Half-Life Alyx review: iteration not innovation

Reviewer: Jeremy Jackson
Platform: Oculus Rift S

While our resident VR apologist was undoubtedly impressed with Half-Life Alyx, he also feels it brings little new to the table, acting as a highlights reel for VR mechanics so far. What it lacks in gameplay and innovation, Alyx makes up for in its presentation and trappings. Keep reading for JJ’s full review.

It happened. For the first time in over a decade, Valve released a new Half-Life game. Usually, the franchise’s releases innovate in ways that ripple throughout the entire industry. Usually. The original Half-life popularized the massive open worlds and environmental storytelling we’re now used to, while Half-Life 2’s physics engine and puzzles inspired a new generation of developers.

Half-Life Alyx, sadly, bucks this trend, failing to revolutionize the way we play games in VR. What is new—for the Half-Life series, anyway—is that Alyx is a survival-horror-ass survival horror game. And that’s pretty rad if you ask me.

Quarter-Life: Half-Life Alyx Takes Place in the Middle of the Timeline

Taking place between the events of Half-Life 1 and 2, Alyx sees you filling the shoes of—you guessed it—Alyx Vance as she tries to rescue her dad from the Combine. The catch: they’re moving him through a city swarming with zombie-like creatures and headcrabs (Half-Life’s rendition of Alien’s Facehuggers).

The character designs for these beasts are stellar, with the gross and grisly headcrab models being a particular stand-out. Sadly, the enemy types you’ll encounter are pretty limited, mostly recycling enemy types from previous games.

Despite taking place five years before the events of the second game, there’s still plenty new to see in Alyx, though. I won’t spoil anything here, but long-time Half-Life fans might just get a wee bit of closure. Whether you’re new to the series or a veteran, Alyx’s story is a winner.

AAA VR Production Values: You’ve never seen city 17 like this

If you are a Half-Life fan, you’ll mostly be exploring environments similar to ones in previous titles. But believe me when I say: you haven’t truly witnessed City 17 and its surroundings until you’ve seen them in Alyx. Seeing a Strider from below, appreciating its true scale, is something to behold.

As you’d expect from a Half-Life title, the production values are insane. The show-not-tell school of game design that put the series on the map is here in full force, with some genuinely immersive environmental storytelling that gives even Naughty Dog a run for its money. This IS a Half-Life game, though, so you can also expect substantial set pieces and smart puzzles to break up the minute-to-minute gameplay. Simply put, the pacing rocks.

Teleport, Walk, or Slide Your Way Through City 17

Now, motion sickness is definitely an issue in VR, so this wouldn’t be a VR review if I didn’t touch on how you control your character. The movement in Alyx works well, and there are many options for different styles of play, including Blink (teleporting) and analogue-stick controls.

I initially went with the Shift option then switched to the continuous head movement control. I’m used to VR and rarely get motion sickness, so this movement worked well for me. Alyx does a nice job at making the game playable in a small play space.

The general traversal is fine, and Alyx can jump to different levels of a map, so there’s a verticality aspect. But there’s nothing revolutionary going on here, and I’d have loved to have seen Valve include something like Gorn’s drag function. Ah well.

Not Enough Toys in the Toybox

As mentioned, the environmental storytelling is some of the best-in-class. Sadly, the ways you use VR to interact with the environment are frankly disappointing. Like in most VR games, you can pick up most objects and throw them around the environment.

But the interaction doesn’t go much beyond that and doesn’t feel very AAA; you can’t open bottles, light matches, or turn on electrical devices, for example.It may sound like I’m nitpicking, but I honestly expected Valve—a company known for raising the bar—to go beyond the mechanics introduced by smaller developers, especially when other games have gone further when it comes to environmental interactions *cough* Saints and Sinners *cough*.

Having said that, the Gravity Glove (an early prototype of Gravity Gun tech) is fantastic. Yanking items towards you from across the room—all Jedi-like—is easily the most satisfying mechanic in the game. Scavenging every corner, drawer, and bucket squeezes in some extra interactivity, too. Survival horror, remember?

One-Hand Wonder

Let’s get this out of the way: the shooting in Alyx is good—not great. You have to choose your dominant hand before starting, and your gun’s bound to that dominant hand. Alyx isn’t ambidextrous, so you’re stuck with that one shooting hand for the rest of the game. Switching gun hands for extra show-off shooty moves is one of my favorite aspects of VR, but it’s missing here. Dammit.

And you can’t pick up weapons enemies drop. There’s a narrative explanation for this (each Combine’s weapon is tied to its DNA), but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.

Above issues aside, the gunplay is still satisfying. But Ammo is scarce. You just about get enough bullets to complete each combat encounter. It’s a survival-horror game at its core—something that’s amplified in VR, so get ready for sweaty palms and an even sweatier headset. If jump scares and feeling underpowered are your jam, you’ll love the first few hours of the game.

While I like the ammo scarcity, one thing I resent is the bullet sponginess. Even headshots aren’t instakill, which can get in the way of the whole playing-VR-to-feel-like-a-badass thing.

Where the FUCK Is My Crowbar!?

That’s right—no fucking crowbar. Apart from maybe the Gravity Gun, the crowbar is Half-Life’s most iconic weapon. In dev diaries, Valve mentions trying to add a crowbar during development, but it never happened. According to them, the crowbar was too problematic for gameplay… however, smaller teams have been able to add melee weapons—yes, even crowbars—to their VR titles and it felt just fine. So I’m not sure how much I buy into this excuse. Adding insult to injury, they did manage to add a lead pipe for a puzzle.

Aggravating things even further, the zombified enemies mostly only melee attack you. My natural reaction to this—especially in last-resort moments—was to hit ‘em back. No dice. Talk about immersion-breaking. Usually, I’d be somewhat mad about this. But as melee is practically synonymous with Half-Life, I’m God damn furious.

Luckily, the highly detailed environments and satisfying story are enough for me to overlook these pretty glaring issues. Half-Life Alyx could definitely be better and braver in many aspects, but I still respect Valve for making this game. The company has laid down gauntlet with its big-budget VR romp, increasing VR’s installed base and setting the stage for other publishers. Let’s have it.

The last word

Half-Life Alyx by no means breaks the mold, but it takes the most tried-and-true VR mechanics and packages them into one high-production bundle. Don’t get me wrong: this game is more of the sum of its parts. From a narrative and environmental perspective, it sets the standard for any AAA developer looking to build a full-length VR game from the ground up. While the lackluster arsenal and lack of melee combat leave much to be desired, it’s hard not to recommend Alyx to fans of the series—or to anyone with a compatible headset.   

7.5/10 – Good


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s