A watershed moment for VR gaming.
Half-Life: Alyx review

In the past several days, I have gone back and forth on what I wanted to write for the Half-Life: Alyx review. I have gone through several revisions and at least two full rewrites now. It's not that I am at a loss for words. It's more that I just have too much that I want to say. I want to go on and on about how neat this sequence was or how refined this aspect was. The result of that review was just some rambling word salad that made for a poor reading experience.

Let's just get it out of the way right now: Half-Life: Alyx is an incredible game. Valve has designed one of the finest Half-Life experiences I have ever played. It masterfully blends puzzle solving, intense shootouts, great acting, stunning facial animation, and plenty of horror. Valve's years of work on creating and refining VR hardware and software has allowed them to deliver a AAA gaming experience that will go down as a true watershed moment for VR gaming.

At the start of Half-Life: Alyx, you are treated to a grand view of the City 17 rooftops. Your eyes are quickly drawn to the towering form of the Citadel far off in the distance. It's massive, almost impossible size extending far into the atmosphere. Combine helicopters occasionally fly overhead. Thick power lines and prisoner pod transport rails snake their way over and through buildings. Their ultimate destination taking them to several different locations within the Citadel. The spectacular sights and sounds of a place simultaneously so familiar yet so alien continues throughout the entire game. Valve's latest iteration of the Source engine does a fantastic job at displaying some obvious graphical improvements when compared to Half-Life 2 and the Episodes. Without a doubt, a lot of this increase in visual detail probably has to do with the fact that you are able to examine a lot of the world up close and personal thanks to VR.

Objects can be picked up in your hands. You can juggle them, toss them around the world, and examine the items up close. Finer details like the contents of a floppy disk or the headlines of newspaper articles can be read as you hold those objects in your hands. Paint cans still leave a nice splatter of paint when they hit something with enough force. Even something as typically mundane as searching for ammo becomes fun when you're physically opening up draws and cabinets, or sweeping your hands across areas to knock aside boxes and other debris. Thanks to one of the Alyx's defining gameplay features, the Gravity Gloves (or Russel's in honor of their creator), you can pull near every physics object directly to you. This simple gameplay feature actually adds significant depth to the entire experience.

As an example, you can pluck thrown grenades out of the air with the Gravity Gloves. As the grenade is pulled to you, you can catch it and toss it back at your attackers. Imagine you were running low on ammo, but there is some just out of your reach. You extend your hand and flick your wrist, pulling it towards you. As it flies through the air, you reach out and grab the magazine before slamming it in the bottom of your gun and chambering the first round.

Half-Life: Alyx review

There are just so many of this kind of "holy crap, that's awesome!" gameplay moments throughout the entirety of Half-Life: Alyx. The immense sense of scale in VR is astounding. Human NPCs are life size with facial animations that put the already outstanding animation work in Half-Life 2 to shame. An early game moment had a Strider pushing itself up onto a nearby roof to plug in a wire. The moment its massive, tree trunk like leg thundered down mere feet away from me caused me to pause my movements and utter "holy shit" as I wondered what it would do next. It's one thing to see these sorts of sights on a normal monitor, but to be there is such a mind-blowing experience on so many levels.

Just the simple act of reaching my hand out to "touch" some of the alien organic growth is almost surreal. Getting to lean down and pick up the bodies of combine to see if they were laying on any spare ammo is a literal game changer. Valve also didn't shy away from things like gore or showing just how mutilated faces get after a Headcrab transforms them into zombies. Then there is Jeff. Jeff is perhaps one of the best-designed characters Valve has ever created. Jeff will teach you to fear things like bottles and coughing. Jeff will make you freeze in fear wondering if Valve really wants you to do what you think they want you to do in an elevator. The answer is yes, yes they do. As a small aside, Half-Life: Alyx is probably the furthest Valve has ever gone into the "horror" genre. I can safely say that Ravenholm doesn't have anything on some of what I experienced in Alyx. A big part of that most certainly has to do with the fact that this is a VR game.

While the game does have a fair number of environmental puzzles, I would have liked to see a bit more done with them. Most of the purely environmental puzzles just seemed to be a tad too simple. This is definitely offset by the total number of puzzles in the game. Opening up Combine locks often involves manipulating and solving holographic style puzzles in a 3D space in front of you. They start out quite simple with a nice gradual increase in difficulty as the game progresses. Other puzzles include completing circuits embedded in walls to power this or that in order to make progress. The mechanics were usually simple enough: Turn this component to power this electrical route or disable power to this thing to turn off a shield. Alyx's multi-tool allows you to trace the circuits through walls and manipulate these switches when necessary. The challenge came when some of these circuits started to span across multiple rooms. Some would have multiple parts that are spread throughout the environment forcing you to use a bit of your noggin to discover where the next part began. I actually really liked these puzzles because they posed a decent enough challenge and fit in well thematically.

