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Half-Life: Alyx

Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Valve
Release Date: March 23, 2020

About Tony "OUberLord" Mitera

I've been entrenched in the world of game reviews for almost a decade, and I've been playing them for even longer. I'm primarily a PC gamer, though I own and play pretty much all modern platforms. When I'm not shooting up the place in the online arena, I can be found working in the IT field, which has just as many computers but far less shooting. Usually.


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PC Review - 'Half-Life: Alyx'

by Tony "OUberLord" Mitera on March 23, 2020 @ 10:00 a.m. PDT

Set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Alyx Vance and her father Eli secretly mount the resistance to the brutal occupation of Earth by a mysterious alien race known as The Combine.

Every year, virtual reality games continue to raise the bar, but the platform hasn't quite had its own "system seller." Relatively recently, games like Boneworks and Espire 1 have shown that there is a market for VR games. When Valve announced Half-Life: Alyx, I was shocked because it meant another mainline Half-Life game was coming out, and Valve was throwing down the gauntlet by making it VR-only.

It makes sense; Valve has its own Index VR hardware, and a flagship game such as this can help move the gear. It's just that making Half-Life: Alyx a VR-only experience is an incredibly bold move. It will challenge people who don't already have a VR headset to give the technology a second look, but only if the game is good enough to drive that challenge. Thankfully, it doesn't seem like Valve held back with this one; Half-Life: Alyx might be the most compelling reason yet to own a VR headset.

The game is set between the events of the first two Half-Life games, and you play as 19-year-old Alyx Vance. Alyx and her father Eli continue to resist against the Combine, the alien empire that has taken over Earth and controls its population. During a lockdown, the Combine arrests both Alyx and Eli and takes them in for interrogation. The truck that Alyx is on gets wrecked to free her, and she sets off to rescue her father and learn about the dangerous plots that the Combine have set in motion.

It's important to recognize that in many cases, VR games tend to focus on the experience that the viewpoint offers. It looks like you are in whatever space the VR is presenting, whether it's the bridge of a starship or a medieval battle arena. Fewer games try to make you tangibly feel like you're in the world, and none do it to the level that Alyx does. You start the game on a balcony and can "ooh and aah" as you gaze over the rooftops and toward the massive Combine Citadel. It's a strong, if non-standard, VR experience, but that's far from what the rest of the game offers in that regard.

In the very next room, you are supposed to work some radio equipment by pressing a button, and that's intuitive enough. However, there's also an impromptu whiteboard that someone was previously drawing on by using dry-erase markers on a window. There's no reason for you to do it, but you can also pick up those markers and the eraser and draw whatever you want. There I was, using hundreds of dollars of VR tech and a review copy of an anticipated new game, and what was I doing with it? Getting distracted by drawing profanity on a window.

I use that not as an example of how childish I am, but more as an example of how the world of Half-Life: Alyx often allows you to interact with it in compelling and entertaining ways that aren't tied to progressing in the game. Tap on the glass jar of a little cute/ugly alien you find on someone's desk, watch it recoil in response, and then feed it coffee grounds through the perforated jar lid. Thoughtfully inspect the "water flavor" food packets that you find on your balcony. Pick up that can.

As you make your way through the first portion of the game, you are helped by Russ, who is not only the voice in your ear most of the time but also gives Alyx a pair of gravity gloves. Continuing in Half-Life 2's tradition, Alyx often makes very effective use of physics. By using the gravity gloves, you can target an item in the game world by holding your trigger on it, which makes it glow orange. While holding the trigger, you can flick your wrist to toss the object into the air and toward your hand, and you can then catch it to use it. You will do this hundreds of times in the game, but every time you flick a pistol magazine into the air and catch it, you feel like a supreme badass.

