With Half Life VR, Who Needs Half Life 3?
Before I tried out Half-Life: Alyx, I was generally skeptical about the hype. It looked pretty good in previews and with trailers, and I was definitely excited to see another Half-Life game (finally). However, some of the more recent VR games that have been hyped up, like Boneworks or Espire VR, never really hit that “great game!” mark for me. Not to say they’re bad games or anything, I think they’re great titles...for VR games. Espire as a “normal” game would just be another sci-fi shooter, while Boneworks would be akin to a Garry's Mod clone with a single player mode. (Albeit, a very advanced clone with fancy physics, but you get the idea.) But Half-Life: Alyx? I think it’s finally the first VR title that feels not just like a great VR game, but a great game in general. If you took away the VR and played it as a normal first-person shooter, it’d be an excellent game on its own. Before I get into the meat of the review, I would like to mention that I am only using Windows Mixed Reality headset (particularly this one, if you wanted to know the specs), so your gameplay experience will differ slightly from mine depending on your headset.
Half-Life: Alyx takes place approximately five years before the events of Half-Life 2, following a 19 year-old Alyx Vance who’s on a mission to investigate a strange building run by the Combine in a Quarantine Zone in City 17, save her father, and find a supposed Combine “superweapon” in that building. So all in all, a pretty average day in Half-Life land. But before we do all that, the game starts out with Alyx overlooking City 17, doing some surveillance for the Resistance. After a short video call with her father, Eli Vance, and another resistance member named Russell, you finally get to leave the little lookout nook and familiarize yourself with the controls of the game. For the most part, they’re pretty standard for a VR title, with the usual movement options:
- Blink, which is the standard teleporting to destinations with a short screen fade (which is marked as “most comfortable")
- Shift, which is also teleporting to your destination but instead of a screen fade, you just see fast linear movement
- Continuous, where you move using the left control stick, with direction based on head orientation
- Continuous hand, which is the same as above but following your hand’s orientation instead of your head
As a “veteran” VR player, I went with continuous since it always seemed the most “immersive” for me in most games, and I had no troubles playing for an extended period of time with my WMR headset, so comfort-wise it should be pretty good. With continuous movement, you also have a couple of extra controls for mantling and vaulting over objects, as well as making any jumps required by the game, which is all done using the right control stick, pushing up to mantle and down to teleport for jumps. Hand controls are also as you would expect for a VR title, pulling the trigger allows you to grab and release things, and later on you’ll receive some Gravity Gloves (or as they’re known in game, the “Russells”), which allow you to pull distant objects to you while holding the trigger and flicking your wrist, which feels like a refined version of the same mechanic you’ll see in other VR games. As it’s a Half-Life game, there are also a few weapons you get to use, but we’ll get into that more later in the review.
Moving on, after you get familiar with the controls of the game you’ll need to make your way towards your apartment complex, report back to your father and make some plans on how you’re gonna steal some stuff from the Combine. Y’know, usual Resistance stuff. But, of course, things go a bit bad. The Combine somehow finds out about your plans, and they arrest you and your father. But this is a video game, so with the help of Russell and his modified City Scanner that chucks a grenade into your prison transport vehicle, you escape the clutches of the Combine and make your way back to Russell's lab so you can make some plans to find your father, save him, infiltrate the Combine structure, blah blah blah, usual Half-Life stuff. Here is where you’ll get your “Russells”, which are like a mini gravity gun from Half-Life 2 that, as previously mentioned, pull distant objects to you. After a quick tutorial with your Russells, Russell tosses you a pistol and some ammunition, and you finally get to the meat of the game. I’ll leave the rest of the story here, so as not to spoil anything, but overall I found it to be fairly well-written, for a story in the Half-Life universe. Alyx’s lines are written well and her new voice actress, Ozioma Akagha, does a pretty great job voicing her. There’s a good bit of humor in the game as well, thanks to your headset chats with Russell (Rhys Darby), which was definitely appreciated during some of the more...intense segments, which we’ll look into next.
