Half-Life: Alyx is the best that VR, and Valve, have to offer

You’ve waited 13 years for a new Half-Life game, so I know you can wait a few paragraphs for me to get into the review.

I want to talk about core loops.

A core loop is the thing you do, minute to minute, while playing a video game — the action, or actions, that you repeat throughout the entire experience. The core loop in Angry Birds involves pulling back on the catapult, aiming your shot, and watching to see how much of the structure of the level each bird is able to take down. The core loop in Gears of War involves running forward, taking cover, returning fire, nailing the active reload sequence, and then running forward again.

Every game, no matter how complicated or narratively rich, can be boiled down to simple core loops, which means that the entire experience depends on those loops being good — satisfying, even. If the developers aren’t able to provide a rewarding core loop, one that you’ll want to repeat for hours — if not days or months, in certain cases — everything else is wasted time. A good core loop can salvage an otherwise poor game. It all comes down to the loop.

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So let’s take a moment to discard the hype of a new Half-Life game after a wait this long. Let’s strip away the conversation about whether or not that game should be in virtual reality, when Valve knows that decision will keep many fans from playing it, at least initially. Let’s take a breath before we discuss the story, and whether or not it moves the lore of Half-Life forward or attempts to retcon what we already know about the series.

Because the gameplay loop of Half-Life: Alyx is exquisite, which means the entire game works. This is the Half-Life game I’ve been waiting for since the end of Episode Two.

Eli Vance is dead

Half-Life: Alyx inspires awe from its opening seconds. You stand among rubble, staring up at a giant wall that stretches up into the clouds, and it erases any doubt about the scale of what you’re about to experience. The soundtrack begins to swell, and the logo appears. It’s finally time to go back to City 17.

Image: Valve

Except time can be a fluid thing in the Half-Life universe. Eli Vance, the leader of the resistance against the alien-like occupying force known as the Combine, is dead. He died at the end of Episode 2, creating a cliffhanger that has remained unresolved since President Obama’s first term, some 12-plus years ago.

Half-Life: Alyx begins by reminding you that Vance is dead, and then starts the story — five years before the events in Episode 2. You are Alyx Vance, and your mission is simple: The Combine have your father, Eli Vance, and you must save him.

Alyx knows that doing so is a long shot. Russell, a friend in the resistance who invented the gravity gloves that Alyx wears throughout the game, is never shy about sharing his pessimism. The two characters chatter at each other throughout the game; the days of Half-Life with a silent protagonist are over.

Their dialogue is snappy and just funny enough to lighten the tone of a game about a doomed rescue mission in a version of Earth occupied by a brutal alien force. It helps that the game’s use of virtual reality even makes sense in-universe: Alyx is wearing a headset that lets Russell see what she sees and hear what she hears. You control Alyx, sure, but both characters see the world through her eyes, just like the player does.

Image: Valve

The first hours of Half-Life: Alyx are dedicated to slowly introducing you to how things are going to work in VR. You have time to look around, and I spent too much time in an early room cleaning off a window so I could write on it with a dry-erase marker. Valve didn’t skimp on the movement options, so if you want to teleport, or move freely, or use a transition animation that meets in the middle, you can.

You’re going to want to spend some time experimenting with all the gameplay and graphical options to make sure the experience is comfortable, as no two people react to VR in exactly the same way. You’ll soon meet Russell, and be given the gloves that let you control gravity, store grenades and healing syringes, and see your health. Then you get your first gun, and set off into the world to find your father.

Things go wrong almost immediately.

Fighting the good fight

The world of Half-Life is a world of rubble, of darkness and alien life that is growing over what remains of human civilization. This is a horror game as much as an action game, and a zombie game as much as a science fiction game. The Combine themselves are cruel housekeepers, and there is evidence of that cruelty everywhere. Even healing stations work by crushing a living, squirming alien bug, extracting its essence, and then injecting it into your hand to give you back your energy.

