[RE-REVIEW] Half-Life: Alyx – Still raising the (crow)bar for VR

VR has been around for quite a few years now. Like 3D television, VR was considered doomed from the get-go. A gimmick, a fad, nothing more. Many have tried to debunk that statement by immersing gamers into a virtual landscape. Unfortunately, little have really managed to impress. But then there was Valve, mostly famous for creating IP like Half-Life, Portal, and Team Fortress. After being ridiculed for years for seemingly not knowing the number 3, Valve showed off its might on VR with Half-Life: Alyx, a full-fledged Half-Life game purely designed for VR headsets. After more than a year after its release, Half-Life: Alyx still manages to be one of the best – if not the best – VR showcase to date.

For some, Half-Life: Alyx is the epitome of disappointment. Being VR-only, Valve really narrowed their demographic down with this prequel to Half-Life 2. Not being next in chronology also seems to be a major gripe. Fans are eagerly awaiting Half-Life 3 for years now, causing the “Gabe doesn’t know the number three” joke. Trading Gordon Freeman for Alyx Vance also might spoil the fun for some. The crowbar wielding Freeman is a worldwide phenomenon with legendary status. But, to be honest, none of those things mattered while I played Half-Life: Alyx because it’s just that damn good.

As I said, we’re not dealing with Freeman this time. Our story entails Alyx Vance, the daughter of Black Mesa scientist Eli Vance. Alyx has a bone to pick with the Combine after her dad is taken. With some help from a resistance member called Russell, Alyx is dead-set on freeing her father by all means necessary. Unfortunately for her, the Combine isn’t the only threat in City 17. The Quarantine Zone is filled to the brim with alien life forms that we’re already familiar with. Headcrabs, Barnacles, the whole enchilada. Luckily, Russell is quite the inventor and willing to grant you a gun and a pair of Gravity Gloves, which he refers to as “Russells”.

These Russells play a major role in Half-Life: Alyx’s gameplay mechanics. After pointing in the general direction of an object (say ammo, stim packs, or Resin), a flick of the wrist enables you to obtain it from a distance. The game steadily eases you into it, keeping the pace fairly low and giving you time to get the gist of it. That’s a good thing, even though it can feel like it’s taking too much time away from the real action. Yes, it is quite a time-consuming part of the entire game, but what did you expect? It is after all a VR game. Exploration and puzzling do take up most of the game’s estimated 8-hour gameplay. But if I have to be really honest, I didn’t mind at all.

In my opinion, it has everything to do with the presentation. First of all, Half-Life: Alyx looks drop-dead gorgeous for a VR game, even on Medium settings. The environment just feels polished to the max, oozing a vibe of a desolate city being overrun by this crowd-controlling organization. Seeing a Strider tear down your beloved city in the first few minutes truly feels awe-inducing. Characters also never seem to lack any detail, proving that Valve hasn’t been skimping on the character modeling department. The superb voice acting is like the cherry on top, really selling the authenticity of the entire experience. Even though you hear Alyx talking to herself – or Russell – all the time, it doesn’t take away the illusion of you – the player – being the protagonist. Where many VR games fail to suck you in because the player doesn’t seem to connect to the world around him, Alyx triumphs.

Dodgy controls are also something that can ruin a VR experience. Lucky for us, Valve has gotten this under control most of the time. Grabbing items from a distance is something you just have to practice, getting the timing just right. Using guns is also pretty straightforward, even though reloading them also requires some getting used to. Dropping a magazine instead of locking back the slide has happened more than once in my run. But once you get there, it’s pretty easy-peasy lemon-squeezy. You’ll be droppin’ Headcrabs and Barnacles in no time and you’ll probably enjoy it way too much.

Movement is a little trickier though. Alyx offers players various ways of getting around. You can either teleport through the levels, or you can opt for continuous locomotion. Turning can also be set to angled or smooth, slimming down the possible occurrence of motion sickness. Since I don’t get motion sick that easily, I went for continuous locomotion with smooth turning enabled. This all works pretty well, with the drawback that walking backwards is a no-no. Pulling back the analog stick enables teleport, which has gotten me in a very tight spot on numerous occasions. Valve also made sure that the game can be played with one hand and sitting down, although this does pose some inconvenience. Putting stuff in your backpack might result in punching your backrest every single time. Alyx also requires quite a bit of space around you, so beware of that before you set off.

My biggest gripe with Half-Life: Alyx might be its loading times, which can be pretty lengthy. When entering e new area, the surroundings freeze while you’re presented with a hologram of a map of City 17. Although it’s sort of nice to see how far you’ve come in your quest to the mysterious Vault – your final destination – it can become tedious after more than 30 seconds. This all might of course be influenced by the sort of hard drive your PC is equipped with. Running Half-Life: Alyx from a beefy SSD will definitely shorten the loading times. Still, loading can take up a bit of time, so you might want to avoid snuffing it in-game.

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Of course, all of this has a reason. All that City 17 splendor has to be loaded in advance to make sure you don’t get hit with loading issues every step of the way. I guess it’s a small price to pay for greatness in VR. And greatness it is, I assure you. Half-Life: Alyx is the prime example of a true AAA gaming experience on a Virtual Reality headset. The price might seem steep, but you’re definitely getting bang for your buck. Eight hours of Half-Life galore, including a mind-blowing finale. I wish more VR developers took their game so seriously. Not that I don’t enjoy casual VR games like GORN or Beat Saber, but this… this proves all the “VR is a gimmick” naysayers wrong. The future of VR is now (or has been there for a year), thanks to Valve’s efforts.

Still setting the (crow)bar high
The Yays
Looks absolutely gorgeous
(Approximately) eight hours of Half-Life galore
The ending is fuckin' epic
The banter between Alyx and Russell is to die for
The Nays
Controls might cause issues for some
Loading can take up quite a bit of time