After having left players in the dark for 13 years following the cliffhanger at the end of Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Half-Life is back, and this time as a standard-bearer for the future of VR gaming.
In any case, Gabe Newell, the Valve figurehead himself, appears to believe in it strongly. It should also be said that this is the first time that a Half-Life development team has featured more than 80 developers, allowing them to tweak their product down to the finest detail.
Even though Marc Laidlaw, the main writer behind all other instalments in the series, is no longer part of the team, he was able to personally approve the Alyx script, which was written by Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Sean Vanaman.
In the same vein, although Mike Morasky (Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, Team Fortress 2) is currently in charge of the soundtrack, he was able to work closely alongside Kelly Bailey, the usual composer for series.
This lengthy gap between games can be explained by the fact that Half-Life 2 itself was released after 6 gruelling years of development, where it was created in parallel with the Source engine. Wanting to distance themselves from this experience and release content more regularly, Valve settled on an episodic format for the series.
They were able to put out Episode 1 in only a year, but Episode 2 was already double the length and was rapidly approaching becoming a standalone title in its own right. Valve releasing Source 2 in 2014 and then finalising it in 2015 with Dota 2 served as a green light for the continuation of the series. Half-Life: Alyx entered development in 2016 and here is it, four years later.
In essence, instead of using the series to inflate their bank balance, Valve is using Half-Life to advance the technology and revolutionise genres. This is what influenced the decision to embrace VR. Given that that Valve have barely scratched the surface of what Source 2 is capable of, and the team behind Alyx is expecting to make more Half-Life games, things are finally looking up for a possible Half-Life 3.
While we wait for the next mainline release in the series, let's explore the results of this VR prequel.
- Genre: Adventure FPS with puzzle elements
- Release Date: March 23 2020
- Platform: Valve Index, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, WMR
- Developer: Valve
- Publisher: Valve
- Price: $59.99
- Played on: Oculus Rift
Enter Alyx Vance
Just as we already knew, Half-Life: Alyx fits in between Half-Life Episodes 1 & 2, more precisely five years before Eli Vance's death and the destruction of the Citadel.
You play as Alyx Vance, Eli's daughter and companion to Gordon Freeman throughout the events of Half-Life 2. Alyx is 19 and like her father is a member of the resistance, which has begun to put down roots within City 17 with a view to fight The Combine, who conquered the Earth during Seven Hour War.
From the window of Alyx's apartment, we can peer out onto the imposing, half-completed citadel. Alyx is accompanied by Russell, a completely new character, who aids Eli in his search of information hidden within the Citadel.
Alyx offers the player the perfect opportunity to explore the devastated streets of City 17, which are swarming with members of the civil protection force and their all-seeing drones that sweep through the near-empty streets. The local inhabitants live under fear of martial law, with large scale meetups being dispersed by force.
Alyx must infiltrate and pass through crowds of citizens to reach her father's hideout and avoid being either being stopped or arrested like other residents of the city. Something seems to be happening in City 17, with the Combine enforcing a lockdown on its citizens (remind you of something?). Unfortunately, as soon as she arrives, Eli and his daughter are both placed under arrest.
After escaping and making it back to Russell in his secret lab, she puts on the Russells, anti-gravity gloves that are just as useful as a firearm. With these gloves in her corner, Alyx sets out on a risky mission to rescue her father by intercepting the train transporting him from his detention centre to Nova Prospekt and rescuing him from interrogation.
Alyx is aided in her rescue effort by Russell, who remains in direct contact through a headset and an onboard camera. The latter allows him offer his support remotely by guiding the player and hijacking certain electronic systems.
Alyx begins her journey by train, though her path forces her to walk through the Quarantine Zone, which is home to headcrab zombies and xen organisms. She also comes across the Vortigaunts, who are also at war with the Combine, and discovers her father had actually discovered a secret weapon that is sealed in a giant lockbox hovering over the Quarantine Zone.
There isn't a shadow of a doubt that you'll end up commandeering it and turning it on your enemies. Of course, Alyx ends up being spotted and pursued by The Combine's commandos, which will invariably complicate her task. But this game is all about Alyx Vance, and it's never a good idea to get in her way.
Headcrab Hunting in City 17
If there's one thing that is immediately apparent as soon as your put on the headset, it's that Half-Life: Alyx is a beautiful looking game, with an incredibly high attention to detail. Even though this is just a taste of what Source 2.0 is capable of, the engine is already something to behold.
