer room in your pyjamas.
It becomes such second nature that I once caught myself trying to tug the air conditioning remote over to the couch in real life. The gloves are also used for mild puzzle solving. A stand out moment for me was when I’d used a power core to open a door and then went upstairs to find I’d need another one. Then, looking down through a hole in the floorboards, I saw the power core I’d plugged in earlier and realised I could pull it up to myself and use it to open the next door. It’s a solid experience.
Of course, it’s going to be pretty important that we discuss how exactly the shift to VR affects Half-Life: Alyx, not just in gameplay, but in the way the world within the game is traversed and experienced. First of all, everything is much closer than a normal PC or console game would allow. I spent my first few hours with the game sticking my face into anything and everything I could. So it’s amazing that all of the textures end up holding up to even the closest scrutiny. It means that the game is full of so many tiny details that wouldn’t even be noticed in a non VR experience.
Another way the VR alters the gaming experience is the speed. The walking speed in continuous mode is very slow, never more than a slow walk. This is because anything faster than that would not be good for folks who get motion sick, and it also better matches the walking speed of a player navigating the small space in between their chaperone bounds. I mostly played with the continuous movement option, meaning I walked slowly from place to place, but I used shift (a teleport with smooth horizontal movement) whenever I needed to back track or cover long distances. Because the game now moves so slowly, it means that combat has been affected a decent amount. A fight with a group of Combine soldiers sometimes feels strangely easy. I’d be crouching behind a barrel and wondering how none of the enemies had walked around the barrel and killed me yet. To compensate for your slow movement, the enemies move slowly too. While it makes sense, it does occasionally feel like the game is going a little easy on you, especially given the speed of the original Half-Life games.
The game is also scary. Personally, I know that I don’t do well with horror games, but I am able to play through the Half-Life series just fine (excepting maybe the Ravenholm section which still gives me the heebiejeebies). However, Half-Life: Alyx constantly had me on my toes and I know it’s solely because of the VR experience. In a normal first person shooter, you can whip around to look behind yourself in a flash, but in VR, either I have to use a series of quick quarter turns that are mapped to the touchpad on the main hand controller, or i have to turn around using my own legs, usually going slowly so I don’t tangle myself in the wires as I do so. I spent a lot of time standing with my back to a wall, because even though I am comfortable enough with headcrabs and the like, I don’t like being surprised. Anything could come up behind me and I’d scream.
There were also a few sections in complete darkness with only a small flashlight on your offhand to light the area, and whenever you were using that hand to reload it was completely black. Dark areas in video games can only be so scary, because as long as it’s daylight outside, the darkness doesn’t feel all encompassing. VR though is a different story, I couldn’t see anything without my flashlight pointing at it. Though Valve knew this would be a factor, always making sure the dark sections had no jump scares and often having Russell and Alyx talk through the whole section to take the tension off. It was a great way to make players feel afraid, but in a fair way.
Though, on the topic of frightening sections, I would like to give a special mention to Jeff. This humanoid monster has his own special area in the game that had me so frightened my partner needed to take over for me. Jeff can’t see you, but can hear you and will follow your every noise you make. He is unkillable and kills you in one hit. Worst of all, you encounter Jeff in a vodka distillery with glass bottles everywhere to stumble into and shatter. Having to crouch absolutely still, with one hand over your mouth (because of course Jeff excretes deadly spores) as this monster looms so close to your face that you can almost smell him is like nothing else. If you’re the sort of person who enjoyed playing through Amnesia: The Dark Descent with the lights off, I’m sure you’ll have no problems. If like me you hid in a cupboard for ten minutes before turning the game off: Beware Jeff.
I also had a few issues with the game that I suspect were specific to my setup. I’m going to go through them here quickly, but just keep in mind that if you are using a different VR brand you may not encounter these issues.
My computer has a GTX1080 graphics card which was able to handle the game more than fine. The game recommended that I play on the lowest graphical option, but I cranked it up to ultra and had no problems.
I have a HTC Vive with the pro head strap which is good because the original headset balances on your nose like a set of glasses and my nose is tiny so it kept sliding down my face. Though I wanted to get a set of index controllers, the COVID-19 outbreak made it difficult to get them shipped, so I was stuck with the Vive controllers. They worked fine. Though I would have liked more control over my fingers, it didn’t detract from the gameplay. It just meant I couldn’t play the piano when I came across one. The only real problem is that the menu button is mapped to the grip buttons on the off hand (the one not holding the gun. Can be left or right depending on your preferences), and i was accidentally opening the menu all the time, mostly when reloading. It’s because holding the trigger while turning my hand sideways made the rest of my fingers tighten reflexively. It was annoying, but that’s mostly the fault of the controller design and not the game, something to keep in mind if you intend to play with the Vive controllers.
Half-Life: Alyx is the perfect example of the best Virtual Reality can be. After years of what felt like nothing more than tech demos or ports, this game has arrived to show everyone how it’s done. It manages to showcase the best parts of VR with the gravity gloves being so satisfying and fun to use, while also working to minimise the effects of the worst parts of VR. In the options menu there are tons of accessibility options, both to help people with motion sickness, and to make it easier for those who can’t stand while playing or use both hands. Obviously there are still hurdles to cross in making VR the preferred method of playing games, but Alyx comes damn close. The final hour of the game had me reeling with the implications it has for the rest of the series and the characters were three dimensional and vibrant. If you can get a VR headset, do it. If you can’t, watch a playthrough. If you’re a fan of Half-Life, you owe that to yourself. And hey, who knows, maybe a few years down the track we will finally be able to say with no hyperbole: Half-Life 3 confirmed.