I am a huge fan of Half-Life: Alyx, the first new Half-Life game in 13 years. But before telling you why, I’d like to take the hype balloon—in this case, shaped like a headcrab that’s floating towards your face—and let out a bit of its air.
Half-Life: Alyx is not a must-own video game. It is not the PC world’s Super Mario 64 equivalent, a comparison I mention because Valve studio head Gabe Newell has heightened expectations this way multiple times over the years. HL:A does not use virtual reality to transform how we interact with games in a way that might be as universally embraced as Super Mario Bros. 1, Doom, Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or, of course, the first two Half-Life games.
And yet: Half-Life: Alyx is a must-play video game for anyone in a position to do so. If you already have access to the required technology—a full VR headset system, a robust computer, and a reasonable amount of space to move your arms while otherwise blind to the real world—you are in for a video game that pushes the notion of “full-length VR adventure” to its limits. The 15 hours required to beat HL:A on a first playthrough are dense. They are beautiful. They are full of unique puzzles, immersive combat, bona fide terror, and storytelling beats that all understand what does, and does not, work when translating a “flat-screen” gaming franchise to hand-tracked virtual reality.
Get it? Not universally “must-own,” but conditionally “must-play.” Comparatively, I’d say the latter praise is higher than, say, most any wild arcade or rhythm-gaming experience that has required additional, bulky hardware. This is not Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero. This is bigger. The sheer tingle I feel when I recall HL:A‘s brilliant and thrilling moments is up there with any video game experience I’ve had in my 24 years of gaming criticism.
I’m going to need many paragraphs to break down this tricky, praise-filled distinction. I’ve also written a whole other article talking about the VR hardware ecosystem, and how to achieve the lowest possible cost of entry without sacrificing quality—because for some people, HL:A‘s total cost may be low enough to put it within a “must-play” reach. As a result, the rest of this review ignores the financial consideration. Please head to the other article’s comment section to talk about budgetary issues (which I concede are valid).
This one’s about the game. About one hell of a game.
22 years of history, for starters
While a vocal minority starts frothing at the mouth any time the words “Half” and “Life” appear in the same article, I wouldn’t blame you for being wholly unfamiliar with the game series. Half-Life hasn’t seen a new game launch in a long time. Its last console installment, as part of 2007’s The Orange Box bundle, was plagued with technical issues on PlayStation 3 and never got a port to PS4. (Its Xbox 360 version fared better, though its backwards-compatible patch for Xbox One took a while to arrive.)
A refresher, then: Half-Life exploded in 1998 as a first-person shooter made using a fork of id Software’s Quake engine, and it established storytelling practices inside a first-person game that the industry had never seen before. It’s easy to forget how mind-blowing it was that people in the game talked to you. They looked directly into your face and spoke, with real voice-acting and moving mouths, about everything from the epic to the mundane, thus grounding the game’s universe in realistic fashion. You watched cut scenes unfold in Half-Life‘s world, sometimes while stuck behind glass and forced to see tragedy play out. And music would only start playing during intense sequences of storytelling and combat, as opposed to rumbling in the background at all times. All of its pieces added up to something “cinematic.”
That unique mix of story, combat, mysteries, and horror was topped by 2004’s hotly anticipated Half-Life 2, which added emotional facial animations and physics manipulation as new, key staples of the series. (The facial-animation systems within HL2 are still arguably some of the best in a modern video game.) Many of the industry’s best first-person games have a direct link to Half-Life 1 and 2 as a source of inspiration, including Bioshock, Dishonored, and Portal (a game started by HL-inspired college grads who were hired by Valve to make their dream game in earnest).
But an experiment in “quicker” Half-Life game creation only resulted in two “episode”-sized games, and these left fans stuck on a serious cliffhanger ending. Former series scribe Marc Laidlaw attempted to seal this up in a 2017 blog post, which pointed to Half-Life‘s future being dead and done on Valve’s front. Fair enough: many games had followed in Half-Life‘s footsteps to do new things, and the original series’ first two games each worked because they were so fresh mechanically. If Valve couldn’t make a compelling gameplay experience that matched HL-sized expectations, maybe that was that. The company wouldn’t put out a new story without new mechanics attached—that was the assumption.
