Half-Life: Alyx Review: Forget About Freeman

Half-Life: Alyx Review: Forget About Freeman

After over a decade, Valve has brought back Half-Life with a VR prequel. It won't reach everybody, but lot of folks will keep their headsets clamped down like Headcrabs.

Alyx Vance is the star of Half-Life. With Half-Life: Alyx—a return for the long-absent series, and a potential watershed moment for virtual reality—the designers, artists, and writers who took on this formidable revival made a wise call. Having clearly recognized Alyx's importance, they made a game about her, which gels into a take on Half-Life that both owes everything to the series' past and blows the possibilities for its future wide open.

One thing I'm certain of is that Half-Life: Alyx is a Half-Life game through and through. This may be the closest Valve has ever been to the cutting edge of technology, utilizing advancements more complex than Half-Life's novel NPCs or the sequel's physics gameplay. Massive as these innovations are though, they are also understated in support of the familiar.

Is an evolution of Half-Life enough to jumpstart a revolution in VR? Maybe, maybe not, and I don't particularly want to make sweeping statements about "killer apps" here. As a Half-Life title, this is up there with Valve's best. It's impossible to decouple Half-Life: Alyx from its VR niche nature, but in terms of design, story, and intent, it does not recoil from the gauntlet laid by over a decade of built-up fan expectations. Instead, it takes the series forward with great confidence.

Our Finest Remaining Urban Center

Half-Life: Alyx is absolutely not a timid side-story. If anything, the experience is like a diehard motorhead starting a classic car that's been on cinder blocks for years. When it suddenly thunders back to life, you discover that someone's been tinkering with the engine all this time.

The introduction is a bit of a Half-Life 2 rehash, but Alyx doesn't wait long to change things up. | Valve

On the surface, Half-Life: Alyx's confidence doesn't seem evident. Apart from being a prequel, it also restricts it setting to the familiar confines of City 17. It might also seem troubling that I feel compelled to compare Half-Life: Alyx specifically to Half-Life 2: Episode One, which lacked the variety of environments and plot ambition of its sequel, instead presenting what felt like a remix of Half-Life 2's later urban warfare chapters.

Where its story shines, ultimately, is in further evolving the character of Alyx. With Half-Life: Alyx taking place five years before Half-Life 2 and the reappearance of Gordon Freeman, the 19-year-old Alyx we play as here is as capable and brave as players have always known her to be. What's more, she's no longer trapped in the shadow of the silent, crowbar-swinging messiah that emerged from Black Mesa.

Alyx, now voiced by Ozioma Akagha, is a child of the post-Black Mesa Incident world. Life under the Combine is all Alyx has ever known. Half-Life: Alyx puts her in danger early on, but she's ready for the challenge. With radio guidance from Russell (Flight of the Conchords' Rhys Darby), a scientist pal of Alyx's father Eli who gives her a pair of Gravity Gloves and a gun, Alyx ventures forth without hesitation. Alyx might not know the simple pleasures of diner food (an early subject of idle chatter between herself and Russell), but she can handle the dangers of City 17.

Half-Life: Alyx's introduction is similar to that of Half-Life 2: it's somewhat guided, very linear, and gets you used to moving around and interacting with objects. This is vital in VR, naturally, and though Valve has tuned every input with intuitiveness and comfort in mind, there's still a learning curve. I'll admit my stomach lurched the first time I used thumbstick-controlled motion, and my aim was so poor at first that I died to the second Headcrab zombie I encountered.

Nevertheless, Half-Life: Alyx starts off fairly easy, and in the relatively simple, confined spaces of the abandoned metro station I explored, I started to wonder if all the levels would be so straightforward. But while it never approaches the expansive outdoor areas of Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the levels rapidly increase in complexity and density once Alyx emerges from the metro. Half-Life: Alyx is just as focused on exploration and puzzle-solving as previous entries, and keeping it all to a mostly unbroken, on-foot journey through the city further sells the feeling of presence.

This is why the Black Mesa scientists wore HEV suits when going to Xen. | Valve

Also, while this adventure through City 17 stays true to the Viktor Antonov-pioneered art style from Half-Life 2, it never revisits old locales. Instead, it often presents strange, occasionally unsettling new sights. Alyx ventures through part of City 17 that's been put under quarantine by the Combine because it's partially overrun by Xenian creatures and creeping biomatter; where every building is both frozen in time—nobody's lived here since shortly after the Combine's takeover—and potentially teeming with alien life.

