Review: Half-Life: Alyx

Half-Life started so simply, way back in 1998.  One day Gordon Freeman was working at Black Mesa when everything went south, resulting in another dimension’s horrors flowing into the world. Surviving both the monstrosities wandering the complex’s destroyed hallways and the military’s attempts to shut it down was such a legendary feat that, twenty years later in Half-Life 2, Freeman is still seen as being the one who can save the world from the Combine’s grip.  While Half-Life 2 was complete its follow-up, the Episodes trilogy, was never finished, wrapping on a cliffhanger involving the scientist Eli Vance and his daughter Alyx.  That cliffhanger has been hanging for thirteen years, and while Valve has its reasons for never resolving it, those reasons, to put it bluntly, kind of suck.  They’re also finally in the past, with Half-Life: Alyx being the return the series deserved.  The old story is still unresolved but Alyx is back, five years before the start of Half-Life 2 and well on her way to becoming someone who can keep up with Gordon Freeman.

Half-Life: Alyx is a full AAA-caliber VR entry in the long-running series.  The action may not be the full-bore FPS assault of the earlier games, thanks to the demands of the VR format, but what it’s replaced with is a physics and interactivity playground crawling with the bio-horrors of the Combine’s home dimension.  It doesn’t start that way, of course, with the player dropped behind Alyx’s eyes on the balcony of her apartment.

City 17 was a pleasant Easter European town before the Seven Hour War changed everything and the view is lovely aside from the reminders that it’s occupied by an invading alien force.  The point of the opening is to give the player a chance to play, experimenting with all the props and seeing which ones function and which are decorative, and it’s easy to lose the first half hour of gameplay hanging out on the balcony and poking around Alyx’s stuff just to see what you can get up to.  Personally, I couldn’t resist throwing empty bottles to shatter in the street below, but was slightly disappointed when a lucky shot didn’t break on the head of a random pedestrian.  Alyx’s hands are your hands and it’s nearly impossible from game start through the final confrontation not to want to touch everything along the way.

After poking around, playing with markers on a dry-erase board and picking up bits of environmental storytelling, it’s time to start the adventure.  A Combine raid sweeps up Eli Vance so Alyx heads out to rescue him, but not before dropping by Russell to pick up his latest invention, the gravity gloves.  While everything in the world so far has required reaching out and grabbing, the gravity gloves give you a much longer range, requiring a grab and pull motion to bring the lighter parts of the scenery towards you.  While they don’t work for barrels they’re good for just about anything smaller and even the bigger things can be played with if you walk up to them and manually grab on.  It’s always fun to salt the battleground with a stray red explosive barrel or two, if they happen to be available beforehand, even if you have to lug them there.

While there’s plenty of shooting action it’s only a small part of what makes Half-Life: Alyx so completely engaging.  The level of control in the environments is fantastic, beyond anything that’s been done, and using your actual hands to manipulate it in a mostly-logical manner makes it almost impossible not to want to open every drawer in the hopes there’s stray ammo hiding in there.  Bits of trash and bottles line every level, furniture and boxes can be picked up and moved around, or even used as shields to protect from a jumping headcrab.  The only complaint is that, as huge a leap as it is, the interactivity still shows how early we are to the tech, like viewing human models on the PS1.  It’s amazing for the time but there’s still plenty left to do.  The verb for hands is “grab,” so I can pick up a book without issue, but trying to use the other hand merely transfers it over rather than opens it up.  Certain items like health-stims let you press a controller button to activate, while the occasional wall-mounted device has buttons you can push with a pointed index finger, but for the most part it’s all about grabbing and throwing.  Which is a huge amount of fun when a slowly beeping grenade rolls nearby, which you can then pop up to your hand and then toss back where it came from.

While combat may not be the driving force of Half-Life: Alyx there’s still a good amount of it, much of which later in the game requires tactical use of cover in its arenas.  As Alyx leaves Russel’s apartment she picks up a pistol and some ammo, and this is the first of three weapons she finds in the game.  All guns need to be manually loaded, and if emptied, readied for firing again.  Alyx stores ammo in her backpack and will automatically pull out the right type for the current weapon and a press of a controller button readies the gun for loading.  On the pistol this ejects the magazine and the new one slots right into the grip.  A quick pull on the top to rack the bullet into place and the pistol is ready to fire again.  The shotgun, on the other hand, cracks open and you can place two shells at a time, while the energy rifle has batteries that slot into place.  Every once in a while found in clearly marked areas of the levels are devices you can use to upgrade each gun, expanding its magazine capacity, adding sights or laser pointers, and even putting a grenade launcher on the shotgun.