Getting healed is such an uncomfortable, strange sensation, as the controller twitches and jerks under my hand, that I sometimes avoided these healing stations altogether. Is it really worth crushing out another life, I thought, just so I can continue my mission?

The answer is yes, especially when Eli Vance’s life is on the line. But Valve’s willingness to turn such a pedestrian interaction into something so disturbing and horrific speaks to how much the team cared about the player’s reaction to everything. No mechanical detail that would be rote in another game was taken for granted here. This may not be what you want to play, exactly, but it’s the story Valve wants to tell, and it’s how the studio wants to tell it.

https://youtube.com/watch?v=LTLotwKpLgk%3Frel%3D0

You can move close to items to pick them up directly, but it’s much more important to use your gravity gloves; you simply point at an object until it begins to glow, and then flick your wrist inward to pull that object toward you. You then have to grab it out of the air, and either place it in a storage slot on each glove, drop it behind your back to save in the “backpack” you’re told you’re wearing (but never see), or use it directly.

This is the gameplay loop that makes Half-Life: Alyx such a perfect showpiece for what virtual reality can do so well. You move, you see something you need, you pull it toward you with the gloves, you grab it out of the air, and then you use it for whatever you need it for. Or maybe you’re just grabbing healing items and ammo to stay alive during combat, hoping you have enough supplies to survive, eyes constantly scanning the environment for more.

Each gun has just the right amount of interactivity to let you know you’re handling something with multiple moving parts. But it’s not so complex that it becomes a burden. The handgun, the first weapon you’re given, is a great example. To use it, you have to grab a magazine out of your backpack, slam it into the grip, and pull the slide to put a round in the chamber.

Reloading is done by hitting a button to drop the depleted magazine onto the ground, and repeating those same actions listed above. It sounds simple, but wait until you’re crouching behind a pile of cinder blocks, pulling magazines out of the environment toward you, loading them and racking a round before physically standing up and returning fire as bullets whiz past your head. It’s a workout that feels like an action movie, and the rest of the weaponry you find (and later, upgrade) is a variation of this basic formula.

The Half-Life: Alyx developers at Valve exhibit a mastery of their craft. They introduce an idea, give the player the time and opportunity to play with that idea without any pressure, and then put them in a situation where they have to test that mastery as the pressure is increased.

The game’s first few hours made me nervous that I was playing something that was much more of a ride than a game, in fact, but my fear was misplaced. I was only playing the section of the story meant to introduce me to these new ideas about how a Half-Life game should play in virtual reality, and learning about how to solve problems and stay alive during combat.

Fighting back is easy; doing so under pressure is not. Especially while juggling in-game locomotion and physically ducking behind cover, or peeking around corners to return fire, and getting used to always searching for ammo and reloading as quickly as possible. But Half-Life: Alyx’s difficulty curve is expertly handled; I always felt like I was ready for the next challenge, even if it took me a few tries to work out the best tactical solution to each battle. Having to load the game after every death — and often losing some progress to the auto-save feature in the process — makes this a little more annoying than it should be. I’ll confess to save-scumming through some of the later battles in order to avoid wasting time doing the same things over and over.

While the game plays out in linear fashion, the way you tackle each situation and battle is up to you; as with all of the best VR games, it’s almost as fun to watch someone play Half-Life: Alyx as it is to play it yourself. Valve has included some nice options for the spectator view to help streamers and those who just want to invite friends over and pass around the headset and controllers, like a joint.

Vive Cosmos Elite

The Vive Cosmos Elite virtual reality system has the ability to go wireless — with a $350 upgrade.

Move slowly, until it’s time to move very quickly

VR lets you disappear into a game in ways that are impossible with a standard screen, and that immediacy means that the pacing of Half-Life: Alyx may not be what you expect. There’s so much to see, and experiment with, that a room you might have run through in a standard game within a few seconds could be worth five minutes, or longer, of exploration and interaction here, if you want to see everything. And there are some incredible sights to see in this game.