Valve affords the same fidelity to cluttered maintenance rooms as it does to the Annihilation-esque areas where the Xen growth has kicked into overdrive. Some environments overstay their welcome a tad (I wouldn't be eager to play more levels set in sewers or train tunnels), but the best ones leave indelible impressions. The hotel, distillery, and a certain recreational facility in a later chapter are all amongst the best single-player levels Valve has ever made.

Reliable Local Teleport Technology... Versus Getting There on Foot

Still, the greatest level design in the world wouldn't matter if Half-Life: Alyx were an uncomfortable experience, and this is going to vary greatly person-to-person depending on your VR history and how you handle other triggers for motion sickness. I have played a fair amount of VR before, but I did wonder how I would handle a full-length campaign.

To my surprise, by the end I had grown mostly accustomed to a thumbstick-controlled locomotion option—the one guided by the direction of your motion-tracked hands, not your head. A lot of skeptics have dinged Half-Life: Alyx for its inclusion of a "blink" teleport option for movement despite being designed to accommodate room-scale VR, but the inclusion of teleport and an array of other VR comfort options will surely prove essential for accessibility. I found that the "shift" locomotion option, which works like a teleport but with a continuous, no-fading slide between points, worked really well, and I recommend that beginners try it first.

No movement option is perfect or feels completely natural, which is the norm for current VR tech. Sometimes I would accidentally "shift" move too close to a wall; or Alyx's floating hands (and yes, I mostly forgot about the invisible arms) would grab onto an object in an odd way. Those moments did take me out of the experience ever so slightly. That said, I consciously treat VR as a sort of play-acting experience anyway. With its controls, Half-Life: Alyx aims for a range of points between realism and comfort, and it provides ample options to dial in one that works best for your needs.

After a while, I very rarely had comfort or proficiency issues, apart from user error when things got hectic... which they often do. Storing or retrieving items from my virtual backpack and reloading my weapons became gestures that felt quite natural. When crouched down for cover as Combine troops advanced on my position, I would sometimes screw things up in a panic, which could be exhilarating, frustrating, and strangely satisfying all at once. "Yep, I did fumble that reload," I would think. "Maybe I'm about to die because of it, and it's pretty cool how that wasn't a single button press or something determined by random chance."

Half-Life: Alyx kept me on my toes by balancing extremes: one chapter was like living through Tarkovsky's Stalker; some lean more into combat and Alyx's new 3D hacking puzzles, and still others were downright spine-chilling. Half-Life: Alyx does horror far better than its predecessors, with combat-light sections that brilliantly weave together tension and terror.

VR does its part to amplify this sense of creeping dread by putting you right in the middle of a dark room, or next to a wheezing, horrible beast, but solid game design and pacing is what really elevates these sections. I think anyone who can handle a Dead Space or Resident Evil can brave Half-Life: Alyx in VR, and for series fans, the light at the end of the tunnel is always worth it: another step forward in the story of Half-Life.

A Red Letter Day

With the setup I used to play Half-Life: Alyx—a SteamVR-ready PC one notch above Alyx's required specs, running the game on its low fidelity setting through a Valve Index headset and controllers—I was able to play for hours at a time. The only physical discomfort I experienced was in how the headset pressed my large glasses into my nose, and that on my longest day of play, my feet ached from standing so much. There were a few points where frame rate dipped a bit, which did cause some disorientation, but for the most part it ran smoothly, and my view was never purposefully yanked about in a way that would court nausea (Note: Valve has since pushed updates intended to improve performance, but I have not been able to test them).

The established Half-Life convention of presenting its campaign as an almost entirely unbroken series of events—save for a few story blips and the sometimes lengthy loading screens—made me want to play in longer VR sessions than I initially expected. It's definitely worth trying to see each named chapter through to its completion in a single play session, as they feel well-paced for it.

My time in VR passed quickly while wringing entertainment out of even relatively mundane Half-Life tasks. I fought a lot of Headcrabs, and after a while I got pretty good at it. At one point a poison Headcrab dropped right in front of me as I was standing near a doorway. I physically took two steps backwards, dropped a grenade near the crab, and then reached out and shut the door between me and it. A moment like that wouldn't have been nearly as fluid in a non-VR FPS.

If you're not moving, dodging, and taking cover, you won't last long on the regular difficulty mode. | Valve

That simple series of events sticks out to me just as much as any of the numerous Combine shootouts, which, by the way, are also excellent. It'll take someone with more A.I. expertise than I have to properly analyze this, but I felt like Half-Life: Alyx's Combine soldiers were much better at flanking and taking cover than their Half-Life 2 counterparts. That made it all the more enjoyable when I managed to shoot the propane canisters the lower-rank soldiers were wearing, blowing them up and buying myself a few extra seconds to think and reload without flailing.

