Half-Life: Alyx review for PC VR

Platform: PC (VR)
Publisher: Valve
Developer: Valve
Medium: Digital
Players: 1
Online: No

Half-Life is one of those video games that people just know about. People outside of the world of video games have heard of Half-Life, and people who do play games definitely know about it. Half-Life is considered by many to be the greatest shooter series, and by some to be the greatest series in general, of all time. When the original game launched in 1998, it launched Valve forward toward what it is today. Half-Life was Valve?s first game and set a precedent of quality that Valve has mostly lived up to ever since.

Fans have waited 13 years for any word on a potential Half-Life 3. When Valve announced Half-Life: Alyx, a VR exclusive title, lacking the fabled ?3? in the name, there was a good bit of dissent and speculation among the community. Some people were excited, interested to see how Valve would translate the series to VR, while others were disappointed that the first new Half-Life content in over a decade was locked behind the VR paywall. Also, while many VR games are great, there has not been a real killer, ?full? game in the minds of a lot of people. So while the excitement was high, it was generally tempered across the board.

In terms of continuity, Half-Life: Alyx takes place after the first game and five years before the events of Half-Life 2. You play as Alyx Vance (hence the title), who is the 19-year-old daughter of Dr. Eli Vance. Veteran players will be familiar with the Vance family, and Alyx really manages to flesh them out much more than previous entries. The fan-favorite Vortigaunts also return in a big way. And if you thought those things were goofy or unsettling in the previous games, wait until you stare directly at one in VR.

As soon as the game opens up, and you step out to stare across the massive expanse of City 17, the sheer magnitude and scale of what Valve has managed to create hits you. Most VR games or VR experiences excel in the smaller spaces, or in being overly basic visually to allow for more of a focus on cool mechanics. Half-Life: Alyx succeeds in bringing the scope and feel of a major AAA video game, while also focusing on the minutiae that can make VR so special.

One of the first things you do in Half-Life: Alyx is to step into a pseudo-office with dry erase markers and windows. Some of the windows have writing on them, so naturally, I grabbed the markers to see if I could write too. Not only can you hold the markers and write on the windows, but you also have to do it correctly. You have to judge the distance between your hand and the window and actually write. Too far back, and the marker doesn?t make contact and you get no writing. While this may seem silly, and is certainly not related to the core mechanics of the game, it is one of the earliest and truest signs of what is to come. Valve invested time into every single detail, and made the most fully realized, interactable environment ever to come to VR. You can crush soda cans by slowly applying pressure to your controller, you can interact with almost everything you can see, your hands are real in-game objects, allowing you to sweep a table clean or push a door open. These all create the illusion of actually being part of the world you are playing in.

On the subject of controllers, I tried Half-Life: Alyx two different ways. I am playing on an original Vive, with room-scale, multiple lighthouses, and I have both the original wand controllers and Index controllers. The Index controllers are truly the future of VR controller technology and were not surprisingly the better choice for Half-Life: Alyx. I wanted to compare the wands as well, and while some of the cutting edge VR titles like Boneworks ultimately need the Index controllers to function the way the developers intend, Half-Life: Alyx manages to play incredibly well, even with the older controllers.

This is mostly due to the gravity gloves. Interacting with objects, specifically picking things up throughout the world tends to be one of the most frustrating challenges in VR. The Index controllers help with a lot of that, but players using the wands still end up limited in a lot of aspects. Half-Life: Alyx solves this problem with their gravity gloves. You get these very early on in the story, they are basically a simpler version of the gravity gun that Half-Life veterans will be used to. In Half-Life: Alyx, you simply point at what you want, make a fist to grab them and flick your wrist back, sending the object sailing to your waiting hand. With the wand controllers, you point, pull the trigger and flick, then pull the trigger again to grab what you want when it reaches your hand. This not only solves the issue of picking up objects around you, but you will also feel like an absolute badass just about every time. I never got tired of flicking objects through the air and catching them throughout the 15-ish hours it took to get through the story.

The story was one of the biggest ?what-ifs? with Half-Life: Alyx. The Half-Life saga is an incredibly deep, story rich franchise loved by millions. VR games are not yet known for being very story-centric. Most of them have loose stories designed to just carry you from one cool VR set piece or mechanic to another. Half-Life: Alyx absolutely shatters that mold. The story components here and the depth of their attention to detail and inclusion of nods to the previous games are everything you could want and more. This is not an offshoot, half cocked VR experience with the Half-Life name tacked on at the front. This is a fully realized entry in the Half-Life saga, that was specifically designed for the VR space.

Shooting is obviously another big part of what fans expect Half-Life to excel at, and the firearms in Half-Life: Alyx deliver. You unlock a modest arsenal of three firearms, a pistol, a shotgun and an SMG. Each has certain scenarios where they are the preferred weapon, but they can all three be used effectively whenever you want. The shotgun is the standout powerhouse weapon, but ammo for it is understandably scarce, making it more of an emergency use weapon than the other two. Ammo in general is scarce enough that you don?t frivolously waste shots, but plentiful enough that you don?t find yourself facing any encounters unprepared. Keeping your ammo up requires some exploration, but you should be doing that anyway for the glowing pucks of resin that you need to upgrade your weapons.

Each weapon has a unique set of 3-4 upgrades, but all three share the laser sight upgrade, and I would strongly suggest getting that first. Being able to hip fire with pinpoint accuracy while maintaining the ability to look around and focus on other aspects of combat simultaneously comes in very handy later on. You will find yourself surrounded by headcrabs and zombies, needing to put effective rounds on target while also using your gravity glove with your other hand to get things on the other side of the room, or reach into your wrist pouch for a grenade or a quick health pack. Being able to shoot accurately without having to focus on the iron sights can be a lifesaver.

There are some other little moments that stand out, and could only really be done in VR, and with the gravity glove system that Valve uses in Half-Life: Alyx. Combine soldiers will throw grenades at you, and if you?re fast enough you can snatch them out of the air mid-flight with your gloves and throw them back. There was a moment in a firefight that my pistol ran dry, and instead of reaching into my backpack for a fresh magazine, I used my gloves to snatch a mag off the belt of the soldier in front of me, slammed it home, released the slide and pumped 4 rounds into his face. Valve uses a very realistic reload system in Half-Life: Alyx as well. When your pistol runs dry, the slide locks back and you have to manually release the empty mag, grab a fresh run, slide it into the magwell and either grab the slide and slingshot it home, or hit your magazine release button. If you pay attention to your magazine and drop it before you?re completely out of rounds, the round in the chamber will remain and you can just load a fresh mag in. The shotgun breaks open and you load new shells two at a time into the magazine tube, then have to snap it closed and rack the charging handle back. The SMG is an energy based weapon, so you just load your little powercell in the side and get to work.

All of those things continue to show just how far Valve went to make this a realistic and believable experience, and their attention to detail in Half-Life: Alyx is truly unparalleled. I genuinely cannot find a real fault with this game. Sound design is incredible, the visuals are stunning, the story exceeds all expectations, combat and puzzle design manage to remain true to what fans would want, while also seamlessly translating themselves to the VR space, there is humor, there is horror, everything comes together and creates the perfect Half-Life game. This is the game that VR was waiting for, this is the game that VR was built for, and if you have VR technology, you owe it to yourself to play this game. If you have been waiting for the right game to come along and make the VR purchase worth it, Half-Life: Alyx is it.

Valve provided us with a Half-Life: Alyx PC code for review purposes.

Grade: A+