Half-Life: Alyx is the new highly anticipated VR installment in the Half-Life franchise. It takes place between Half-Life 1 and 2 and has you playing as the character Alyx Vance on a mission to rescue her father and ultimately try and stop the Combine. Now full disclosure, I have very limited experience with the Half-Life series. I've played maybe two hours of Half-Life 2 and that's the full extent of my experience with the series, so much of the story beats and characters will be more significant to fans of the series than it was for me.
Race to the Top
The story, as mentioned, initially sees Alyx trying to rescue her father from the Combine, but at a certain point shifts from the personal stakes to helping the resistance acquire a superweapon inside a floating alien fortress. The story may be pretty straightforward, but what helps it is the sense of progression, namely how each loading screen between levels has a map of the city that highlights in gold the places you've been to so far. That little detail helps you feel more like you're on a journey working your way towards a climactic destination. I may not be familiar with Half-Life, but I know enough that certain revelations, especially towards the end of Alyx's story, will be significant to fans of the series. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say make sure you stay to watch after the credits roll.
As for gameplay, it's very polished and engaging. The gunplay is difficult as you die quickly and most enemies can take a beating. That being the case, managing your ammo is a must, as it gets used up pretty quickly. Searching the environments for bullets is pretty much required to stay alive whenever you find yourself in a skirmish. I do feel the arsenal is a little lacking, however. Your only weapons are a pistol, a shotgun, and a machine gun, however thanks to a fairly robust upgrade system, they can be customized and changed pretty radically. To upgrade your guns, you need a sort of currency called resin that's scattered around the environment which gives additional incentive to search every nook and cranny.
The Gravity of the Situation
In addition to your weapons, you have a multi-tool which allows you to solve the various puzzles throughout the environment. There are mandatory puzzles as well as optional ones that reward you with extra ammo or other items if completed. These include changing the direction of wiring to get electricity from one end to another, navigating a laser across a hazard filled sphere and aligning blue orbs so that the connected light beams light up every red orb. The puzzles never quite clicked with me. They slowed down the pacing since there are several in each level. I found them more tedious than anything, but then again, I've never been a big fan of puzzles in games. Another gameplay element that had mixed results for me was the ability to grab objects using a sort of telekinesis built into your gloves. This involves pointing your open-handed palm towards an object until it's highlighted, and then holding the trigger while you flip your hand backward to send the item flying to your hand. It's cool and when it works well it feels really good, but unfortunately, getting the right object to highlight can be finicky. The angle sometimes needs to be precise to select what you want.
The biggest strength of Half-Life: Alyx is its environments and graphics. You could argue that Half-Life: Alyx is the most graphically impressive VR game at the moment. The sheer amount of environment detail is staggering for a virtual reality title. Especially in environments where the walls are being overtaken by strange alien organic material, you feel fully immersed in the world thanks to the imaginative world crafting done by Valve.
I think my main "disappointment" with the title stems from the fact that the core game mechanics are simply not as immersive or innovative as titles that have come before. Realistic holstering, equipping and handling of weapons is pretty standard in VR titles at this point, but In Half-Life Alyx, weapons are selected using a virtual menu, and you never drop your guns. They are always permanently attached to either your right or left hand. The issue is that it restricts your freedom in combat and isn't immersive. You can't, say, throw your pistol to your left hand to shoot around the left side of cover for instance. Another example is many objects lack the physical properties that you think they should have. Half-Life: Alyx has no melee combat, even with things that should seem like they'd damage enemies such as steel pipes., Where Half Life: Alyx leaves me wanting all boils down to design philosophy.If some titles are a playground that invites you to make your own fun, then Alyx is a guided tour through a beautiful museum. It's pretty to look at and the experience has been curated by the developers, but don't try to do anything that wasn't "intended" by Valve. I believe if HL:A had come out in the early days of VR, it would be much more impressive from a design and gameplay perspective, but as it stands it's a good game, though perhaps not a great one.
The Verdict: Great
Personal disappointments aside, there's no denying that Valve has delivered a AAA experience in the form of HL:A. It looks gorgeous and nearly all of Alyx's gameplay mechanics, most importantly the combat, is polished and well-executed. Not every title can be innovative and sometimes it's enough to simply take what's been done before and do it an impressive way.