If and When Our Time Comes Round Again

Valve announced Half-Life: Alyx a few days after I published a piece where I praised Half-Life 2's ending for its ambiguity and criticized Episode Two for leaving players with what became an unresolved cliffhanger. Back in 2017, after former series writer Marc Laidlaw released a synopsis of what could've been the plot for Episode Three, I wrote a blog saying I no longer really wanted an official continuation of Half-Life. Laidlaw's Episode Three post picked up and tied-off threads that Valve left hanging. Things are different now. Half-Life: Alyx suggests an almost entirely different direction for the series to go in.

Writers Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Sean Vanaman have taken what I believe is an exciting step forward for the Half-Life saga after its nearly 13-year pause. It not only cements Alyx's status in the Half-Life universe, but delivers a major reveal that affects nearly everything we've learned so far. If Valve goes on to make a game set after Episode Two, it will assuredly be worlds apart from what it would've been before Half-Life: Alyx. Having sat with the ending for about a week now, I'm convinced this is utterly necessary.

If Half-Life: Alyx is a success, I think there'll also be a strong argument for more Half-Life needing to stick with VR moving forward. This game will reach a limited audience at launch, surely. There are some limitations in scope that may rankle, such as a small set of (upgradable!) weapons. Some people may dislike it purely because they don't like VR. But having played through Half-Life and Half-Life 2 numerous times, along with some of the best FPS campaigns released in their wake (Titanfall 2, 2016's Doom, Halo: Reach), I think that Half-Life: Alyx stands as proof that Half-Life's continued evolution can't look like those of other shooter series.

By the way, having a cat brush past your leg as you're fighting Headcrabs is very disconcerting. Don't kick your pets. | Valve

Half-Life does not need an injection of RPG mechanics, open-world gameplay, or a greater emphasis on difficulty. A pessimist might say Half-Life's linearity and thin player choice feel good in 2020 thanks to nostalgia, or simply because other series have moved away from those standards. But Valve neither overdoes it with callbacks—allowing the few there are to shine—nor chases ideas that feel out of place. The studio that made Half-Life and Portal hasn't forgotten how to build a compelling FPS experience, and by moving to VR, the moment-to-moment combat and exploration hum with greater potential.

After hours of flicking my wrists to pluck ammo and resin from afar, rummaging through countless filing cabinets, and physically ducking to avoid shotgun blasts, it is hard for me to picture another new Half-Life that isn't in VR. It is simultaneously a celebration of the series, a bracing wake-up call to those stuck on its past, and a call to action for developers and modders. It asserts that a single-player FPS campaign can still amaze with solid level design, exploration over progression, and an engrossing story, whether it's in VR or not.

Just as Half-Life: Alyx proves that Gordon Freeman is not the center of its universe, it left me with the sense that Half-Life doesn't need to be the only champion of its design tradition. After playing it, I'm not just hungry for more Half-Life or for more triple-A VR experiences. Alyx is the best single-player FPS campaign of its kind in years, and I hope it sparks the kinds of inspiration and jealousy that will lead to many more like it.

Disclosure: Originally, the plan for our Half-Life: Alyx review had been that I would attend a three-day review event at Valve's headquarters, during which time I would have stayed with family in the area and had a chance to play through the entire game, hopefully sampling as many VR headset and controller combinations as possible. The event was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak; Valve then sent over a complete Valve Index kit and a code for the game. My intention after completing the game on the Index was to also try a significant chunk of it with the original 2016 HTC Vive headset and its controllers, which lack the finger tracking of the Index. Unfortunately, the need to self-isolate during the coronavirus pandemic means I wasn't able to move forward with that testing prior to review. In the days and weeks following Half-Life: Alyx's release, we will be closely monitoring reports of any compatibility issues and this piece will be updated with information regarding any major problems.

Half-Life: Alyx is billed as a VR return to the series, and that's exactly what it delivers. It does what Half-Life has historically done well, and without the clouding of nostalgia or unhelpful notions of what constitutes "revolutionary" design, it ranks alongside Half-Life 2. It is a full-length VR experience that both needs to be in VR, but that uses the tech to more strongly evoke the same feelings you got with a mouse and keyboard years ago. There are some small flaws that are no more annoying than over-long sewer odysseys or having to crouch jump were in past games, and its spectacle hits the hardest of any in the series. It sets Half-Life up for a compelling future—here's hoping we see it.


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Mathew Olson


Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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