That said, there are still some minor issues with getting stuck in the game’s geometry, or with the hardware losing tracking from time to time — even in my roomy sensor array, as close to perfect as I could make it, running the game through a Valve Index headset connected to a powerful gaming laptop with an RTX 2070 GPU.

Easter eggs, ammo, and resin — the resource you use to upgrade your weapons at certain stations throughout the game — are hidden everywhere. Curiosity is almost always rewarded, and if you think something looks like maybe you should try to touch it … you should probably try to touch it.

While it may take a dozen enemies to get your heart racing in a traditional Half-Life game, even two or three Combine soldiers (or one headcrab flying at you) is more than enough to make a battle feel epic in Half-Life: Alyx. Pacing and flow are very different in VR, and Valve has nailed the careful management of both.

Sometimes the best course of action is to freeze, putting your hands in the air. Other times, the only thing you can do is what you should do: run. A thing I’m good at now is throwing bottles of vodka with precision, during one of the game’s more anxiety-inducing chapters, in order to distract a seemingly unkillable beast with no eyes but sensitive ears.

You’re also given a multitool — a sort of Half-Life-flavored sonic screwdriver — that lets you reroute electricity to open doors, find bonus items, or use upgrade stations to add features to your weapons. The multitool sockets you’ll find throughout the environment mean that you’ll need to use it to solve some kind of puzzle that involves moving items in 3D space, in sequences that are a mixture of how I imagine futuristic surgery might work and how hacking scenes used to be shown in movies from the ’90s.

None of these puzzles are terribly difficult, exactly, but each one will make you feel clever and capable once you’ve solved it. It’s another tightrope that Valve walks masterfully.

This may sound like I’m describing a game that’s all mechanics and interaction and no story, but Alyx’s dialogue, and her evolving, apparently doomed mission, significantly expands the lore of Half-Life by answering some questions, asking new ones, and dropping huge surprises just when you think you have things figured out.

I have no idea how to estimate how long it will take people to play through Half-Life: Alyx. I can see some rushing through the main story in less than the 15 hours Valve estimates, but I can also see players spending a lot of time in this world, seeing every detail and hidden room.

While I might have hoped for a few more weapons, or some more flexibility in how I could upgrade them, the amount of content in this game, and how well it holds up to the scrutiny you can give it in VR, is impressive.

Valve Index VR Kit

The full Valve Index VR Kit includes the headset, two controllers, two base stations, and a download code for Half Life: Alyx.

What’s next?

The real question everyone wants answered is, “What happens next?” Does Half-Life: Alyx set up another Half-Life game, or does it close things down completely so people stop asking? That’s a big question, but then again, this is a big game, and it has to serve a lot of masters.

Valve’s goals were, likely, to push the state of the art in VR game design forward a bit — and yes, sell a few Index headsets — while refining what already existed. But Half-Life: Alyx seems intended to keep Half-Life going in the minds of players who grew up with its characters and story.

It lacks a primer on what came before; new players, who would have been small children when the initial games were released, may be completely lost during Half-Life: Alyx’s story, and the major twists and reveals land only if you’re already familiar with the series’ lore.

But Half-Life is back, and Valve has finally released another AAA single-player game, something many of us doubted the company ever would, or even could, do again. The impossible has already been achieved, and the fact that it’s happening in VR only makes it more novel. Valve has succeeded at just about every goal it must have had for this project. The only thing left is whether hardcore fans will be willing to buy, and use, a virtual reality headset in order to learn what happens next in the world of Half-Life.

The good news is that those who do will experience what is likely the best VR game released to date.

Half-Life: Alyx will be released March 23 on HTC Vive, Valve Index, Quest Link, and most tethered VR headsets. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Valve, and played on an Index headset provided by Valve. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

A buyer’s guide to virtual reality headsets and controllers for Half-Life: Alyx

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