High-quality static and dynamic lighting is a constant feature, as are various lifelike animations that make City 17 feel more like a city than a world map, such as pigeons picking at breadcrumbs before scattering into the air, or other wildlife fleeing from the footsteps of the city's human inhabitants. Just perching on a balcony's edge for a moment, you can see a cyclist pass below you, past his fellow residents who walk pass through the street or stand beneath shelter, waiting patiently for the bus.
This effect comes across as very realistic and accompanies you for the duration of the story. That's why it's even more of a shame that frequent loading screens occasionally break immersion, especially given that they sometimes tend to be quite long.
In any case, you'll be glad to know that City 17, in all its 80s splendour, is a pleasure to experience. Imposing computer monitors, CRT television, floppy disks, VHS tapes, 80s scooters and cars, as well as soviet-inspired propaganda posters can be found throughout the city. And in virtual reality, you really feel like you're at the heart of the city, alongside the always impressive Striders and Barnacles that look more grotesque than ever.
The gloomy atmosphere of Half-Life 2 makes its welcome return, and stress and danger are only a moment away at all times. The direction is clearly up to a AAA standard, and the staging often comes across as especially stunning.
As for movement in Alyx, continuous movement through head or hand gestures provides the best results, but you can also choose to use the teleportation mode, which allows you to rapidly move from one position to another through rapid blinks or shifts, with the latter being designed to reduce motion-sickness.
Another notable takeway from Half-Life: Alyx is it's physics engine, which Valve has praised incessantly. Without completely revolutionising the genre, given that it was preceded by Boneworks, it's results are incredibly impressive. Almost every object in the game can be interacted with by the player, allowing them to be picked up, moved, thrown, or put inside another larger object, just to name a few examples.
Alyx's hands also exist in real time and are unable to move through objects, instead pushing and brushing against them. We were able to notice some collision errors, but these were few and far between and shouldn't take away from how impressive the physics engine is generally.
For example, doors can be opened by turning the doorknob, but if they are already ajar, they can also be closed by a push of the hand, or by any other object. Interactions feel natural, so you can immediately react to a headcrab sticking itself to your cranium by bringing your hands to your head to remove it.
Heavy objects require two hands to lift and you can even squeeze your fist around a grenade to arm it, or a headcrab heart to destroy it, for example. Players need to be able to twist and duck to protect themselves or move through certain passages, provided that they are playing in a spacious area.
Accessibility options also allow the game to be available to everyone, including players that would prefer to play seated.
The game offers a weapon selection system that is very practical; the gravity gloves (Russells), which function similarly to a lasso, can be mastered quickly, but unlike Gordon Freeman's Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2, they only allow you to reel in objects from a distance and not to launch them— so you'll have to use your arms to throw your grenades instead.
It's clear that the game was developed with VR in mind, despite evidence of a VR-less mode in the source code which was later patched out of the game. Even though Half-Life fans who don't own VR headsets will feel aggrieved at this decision, as well as lead designer Robin Walker not being against a no-VR mod, Walker believes that a VR-less edition would miss out on a lot of what Alyx has to offer.
From what we've experienced during our time in game, we're inclined to agree.
As for the soundtrack, the 3D surround sound intensifies the sense of immersion and the punchy music that plays during confrontations with The Combine further increases the tension. Just as soldiers will regularly talk with one another as you creep past their encampments, Alyx's adventure is punctuated with intermittent exchanges with Russell, who keeps the player company on their journey.
This new character adds a much-needed touch of humour in a game short on subtlety and makes your adventure all for the better for it.
Choose Your Weapon
From a gameplay perspective, Half-Life: Alyx alternates between exploring, solving puzzles, and gunfights. Though the FPS element of the title remains an important element, the game also features calmer sections which demand more of your brains than your reflexes.
Hacking is an essential part of the game, allowing you to unlock doors or get your hands on Combine technology that lets you upgrade your weapons with resin you've collected on your journey.
Just like any health packs and ammo you'll need during your time in Half-Life: Alyx, resin can mainly be found off of the beaten path, in closets, drawers, sinks, and so and and so forth. And given that resin is often found in the most unlikely of places, make sure that you start checking every room for resin straight away if you want to max out every weapons' upgrades.
Even if this sometimes proves fruitless, it's just as interesting to take a look at what lies within each different Barnacle, as they have the propensity to hold all sorts of different items in their stomachs. And as for the antlion grub healing stations, there's no point in trying to conserve larva as there's one next to every station, though you may have to look around a bit to find some of them.
