It's very tricky, reviewing a game with a deep nostalgic connection. All game reviews are subjective, but dealing with games like these bam that feeling up a notch. The personal relationships we forge with these games are utterly unique, tied intricately to memories only we have. Separating the game and what the series means to us is fraught with peril, a minefield of misinterpretation and misplaced criticism.
As a 15 year-old when the first game released, I was precisely the right age to become dangerously enamoured with Half-Life and everything it gave us. I worked at LAN Cafes, I went to QGL and played HLDM too much, and I downloaded every Half-Life mod I could find. Half-Life and Quake 3 mods might be the reason I'm a games critic at all.
I say all of this to set expectations. I don't think it's necessary to present a resume before a review, there aren't experience requirements for someone to play and review any game at all. Nevertheless, I have a deep personal history with Half-Life as a series, and so what I am about to say might be skewed by that to some extent. I just want to recognise it up-front. But I want you, dear reader, to know that I have done my absolute best to put aside my expectations and fond memories of the series to review Half-Life: Alyx for what it is.
And that is an average VR game with above-average polish and technology.
Benefits of a Classical Education Set five years before the events of the Half-Life 2 games, Half-Life: Alyx kicks off spectacularly. As Alyx Vance, resistance fighter and science whiz, you open your eyes in a virtual City 17. No VR game has ever looked better. City 17 is immediately recognisable, the late Soviet architecture contrasting greys and yellow-browns in a way that is, if not beautiful, at least evocative. The Combine structures contrast against the old-Europe buildings to showcase the alien occupation without ever needing to say it out loud.
"A pigeon flutters away when I peg an empty can at it. I can grab a dry eraser and clean a nearby window. I can draw a penis on that same window..."
The attention-to-detail on show is second-to-none. The Citadel — the mighty monolith at the centre of Half-Life 2 — is being constructed in the distance. There are small objects all around for you to grab and throw, and because you're playing in Virtual Reality there's a tactile element that enhances the impact this has. A pigeon flutters away when I peg an empty can at it. I can grab a dry eraser and clean a nearby window. I can draw a penis on that same window.
It feels like everything is interactable. Before long, you're making your way through the backroads of the quarantine zone, the Combine losing its shit all-around you about some unknown alarm. They're a multi-dimensional occupying force, who knows what sets them off, right? All that matters is that you're there, sneaking over rooftops and through buildings as you try to reach your dad. Things don't work out that way, of course. You reach Eli Vance, the leader of the resistance (and your father), but only in time to see him being captured by the Combine.
It's a section designed to get you accustomed to the movement of Half-Life: Alyx. To determine your preferred method of locomotion. Teleport jumping is what works for me because it's what I use elsewhere. I 'only' have an OG Vive, so continuous motion is complicated — I don't have thumbsticks, so I'd have to press and hold on the trackpad. But teleporting (or shifting, as it's called in this instance because my vision doesn't fade as I move) works well. It doesn't give me motion sickness (although it does others), so it's what I landed on long-term while I played.
Once captured by the Combine, you're rescued by Russell, played by Rhys Darby. He's so fantastic in every role he plays that it's surprising that Australia hasn't claimed him as its own yet. He gets you a pair of ‘Russells’ — Gravity Gloves that must be early versions of the Gravity Gun Gordon Freeman wields. He also gives you a gun (his favourite) and with that, you're ready for adventure.
So far, so Half-Life. You even wind up boarding a train, although you don't spend 10 minutes on it wondering when you'll get to do anything. With a weapon, a task and something to manipulate gravity, there's nothing left for the game to do but let you loose within it.
And that's where things start to fall apart.
Welcome to the Party, Pal There's a grace period at play, where I was so enamoured by the 'presence' of being in a Half-Life game that I hand-waved away a lot of issues, but they're there, lingering in the background, waiting to be noticed.
For example, a large portion of Half-Life: Alyx is resource management. At first, this is awesome. You dig through piles of boxes trying to find ammunition or Resin, smashing open crates by slamming them on the ground and trying to find hidden alcoves where goodies might be tucked.
But after the honeymoon period ends, it starts to grate a little. There are… inconsistencies at play here. Things that aren't problems in other games are huge problems here. The elation you feel at realising you can wear a hard-hat to protect yourself against Barnacles is quickly skewered the umpteenth time you grab it off your head while trying to extract more ammunition from over your shoulder.
"Half-Life: Alyx is a needle-in-a-haystack simulator first and foremost. It's about shifting boxes around until you've found what you're looking for..."
