It’s been more than twelve years since Half-Life 2: Episode Two’s release. Fans of the Half-Life universe have waited for this moment like Sirius Black waited in Azkaban. If you haven’t played Half-Life: Alyx yet (and this review will assume you haven’t — no spoilers!), there’s likely one looming question on your mind: “Is this Half-Life 3?”
The answer: No, it isn’t. It doesn’t even try to be Half-Life 3. And it’s better for it. There will be time enough for a Half-Life 3 to come — Valve does plenty here to pave the way for future entries in the series. But for now, we have Half-Life: Alyx. I’m sure you have more questions, comments, and concerns than I can shake a stick at. So did I, at first. I’ll do my best to answer them as directly as possible without spoiling the journey for you or other players. And believe me, Half-Life: Alyx is indeed the journey we’ve all been waiting for.
I think we’ve waited long enough. Let’s get started, shall we?
- What is Half-Life: Alyx: The long-awaited follow-up to 2007’s Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Half-Life: Alyx leverages VR to place you in the shoes of Alyx Vance five years before Half-Life 2. Survive as you fight your way across City 17 to unravel the mystery of the Combine weapon known as the “Vault.”
- Reviewed On: Windows, Steam, HTC Vive
- Price: $59.99
- Developer: Valve
- Release Date: March 23rd, 2020
- Website: www.half-life.com/alyx
- Single-Player Only
Still Can’t Count to Three
I first encountered Half-Life in 1999 with the Uplink demo. Shortly thereafter, it became a weekend ritual for me to play through the game from beginning to end. Start on a Friday, finish by Sunday night. Not exactly a speedrun. But then again, I was about a decade shy of the game’s target audience.
Childhood trauma from zombies and exploding humans notwithstanding, I couldn’t get enough of it. I downloaded as many maps and mods as I could. They Hunger, Sven-Coop, The Specialists — I even had a premium Fileplanet account (back when GameSpy was still a thing) for faster download speeds and priority queue access. I got the Silver Edition of Half-Life 2 when Steam was still in its infancy, downloading the game bit by bit every night for two weeks on backcountry DSL. Of course, I played the Episodes too. I’ve followed every rumor and scrap of news in the more than twelve years since Half-Life 2: Episode Two, waiting and wondering what the next installment of the series would look like. Or if there would even be another.
Then word began to spread of a potential VR Half-Life title. While VR was something I was interested in, the news changed my purchase of a headset from an if to a when. Especially after the trailer dropped. The week after Black Friday 2019, I had my HTC Vive set up and began the long wait to March with the rest of the Half-Life community.
I share all this to say that I’m as OG as Half-Life fans come. So you can trust me when I say this:
The wait is over. Half-Life is back.
Valve hasn’t wasted a single moment since shipping The Orange Box and leaving us on Episode Two’s killer cliffhanger. If you were paying attention, perhaps you even caught glimpses of the not-so-hidden narrative from time to time. The Steam Controller, Steam Link, and HTC Vive collaboration spoke to their experiments with hardware and input devices. The Index HMD and SteamVR combined their newfound hardware experience with their software background. Dota 2 and other leaked bits of info spoke to their work on Source 2: a next-gen, VR ready engine. It’s been a busy decade for Valve — just not one that shipped a Half-Life game. Until now.
Valve isn’t satisfied with putting out a game unless it does something different. Something new and innovative. And for the next Half-Life game, that just hasn’t been possible given the technologies available. So what did the dev team do? They waited until they could execute on their vision. A vision of a VR future.
Time, Doctor Freeman? Is It Really That Time Again?
“What’s all this VR nonsense?” I hear some of you ask. “It’s just a gimmick.”
I think that stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of VR, both the underlying technology and its role in shaping our digital future. If it all comes down to a monitor strapped to your face and an alternative input scheme, then yes, perhaps it is a gimmick. Fortunately, it’s so much more than that.
VR is an entirely new paradigm. As revolutionary as the shift from pixel art 2D adventures to 3D first-person shooters in the mid-90s. So much of a shift, in fact, that it seems as though most developers and players simply don’t know what to do with it yet. It defies the old standbys, refusing to be saddled with them like an untamed bronco. Early VR developers keep churning out Frankenstein’s Monsters of game design; all old mechanics and familiar “gameplay verbs” sewed together like a hodgepodge of organs. They’re the right organs, really — but in the wrong places, so none of them are “correct.”
It’s no wonder early adopters of VR feel like most VR games are either tech demos, shoddy ports, or simply “lacking.” We had yet to see the first real VR game.
Or at least, we hadn’t seen it before Alyx.
For Valve was doing something else behind-the-scenes while they were developing all this groundbreaking technology. They were watching. Watching the VR industry develop and grow. Watching as other developers tried things out and experimented with fundamental VR interactions and mechanics. Valve was taking notes, seeing what worked and what didn’t. And unlike most VR developers, they didn’t staple old pieces together piecemeal. They questioned everything. They even questioned the newly formed VR paradigms, asking whether over-the-shoulder inventories could be improved, or whether a full physics simulation was necessary for the player.
