Playing Half-Life: Alyx, I got the sense that the biggest winner was the medium itself. A new Half-Life game was always going to draw a crowd, but virtual reality has yet to hit mainstream viability. The headsets are expensive, the computers to run them even pricier. And until recently, most virtual reality games have been canned, short experiences and arcade-like shooting galleries.
In storms Valve, with dozens of exciting ideas for virtual reality play. The story is light, which only fuels my suspicion that the game’s Half-Life branding is meant as a Trojan Horse for VR. Still, the industry would do well to learn from Alyx’s successes and failures.
Manually loading magazines for your weapon feels like a revelation. The mere act of emptying and refilling chambers is recontextualized to something more frantic and harrowing under the hail of gunfire and the threat of facehugging aliens.
But the most important new feature is Alyx’s “gravity” glove. Aim your hand toward an object (anything from a bullet magazine to a tin can), hold down a button and flick your wrist toward yourself. The item will fly into your hand (provided you catch it). This trick never felt old, not once. But more importantly, it solves an ever-present problem in VR games in registering how to “collect” items. Gamefying reloading with simple hand motions takes a few minutes to get used to, but the sooner you get used to it, the faster you’ll feel like a super-soldier Jedi.
Alyx seems aware of its status as a “training wheel” game for VR; so much of it is like a slower-paced zombie horror game. In many respects, it feels like an update to Half-Life 2′s revolutionary Ravenholm segment, which pitted you against hundreds of zombies among physics-based traps. Video games have mimicked that level for years, and Alyx aims to pull off a similar trick, feeling like an extended puzzles showcase for virtual reality.
A midgame threat forces you to make as little noise as possible, a classic horror movie trope ala “A Quiet Place.” When two cans fell and I caught them just before they hit the ground, I purposefully whispered “yes!” rather than saying it out loud. The creativity of the moment, my quick response to it, and the terror of the situation all folded into a perfect virtual reality moment. This segment will likely become a popular discussion point among horror game developers.
Interacting with the virtual world is the game’s strength. Alyx’s hacking tool can manipulate electronic locks that circle around your body. Precise lever-pulling never felt more intuitive, because pulling on a lever is just like real life. Reach out, grab, and draw your hand back. We’ve come a long way from miming these motions with the Wii remotes.
And yet, less than an hour in, the limitations start to become clear. As the game ramps up in intensity — enemy fire all around you — you’ll start missing the agility of standard first-person shooters like Doom Eternal. You’ll wish you could open doors with the press of a button, not by laboriously grabbing the handle and pushing it open.
Your enjoyment will likely depend on how important immersion is to you. Don’t get me wrong, it all works beautifully. But does it work better than what we already have in standard gaming?
The game allows for “continuous” movement, to mimic actually moving through its meticulously designed environments. I couldn’t do it. There’s so much happening in the world of Alyx, even when you’re standing completely still. And even though Alyx moves slowly (almost painfully slow), it was still a dizzying, disorienting experience. My brain tells me I’m moving, although I know I’m not. It’s why I had to opt for “blinking” through my steps, the VR compromise for anyone who gets motion sickness. The game is thankfully more playable in this mode, even during moments of action.
Half-Life: Alyx seeks to answer a long-standing question: Can the VR format sustain a big-budget, AAA story-driven experience, especially during the 15 or so hours it takes to finish Alyx?
Your mileage may vary. Alyx is exhausting. Even though the game provides welcome options for seated play, it throws so many details and dynamic game mechanics at players at the same time; I felt legitimate sensory overload. To the game’s credit I was so immersed that I accidentally knocked over household items, a classic VR trope that doesn’t usually happen unless the player is lost in the moment.
I worry that I had trouble playing the game for too long, despite the generous technical and accessibility compromises. It’s a problem that Valve tried to solve, admirably, but I think there’s more work to be done.
And that’s the thing. It’s fair to compare Valve’s Half-Life series to Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane.” Both are less known for their stories at this point, and more for how those stories were told, and their place in culture. Half-Life: Alyx is the closest thing to a “must-have” title in virtual reality. Ultimately, what Half-Life: Alyx is today is less important than what it may inspire.