Half-Life: Alyx: The Kotaku Review

Image: Valve

Mere minutes into Half-Life: Alyx, I encountered a Strider. These behemoths cast ominous shadows on all who dare pass beneath them, their spindly legs and jagged haunches forming a silhouette of sheer threat. I gazed up at the Strider in awe. I could practically feel the wind buffet my face as it lumbered past the balcony I stood on. Then I raised both my hands high and flipped it off.

In Half-Life: Alyx, you’re not series hero Gordon Freeman. You are Alyx Vance, Gordon’s BFF and fellow resistance member, undertaking a mission to rescue her father just prior to her first meeting with Gordon. Before long, however, Alyx and her compatriots learn of the existence of a Combine super weapon and endeavor to destroy it or claim it for humanity.

You’re Alyx, but you’re also you: Alyx is a game that can only be played in VR, which turns it into a distinctly more personal experience than Half-Life, Half-Life 2, or their episodic sequels. Want to defiantly flip off a Strider? Go for it. Want to pick up a zombie corpse and slap its face around like it’s the third (and worst) Stooge? Sure, knock yourself out. Want to try to do the same thing to a headcrab, only for it to leap out of your hands and onto your face? It’s your funeral. That’s what makes it special. You can be silly. You can be expressive and dramatic. You can pick up every last object you find in the game world, gently examine it, and then hurl it into an abyss. You can embody Alyx however you choose.

Here’s 20 minutes of Half-Life: Alyx in action.

But, by the same token, you’re the one performing all the actions. Need to reload your pistol? It’s you performing every step in the process, instead of some lightning-handed weapons wizard. It’s your butter fingers retrieving ammo from your backpack, loading the magazine into your gun, and cocking it, all while a headcrab zombie charges at you like a drunken gorilla. I dropped the ammo magazine. I did it multiple times. Each time, I ran away from the headcrab zombie while audibly whimpering in fear.

Alyx is a full-blown Half-Life adventure that, at least in terms of length and scope, rivals anything the series has produced. But VR changes the nature of your interactions with City 17 and its denizens. When Alyx is firing on all cylinders—drenching you in dread and atmosphere while steadily introducing new, VR-specific mechanics and ideas—the game injects some unfamiliarity into locations and enemies whose novelty has worn off for series fans. But, partially as a result of needing to get people acclimated to this bold new VR world, it reveres the games that came before a little too much, taking quite a few hours before it breaks ground that feels truly new and trying to replicate some elements of previous Half-Life games that aren’t a great fit for VR. Half-Life is a different beast in VR. It is more stressful and intense than its non-VR predecessors. It can be downright exhausting—sometimes for extremely laudable reasons and other times for deeply frustrating ones. Alyx reveals what VR games can be, but perhaps also what they should try to avoid for fear of overwhelming or frustrating players.

Half-Life: Alyx is a return to a universe that’s laid dormant since 2007's Half-Life 2: Episode 2, but it’s also the first game in the series to be designed from the ground up for VR headsets. This in mind, the game needs to teach you a lot in a relatively short amount of time: How to move in VR by warping forward in any direction, rather than moving seamlessly through levels like in a standard FPS. How to pick up and store ammo by physically placing it in your backpack. How to use Alyx’s gravity gloves, the game’s take on Half-Life 2’s iconic gravity gun, to yank objects from afar, which solves the long-standing VR problem of awkwardly reaching out to grab things. How to use Alyx’s multi-tool, a small electronic device that can hack human and Combine technology, to solve different kinds of puzzles that involve manipulating holograms in 3D spaces in order to access ammo, health, and weapon upgrades that are locked inside various Combine devices. How to put your weapons in upgrade machines, which give them new parts like additional ammo slots and laser sights. How to open cabinets. How to aim your dang gun with your own two hands instead of a mouse or controller.

These things might sound basic, but they take time to etch into your muscle memory. And so, for the first few hours, Alyx goes relatively easy on you. The pace is nice and even. Levels are simplistic zombie game fare—straightforward nearly to the point of being unmemorable. The game introduces new concepts and challenges just when it feels like you’re ready to tackle them and not a moment sooner. You encounter enemies that, if you’re a Half-Life fan, you’ll want to greet like old friends.