Valve even turned the disabling of tripmines into a race against time. To deactivate the laser, you would have to drag an orb through tiny rings floating around in 3D space. Go too slow and the explosive will go off. Describing it here makes it all sound very simple. Don't get me wrong: It is a simple premise, but it's a premise that delivers incredible depth and is a hell of a lot of fun when in VR. It's also perhaps not super ideal for those that have shaky hands or lack spatial awareness. I may have accidentally triggered one of the bombs when I turned my hand and Alyx's omni-tool accidentally broke the path of the beam.

Half-Life: Alyx review

Really, the only Half-Life staple that wasn't present in the game was melee combat. I did read that Valve wanted to separate this game from the others for the simple fact that you are not playing as Gordon in this. The whole melee thing is kind of Gordon's domain, provided you ignore the wrench in Half-Life: Opposing Force or the crowbar in Half-Life: Blue Shift. Therefore, the omission of any sort of melee combat does make some sense when you consider this. However, the fact that there is no melee-based combat at all is nonetheless disappointing. So many physics objects in the game would have made for some fun, impromptu tools of destruction. At the very least, you can use things like chairs or lids to deflect headcrabs away when they leap at you. You can also toss various objects at the Combine to stagger them slightly, though zombies don't seem to be phased by that.

Valve even managed to include functional hats into Half-Life: Alyx. In addition to hardhats, things like buckets and even traffic cones can be placed atop your head. However, anything but the actual hardhat tends to obscure my view a bit too much for my liking. These items do actually serve a purpose beyond looking very fashionable. They provide you with a free pass when it comes to barnacles. If you are wearing a hat and walk under a barnacle, it will grab the hat off your head instead of pulling you up. So if you see a hardhat, be sure to pick it up and wear if you aren't wearing one already.

I can't even begin to imagine how some of the experiences and general gameplay elements in Alyx would translate to a non-VR experience. Of the few examples already discussed, there are so very many more that I can talk at length about that would not have nearly the same impact if it weren't for VR. For instance, there is a new grenade type to be found in Half-Life: Alyx. They are organic Xen-based explosives that you can acquire from what can best be described as a plant that has an arm like appendage. This plant regurgitates these explosive balls from its big sack-like base. Look, it's very phallic but that's beside the point. If you approach these plants and try to pick up a grenade, the plant will shield the grenade from your grab attempt. How do you go about getting these grenades then? Do you shoot the plant? No, at least it didn't work for me. Instead, you actually have two options. Your first option would be to sidle up next to the plant, maybe give it the casual "'sup" nod, you know the one, and you reach over and snatch a nade before that plant has a chance to even react. Bam, the nade is now yours. However, what if you were constantly too slow and couldn't grab a grenade using this method? Well, you can sidle up same as before but instead of being a thieving jerk, you lean down and rub that plant's sack. Rubbing the sack calms the plant for long enough that you can casually reach up with your other hand to pick up the Xen grenade with ease.

I get it. I get that the action of picking up a grenade could just be assigned to a button press on a keyboard. That is not the point. The point here is that you are now the one in this world figuring out how to get this grenade. You are leaning down to stimulate that plant sack so that you can reach up with your other hand to snatch the prize. Most actions in this or just about any VR game could theoretically just be mapped to a button or two on a keyboard. The point that VR naysayers are missing is the fact that part of the fun is the actual process, the journey so to speak, and not the end result of the action. VR has the ability to turn even the simplest actions into deep and enjoyable gameplay moments. It adds something called fun in many of these cases.

Half-Life: Alyx review

The same thing can be said about reloading a gun. Yeah, games have had reload buttons for decades now. The difference here is that now you need to eject the spent magazine. You then have to reach behind to your virtual backpack, pull out a fresh magazine, slam that into the bottom of the pistol, and chamber the first found before you can fire again. Maybe you reload a shotgun instead. A quick button press releases the latch, giving you access to the barrel (I'm not a gun person, this is my assumption of terminology), where you can feed in additional shells. Once reloaded, you are can then do a quick wrist flick to close the gun back up, as if you were in some sort of an action movie or, you know, a fun game. VR takes these seemingly simple actions and flips them on their head.

Grenade throws are now a physical action, where the onus is on you, the player, to be accurate. There are no holographic arcs to show you where a grenade will land. You have to gauge all of this on your own as if you were actually throwing an object. Interestingly, I found that throwing objects in Half-Life: Alyx felt far more natural than in any other VR game I've played. I never once felt as if the objects I were throwing weren't going exactly where I thought they should. Keep in mind that I use the Oculus Touch controllers. Other controllers may or may not have issues that I have no way of knowing.

Speaking of the hardware used, I played through the entirety of Alyx using an Oculus Rift (CV1). This hardware was out prior to the very popular Oculus Rift S. I would love to play through the game on Valve's own hardware, the Index, but that just isn't a financial possibility. Hell, even if I had the money for such an extravagance, it seems to be backordered by several months still. Looking at the Index specific features, I don't feel as though I really missed out on too much in using the Rift. The biggest differences are with the much lower resolution and visual fidelity on the Rift when compared to the Index. For as great as the game looked on the Rift, I can't help but feel it would look even better with the Index's higher resolution (1080x1200 vs 1440x1600) and increased refresh rate (90Hz vs up to 144Hz). The other major difference is with the controllers. While the Index controllers allow each finger to be accurately represented, Alyx doesn't do too much with the tech. I heard that the Index controllers allowed you to virtually crush cans. I tested this and was sadly unable to crush anything with my Touch controllers. Maybe one day I'll be able to crush those cans, but that day isn't today.