The pistol that Russ gives you is a meager but capable weapon at first. Aiming it requires you to orient your hand so that the sights line up in your vision, and then you fire at the enemy. You can shoot it (and all other weapons) one-handed, and while cupping the bottom with the other hand doesn't have a gameplay benefit, it does seem to make it physically easier to aim. Later in the game, you get a flashlight that mounts on your left hand, so keeping your hands together also keeps the light pointed in the direction that the gun is aiming.

As you explore, you will collect resin, which can be used at Combine crafting stations to upgrade weapons. You'll get three weapons to use in the game: a pistol, a shotgun, and an SMG. Initially, the weapons are capable but very basic, but you can upgrade them to be much more powerful. Double the capacity of the pistol and add a reflex sight to show enemy weak points or add a grenade launcher to the shotgun and a handy laser sight that shows the spread. What upgrades you choose is up to you, but it's all powered by that resin and your ability to thoroughly search for it.

Your gravity gloves also serve as your only source of information, as the game doesn't have a head's up display (HUD). On the back of your left hand, you can see the total ammo count for your equipped weapon, or your resin count if you are unarmed. You can also see your health status in the form of three hearts that shrink and disappear as you take damage. You can store a small item in a "pocket" on either wrist, such as grenades or health syringes and grab them by using your opposite hand. Properly throwing grenades is a bit of an art; you press a button to arm the grenade and start its timer, and you throw it however you want. In my experience, I was very thankful at times to be able to use the gravity gloves to quickly flick an errant grenade into my hands and throw it again after whiffing the first attempt.

At your disposal is also a handy multitool that can be used to hack into Combine systems. Crafting stations must be unlocked before they can be used and some security systems must be bypassed, and every time, you must complete a minigame that makes effective use of VR. Sometimes you will navigate a laser spot around a globe that you must turn with one hand while guiding the laser with the other. Another minigame has you taking one or more central points of three laser beams and moving them, trying to line up their beams with glowing spots hanging in the air. They're intuitive to learn, randomly generated, and really work well in a VR environment.

It's hard to overstate how physically present you feel in the game's world. In a gunfight with the Combine, you'll be literally ducking for cover or leaning out from behind a pillar to trade gunfire. Your gun and hands collide with things, so you end up having to move in realistic ways to bring your gun around or over objects before you can fire. You often open doors by grabbing the handle, turning it, and pushing or pulling it open, but if the door is partially ajar, you can grab the edge of the door to pull it open. Boarded doorways can be traveled through once you pull the boards free, and double doors secured with a pipe through their handles can be opened once you remove the pipe.

It goes without saying that this is a VR experience that you must play with a pair of handheld controllers. Half-Life: Alyx is purportedly compatible with a wide range of modern VR headsets, and the title plays quite well on an Oculus Rift S. Although it can be played from a seated position (as long as you have enough room to move your arms), I found that it is far better played from a standing position. There are a variety of locomotion options available, ranging from teleporting from place to place to full-on freedom of movement. Essentially, the game has just about every option to make VR novices and veterans as comfortable as possible.

The game is stunningly detailed, and although I saw little difference between the "low fidelity" and "high fidelity" options, Half-Life: Alyx looks great either way. I suspect that the developers knew that at any point, people might want to get their faces up close with something, and in turn, nearly everything in the game has been polished. While some VR games tend to simplify thee graphics for a variety of reasons, Alyx makes a strong claim that you can have fantastic graphics within the confines of delivering a VR experience with a comfortable frame rate.

I'm not going to say that Half-Life: Alyx is the reason to get a VR headset, as that would be a disservice to the entertaining gameplay experiences that have been done well within VR. Rather, I will say that Half-Life: Alyx is perhaps the first VR game that gets close to making the player feel like they are a tangible part of the world. It represents some of the absolute best that VR technology can offer right now, and I would point to this particular game for anyone who wants to decide for themselves if VR is "worth it." This title couldn't have been done any other way; Alyx is a masterful addition to anyone's VR game library.

Score: 9.8/10

Reviewed on: Intel i7 4790k, 32 GB RAM, NVidia GTX 2070 Super, Oculus Rift S

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