But then a headcrab leaps onto your actual human face, and you freak the absolute fuck out. Over the course of my 17-hour playthrough, headcrabs never stopped making me feel a nauseating sense of dread. This is far from my first VR rodeo; I’m used to having video game enemies try to invade what feels like my IRL space. My reaction, then, is a testament to the animation and sound design skill of Half-Life: Alyx’s development team that the very idea of being touched by these lurching meatball monsters inspired within me a deep revulsion. (Relevant sidenote: It’s possible to catch leaping headcrabs with your outstretched hands in this one. The first time I tried, I did so with a bucket, for fear of my hands going anywhere near the creature’s gurgling craw.)

<i>Half-Life: Alyx</i>: The <i>Kotaku </i>Review
Image: Valve

I found this to be true for a great many members of Half-Life’s classic closet o’ monsters. Headcrab zombies. Barnacles. Antlions. Poison headcrabs—oh god, poison headcrabs! Without giving away too much, I will just say that Alyx contains a segment involving plentiful darkness and poison headcrabs, as you’d expect from a Half-Life game. It is masterfully designed. I have never been more afraid while playing a video game, especially toward the end of this section. During the level’s crescendo, I freaked out and forgot how to even hold my gun, let alone how to aim it. Then I teleported face-first into a wall. My adrenaline spiked like a freshly-burst fire hydrant. For a brief moment, I could not remember how to form words. I just knew that I was deeply, authentically afraid. This level was not immensely difficult, but after playing it, I had to lie down on the couch and take a breather. It felt like some part of my lizard brain really believed I’d just had a brush with death.

But even when it’s going easy on you, Alyx is a stressful experience. It is one thing to have your space invaded by a pesky, bladed “manhack” robot in a standard Half-Life game. It’s something else to have one soaring around your head and neck in VR. You want to yell or empty a full clip into it just to make sure it doesn’t rise up and pop your personal bubble again. The first time a swarm of them came after me, it was overwhelming. There were just so many, and they moved so fast, buzzed so menacingly. I warped around a series of narrow alleys to try to maintain distance, cursing as my anxiety-addled shots pinged uselessly off walls each time the manhacks got close enough for me to open fire.

Over time, thanks to the game’s series of slowly escalating challenges, I adjusted. A few hours in, I encountered proper assault rifle-wielding Combine soldiers. I felt ready. The whole scene was beautifully set, with nostalgia-tickling Combine radio chatter coming from behind a moving train. I knew what I had to do. I warped behind a chunk of cover. The train passed. Synth-laden guitar music took the place of an otherwise sparse soundtrack. Two soldiers saw me. They opened fire. I ducked. Physically, with my whole body. I popped one with my pistol. He fired back. I ducked again. One of his shots grazed me, taking away a portion of one of my three hearts of health. But this was my moment. I fired again and again and again. I reloaded with the speed and efficacy of an action movie hero, or at least someone who doesn’t die in the first scene of an action movie. Eventually, one soldier dropped dead, eliciting the familiar heart monitor flatline sound that’s accompanied Combine deaths since time immemorial (2004). I then made short work of his friend with some sloppy but effective followup shots.

After the second soldier fell, I stood up and raised both my arms in triumph. I did not land any perfect headshots or slaughter a horde of alien jerkholes like Gordon “Gosh darn, he’s good at slaughtering alien jerkholes” Freeman, but I overcame what felt like my first real test with poise and a little bit of style instead of panic and spaghetti spilling out of my pockets. Then I went over to one of the deceased soldiers, grabbed him by the head, and slapped him around like the fabled Third Stooge. I was ready for new challenges.

The game agreed. After the first five or so hours, Alyx removes its kid gloves. This leads to some of the game’s best moments: high water marks not just for Half-Life: Alyx, but for Half-Life in general. When Half-Life: Alyx stops trying to pay tribute to the enemies and encounters that have come before and brings wholly new (at least, for Half-Life) ideas to the table, it soars more often than it falters.

One level toward the middle of the game involves avoiding an uber-powerful creature that is sightless, but reacts to even the slightest sounds and will “tear your arms off,” according to another character, if it ever gets its hands on you. I did not fire a single bullet for this entire level, because I like my arms. Instead, I had to creep around and, in a fun twist, physically cover my mouth with my hand to prevent Alyx from audibly coughing around toxic spores scattered throughout the area’s corridors. The level, in turn, found increasingly diabolical ways to force me into close quarters with this heaving monstrosity, often by forcing me to solve puzzles within spitting distance of its salivating jaws. The level was clever and terrifying, reworking puzzle ideas present in earlier levels to fit its Don’t Wake Daddy formula. Each time I entered a new part of it, I let out an exasperated sigh and said “Oh, you have got to be kidding me.” I loved it.

