Half-Life: Alyx won’t let me go. Or, more literally, it won’t let go of my face. Whether it’s the needy tug of a barnacle tongue around my neck or the unbridled enthusiasm of a headcrab’s leaping embrace, Half-Life: Alyx has a lot of love to give.
I’m 14 hours into the campaign, and it’s long been clear that this isn’t going to be like a lot of other made-for-VR games. Aside from awkward VR adaptations of already sprawling open-world games like Skyrim and Fallout 4, most VR games tend to be limited in scope and length. There are good reasons for this. VR games are big and expensive to make, and they’re usually difficult to play for long periods. Not so with Alyx.
The long and short of it
Valve is aiming for a landmark VR title with Half-Life: Alyx. It wants something that will make buyers of the Valve Index VR kit satisfied with their expensive purchase. Something that will carry the weight of a franchise name that has only become heavier as memory turned into nostalgia. The stakes are high, and Valve has to go big or go home.
Well, Alyx is certainly big, at least in VR terms. Valve says it’s roughly equivalent in length to Half-Life 2, which is about 15-20 hours. As a completionist and a reviewer who’s taking some time to screw around and explore different options, I expect to spend even more hours with Alyx.
One reason VR games tend to be short is that many users suffer from some dizziness or nausea during extended sessions. Action games with lots of movement are particularly prone to this. This varies among individuals, but even as a VR fan I tend to go through games in short burst sessions – not more than a couple of hours a day. But with Alyx, against all expectations, it’s been smooth sailing all the way. I’ve had many, many feelings to share, but nausea isn’t one.
In fact, even after a whole day wading through the xeno-goop of Half-Life: Alyx, the only discomfort has been the pressure of the headset on my own face. And even that was hard to notice. Controls are smooth, and accessibility was never an issue.
With so much at stake, Valve needs to impress right off the bat, and Half-Life: Alyx delivers the goods. Graphically, it’s one of the most beautiful VR games I’ve ever seen. Aside from the fantastical elements, I found myself taking time to peer up close at representations of everyday objects: beer bottles, electronics, food packaging, etc. The eastern European cityscape – with its streets, balconies, trains (mandatory in a Half-Life game), apartments, and hotels – is reproduced with fantastic fidelity. I lost count of the number of times I was suddenly reminded of my own memories of Prague or Budapest.
Half-Life: Alyx impresses with its verisimilitude, but the real wow factor comes from its juxtaposition of the normal with the fantastic. The spindly robotic limbs and veiny cables of huge, lurching machines suggest the organic. A fecund cornucopia of molds, fungi, spores, slimes, and other weird alien growths are simultaneously disgusting and oddly beautiful. The morbidly curious will enjoy poking and playing with these pulsating pustules. Mix all this together, and Half-Life‘s world has never looked more compelling that it does now, up close and personal.
The Half-Life franchise has always been as much about horror as about action. The H.R. Giger-meets-H.P. Lovecraft biomechanical aesthetic was unsettling enough in the previous games, but virtual reality turns the fear factor up to 11. Being caught by a headcrab up close is just terrifying, as is the ”oh crap” moment of realizing you’ve just been caught by a barnacle. The disorientation of having to defend yourself with your real body movements as adrenaline kicks in only adds to the sense of threat and panic. I never found Half-Life: Alyx so scary as to quit, but I had more than a few yelp-out-loud moments.
Long stretches of Half-Life: Alyx are suffused with dread. Some levels are designed around this, with plenty of dark, tight spaces. Ambient noises are rarely quiet or clear – you’ll have to listen for the telltale sounds of particular enemies amid the background noise of breathing alien fungus or machines. In some areas of total darkness, you’ll have a woefully weak flashlight. These sections are tense and demand cautious, skilled play and attention to the environment. Was that a headcrab skittering in the air vents? Is that a regular pipe in the factory basement, or the hanging tongue of a barnacle?
The horror element in Alyx is reinforced by the combat mechanics. There are multiple steps to preparing and reloading each gun. Run out of ammo in a firefight, and you’re exposed for precious seconds. So you run for cover, reload, and counterattack when you’re being swarmed by enemies. In VR, this is a lot easier said than done, especially when something’s up in your face.
Fortunately, it’s not all flight-over-fight. Yes, ammo is precious, and I often felt quite vulnerable. But there are also opportunities where the player can let loose and feel like a total badass. This is especially true when the combine troops are on your tail and you have collected a few weapons and upgrades. Then Half-Life: Alyx kicks into full urban warfare FPS mode. The adrenaline gets pumping, and it’s up to you to pop down those masked freaks with everything at your disposal.
Combine squads are decently coordinated with drones, grenades, heavy weapons, and small arms. You’ll be outnumbered and outgunned, so combat has to be played smart. It’s very satisfying to outwit and out-fight them using the environment, though. After a few successful firefights, you may think you can take anything Alyx will throw at you. But don’t worry – this game will make you afraid again before long.
This wonder-terror-action cycle is the main emotional loop in Half-Life: Alyx. That said, the game’s got a sense of humor, too.
Valve has inserted plenty of playfulness to serve as effective tension relief between all the terror and violence. The chirruping grubs you collect for healing stations are downright cute. There are plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments to raise a chuckle between all the jump scares. You’ll play catch with a xeno fungus that pukes grenades or a hapless headcrab trying to infest a store mannequin. Rhys Darby does a fantastic turn as the egotistical inventor Russel, and I couldn’t help but smile at Alyx’s exasperation with the bizarre thought processes of the vortigaunts.
If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m having a lot of fun with Half-Life: Alyx. But we’re not through it yet, so stay tuned for the full review for a detailed critical evaluation.