Half-Life: Alyx assessment: a satisfying return to City 17
Half-Life: Alyx is unquestionably not Half-Life three. It is a full-fledged recreation that expands the Half-Life universe. And City 17’s exploding barrel trade remains to be going sturdy.
These are solutions to some massive questions Valve Software raised final yr when it introduced the primary new Half-Life recreation since 2007 — however completely for digital actuality. Many sequence have VR diversifications or tie-ins, however Valve promised to ship “the next part of the Half-Life story” in a bundle that would assist take VR mainstream.
That’s setting a very excessive bar, and, for now, I’m undecided Alyx clears it. The recreation is combating VR’s inherent hardware limits, a pandemic-related headset scarcity, and the problem of constructing a recreation for a new platform. While it’s about so long as the landmark Half-Life 2, with my recreation clocking in at 15 hours, it doesn’t really feel as massive or as narratively and mechanically contemporary. It advances the sequence’s foremost plot, but it surely doesn’t come shut to resolving it.
But if you happen to preserve these admittedly massive reservations in thoughts, Alyx is a worthy addition to the Half-Life universe. It’s not simply a good VR recreation; it’s a good online game, interval.
Half-Life: Alyx is about 5 years earlier than Half-Life 2, by which protagonist Gordon Freeman wakes from a mysterious 20-year stasis to discover Earth colonized by an alien empire referred to as the Combine. Alyx Vance is the daughter of Gordon’s former colleague, and he or she’s certainly one of Gordon’s most succesful companions. Now, in Alyx, she’s the protagonist — a member of an anti-Combine resistance that sees Gordon Freeman as practically legendary. When her father Eli is captured, she learns about a secret Combine superweapon, which seems to be extra sophisticated than it appears.
Alyx is about in the identical city dystopia as Half-Life 2: a washed-out and decaying Eastern European metropolis referred to as City 17. While there’s a lot extra element, you’re dealing with a comparable crowd of hostile alien fauna and transhuman troopers in addition to comparable weapons and environments — though troopers give these basic Half-Life barrels a wider berth. The sequence’s first two installments virtually befell in numerous worlds. Alyx is extra just like the sequel’s add-on Episodes, extending the plot with out beginning a new chapter. At the identical time, it feels like a very completely different form of recreation.
That’s partly as a result of Alyx is a extra human-seeming character than Gordon, and City 17 is almost the entire setting, not the pit cease it was in Half-Life 2. Where Valve poked enjoyable at Gordon’s stoic ‘90s-shooter hypercompetence, Alyx has more realistic — if top-notch — fighting capabilities. Levels have the same forward momentum and minimal backtracking, but Alyx moves at a slower pace through denser and more fully formed spaces. She’s bought a historical past with the world already, having grown up beneath Combine occupation, so she will convey some context and familiarity to your journey — till a large curveball close to the sport’s finish.
Alyx additionally dwells a little extra on the bizarre dynamic of being a post-apocalyptic teenager (on this recreation, not less than) who hangs out with a bunch of nostalgic outdated males. Her Resistance mission management is a pathologically cheerful inventor named Russel who rhapsodizes about old-world sandwiches and future enterprise plans whereas advising her over an earpiece. He’s not as compelling an ally as… nicely, Alyx herself in Half-Life 2. But in a setting that gamers have seen already, their conversations assist set up how the characters see that setting.
Valve’s method to VR is ideal for a character who’s very expert however fallible. It’s powerful to make PC or console shooters really feel messy but not artificially clumsy. Unsteady aiming or awkward skeuomorphic controls will be efficient, however they appear like handicaps on a “normal” point-and-shoot expertise. VR hand controllers, against this, mimic your bodily movement in a pretty pure approach — and gamers haven’t been educated to anticipate mathematical precision. It’s simpler for video games like Alyx to make your screw-ups really feel like pure errors, as a substitute of a designer stacking their deck in opposition to you.
Actual VR headsets, sadly, do screw up. Valve’s Index headset is the gold normal for Alyx, however The Verge’s Index ended up in pandemic lockdown together with the remainder of our workplace. Valve guarantees assist for nearly any PC-based VR setup. So I performed Alyx with the Oculus Link system, which turns a standalone Oculus Quest into a tethered headset. The preliminary expertise was a mess. My PC simply meets Alyx’s specs, however the headset froze or the sport’s body fee massively dropped at common intervals. After I completed the sport, Valve launched updates that appeared to largely repair the issues, however my later classes nonetheless concerned stopping for reboots or resets.
That’s not unprecedented for a VR expertise, and a few points could be Oculus Link bugs. It’s an experimental characteristic, so I anticipate tough spots. Compared to devoted PC headsets, although, the Quest is a troubleshooting nightmare: a machine with its personal working system linked with a removable cable and enabled with the Oculus desktop app and SteamVR. The Quest is immensely common by VR requirements, so Alyx may very well be a big stress take a look at for Link and a doubtlessly irritating expertise for customers if something goes mistaken.
I hate how badly the Quest carried out as a result of when it did work, I didn’t really feel constrained utilizing a non-Index system. The Index controllers can estimate grip power and the exact placement of every finger in your hand. But Alyx makes use of broader motions like pushing, throwing, gripping, and, in a single memorable part, clasping a hand over your mouth. Oculus’ controllers are greater than succesful, particularly since their stick and button format — used for issues like locomotion — may be very comparable to the Index’s.