Thanks to her multitool, Alyx can hack into a variety of things by twisting holograms to her will and connecting points to each other to gain access. While this is never particularly difficult, you will find some of the environmental puzzles to be a fair bit more demanding.
In one example, you'll have to navigate a minefield by directing an energy field through a pre-set path, all the while dodging security cameras and avoiding intersecting tripwires with you hand. The solution to these problems is never evident, though visual clues will help you in your endeavours. Each puzzle requires an ingenious solution, which is consistent throughout the game.
In one instance, crates on the ceiling forewarn of barnacles in the room, or in another, gas masks can be used to avoid having to put you hand in front of your mouth to prevent yourself from inhaling spores. Each puzzle gives you the time and space to conjure up a different solution tailored to each problem.
As for the gunplay, the fact that you can only use three weapons is admittedly somewhat of a letdown: Russell's pistol, a pump shotgun, and an energy cell-powered Combine machine gun. You can also add Combine and Xen grenades to this list, as well as weapon upgrades which modify weapons attachments at each stage.
You can also use some of the nearby items in room to protect yourself, or clear out your enemies by throwing gas canisters into their midst. The fact that each weapon must be manually reloaded may also come off a bit irritating, especially during the madness of a firefight where you have to eject the shells and insert new ammo under the thread of enemy fire.
Another thing to note is that, just like resin, ammo can be stored and retrieved by reaching into a bag over your shoulder, a mechanic not too dissimilar to The Walking Dead - Saints & Sinners. Only ammo and resin can be placed in your shoulder bag, as your grenades and syringes can be found in a thumb pocket that cycles between handheld options.
However, unlike The Walking Dead, Half-Life: Alyx doesn't allow players to participate in hand-to-hand combat.
Alyx offers enough variety in the way of enemies to keep players entertained at first. Classic adversaries such as headcrabs and barnacles make their return and are complimented by a range of new Combine enemies, including riot control units that use robotics and drones to seek out their targets.
While the game doesn't feature a whole lot of entirely new opponents, just like the weapons themselves, the enemies gradually increase in variety and do enough to keep things fresh until the end of the game.
In the same vein, Half-Life: Alyx takes you through a range of different environments, such as residential neighbours, subways, a bustling Xen nest, industrial basements, a vodka distillery, a hotel, a zoo during the night, and more.
This is a good point to mention that some sections do take place at night, with only a handheld torch to guide your way. It's never easy to manage your nerves during these moments. The story is very linear, but you still have to figure out how to get to the next point.
It's just a shame that Valve have opted for several instances of unjustifiable invisible walls to prevent you from wandering off, which does work to the detriment of the sense of realism the rest of the game does so well to establish.
With Half-Life: Alyx, Valve not only offers us a complete game and a complex VR experience, clocking in at a good 15 hours — which is not to dissimilar to Half-Life 2 — but also provides players with a excellent way to reconnect with the world of Half-Life.
This should go without saying, but having already played Half-Life 1 & 2 will put you in the best stead to experience this new instalment in the series. The game never makes any express callbacks to Black Mesa, Gordon Freeman's identity, Vortigants, or even the Combine, instead preferring to make allusions and rely on the player's pre-existing knowledge to fill in the blanks.
Without expressly mentioning what occurs during the game's climax, which follows an always appreciated psychedelic sequence, Alyx opens the door wide to a possible Half-Life 3. Just don't forget to keep watching after the credits for some added content.
Half-Life games are often packed with Easter eggs, and Alyx is no exception. For example, you can find schematics for Alyx's robot dog and scrawlings on the wall of the Quarantine Zone telling the story of Half-Life, just to name a few. You can even spot an invitation stamped with the Bridges logo, a hint to Death Stranding, which can be expected given the crossover event between the two.
Thank you, Valve. Thank you for finally allowing us to dive back into the heart of City 17 with a real release that uses the latest technology to push the boundaries of VR. And while the constant loads do break the rhythm a little, this is a worthy price to pay for the attention to detail and care that is expressed in the graphics and the animations.
Even though Boneworks has already showed us what VR is capable of, the fantastic physics engine not only does wonders for the immersion, but also allows us, the player, to find new ways to play the game. Our only gripe concerns the variation in weapons and foes, as well as the inability to punch enemies that get too close.
Despite that, Half-Life: Alyx is a triumphant return to the series that deserves heavy praise.
Not only can the game be preloaded in advance to be ready at the right time, but also in partnership with HTC.