In short, they took nothing for granted. And in doing so, they wrote the textbook on VR gameplay verbs and mechanics that developers will refer to for years to come. Half-Life: Alyx may be the first true VR game — a masterclass in VR game design — and that, my friends, was worth the wait.
Headcrabs and Heroines
The game starts you in familiar surroundings, perched on a balcony overlooking City 17. It’s clear from the first moments that the Source 2 engine isn’t a minor upgrade. The dystopian future has never looked so crisp, engaging, and downright beautiful. Even on low graphics settings, the game simply pops — in much the same way that Half-Life 2 did on release. Take the time to explore your starting environment, and you’ll be rewarded. It’s clear that Valve’s focus for VR is on crafting detailed, interactive scenes. And aside from a few minor missteps, that same level of detail, interactivity, and polish can be found throughout the game’s ten or so hours of playtime. Valve aimed for quality over quantity, but in many cases, managed both.
It isn’t long before you’re on the run from the Combine in the gritty city streets again. But City 17 isn’t as “under control” as it was (or will be — Alyx takes place five years before Half-Life 2) your first time through. There’s still plenty of alien infestation, and an entire section of the city designated the Quarantine Zone. Yes, that comes with just as many headcrabs as you’d expect.
What you might not expect, especially from a Valve game, is the voiced protagonist. You play as Alyx, the titular character who is already a familiar face for series fans. Since this is a bit of a prequel, you get to learn more about her backstory — which is revealed in bits and pieces through her conversations with Russell, a supporting character riding shotgun through an earpiece. He provides some welcome comic relief and a friendly voice to remind you that you’re not alone.
And it’s good to have some company, because Half-Life: Alyx is terrifying. Even Ravenholm pales in comparison to some of the more viscerally scary moments in Alyx. Some of these levels would be nerve-wracking even when viewed through a monitor, but putting yourself in the moment thanks to the headset and headphones elevates it to new realms. Valve really leaned into the survival-horror aspects of the series with Alyx — and for better or worse, the change in tone and gameplay gives Alyx a distinct flavor.
Don’t get me wrong. This is absolutely the follow-up we were waiting for. But Valve wanted to make it abundantly clear they weren’t being sneaky with the subtitle. This isn’t a covert way to sneak Half-Life 3 out under the radar; it’s meant to stand on its own.
You don’t have quite the arsenal you had in previous games, but every tool and weapon feels meaningful. You have a pistol, an SMG, and a shotgun, with upgrade stations throughout the game to tailor them to your playstyle. There’s even a bit of inventory management, as grenades jockey for your two wrist slots with single-use health syringes and other unique items.
The “grabbity gloves” are a spectacular in-universe explanation for the convenience feature of grabbing and manipulating objects at a distance. Rounding out your toolkit is Alyx’s signature electronic multitool, which is your key to solving puzzles for progress and loot.
Puzzles, you ask? Absolutely. A handful of different puzzles crop up throughout the game, and while interacting with them can prove occasionally finicky, none of the challenges overstay their welcome. And the electrical puzzles make you feel like a real electrician — or at least an electrician that can see through walls and telekinetically restore broken circuits. Suffice it to say, Valve wasn’t content to rest on the shooting and survival-horror mechanics. The return to City 17 feels like coming back to a living, breathing world. One with plenty of stories still to be told.
Back in the Saddle
Once the credits began to roll, my first thought was: “I’d better pick up that graphics card I’ve been eyeing so I can play through Alyx again with better visuals.” And if you’re a fan of VR, you know that isn’t common. With Valve and Half-Life though, that’s par for the course.
Not to mention, the dev team has already promised to release the Source 2 level editor soon. Heck, we’re already seeing intrepid fans hack together the first humble mods for Alyx. It will be quite interesting to see what modders can pull off with a proper toolkit.
In the meantime, I’ll be playing through Alyx again on lazy weekends, taking notes, dreaming up new experiences, and building them on the firm foundation that Valve has established.
Was Alyx worth the wait? Yes.
Is it revolutionary and groundbreaking? Also yes.
Is it VR’s first killer app? A resounding yes.
Are we about to enter a new era of gaming — specifically in VR — off the momentum provided by Alyx? Only time will tell…
But actually, yes.
Zoom Out: Verdict
Combat - 9/10
Puzzles & Exploration - 9/10
Narrative - 10/10
Audiovisual - 10/10
Controls - 10/10
Half-Life: Alyx is Valve’s VR return to the Half-Life series. It’s the story of an impossible fight against a vicious alien race known as the Combine, set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Take on the role of Alyx Vance, and remember: you are humanity’s only chance for survival.
- A masterclass in VR game design
- Stellar visuals powered by Source 2
- Incredible atmosphere and environments
- Valve’s signature polish; no rough edges in UI or mechanics
- Great use of VR; see classic characters and enemies up close and personal, solve unique puzzles, and get a great “sense of place” in the shiny new City 17
- Less variety in weapons and enemies than prior iterations
- Depending on who you ask, the voiced protagonist could be a con
- May literally be too scary for some; let the uninitiated play with caution
- Still plenty of questions once the credits roll, but may be a pro if followed by more games within the next few years