Countless times I found myself reaching for pistol clips that just wouldn't come. The addition of a painter's face mask — useful for thwarting Headcrabs and Alien spores alike — exacerbated things further. Too often I would yank the mask from my face and then yeet it into the distance when I didn't see the telltale bright blue of a full magazine.
This inexactness doesn't happen in other games. I don't find myself crouched behind flimsy cover practising the correct way to cough into one's elbow in Boneworks. Arizona Sunshine is one of the oldest VR shooters out there, but I rarely ran into the same issue.
Maybe Half-Life: Alyx isn't made for my 'old' Vive. Perhaps some of the fault lies with me for attempting to play the game on 'obsolete' technology. But even if I put aside this idea, if I chalk this issue up to my setup instead of the game, it doesn't excuse the real problem at hand.
Half-Life: Alyx is a needle-in-a-haystack simulator first and foremost. It's about shifting boxes around until you've found what you're looking for.
You Bet Your Ass I Wish to Proceed! Worse, this carries across to the puzzle-solving. If we break HL:A down to its parts, it has three types of gameplay. There is traversal -- a sequence wherein the player moves from one location to another. This is superficially fascinating, a grand tour through City 17 apartment buildings, many of them warped by the influence of the Combine's occupance.
The first prong here, as the subtle monotony of Soviet-era interior design begins to weigh you down, is the needle-finding above. The hallways are narrow, most of the doors knobless, and your only reason for heading in the 'wrong' direction down this largely linear path is to find an extra shotgun shell or some resin.
"When puzzles stumped me, it was because I hadn't found the one thing which would allow me to solve it yet. Often because it was hidden. It became a running theme — if I couldn't work out how to progress, I would simply retrace my steps until I found the button, fuze box or door..."
The second is the puzzle-solving -- a direct nod to Half-Life 2's groundbreaking physics puzzles. Back then, the sort of interactivity Half-Life 2 touted was rarely seen — a showcase of the Vphysics technology baked into Source, and a joy to play around with. Rubikon, Vphysics' successor, is as impressive in action in Source 2 — the engine Half-Life: Alyx is built on.
But while Half-Life 2 features iconic physics-focused puzzles, Alyx rarely does. When puzzles stumped me, it was because I hadn't found the one thing which would allow me to solve it yet. Often because it was hidden. It became a running theme — if I couldn't work out how to progress, I would simply retrace my steps until I found the button, fuze box or door which would allow me to continue.
The only exceptions are in the vodka factory, home to Jeff. Jeff's alcoholic abode stands tall in Half-Life: Alyx as probably the highlight (outside of the big twist ending), featuring precisely the sort of gameplay VR needs. Closer to a game like Outlast than it is Half-Life, the Jeff chapter features everything good about Half-Life: Alyx in one neat little package.
To avoid spoilers, I'll keep the explanation brief, but Jeff is a zombie-type creature that is blind but has an excellent sense of hearing. And if he catches you, he one-shots you. He's a horrifying visage; a half-split humanoid figure, like a Clicker from The Last of Us come to life. And you're stuck in the vodka factory with him, surrounded by bottles that fall and smash and make noise and attract his attention.
"You spend a large section of the level completing tasks with one hand over your mouth. Jeff is the chapter people will remember from Half-Life: Alyx..."
And because it's a VR game, Jeff's presence is that much greater. VR and horror go well together, so "Jeff" winds up feeling very similar to Ravenholm — an aside, but a gloriously impactful one. And, to my previous point, it contains some of the best puzzles in the game. Throwing bottles to distract Jeff to buy enough time to do something makes a lot of sense in the moment, and puzzles are combining the Russells and the physics engine to great effect.
And because Jeff himself spews out spores from his back — spores that make you cough, which Jeff is attracted by — you spend a large section of the level completing tasks with one hand over your mouth. Jeff is the chapter people will remember from Half-Life: Alyx. It is like the Effect and Cause mission from Titanfall 2 — probably what the entire game should have resembled more.
Because after you leave, you're right back to the same old extremely light puzzles, most of which are solved by finding a switch behind a plank or something equally tedious.
A Fly in the Ointment, a Monkey in the Wrench It's the rigidity that is a problem here. The puzzles in Half-Life 2 weren't remarkable because we hadn't experienced physics in games before. They were notable examples of experimentation. Sure the solution to that puzzle might have been to dump a bunch of bricks on a ramp, but what if you just… piled the bricks up next to the wall and made yourself some stairs?