There are other top-notch levels, too. One takes place in a zoo. It’s very funny. Another makes great use of verticality. There’s one involving explosive barrels that at least gets points for creativity. Oh, and the final level is bonkers.

But by the time I reached the end of the game, it felt like it had overstayed its welcome a little. Many of its challenges—both in terms of combat and puzzling—escalate incrementally, and after they escalate past a certain point, VR becomes a liability rather than an immersion enhancer. There are frustrating segments and mechanical stumbles that had me practically spitting with frustration.

In its apparent rush to feel like a proper first-person shooter instead of a VR shooting gallery, Half-Life: Alyx throws more and more enemies at you each time you wind up in an open space. These enemies are certainly more stationary than standard FPS baddies, but they still follow you, flank you, throw grenades to flush you out of cover, and send manhacks to hunt you down. Initially, this is exciting, and it fits with the game’s premise: Alyx is, after all, a normal human taking on overwhelming alien forces. It is immensely cool to warp behind cover and blast a shotgun-toting Warhammer 40,000 space marine wannabe with one hand while injecting a health syringe into your stomach with the other. That’s some real skin-of-your-teeth stuff!

But these fights quickly devolve into awkward games of Ring Around The Rosie where you’re fleeing around combat arenas using stop-start warp controls and herky-jerky analog stick-based turning to occasionally blast enemies before resuming your short-distance teleport-sprint to new cover. It’s just not an ideal control configuration for that kind of sustained locomotion or situational awareness (though you can at least alter the extent to which you turn in the game’s options). It just doesn’t feel natural in a fast-paced combat scenario. On more than a few occasions, my hand got stuck on an object, or my view turned the wrong way, or my head wound up partially in a wall. Having enemies bust up the “real” you is intrinsically more stressful than when they knock abstract health points off a video game avatar, and it’s not fun to feel like you’re piloting a malfunctioning tin man at the same time. Sometimes, it’s even infuriating.

Some enemies introduced later in the game make this kind of combat more enjoyable, but others do the opposite. Regular antlions, for example, come at you in frightening swarms, but it’s fun to blast their legs off to slow them down. Blue antlions, however, lob slime blasts at you that do pretty serious damage and leave a residue over your eyes that temporarily obscures your already-limited (relative to normal FPSes) vision. Fighting them in isolation rules. To avoid their blasts, I bobbed my head, slid my feet away in the nick of time, and even leaped backwards, nearly tripping over the couch behind me in the process. But mix blue antlions into a group of regular antlions and Combine soldiers, and you’ve got a recipe for frustration. Getting hit with a blinding blast out of nowhere just feels cheap when you’re frantically warping about. There’s not time to fight them the fun way while fending off ten or more enemies, either. You have to juggle too many other factors while battling controls that just aren’t cut out for nuanced maneuvering at high speeds.

It doesn’t help that there are a few too many of each encounter, bosses included. One boss in particular shows up first as a clever hide-and-seek challenge, and then as a different, much more perilous fight that’s clever in a different way. But then the game traps you in a basement with two of that boss and a bunch of headcrab zombies, forcing you to run in circles to avoid attacks that cover large swathes of ground, and it’s like “OK, we get it.” Alyx often gives third acts to encounters that don’t feel like they need them, or that feel like they could enjoyably ramp up to that level of complicated chaos in a normal first-person shooter. But this is a VR game, where the line between fun and frustration is thin.

The game’s recurring multi-tool puzzles, for the most part, do not suffer from the same issues as combat, but they similarly hit a point of diminishing returns in the game’s later portions, when they grow from cool manipulations of three-dimensional spaces into unwieldy multi-part exercises in trying to outdo previous iterations of the same puzzle. There are a few recurring multi-tool puzzles in Half-Life: Alyx: the hologram ball you guide blue lights through (while avoiding swarms of red lights), the hologram ball that asks you to match same-colored segments across its surface, the hologram of mini-constellations that you organize such that beams of light pass through designated areas, and the one where you use your multi-tool to trace wires in walls and complete circuits by changing the direction electricity flows.

<i>Half-Life: Alyx</i>: The <i>Kotaku </i>Review
Image: Valve

Many of these are optional. They’re largely fine, but there are so darn many of them, and new ones just add more steps instead of fundamentally altering the nature of the puzzle in question. More blue lights to guide to one another while hoping your controller doesn’t briefly freak out and force you to start over. More mini-constellations to tug on and tinker with until they’re perfectly aligned. More circuits to follow through more rooms. After a while, they make the game feel repetitive. As with combat, even the slightest controller sensitivity issues or sensor glitches can bring them to an annoying, premature halt.

