My gun rattles with sweaty palms while I struggle to keep my aim steady for any surprises. Inside an abandoned hotel, some of its remaining guests echo with rattles down the hall, eager to meet me.
The rattles change into snarls from a pack of headcrabs, jumping down at the end of my flashlight. Realizing too late, I desperately unload a clip to prevent what happens next. One stops moving as the other turns its head towards me. My empty gun continues to frantically click as the headcrab lets out a familiar shriek. It raises its legs, leaps in the air and latches onto my face.
This is also what makes Valve’s long-awaited return to the science fiction series powerful. Though risky, the team had taken a different approach with VR since exploring new avenues with its Index headset. It ultimately gave Alyx an opportunity to fully realize the dread and wonders of Half-Life’s terrifying world. These feelings are injected into players, thrown back in a perfect dream for fans and a perfect nightmare for those uninitiated.
While Valve stated it’s not a true sequel to Episode Two from 2007, Half-Life: Alyx is indeed a full-length installment that took an estimated 15 hours to finish (around the same as every Half-Life game). Beating its 11 chapters ultimately leads to important details for where the series is headed next (and wow, it’s crazy).
Set five years before meeting Gordon Freeman in Half-Life Two, players become a 19-year-old resistance fighter Alyx Vance. Working with her father and Black Mesa survivor Eli Vance, along with the eccentric Russell, they continue investigating the presence of alien Combine forces who invaded Earth in a seven-hour war.
In Alyx’s first five seconds, I was stunned by being inside City 17, faithfully recreated to life-sized proportions, including a massive citadel tower. Seeing this environment was a blast at VR’s standard 90 frames per second, making the world move as freely as it did before. It even sent flashbacks as big striders loomed over balconies and soldiers patrolled the streets. Valve has done an amazing job keeping the world of Half-Life together through the updated engine fit for a next-generation setting. This is sure to make players look forward to how good Half-Life 3 can look in the not-too-distant future.
The atmosphere of City 17 is juxtaposed by what happens underground. Abandoned facilities and quarantine zones are back in incredibly creepy details to match their equally scary inhabitants. Pulsating cysts lined the walls of abandoned corridors for true Lovecraft-horror vibes. In VR, I always felt a constant unease in these parts. It became so dreadful that I kept my gun ready at every door as I opened them. I also braced for enemies to jump out of cabinets and boxes when searching for supplies. Time spent on the surface becomes a treat compared to a majority of chapters dedicated to these parts.
Alyx’s gameplay styles also change according to the setting. Valve shines with its ability to instantly change Half-Life from a survival-horror game to a sci-fi action one with thrilling set-pieces. In either case, players will have to fight to survive.
Standing in your path across City 17 will mostly be Headcrabs – a staple enemy for Half-Life and are horrifying to see in VR. Players who are arachnophobic will have a tough time facing these creatures littered throughout the surface and underground chapters. My review was even cut short in moments where I ripped the headset off as a headcrab was inches away from killing me. Another warning: They are huge and are dangerous in packs. Despite the scares, Alyx uses its VR platform to create unique encounters that pay off with bravery and mastery.
Though scary at first, the exposure therapy was also how I found ways to take down the game’s different headcrab types (luckily, the fast versions from Half-Life 2: Episode One were cut for literally being too terrifying for Valve in VR). The normal headcrabs are unprotected and can be taken down in three to four pistol shots. Spine-tingling poisonous headcrabs deal the most damage and should be taken out on sight. Armoured Headcrabs, a new addition in Alyx, can only be killed by shooting their bellies before they leap at you.
Of course, these enemies can be found attached to zombies. Shooting the head means getting two birds with one bullet. Panicking and hitting the body kills the zombie, while forcing you to fight the angry and newly-evicted headcrab. In many cases, the zombies also have weak points which add more to the variety of combat. Other one-time enemies surprised me in my run and offered a degree of strategy to take down. Killing these mini-bosses felt satisfying in VR, showing off Valve’s willingness to keep you on your toes from start to finish.
Under VR, things become more engaging in handling weapons and equipment. You’ll be using hands to shoot and reload a small arsenal of guns. The feedback feels great with the vibrations of firing a handgun while Valve has clearly taken notes from VR shooters such as Arizona Sunshine, Pavlov and Robo Recall for bigger weapons. Alyx gains a total of three along her journey across City 17, including a shotgun and submachine gun.
Each can also be upgraded with collectable Resin to help players use them way more efficiently. While the pistol can help save ammo for other weapons and kill barnacles, the shotgun is great with fast-tracking enemies up close (and in preventing traumatic headcrab attacks). The SMG can be put to better use with a laser sight and in strategically dismembering Antilions without Isaac Clarke cheering you on.
Reloading each gun is also unique as they are challenging. I found the shotgun to be the most fun to chamber until it proved fatal in fast-paced encounters. I realized the lighter arsenal meant focusing on my three weapons until I mastered them – something which especially pays off in Combine-focused gunfights.
Ducking behind balconies, returning fire and opening car doors for cover add fun breaks to Half-Life Alyx’s horror-driven gameplay. The Combine come in groups to flank you while variations come in their standard, heavy and machine gun classes. I kept a close ear to their signature jargon which now plays a part in combat. This also let me anticipate and even flank them back as they moved. Fans of previous games might also be surprised to hear the signature flatline after taking one down. These moments come as the zombie portions start to grow old, and reel Half-Life Alyx back to its cool sci-fi action set pieces.