That's not really allowed in Half-Life: Alyx, and it's a real shame. If you attempt to circumvent the correct solution, more often than not, the game will simply kill you.
It's disappointing because Valve has built a brand on publishing games which reward outside-the-box thinking. Dota 2 is built on this. Yes, there is a 'correct' way to do things, but OG ana on Io at The International proved the 'wrong' way can work too. Portal is a game where every puzzle has a solution and most of the fun is in trying to solve it in some other manner instead. When you reach the end, and you are 'thinking with portals', the game expands and gives you the space to do what you will with your new way of thinking.
"The events of Half-Life: Alyx directly tie into the next Half-Life game, due sometime just before the heat death of the universe..."
Half-Life: Alyx doesn't really allow this. Even with Jeff there are only singular solutions to the problems at hand — as creative as those solutions feel in the moment. And again, we can handwave this away as a limitation of the format. Maybe Half-Life: Alyx is designed as a first step for VR users, and Valve didn't want to overwhelm people.
But that doesn't improve or mitigate my personal experience. And because the events of Half-Life: Alyx directly tie into the next Half-Life game, due sometime just before the heat death of the universe, the idea that they avoided complexity to ease new VR users into the fold feels… cynical at best. The above games — Dota 2 and Portal — have wonderful onboarding experiences. Truly some of the best in the business. But I don't think people would accuse them of condescending to their audience by going easy on them. So why is that an excuse for Half-Life: Alyx?
At best, I think perhaps the hardware did pose limitations on HL:A. The above video, where I attempt to jump to a balcony but am threatened with death by the one-and-a-half storey drop that would happen if I fell — that balcony is actually a target location in the game. You go there. But you don't go there at that moment in the game and so the hyper-linear Half-Life: Alyx experience restricts you from doing so. Loading times in HL:A are long — longer than any other game installed on my SSD with the possible exception of Red Dead Redemption 2, and even then it's close.
So perhaps rendering each highly-detailed environment is a bridge too far for the Source 2 engine. In other games, frame drops are momentary annoyances, but in VR they cause motion sickness. And Half-Life: Alyx, even at its most hectic, never dropped a single frame for me. I don't have a world-class computer, either. I can't fault Valve's technical ability here — they certainly have mastered the platform they… created in the first place.
But if that mastery comes at a cost, and that cost is the gameplay freedom we're accustomed to from Valve games, I have to think the price is too high.
Because that price isn't just paid in puzzles. The third heat in this GE Trivection Oven is combat, and it's just not great.
"A cynical person might reason that players can't handle more than maybe three enemies at a time. That modern shooters include an array of hand-holding techniques designed to make players feel more capable..."
Schieße dem fenster It's another problem best evidenced when Combine soldiers show up because they never show up in large numbers except outside of combat. At first, like so much of Half-Life: Alyx, it's not something you notice. It's just one of those things — okay, I killed three Combine, time to scavenge for two shotgun shells or spend a minute meticulously making sure my weapons are reloaded. But in high-octane sequences featuring several enemies, it's hard to ignore when the next wave arrives. Watch it happen in the Half-Life: Alyx Gameplay Video 3. First, the very well-practised user kills three Combine Soldiers, and then they take on another three Combine -- but only three at a time.
Again, a cynical person might reason that players can't handle more than maybe three enemies at a time. That modern shooters include an array of hand-holding techniques designed to make players feel more capable than they are, so the hordes of demons you slay in Doom Eternal would quickly overwhelm a player in VR.
But this doesn't ring true. Outside of the subtle aim-assists and steadiness of an on-screen crosshair, many of these hand-holding techniques are present in Half-Life: Alyx. Large open areas stand empty but for the 'just-above-waist-height' hard-cover, each section of it standing just far enough away to require players to choose their moment before they go for it.
Players are invincible while shifting, providing mobility options (provided they have mastered their traversal). Tracer bullets come as standard to let players know how to adjust their fire. While the mechanics of shooting themselves exist at a higher base difficulty level, the presence of VR gives players ample opportunity to acclimatise.
Valve has a long history of throwing too many enemies at you in games too. Left 4 Dead may have been a Turtle Rock Studios joint, but Valve still put it out in the world. Few games try to overwhelm you quite like it and its sequel, so clearly Valve doesn't have a problem with trying to send too many enemies a player's way. Which is why it seems more like a limitation of the format more than anything.