These upgrades are paid for in Half-Life: Alyx‘s collectible, resin.  While grenades and health stims are nice tools to have, ammo is much more effective with an upgraded weapon so it doesn’t take long before you’re turning over boxes and looking in odd sections of the scenery in hopes of finding another piece of the blue-glowing ore.  A good number of the environmental puzzles are built around turning up resin, such as when a chunk is on the other side of an explosive laser-gate.  Most pieces are simply hidden away, some more thoroughly than others, and it’s always rewarding to find a stray hunk and yank it in from afar.

A good part of what makes the hunt so rewarding is the variety in environments.  While City 17 is urban, Alyx’s quest takes her from her home apartment to the train tracks, down into an abandoned subway system, through a hotel and various industrial combat playgrounds.  What makes these environments pop is a combination of ruins exploration and fascination at how the world of the Combine is slowly integrating and growing over the city.  The initial areas are simply abandoned and broken, with the occasional dead body or not-so-dead headcrab-animated corpse serving as a reminder that Earth has seen better days.  As Alyx makes her way further into the uninhabited zone the overgrowth gets worse, with strange fungus and other disturbing not-flora growing everywhere and rotting the city away.  Headcrabs get more numerous, barnacles drop grabbing tendrils from the ceiling and VR does its standard immersive job of making it all feel life-sized.  I’ve killed more than enough headcrabs in Half-Life 1 and 2, but there’s something about one of the hideous plucked-turkey-beasts latching on to your actual/virtual life sized face that makes it so much worse, pounding the bio-horror home.

Meanwhile there is of course even more going on.  Alyx is in regular radio contact with Russel, who provides moral support as best he can despite being amazingly terrible with people.  Every once in a while a puzzle element will pop up, requiring use of a widget that’s as good at tracing wiring through walls as it is manipulating holographic points of light or tracing a safe path across the surface of a light-sphere crawling with red enemies in a dodge-em-up mini-game (the Combine’s lock tech may be pretty but it’s amazingly ineffective). A couple other regulars and memorable characters pop up to join the cast, some hanging around longer than others, but even the one-shot people have distinct personalities.  And just when things seem like they’re settling into a rhythm a new set-piece will shake up the action, providing a moment that would be cinematic if all you could do was watch rather than take part.

It all adds up to a hugely-ambitious game that only misses in a couple of places.  As mentioned earlier, the things you can do sometimes serve to highlight the things you can’t, such as fully interact with background items, or more notably, go places that seem like you should be able to access.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of ducking down to fit into a tight space but more often than not it’s just a big No, that ledge is off limits due to reasons.  The tech does an amazing job of keeping up in most places, running at a smooth framerate while looking fantastic, but I ran into several places where the game just stopped out of nowhere, glitching in the headset while thinking about what to do next before recovering and proceeding on like nothing happened.  It never crashed out entirely, and didn’t happen often, but was always a bit worrying when two images of slightly differing perspective tried to show at once before everything went grey-ish tan and then popped back into place.  Smaller issues like the occasional disappearing ammo when you fumbled a catch also kicked in now and then, and the load times are such that, if you’ve got an SSD drive, you’ll want to use it.  The install is 70GB+ and on initial boot-up it almost feels like the game is trying to process the whole thing.  And then the level loads and Alyx is back in action, and the technical issues pale into insignificance as a giant tripod walks past Alyx’s apartment, cracking the tile on her roof.

Closing Comments:

Alyx is a trooper throughout the entire adventure, and while she can get freaked out by the places she needs to go, she never stops moving forward.  Sometimes this requires a good long chat with Russel to quell the fear, and other times trying not to think about searching corpses or dealing with a headcrab having been attached to her face, but Alyx starts strong and never weakens through an adventure every bit as epic as anything Gordon Freeman has survived.  The gameplay itself is nearly perfectly paced as well, with exploration leading to confrontation and then scavenging for parts and ammo, and everywhere there’s something new to pick up and play with.  I took my time with Half-Life: Alyx, partly due to limited hours in the day but mostly because each new area was a joy to thoroughly explore, sifting through the wreckage, corpses and otherwordly fungus to turn up the tools of survival.  Half-Life: Alyx is an incredible journey, worth every second of the nineteen hours from start to epic finish, and an adventure worthy not only of the Half-Life name but also the enhanced expectations that grew during the series’ thirteen year absence.