The game’s transitions between zombie and soldier encounters can even collide in hilarious ways. In the middle of a shootout, a headcrab can come out of nowhere to either help you against the Combine scum or hug your face again. Valve constantly reminds you things aren’t safe in City 17.
But it’s emphasis on character development is higher this time around. Arguably, Half-Life: Alyx is the first truly cinematic experience delivered through VR.
Mirror’s Edge and Wolfenstein alumni Ozioma Akagha brings Alyx Vance to life as a younger and bubblier character, backed by other new cast for Eli and Russel, who stay in touch with funny exchanges throughout. If you liked Alyx as a companion in Half-Life Two, her sense of humour and charisma are cranked up. I definitely felt like I was seeing the universe from her eyes.
Alyx’s own curiosity leads her to ask about our “past” world, resulting in some hilarious satire from Russell. These small talks also lighten up the mood in the game’s gritty backdrop and add some heart against all odds. On top of the immersion, these pieces of dialogue feel natural. An early sequence even had Alyx ask Russel to constantly talk out of support in a dark sewer. Things become emotional as we learn about Eli’s work before reuniting with Gordon and help shed light behind Alyx’s motivations in Episode Two.
Adding to Half-Life: Alyx’s realism is the lack of a HUD in VR. Friends wanting to help or are looking for some laughs in the real world can still see the classic health and ammo counts on the computer screen. For players, these pieces of information are shown in their Gravity Gloves – a clever way of bringing Gordon’s signature Gravity Gun into a VR setting. Much like its big brother, the gloves can pull almost anything that lights up in orange when you point to it. One tug, and the non-headcrab object will fly towards you for a catch. I found this to be super user-friendly and helped with spotting valuable ammo and Resin in the unlikeliest corners around City 17.
The gloves also bring a unique and snappy system for using a weapon wheel, requiring me to hold down the right thumbstick of my Oculus Touch controller and simply move my hand in the direction of the item. This feels incredibly different from the holster systems in other VR shooters, adding a learning curve that bordered on unnecessary. I grew to appreciate the ability to keep a gun in my primary hand at all times without the need to grip it tightly all the time.
Alyx’s own inventory system includes a backpack that exclusively stores ammo for all weapons. Simply reach over your shoulder to grab a magazine for reloading. But a large catch comes in the backpack only storing full magazines, leaving me to think twice before leaving a half-empty clip behind. Fortunately, the game never leaves you hanging and provides you with just enough ammo to fight enemies and manage what you have. I felt rewarded for stopping to open a few more doors for supplies while a headcrab or two might be waiting.
Some thinking also goes into using your limited space wisely. Two extra slots on your palms can be used to hold a key item, grenade and medical injectors for when they count. The decision to keep these at the palm worked, letting me suppress fire on Combine forces with my primary hand while using my other one to grab a grenade quickly. Healing in Half-Life: Alyx is also fun in itself as syringes need to be primed and stabbed into your body. Canisters for healing stations are also available across each chapter to fully replenish a simpler three-heart system (leaving behind the Health and Suit numbers from the past games).
A handful of holographic puzzles are also important in getting bonus supplies and safe passage in City 17. These feel addictive to solve in VR while Valve engineered these to be fun and challenging. From defusing trip mines to activating upgrade stations, each made me want a standalone game for these in the future (yes, they’re that fun). Some often require you to move around in the room-scale space, making every puzzle feel like a scene from Doctor Who. Valve even reinvented the hacking minigame from BioShock while keeping it going across different rooms. Creativity and resourcefulness will save you from a lack of instructions to solve each one – as it should be.
Other puzzles encourage players to use the environment around them to make a path for themselves. Physically operating construction machines and prying open wooden boards felt refreshing in VR, moving past quick-time events that plagued modern games. Throwing an explosive barrel for a barnacle to eat can either give you a clear way to move forward, or a clear shot for a messy kill. The platforming elements from past Half-Life games are strong here and give players pacing from intense sequences to exploration in unseen parts of City 17. Though I backtracked through cleared areas, many puzzle solutions were also hidden by taking a few steps back. Alyx effectively incorporates this level of open-ended solving in its linear VR structure. It also encouraged me to explore the map without missing its gorgeous details.
More importantly, Valve pulled out all the stops to make Alyx as comfortable as possible for longer sessions. I loved tailoring its graphic settings to fit an older PC while tweaking its subtitles to soak in the game’s writing. Locomotion is also open-ended, letting me use a favourite teleportation option or continuous moving-on-the-spot. The level of comfort even lets users play for hours without headaches or motion sickness.
The in-game settings also let players change the difficulty on the spot and increase immersion through manually climbing ladders or disable artificial turning in favour of doing it themselves. I liked the consideration Valve gave for those looking to play in a seated experience and standing experience with the push of a button. For added measure, the game also lets you save anytime as a checkpoint – making this important for respawning before a tough segment.
Half-Life: Alyx feels surreal for existing. Though exclusive for VR, Valve’s first Half-Life game in years pushes the series forward with technology in need of a boost. The result of Alyx is nothing short of a technical achievement that somehow deepens the lore with a shocking revelation that changes the way fans see previous games. Valve’s effort to bring the best parts of platforming, gunplay and cinematic storytelling from previous titles are honoured with just enough innovation to modernize the formula in a new era for games.