Half-Life: Alyx, much like the previous Half-Life entries, is a very linear game. You’re mainly tasked with going from point A to point B, occasionally checking a side passage or two for ammunition or resin (which is used to upgrade your weapons), and that’s about it. But one of the best things about Half-Life: Alyx is the atmosphere it generates as you play. There’s one particular area that stood out to me the most, particularly because it nearly made me fall on my ass and give me a heart attack. At some points in the game, you’re going to have to travel through some pitch black areas like sewers and bunkers, the only source of light being a small flashlight that’s mounted on your left wrist. Now, when I say “pitch black,” I don’t mean the usual “it’s pretty dark but if you turn the brightness up a bit you can totally see the level,” I mean it’s black. You can’t see much of anything without this little flashlight, and with various environmental atmospheric sounds in some of the areas, like the sewers, you will generally feel pretty goddamn uneasy. And what could possibly be worse than a dark, spooky sewer that you know has zombies and headcrabs in it? How about some goddamn poisonous headcrabs that hiss at you and jump at your goddamn face??? Now, I’ve played all sorts of horror games, from general atmospheric stuff to in-your-face jump scare stuff, both in VR and “normal” games, and not a single one of them has gotten me as bad as that goddamn first poisonous headcrab encounter did. Here I was, slowly making my way in the dark towards the only exit out of this dark hellhole I went into to grab the flashlight, and the next thing I know there’s a “HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS” AND BAM THERE’S A HEADCRAB ON MY FACE SPEWING POISON IN MY MOUTH. I fucking flinched hard, nearly fell over the ottoman I put behind me to sit on if I need a break, and panic wasted nearly a full clip of (at that time) very valuable shotgun ammunition trying to kill this damn headcrab. And then I realized there were two of them. I don’t generally get immersed into VR games that much, but there’s just something about Half-Life: Alyx that really breaks through that “immersion barrier” I feel with other games. In regards to enemies, you'll find most of your favorite enemies from the Half Life series, as well as a couple of new ones. Headcrabs, Poison Headcrabs, Zombies, Barnacles, Antlions, Manhacks, and various Combine solders all make a reappearance in the series as you would expect, but there are a couple of new additions as well that fit right in with the Half Life universe, including: heavy Combine soldiers with shotguns and energy shields, heavy Combine soldiers with miniguns, armored Headcrabs and armored Headcrab Zombies, as well as a brand spanking new enemy simply called the "Lightning Dog", which are tough little buggers that run around real fast shooting lightning and occasionally shoving their way into the chest of dead humans, turning them into "Electric Zombies" that shoots lightning at you for fun. And whew, these things are tough. On their own, they'll eat up more than a full 7 shell barrage of direct shotgun fire before these things die, and when they inhabit bodies on the ground you'll be spending more than 30 or 40 pistol rounds before you can take the thing down which can be a little annoying, as their fights end up taking way more time than anything else you'll encounter in the game.
And speaking of shooting things, Half-Life: Alyx is a FPS game, so next we’ll talk about the combat, which I think is probably the first “neutral” thing I have to say about the game. I will say, though, that I think this could be more an issue with my Windows Mixed Reality setup than it is with the game. In the game, you’ll find a total of three weapons: your pistol, a one-handed shotgun, and an SMG (sorry folks, no crowbar this time), as well as grenades that are occasionally sitting around in a level. And unfortunately, that's kind of it, which is a tad disappointing. I feel like there were quite a few weapons missing that would've fit really well with VR, like the Crossbow or the .357 Magnum. Managing your inventory is pretty simple. For your weapons you have a four-way directional menu that pops up when you press the touchpad on the right controller, letting you chose between your pistol, shotgun, SMG, or multitool. For regular items, which includes grenades, quick healing items, and a couple of other key items you may need in the game, these are stored on two total inventory slots, with one on each wrist. Pulling items out is as simple as grabbing them off your wrist and using them however they need to be used. This is slightly annoying, especially when you happen upon a huge cache of grenades that could be put to use elsewhere, but the limited factor seems pretty balanced so I can't complain too much. Using weapons works like most “simple” FPS games for VR: you aim, you shoot, you reload, the latter two which I found worked really well. Reloading the guns will vary on the weapon, too. For example, with the pistol you release the clip with the grip button, reach over your shoulder to grab another clip, reload the magazine and then chamber a round with a press of the menu button; for the shotgun, you press the menu button to break open the hinge, reach over your shoulder to grab shells, and insert the shells into the chamber. The part I had issues with, however, was the aiming (and this is mostly limited to the pistol). One of the things I mentioned earlier was weapon upgrades, which is done by finding Combine Fabricators in various little “pit stop” areas in the game, where you can use resin that you find scattered around various levels to improve your weapon in some way. For the pistol, the first upgrade you can get is the Reflex Sight--which basically just made my aim 100% worse. I found myself more comfortable using the iron sights, instead of having to focus on getting the dot sight focused on weak points, which felt like a downgrade from the iron sights in the first place. I felt like I completely wasted 10 of the precious resin I collected which could’ve been used on nicer things earlier on. An option to remove the sight, even with wasting the resin, would’ve been a nice addition, but in the end I just dealt with it until I could finally grab the Laser Sight (which is infinitely better to aim with). I mentioned that I think it may be my setup that's the issue, and that's because I noticed the pistol seems to be rotated just a bit out of sync with where I naturally hold the controller, so my wrist needs to be rotated the slightest bit to the left whenever I'm aiming at something with the Reflex site. Whether that's a Windows Mixed Reality issue or a game issue, I can't say, but I suspect it's the former.
But shooting isn’t the only thing you do in Half-Life: Alyx; there’s puzzles, too! There are around 5 different kinds of puzzles, each of which are generally pretty simple: rewiring electric lines in walls to reroute power; laser webs, where you need to reposition multiple lasers so they’re in line with multiple points; matching puzzles, which are pretty self explanatory; a “laser maze,” where you have to guide a blue dot to a point in a sphere while dodging lasers that are surrounding the sphere (and eventually move); and then there are laser alignment kind of puzzles, where you need to align a laser through a tube just right to hit another point. All in all, pretty simple puzzles, but towards the later game they can get pretty difficult and will require quite a bit of finagling to get everything in their “just right” position. But, thanks to VR and the way you can adjust your view of the puzzles, I never found myself too frustrated. If something looked correct from one point of view yet somehow wasn’t, I was able to simply...move around, so I could get a better view, which was really nice.