This rule leads Valve to raise the stakes in other ways. On harder difficulties, enemies take a handful of headshots to kill. Basic Combine Soldiers, who took maybe two headshots to kill on hard in Half-Life 2, require three headshots minimum in Half-Life: Alyx.
That trickles through and causes other issues. As far as I can tell, players don't get more ammunition on higher difficulties, which means resource management rears its ugly head once again. A few missed shots aren't immediately the death knell of your efforts, but as wave after wave crashes into you, it can sentence you to a rather ignominious death at the hands of enemies you can't do anything about.
Alyx can't use melee weapons — she doesn't have a crowbar — and so wasting all your ammo is game over essentially. It's particularly frustrating earlier in the game when you have just one weapon, but I ran into it later too.
I realise the contradiction in claiming players shouldn't have any problems taking on more than three enemies at a time while simultaneously lamenting that I would run out of bullets while trying and failing to kill them. But bear in mind this was only a problem because enemies were more resilient than they really should have been — a situation caused by the game needing to provide players with some sort of challenge on the 'Normal' difficulty I played on.
And the absence of melee weapons is odd too. Right before you fight your first enemy, you literally remove a lead pipe blocking a door — but you can't use that pipe in combat. Beat Saber has shown just how satisfying swordplay can be in VR, as has Blade & Sorcery. And any time I found a screwdriver in Boneworks felt like an opportunity to live out my inner Riddick on some crash test dummies.
At the same time, it feels like Half-Life: Alyx was designed with melee in mind, and that it was removed late on in the development. That would explain the ammo scarcity — because spending precious bullets killing Headcrabs when you could have been using a crowbar instead would be a mistake.
What might make sense is if it was removed post-playtesting. I've played a lot of VR games, and I'm quite used to fighting off 'presence' — what they call total immersion in a virtual world — to make sure I'm not punching walls. But back when I first started playing I did this quite a bit — it's something I think players need to learn their way out of, and Valve may have felt that Half-Life: Alyx wasn't the time or the place for this to occur.
Elsewhere, there aren't reasonable explanations for Half-Life: Alyx's combat woes. The enemies are omniscient, ever capable of hunting you down once they realise you exist. This isn't a huge problem, but it does lay bare the lie from the beginning of the game — the idea that you sneaked your way through those early levels is an illusion. And once you know how the trick is done, not a terribly convincing one.
And it really falls apart once the chaingun-wielding heavy Combine shoot endlessly while obscured from your vision, tracking your movement while all you have to go on is the sound and the collision of each bullet with whatever wall is hiding them. You can watch as the bullets follow you, and in a system entirely about immersion, very few things break it harder.
Still, I persevered because I needed to see this game out. The attention-to-detail and environmental storytelling kept me invested long after I cared to play any more. The story slots perfectly into the canon of Half-Life as a series (with a little clever gap-filling) and every actor plays their roles wonderfully. It makes me yearn for a mod that adds Rhys Darby to Half-Life 2, or at least to see him Let's Play it.
"I took breaks every 90 minutes or so because I was bored. In VR terms, that's the holy grail — the idea that someone could play until over it instead of nauseous..."
While I didn't like the gameplay, I can't stress enough how impressive the technology is. I am a veteran of VR at this point, and Half-Life: Alyx is far and away the most polished VR game I have played. There's something perversely good about Half-Life: Alyx overcoming the nausea hurdle so many other VR games trip over. I had to stop playing A Fisherman's Tale (an utterly brilliant game) because it made me feel motion sick, but that never happened in HL:A. Instead, I took breaks every 90 minutes or so because I was bored. In VR terms, that's the holy grail — the idea that someone could play until over it instead of nauseous hasn't previously been done in my experience.
Too often Half-Life: Alyx feels like baby's first VR shooter and for many — especially those who purchased VR hardware to play it — this isn't a dealbreaker. But trading off the Half-Life name for an introductory course to VR relegates HL: Alyx to spin-off territory when the characters involved and the story it tells could be so much more. Alyx Vance deserves better, and so too do VR gamers.
What we liked
No motion sickness
Brilliant attention to detail
Rhys Darby is the best
Gorgeous art design
What we didn't like
Uninspired, rigid puzzles
Limited, too-simple combat
Resource management: The game
Throwing away my gas mask instead of grabbing a pistol magazine sucks
Are you telling me the first mod people make for basically every game from the last two decades involves eliminating the developer splash screen on load-up but Half-Life: Alyx requires you to press a button to specifically load the developer splash and title screen?