Half-Life: Alyx review

Half-Life: Alyx features a number of VR focused comfort and accessibility options for players. They included options for teleport movement, constant movement on an analog stick, the ability to press a button to crouch if you didn't want to crouch physically, and so on. I started playing Alyx standing in a limited play space. I was able to play comfortably like this without much issue. Really, the only issue I encountered is the fact that I sometimes smacked my hand into my ceiling light, but this is obviously no fault of the game. I also started the game by making use of the teleport option for moving around. Rotation was either done in increments of 45 degrees or by just physically turning my body.

When playing VR games, I've come to accept that standing and using teleport movement is usually the best bet to mitigate motion sickness. Daring to tempt fate, I eventually sat down in my chair and found I wasn't experiencing any discomfort. Later, I took it a step further and switched to constant movement instead of teleporting around everywhere. To my complete amazement, I still felt perfectly fine. Usually, sitting down and making use of continuous movement in VR means I'm going to have a real bad time in an hour or less. Instead, I found that my play sessions lasted for a good five or so hours without any issues. I do know that others still experience a fair bit of motion sickness in Alyx, as they do in many VR games. In my personal experience, I found that the relatively slow walk speed helped considerably when it came to the constant movement option. Of course, this slow walk speed doesn't exactly work all that well when you're trying to get from cover to cover during fights. I often mixed constant movement with the teleport when I needed to get somewhere quickly, or to make a "jump" across gaps. Valve also smooths out common motion sickness issues like climbing ladders. You have the option to teleport up or down ladders without going through the climbing aspect. Alternatively, if you do manually climb the ladders, Valve still assists players with a little helpful teleportation hop up as you near the top.

I know that VR is a real hard sell for a number of people out there. I know that many people, fans of the Half-Life series especially, will continue to suggest that VR is just a gimmick or that VR has no place in the series. I know that no matter what I or anybody else says those minds won't be changed in the slightest. All I know is that VR and Half-Life have just combined to give me some of the best gameplay experiences I have ever had in my life. The fact that you are now actually there in the game and actually doing the things almost perfectly 1:1 with the on-screen action is just an experience like none other.

Once all was said and done, this full-length, AAA Half-Life game managed to leave a very positive impression on me. I'm not just talking about the jaw dropping final moments of the game either, but also the entire gameplay experience as a whole. Yes, the ending sequence was INCREDIBLE! Wow, do I ever wish I could just blurt out what happens. I will spare you those spoilers for now though. All I will say about the ending is that it was something I can honestly say I did not see coming. It also made me feel like a child at Christmas who just unwrapped a new game or console that he's been asking his parents about for months. That raw surge of emotion really nailed home the fact that this is the way forward for gaming. It may not happen this year, or the next, or even in ten years, but it's going to happen eventually. More large studios will begin to design more and more AAA VR gaming experiences. Some may even be sequels to your favorite franchises. In time, the technologies will become more and more affordable for everyone, just as nearly all consumer products tend to do. Does this mean that all future Half-Life titles or all future Valve titles will be in VR? Maybe or maybe not. That's really up to them to decide. They could have made a flat-screen Half-Life title and shipped it ages ago, but they made the game they wanted to. This is clearly a product with a lot of love poured into it and I, for one, sure as hell hope that there are more to come.

Final Say
Half-Life: Alyx is the real deal here. It is a full-length Half-Life game that is just as good, if not better, than the rest of the series. The audio work is fantastic. The soundtrack is exactly what you have come to expect from the franchise. If the bullets whizzing by your head as you crouch behind a rundown car doesn't get your adrenaline pumping, the music most certainly will. The lighting work and overall graphical detail in the game is the best it's ever been thanks to the significant leaps made with Source 2. There is also a nice bit of gameplay diversity from chapter to chapter. The story is great and certainly goes some places I never would have expected. The gameplay is the most refined VR experience I have personally encountered so far. Really, I'm just rehashing much of what I already gushed about at length. I absolutely enjoyed every moment of Half-Life: Alyx and I would love to see more. Valve certainly seems keen on continuing to make games in the Half-Life universe. Maybe we'll get that conclusion to Half-Life 2: Episode Two one of these days, right?

Well, you know, maybe one day...

Half-Life: Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx review score

Additional Information
  • Half-Life: Alyx
    • Developed by: Valve
    • Published by: Valve
  • Price: Starting at $59.99 (USD) via Steam
  • Platform reviewed on: PC, VR
  • Hardware used: i7-6700K at 4.5GHz, 32GB DDR4-2666, Nvidia GTX 1080 Ti, Windows 10 64-bit Version 1909, Oculus Rift CV1 with Oculus Touch controllers
  • This game was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes.
  • Sorry for not having any screenshots from my playthrough. I wasn't even aware I could take screenshots in VR until after I beat the game.