Yet those of us in the know long suspected that Valve could pull a HL-appropriate rabbit from one particular hat: virtual reality. The company had been a loud proponent and driver of all things SteamVR… with the exception of making their own retail game. First came silence. Then came teases. Then came a firmer announcement of one game coming. It had to be Half-Life. Right?
Turns out, we were right all along. In an interview with Ars Technica, members of the Half-Life: Alyx team confirmed that a brief HL-flavored “shooting gallery” was built behind the scenes in 2016 for possible inclusion in The Lab, a free suite of demos made by Valve to advertise the potential of the HTC Vive and its SteamVR ecosystem of games and apps. This demo was never released. Instead, it got the company excited and was quietly turned into a richer VR experience—one whose scope was originally much lighter, somewhere in the four-hour range.
A subset of Valve began developing VR-appropriate Half-Life gameplay systems, and in the early stages, it also considered what kind of story might be appropriate—meaning, the team knew a brainless “shooting gallery” wouldn’t cut it. But what scale would make sense for a VR-exclusive game that might turn out to be quite short? That couldn’t be Half-Life 3, Valve decided. Instead, it would be a prequel, one with arguably lower stakes but still able to tell a new, and crucial, story within the series’ universe. From there, the game’s development kept getting bigger and bigger.
Is that a Strider over there?
From here on out, we are treading lightly about spoilers, but some specific mechanics, puzzles, and sequences will be described or teased in order to make critical points. Each screenshot gallery begins with as spoiler-free an image as possible, but clicking through will reveal later-game images that, while beautiful, may also be thought of as spoilers. You have been warned.
This brings us to Half-Life Alyx: a 15-hour adventure set between the events of HL1 and HL2 from the perspective of Alyx Vance, not Gordon Freeman. As a VR game, it translates the experience of old, a first-person shooter, into a headset with hand-tracked controls. My review breaks this fact down at great length—that’s the million-dollar question, as we ask why we’re getting a new HL game as a VR exclusive—but suffice it to say, this new game resembles the movement, combat, and puzzle-solving of past entries.
Also, like other HL games, HL:A opens in jarring fashion, dumping players directly into the thick of series lore. Yes, it helps to have some familiarity with the overarching story connecting all previous games, but I feel the same way about the first Half-Life, which hit the ground running and forced players to connect the dots as they went along. In other words, if you’re not a well-versed HL fan, you’ll be a bit confused, and that’s on brand. The basic thrust of this story, set five years before the events of HL2, is clear enough.
We could spend an entire page of this review talking about HL:A‘s opening moment: standing on a balcony that overlooks the weird horizon of City 17. The amount of content you can see stretching to the horizon is both a technical achievement and an aesthetic one, whether or not you recognize the buildings, the mysterious contraptions bolted onto them, or the Combine soldiers’ mechanized Strider units marching around. This sense of distant wonder is paired with a mess of objects lining the balcony’s edge and nearby tables, which can all be picked up, manipulated, and thrown. Nothing is off-limits. If it looks like something you could pick up in real life, you can pick it up here. (There’s also a pigeon perched nearby, and it’s, weirdly, the most realistic pigeon I’ve ever seen in a video game.)
The combination—a massive, overwhelming world whose scale towers over you, and a dense, interactive playground of things near you—is HL:A‘s statement of intent. If you haven’t played many VR games, you’d be forgiven for not noticing that this balance of scale and intimacy is one that most VR games, particularly recent “epic adventure” games, have gotten wrong. There’s almost an invisible quality to this balance, one that makes it easier to instinctively curl into HL:A‘s atmosphere like an enveloping VR blanket.
After this balcony moment, you pick up a video transmission from your father, Dr. Eli Vance, joined by a new hacking-minded character named Russell. Eli’s team has successfully stolen some intriguing technology from the Combine, which ties directly into Alyx’s work spying on the Combine’s activities in your current home of City 17. Everyone involved wants to undermine the Combine’s oppressive, martial-law rule over the city, and your plan to do so revolves around understanding the mysterious, new Citadel structure being built in the city’s center. But something about today’s technology heist soon has the Combine on heightened alert. Did Eli and friends steal something important? Did they see something they shouldn’t have?