Back 2 the Source
My biggest concerns heading into Half-Life: Alyx were twofold: One, that like far too many other VR games, it wouldn’t be a complete game and would instead be a bite-size experience or a shallow shooting gallery. And two, that it wouldn’t feel like Half-Life. It turns out I had no reason to worry on either count.
Half-Life: Alyx First Screenshots (4K)
Alyx still very much looks and sounds like Half-Life but in a proper next-gen way thanks to the new Source 2.0 game engine. Modern dynamic lighting gives each area an appropriately moody vibe. Refilling your health – using alien bug juice injected into your body through your gravity gloves at health stations – still makes the same beeps and humming sounds. Barnacles still disgustingly empty their contents when you shoot them enough times. And Combine soldiers still have that terrifying radio chatter. But in VR, it’s all much more direct. These obstacles and enemies aren’t just targets in your crosshairs; they’re right in front of you and they’re life-size. Headcrabs leap at your virtual face (you have to pull them off with your hand if they latch on), while Combine soldiers are extremely intimidating when standing right in front of you looking like a very chiseled 6’2”/220lbs.
The pace of Half-Life has been adjusted accordingly for VR. You can move via an instant point-and-teleport, a full-locomotion walk, or the default setting that I used: an in-between quick zip that still shows you moving through the environment. No matter your choice, this is a slower-paced Half-Life than fans will be used to, but you’re not likely to notice it while playing because every area organically begs to be explored. You might find a little bit of environmental storytelling (no spoilers, so I’ll say no more there) or more commonly, you’ll find weapon ammo and resin modules scattered around each location. Resin is used to upgrade your weapons at designated stations, but to unlock those stations in the first place, you’ll have to solve simple-but-interesting 3D spatial puzzles using your multi-tool and both hands.
The weapon upgrades have a significant effect on gameplay, and should reasonably encourage multiple playthroughs. The first sidearm you acquire, a pistol borrowed from Russell, can be augmented with a reflex sight, an extended clip, a laser sight, and more. But the resin requirements for said upgrades are high enough that you might not be able to fully max-out every weapon unless you’re methodically searching for every hidden bit of it; I’d already found the shotgun (more on that in a moment) after getting enough resin for just one upgrade (I chose the extended pistol clip so that I’d have to do less reloading in battle).
Combat, because of the manual nature of the weapons in VR, is intense. Decidedly more so than in previous Half-Life games, even considering the slower pace. When a clip runs dry, you have to hit a button on your controller to eject it, physically reach over your shoulder to grab a fresh clip from your virtual backpack, and slam it into the chamber. The shotgun is even more analog: you load individual shells into the gun and then flick your wrist upwards to re-pair the hilt and the barrel. Obviously, having to do this in battle is not ideal, so I saved up my resin until I could afford its auto-loader upgrade, which adds a rack to the side of your boomstick that feeds up to seven shells into the weapon automatically, saving you crucial seconds when the heat is on.
Setting the Mood
The first four hours of Half-Life: Alyx will evoke a range of emotions: wonder – see the aforementioned opening sequence – laughter, by way of the zingers Russell slings over your communications headset; tension in the form of the creepy Xen-ification of a maintenance building and the sounds of a Headcrab in the ventilation ducts overhead prior to your first encounter with the leaping aliens; fear, thanks to the pitch-black areas you have to wander through when you first get your glove-mounted flashlight; satisfaction, when you solve the 3D spatial puzzles at upgrade or Combine security stations; and exhilaration when you pull off an awesome move in combat, such as pulling an explosive fuel canister over to yourself using the gravity gloves, then throwing it into a group of enemies and shooting it to set off a lethal explosion.
Player-driven ingenuity, in fact, is a big part of Alyx’s appeal. You might roll a grenade under a car – something you typically can’t do in a traditional screen-based shooter – or otherwise use the environment (and the full range of motion you have in VR) to your advantage. Heck, when I first got my gravity gloves and was learning how to best smoothly and accurately fling objects back to me, I locked onto a yellow construction hard hat, pulled it towards myself, reached up to try and catch it with my left hand, and accidentally redirected it straight to a place I didn’t know it could go: on top of my own head. But it’s not just a silly Easter egg, it has a secret gameplay benefit: Barnacle protection! Erroneously wander underneath a Barnacle’s patiently waiting tongue (?) and it’ll take the hard hat instead of your entire head.
Is This Real Life?
There’s so much more, but it’s best discovered for yourself. The fact is, I’m still in disbelief that I’ve played the first four hours of a new Half-Life game. Typing the words feels as surreal as playing the game. But it’s very, very real and it’s also very, very good. If the first third or so of Alyx is any indication – Valve says Alyx is 15-18 hours long and based on what I’ve played so far I’m inclined to think it’s likely to be around there, with a lot more systems, weapons, and encounters left to layer on top of what I’ve already seen – Valve definitely still has “it.”
From my interviews with the team, a number of veterans of both Half-Life 2 and the original 1998 game are still at the studio and worked on the franchise’s VR debut, but they’ve also been aided by the recently acquired team at Campo Santo, makers of one of the best-written games of the past decade: Firewatch. The result, thus far, is that Half-Life: Alyx is every bit the masterpiece its predecessors were, albeit in a new medium we’ve not seen utilized this spectacularly before. It is the antidote to the open-world, procedurally generated busywork that’s become rampant in many other contemporary first-person shooters. Every moment seems to have been painstakingly hand-crafted. Every scene serves a purpose. The pacing is more deliberate. In short, Valve wants you to be in City 17, and you’ll want to be there too, Headcrabs and all.