I also question whether the chapter-based, long-form storytelling of a traditional single-player FPS is a good fit for virtual reality. I tried to play Alyx as I did Half-Life 2 back in the day, immersing myself in its story and world via a series of multi-hour play sessions. I came away with adrenaline-fried nerves and body aches. VR of this fidelity is simply more intense than a standard video game. Alyx does a great job of leveraging its detailed (by VR standards) graphics, depicting a world that slowly builds from grimy to absolutely slathered in all manner of alien fluids. In conjunction with stellar sound and visual design, it leaves you dreading what’s around every corner. But it takes a toll over time, especially once those monsters finally stop going bump in the night and start going bump on your face.

On top of that, there’s the obvious fact that VR is more physical than regular games. During any given play session, I stood, I walked, I leaped, and I crouched. On their own, none of these actions are difficult or intense, but they add up. Fortunately, Half-Life: Alyx has a slew of accessibility options to lighten the load and allow more people to play, such as a single controller mode, a crouch toggle, a stand toggle for seated players, and height adjustment. But the game’s standard mode demands more physicality than players might expect because, if nothing else, standing mostly in one place for long periods of time is hard on your knees and back. On top of that, there’s still the accessibility elephant in the room: price. To experience Half-Life: Alyx in its full glory, you need an expensive headset tethered to an (at least) equally expensive PC, not to mention an apartment or living space with enough room for you to comfortably move around. This game is, for now, certainly not for everyone.

Half-Life: Alyx reaches some astoundingly high heights while also managing to be both too ambitious and too conservative for its own good. At different points, it tries to be VR’s long-heralded, Gordon Freeman-esque savior full of fresh ideas about how VR can transform video games with inventive and immersive mechanics, proof that VR can fall in line with traditional action games meant for entirely different interfaces, and a triumphantly nostalgic return to the Half-Life universe. It is not surprising that these goals sometimes conflict with each other.

In a lot of ways, the end result feels in line with the Half-Life series’ legacy. Messiness has always been part of the package. Half-Life was a masterpiece, but nobody would call it perfect, as evidenced by the gargantuan fan remake project that spent more than a decade attempting to fix its flaws. In truth, Half-Life 2's story was not a narrative revolution—at least, not in terms of the content of the story it told. It leaned on mystery to fill in gaps where substance faltered and had many other issues besides. But its setting’s sense of place and the techniques it pioneered to help players fully soak up that world’s details informed countless future games. And that’s to say nothing of all the game’s physics-focused mechanical innovations.

Half-Life: Alyx, similarly, is a game of quiet revolutions that make it more than the sum of its parts, of pioneering ideas that we someday may not be able to imagine VR games without. Its locations feel like well-worn territory until a little too late in its arc. Its story has one wild twist, but otherwise it goes pretty much where you’d expect. It lacks the emotional gravitas needed to make its main beats really sing—Alyx’s relationship with resistance member Russel, who chatters in her ear throughout her journey, is more quippy than heartfelt, and most other characters make brief appearances rather than getting time to be actual, you know, characters. It is, in so many ways, Another Half-Life Game in the mold of Half-Life 2 and its episodes when it could have been more.

At the same time, I could go on for days about the item-yanking mechanic alone. Once you get it down, it feels so good to hold out your hand like Iron Man, pull a distant object toward you, and squeeze your controller (or just a trigger, if you prefer) to catch it. Every single time I did it, I felt like a cool genius. My partner told me that I looked cool in real life while I was doing it. Nobody ever looks cool in real life when they’re doing things in VR! And it solves so many issues inherent to navigating virtual spaces. You don’t have to reach out at odd angles to grab things and risk confusing or otherwise harming your VR setup. You can just flick your wrist, and there you have it: that thing you wanted. I am not joking when I say that my brain still thinks I should have this power in real life. In the past five days, I have absentmindedly tried on three separate occasions to pull small objects toward me by flicking my wrist. So far, it has not worked, but I continue to hold out hope.

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Kotaku senior reporter. Beats: Twitch, streaming, PC gaming. Writing a book about streamers tentatively titled "STREAMERS" to be published by Atria/Simon & Schuster in the future.

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DISCUSSION

So when do you reckon we’d get the non-VR version? As the reviewer says, good VR setup is expensive, no everyone has the money and the space for it, and I personally get really bad vertigo from VR and it’s very awkward to use because of my glasses. I’d love to play this being a huge HL fan but there’s no way I’d get a VR setup to do so. Valve has to realize that they are really limiting their sales by making this VR only at the moment.