When you reload a gun, you bodily mimic reloading it. A easy pistol makes you attain over your shoulder for a new journal, slot it into the gun, after which snap the slide lock shut. If you eject a half-full journal, you’re simply discarding the bullets, so that you’ll have to un-learn any reflexive reloading habits. Shotguns get cracked open and loaded with particular person shells.
You have solely a handful of weapons, so combating is a fixed recreation of counting pictures, swapping between weapons, and nearly inevitably fumbling a few reloads with a zombie swiping at your face. The system sounds awkward on paper, however you possibly can develop the muscle reminiscence shortly, making it simply a regular a part of the sport’s rhythm. (It additionally stays simpler than loading a actual gun.)
Aiming is more durable than with a mouse or stick, and you’ll’t knock again enemies with a crowbar or Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun. So the small, fast-moving, however simply dispatched enemies from earlier video games — like flying manhacks and headcrabs — change into minor however infuriating threats. Big battles change into tense shootouts as you reload and scrounge for extra ammunition whereas crouching behind cowl. And sure, I imply actually crouch until you allow a particular accessibility characteristic. This recreation will make you look ridiculous. Embrace it.
Alyx isn’t aiming for gritty realism, although. You can transfer constantly by holding an analog stick, however the “Blink” setting — a widespread VR locomotion choice — affords near-instant teleportation. The recreation feels designed for these impossibly sudden jumps into and out of hazard, and even with the previous choice, you’ll use a blink-like system to soar throughout gaps. Incidentally, I bought completely no movement illness with the Blink choice, which is (sadly) noteworthy for a movement-heavy VR recreation.
Alyx additionally has a pair of “gravity gloves” that exchange Half-Life 2’s extra highly effective Gravity Gun, letting you pull objects from throughout a room. Instead of simply pointing and clicking, you prolong your hand towards one thing till it glows barely, then pull the set off, flick your wrist, and seize it from midair by squeezing a grip button. It’s often powerful to seize the precise factor, but it surely’s tremendously satisfying — like having telepathic powers, not simply an uncommon gun. And whereas the gloves aren’t an offensive weapon, they’re helpful whenever you’re scrounging for ammo throughout a battle or lobbing an enemy’s grenade again at them.
Unlike Half-Life 2’s Gravity Gun and physics, although, the options above don’t really feel revolutionary. Some are well-established VR shooter conventions. Valve owes a clear debt to indie initiatives like Arizona Sunshine and Budget Cuts, which helped pioneer fight and exploration within the medium.
But Valve has tweaked and perfected a lot of those components, particularly with its famously meticulous degree design. Alyx’s areas reward interplay. You can push doorways open simply a little to search for threats. Being in a position to hunker down and seize distant gear is essential to successful fights. And Half-Life’s widespread Barnacle enemies, which catch passersby with a lengthy, sticky tongue, are literally rather more fascinating in VR — the place they’re more durable to keep away from however simpler to distract with gently tossed objects. The extra compact ranges supply fewer big cinematic set items, however Valve delivers a couple of distinctive and extremely intelligent close-quarters fights.
Alyx’s worldbuilding seems like extra of a missed alternative. The Half-Life sequence options a few of gaming’s most memorable creature designs, however Alyx’s new enemies really feel a lot like some acquainted survival horror monsters. The recreation affords a well-executed replace to present designs, and it makes intelligent use of VR — you’ve gotten to bodily pull headcrabs off of your face, as an example — I simply want it had a extra distinct aesthetic of its personal.
It additionally opts for extra conventional puzzles than Half-Life 2’s physics conundrums. Alyx has a multitool that lets her hack containers with spatial puzzles (that are typically irritating however usually non-obligatory) or carefully scan an space and reroute energy cables in its partitions. They’re much less fascinating than navigating the sport’s bodily geography, though they do assist encourage that exploration.
Valve is nonetheless taking a step ahead right here. Alyx is a well-designed different to the never-completed Half-Life 2: Episode three. And regardless of being a prequel, it does barely advance the story from Episode 2 whereas teasing a yet-nonexistent true sequel. (Seriously, please don’t get your hopes up for Half-Life three once more.)
But even some diehard Valve followers may not need to strive Half-Life: Alyx at launch, or perhaps in any respect. And that will be a rational choice.
Playing a nice VR recreation is usually like visiting a Michelin-star restaurant the place the waiter constantly pokes you with a fork. Valve hasn’t mounted the bulkiness and grainy screens of current-generation headsets, the annoyance of getting a wire wrapped round your ankles, the probability that you just’ll by accident ram your hand into some furnishings, or the frustration of establishing new and typically sophisticated hardware.
The Index has a comparatively good display and cozy match, but it surely’s wired, it requires a clumsy exterior monitoring setup, and it prices practically a thousand . The $399 Oculus Quest affords a good worth since you should utilize it as a standalone or PC-tethered headset. But even discounting the problems I skilled (which I hope have been flukes), it’s front-heavy and uncomfortable.
Moreover, you possibly can’t purchase the Quest or Index proper now because the pandemic has thrown a wrench in hardware provide chains. Alternatives just like the HTC Vive Pro and Cosmos are in inventory, however if you happen to’re extra enthusiastic about a completely different headset, shopping for these to play one recreation at launch — regardless of how good it’s — is an iffy choice.
I nonetheless assume Alyx is genuinely definitely worth the bother of discovering a headset, if that’s possible, and overlooking its flaws. This isn’t Valve at its most revelatory — however after ready greater than a decade, it’s the Half-Life story I didn’t know I wished.