The Half-Life series is generally considered to be amongst the most iconic franchises of all time. Not only that, but because of the particular way in which Valve left development on the series behind after the second game's second episode, and the subsequent slow-drip of information about Half-Life 3 (or Half-Life 2: Episode 3), the series took on an even more mythical element, in the process becoming the most famous piece of vapourware of all time. Add to that the fact that Valve gradually withdrew from single-player game development thereafter, to focus on hardware and the advancement of its famous distribution platform, Steam, and you have one powder-keg of a situation.
All of that is to say: imagine the pressure that the development team behind Half-Life: Alyx must've been under when the idea of the game was first conceived. A return to the Half-Life universe for the first time in 13 years? Check. The first proper single-player game from Valve since Portal 2? Check. The incredible pressure of selling Valve's Index VR platform? Check.
But Half-Life: Alyx has finally arrived as a sequel to the original Half-Life, and as a prequel to the events of Half-Life 2. It's VR only, and it's an expansive narrative adventure exploring the challenges of living inside City 17 before Gordon Freeman's arrival, playing the role of Alyx Vance. Alright, enough talk. Let's go.
Before Gordon Freeman is put back into action by the G-Man and arrives at City 17, the Combine has tightened its fascist grip on the city, stomping down on any human (or Vortigaunt) resistance encountered. Still, the heart of the rebellion endures, and it lives through Alyx Vance, a woman who's been working with her father, Eli, and several other resistance members to combat the Combine rule. But then disaster strikes, Eli is taken captive, and Alyx must journey across the city, through several quarantine zones, in order to save him. This is her story, as the name so elegantly indicates. While not exactly bereft of characters, it's clear from the offset that Alyx is the centrepiece of this tale.
As this odyssey across the totalitarian hellscape progresses, we gradually learn more through her conversations with Dr Russell, who remains with her at almost all times through wireless communications. It's a study in careful and subtle exposition, and we're sure that fans, after all these years, will be delighted that Valve's underexposed narrative style is still a fundamental building block in the overall approach. There's even a pinch of dark humour here and there, sprinkled on for a bit of narrative nuance, and so it never creates an imbalance, rather it grounds the narrative. Safe to say, everyone involved - from newcomer Ozioma Akagha (replacing Merle Dandridge as a younger Alyx Vance) to James Moses Black now voicing Eli Vance, as well as Russell voiced by Flight of the Conchords actor Rhys Darby - delivers a powerhouse performance in their respective role. But you kind of already knew that, didn't you?
Together they complete a perfect narrative circle, which once again sets the bar for interactive story-telling sky-high. While most of the team behind Alyx are new to the series (as many of Valve's seasoned developers left the company years back), they've created a story so thrilling and deeply involving that they appear to be veterans already.
Valve being effective storytellers? Not really a shock now, is it? But what about mechanics? How does Half-Life: Alyx translate the physics-based first-person shooting that the series is known for into VR? Well, let's talk about that, but first, we have to address virtual reality's central recurring problem: movement. In a digital world, you will need to move around freely, but as you are physically tethered to the hardware that renders the game, you can't just waltz off wherever you please, can you now? Several systems have been put in place over time to create satisfying locomotion, to give you a sense of clear expansive movement, even though you really are bound to the same, relatively prohibitive small physical space. The Valve Index headset, like the HTC Vive, allows for so-called 'Room VR', meaning that you can draw a physical space that you can then use to walk around in in-game. This creates some freedom of movement, as you have around three square meters to explore, granting you the possibility of peeping around corners, exploring every nook and cranny of your immediate environment, and also moving to protect yourself from incoming fire. Because Half-Life: Alyx requires you to move more than three meters, there are three basic locomotion methods here, which you can freely choose between. Teleport, which gives you the ability to simply teleport between selected points in the world; Shift (our preferred method), which equates to Alyx making long jumps ahead; Continuous, which essentially puts the entire experience on rails.
While none of these methods is distinctly broken, we did find Teleport to be rather disorientating, and Continuous to largely defeat the purpose of free movement (the thing that makes exploring your surroundings so appealing). Shift, or simply jumping, ends up feeling rather satisfying and retains much of the immersion that the game sets out to create for you.
And so, the journey begins. Using Shift you jump around the environment, exploring it more closely through physical movement. By utilising your hands, which are equipped with Russell's gravity gloves, you can interact with the environment in an incredibly detailed way. Every drawer can be opened, every box can be moved, and you'll find health syringes, ammunition, and resin used to upgrade your weapons in the unlikeliest of places, so thorough rummaging is mandatory. Your gravity gloves can even be used to select an item a short distance away from you, and with a slight flick of the wrist, it will fly towards you, ready to be caught in mid-air. Shotgun shells, bullets for your pistol, resin, health, or explosive gas canisters; the gloves are made as a homage to Freeman's iconic Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, and it reduces the impact of always having to Shift towards an object you need. In fact, exploring your surroundings, finding resources and storing them in your backpack by releasing them over your right shoulder, or putting them in your pocket by releasing them on your right wrist, could easily be the most rewarding part of Half-Life: Alyx. That feeling is only enhanced by Valve's fantastic level design, which offers up amazing set pieces and dense environments filled to the brim with secrets and information. This urban odyssey is filled with aesthetic variety and visual flair.
Then there's the combat, and those of you who've tried VR-based first-person shooting will know what's up here. Using Room VR, you're able to hide from incoming fire, immediately using Shift to reposition when Combine soldiers try to flank you. Actually using cover by leaning in and out to fire is exhilarating, and once you unlock various grenades, weapon attachments and the shotgun, things start to heat up, as actual movement, positioning and maintaining a strategic overview of the battlefield becomes imperative. It should be said, however, that while fighting these Combine soldiers is quite exhilarating, they simply have way too much health, and you end up having to pump close to 10 rounds into a single soldier before he finally collapses. Of course, as more weapons become available, this is less of an issue, but we found it to be quite distracting. Additionally, combatting the iconic headcrabs and the human zombies they create offers up a different challenge, where you must flee to create distance, and constantly be aware of how many bullets are left in the given magazine. Reloading is a treat by the way and is done by reaching over your shoulder to grab a magazine, clicking out the empty mag, inserting it and clicking back the barrel with a satisfying sound.
However, these combat scenarios, as immersive and involving as they are, still end up taking a backseat to just existing in this space. Moving across the quarantine zones, solving puzzles by using your multi-tool, and chatting with Dr Russell is, in and of itself, immersive and deeply satisfying. In part, it's thanks to the Valve Index's support for 120fps, but mainly, this world is just gorgeously put together with fantastic animations, character- and creature designs, as well as facial animations and AI. It's a marvel of technological prowess and pure artistry, weaving in memorable monsters, dense locales, and there's attention to detail everywhere you look. Sadly, the music isn't quite as up to snuff, and while it does offer memorable sequences perfectly cued to the action or to the arrival of a new space, it lacks the punch that it needs. It's not bad, it's just under-utilised in some way. Maybe some ethereal sounds, a punchy electronic hymn, or a rhythmic set of drums would've helped. Please check out composer Jed Kurzel's work if you want to know more.
But in the grand scheme of things, one slightly unbalanced enemy type, as well as some mediocre music, is little more than a momentary distraction, and overall, this is a triumphant return to form for Valve, an effective reminder of just how much we've missed these wizards of story-telling, these impeccable environmental designers, these... well, extremely talented developers. While the wait has been long, Half-Life is back, and while it's sad that the technology is so restrictive in its demands of the playspace, and the hardware it requires, we urge you to find a way to play Half-Life: Alyx, however you can. It's simply that good.