Valve finally return to the Half-Life universe with the most advanced VR game ever made, but is it everything fans have been waiting for?
Valve may be the strangest video game developer in history. As inscrutable as Nintendo and Rockstar Games can be, you can usually follow their logic to some degree. But we have no idea what Valve has been playing at for the 13 years since the last Half-Life game. Clearly, they lost interest in single-player video games around the time of Portal 2 in 2011, concentrating instead on multiplayer titles like Counter-Strike and Dota 2, and VR tech demo The Lab. But now, at last, they’re back.
To judge by his comments in a recent interview, the real passion of Valve president Gabe Newell seems to be turning The Matrix into a reality, by researching such advanced technologies as human-brain interfaces and artificial intelligence. He seems to see VR as a stepping stone towards that goal and we have a feeling that if Half-Life hadn’t been a good fit for a VR game we’d probably never have seen the franchise ever again.
But here it is, the return of one of the most influential video game franchises of all time (even if most console gamers have barely heard of it, as we discussed in our Black Mesa review). Supposedly, there are still many people at Valve that worked on the original games and while we’d love to know what they’ve been doing for all these years, the predictable truth is their skills have become dulled with lack of use. Although not so much that this isn’t still one of the best VR games ever made.
Half-Life: Alyx is set in-between Half-Life 1 and 2, at a time when series protagonist Gordon Freeman is… elsewhere. So instead you play as Alyx Vance, daughter of one of the lead scientists that inadvertently enabled interdimensional aliens to invade the Earth. That’s really as much as you need to know when starting, so if you’ve never played any of the games before that’s not going to be an impediment at all. We will say that the story does also reflect on what happens in Half-Life 2 and its subsequent episodes, but naturally we’re not going to spoil exactly how.
Alyx’s voicework is performed by a new actress and her physical presence is represented only by a pair of floating hands, which, thankfully, isn’t as disconcerting as it sounds. But despite being in VR, in most respects the design and structure of the game is largely the same as previous Half-Life titles, with a fairly even mix of puzzle-solving, combat, and only minimal backtracking.
You wear a pair of ‘gravity gloves’, instead of wielding a gravity gun, but it’s still essentially the same thing as you draw objects towards you with a mini-tractor beam – although picking up exactly the right one is always a lot more difficult than it looks. Many of the actual puzzles revolve around rewiring machinery and tracing power cables using a ‘multitool’. This is all very tactile and exciting at first, but the same basic trick is used so many times that your enthusiasm tends not to last until the end of the game.
Likewise, the combat is a somewhat awkward mix of first person shooter standards and existing VR shortcuts. You have only three different (but upgradeable) guns and after a few battles with humanoid enemies you begin to realise how contrived the combat encounters are. The game tries to make your opponents’ less mobile than they would be in a non-VR game but you still end up running (or more likely teleporting) around in circles and trying to compensate for the awkward mix of motion and analogue controls, that do nothing but prove that the perfect VR controller has yet to be invented.
Half-Life: Alyx has a larger survival horror element than any of the previous games, with many genuinely frightening encounters with not just the facehugger style headcrabs but all the other gloopy Half-Life aliens and a few new ones. If you’ve made it through Resident Evil 7 alive then you’ll be fine but for others the whole thing can be absolutely terrifying and we can imagine many giving up because it’s too intense, and thereby missing out on everything else.
It’s easy to pick holes in Half-Life: Alyx because half of the appeal with the originals was that they were inventing the rulebook as they were going along, defining the way first person shooters – and games in general – would work for the next decade or more. By comparison, Half-Life: Alyx does relatively little that is brand new for VR, if you’ve played things like Boneworks or even just Arizona Sunshine. Most of the time it just ends up doing the same thing slightly better.
To be fair, the level of detail in Half-Life: Alyx is extraordinary, both literally in terms of the art design and all the dozens of objects laying around at any time, but also the realistic way in which you can interact with them, from throwing and catching grenades, to slowing pushing a door ajar, to smashing a window with a chair, or using the controller to mimic holding your breath when stalked by a blind enemy with super-hearing.
As with the gravity gloves, these interactions don’t always work exactly as you intend but these details are still amongst the game’s most ambitious elements. Especially as at other times it can feel strangely old-fashioned, as not only do the puzzles and combat lose their novelty before the end but the occasionally plodding pacing is a bit too reminiscent of the original games, and further evidence that Valve hasn’t quite been keeping up with modern techniques.
Many of these concerns are lessened by the ending, which is superb and blows the whole franchise wide open in terms of both storytelling and gameplay implications, but the other 14 hours often feel too much like a tech demo and not enough like a game.
How much of a problem that is, is open to debate – not least because of the question of how many people are going to even get the chance to experience it. The Valve Index headset is expensive and almost impossible to get hold of during the coronavirus pandemic, while the PC needed to run all this is not the sort anyone but a dedicated PC gamer is going to have. More than that, the game has also clearly been designed with American-sized living rooms in mind, rather than the more modest floor space the rest of the world will likely be limited to.
You can play the game sitting on a sofa and Valve has done everything they can to make this as enjoyable and intuitive as possible, but you’re only really seeing all the game can offer when you’ve got a large empty space to duck and dive within, using the VR to its full potential and not just a subset of its features. It’s even worse if you don’t have a high-end headset as while the game does work with the Oculus Quest, for example, it’s highly erratic and causes a lot of slowdown even if your PC is up to the job.
Half-Life: Alyx is an indulgence that only Valve would ever contemplate and yet you can’t help but feel glad that they’re willing to go against all sane commercial sense and spend so much money making something that so few people will be able to play in its ideal conditions.
But even then, this is not a flawless experience and in terms of both VR implementation and underlying gameplay design it’s surprisingly easy to nitpick. But if that encourages Valve to not get out of practice again, and to go back to being a full-time video game developer, then perhaps that will be the most important legacy of Half-Life: Alyx.
Half-Life: Alyx VR review summary
In Short: An incredible technical achievement but one that is surprisingly short of genuinely new ideas, and often struggles to get the balance right between VR showpiece and satisfying gameplay experience.
Pros: Incredible sense of immersion and the most interactive VR world ever seen. Excellent art design and visuals, with some great set pieces and a fantastic final last hour.
Cons: Combat and puzzles both become repetitive before the end. Odd pacing and lots of minor control foibles.
Formats: PC VR
Release Date: 23rd March 2020
Age Rating: N/A
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