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Half-Life: Alyx review – a spectacular immersive experience | Games


Virtual reality and the Half-Life series have both struggled with the weight of expectations put upon them. Half-Life and its sequel are treasured games that each redefined the first-person shooter in their own ways. Yet developer Valve Software has left Half-Life’s story unfinished for 13 years, recently admitting that previous attempts to continue it were, in its own view, not good enough.

VR, meanwhile, offers the promise of unparalleled immersion, the ability to let players perceive virtual environments and touch objects as if they were present in the real world. But factors such as high price points, complex setups and the physical demands of playing have seen the tech struggle to bring that magic to the mainstream.

Now, Valve has attempted to solve both problems at once, creating a new Half-Life game designed specifically for VR. The results of this suffusion are nothing short of spectacular, delivering an expertly crafted Half-Life tale inside a knockout VR experience.





Dazzling set-pieces ... Half-Life Alyx.



Dazzling set-pieces … Half-Life: Alyx. Photograph: Valve

Alyx isn’t a direct continuation of Half-Life’s story, instead taking place five years before the events of Half-Life 2. You also don’t play as the series protagonist Gordon Freeman, but as his Half-Life 2 companion Alyx Vance. In this prequel, Alyx is a 19-year-old rebel fighting a guerrilla war against a force of alien invaders known as the Combine.

The game opens with a breathtaking demonstration of VR’s ability to represent scale. Performing reconnaissance for the rebels, Alyx stands atop a balcony overlooking the rooftops of City 17 – a sweeping vista of pastel-coloured townhouses sitting in the cobalt-blue shadow of the Combine’s towering citadel. The introduction also lets you dabble with a VR-unique control system, twiddling with radios and writing with felt-tip pens on windows before getting to the heart of the matter. Your father, Eli, has been abducted by Civil Protection, and you need to venture into the City’s alien-infested Quarantine Zone to rescue him.





Fending off a headcrab ... Half-Life Alyx.



Fending off a headcrab … Half-Life: Alyx. Photograph: Valve

To aid her mission, Alyx has several VR-enhanced tools at her disposal. A pair of gravity gloves enable her to move objects with a flick of the wrist, which can then be caught mid-air by pressing the controller’s grip buttons. Alongside this, Alyx has a remote device for hacking electrical systems, and several weapons that must all be handled, aimed, and reloaded using virtual hands.

Much of this is familiar territory for VR applications, although Valve imbues each component with its trademark slick efficiency. What makes Alyx special is a more general symbiosis between the technology and the Half-Life universe. VR adds so much texture to City 17 and its motley inhabitants. This is shown in striking fashion by the headcrabs, Half-Life’s scuttling aliens who leap at your face. In previous Half-Life games, these critters were little more than crowbar fodder. Here, you get a palpable sense of their weight and power, how those leathery limbs and twitching mandibles could crack a human skull like a combination safe.

Speaking of cracking things, VR adds tactile detail to the Combine’s strange technology. Many terminals you come across are protected by holographic security systems that can be manipulated with virtual hands. These hacking puzzles make fantastic use of VR tech, although one could argue Alyx’s designers are overly fond of obstructing your progress with them.

As for what Half-Life brings to VR, how does structure, pacing, narrative, character, dazzling set-pieces and frantic action sound? Like all of the Half-Life games, each of Alyx’s 11 chapters has a distinct theme, whether it’s exploring a dilapidated hotel infested by alien spores, or battling Combine soldiers through the chimney stacks and brick warehouses of City 17’s industrial district. The game sports a remarkable tonal range. At several points it becomes an outright survival horror, with Alyx battling zombies and headcrabs in the cramped darkness of the city’s sewers and subways. But Alyx and her comm-linked companion Russell lend levity to even the darkest moments, via first-rate voice acting and a script packed with genuinely funny jokes.

Valve’s debut VR game (after years of enticing demos) is a showcase of how to use this tech for long-form narratives and it’s a scintillating new entry in the Half-Life series. It may not be exactly the Half-Life game fans hoped for, lacking that all-important “3” on the end. But from Left 4 Dead to Portal, Valve is a master at giving players games they didn’t know they wanted – Half-Life: Alyx is another example of that ability to surprise, delight and innovate.

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