So I finally got round to finishing Half-Life: Alyx, it took me a while and I know I’m late, but I had to give this review the proper effort it deserves. It’s been nearly two weeks since the game came out and I’ve had some time to reflect. After over a decade of waiting, we finally have another entry in the Half-Life franchise, and I can say now that truly, Half-Life is back.
It may not be in the way that fans were expecting, it’s no Half-Life 3 or Half-Life 2: Episode 3. Instead, Half-Life Alyx is a VR-exclusive prequel to the titular Half-Life 2. It sees players taking on the role of Alyx Vance this time, long before Gordon Freeman made his introduction in Half-Life 2, on a quest to try and bring down the combine.
This review will be spoiler free, as HL Alyx is a fantastic story and everyone deserves to go in as blind as possible. That said I may talk of some of my experiences I had in the game which may allude to certain moments, but none of the story will be given away. I have to be honest though, it’s tricky reviewing a VR game because you either review it as a game on it’s own, or a VR game, you know? Okay that makes no sense… I’ll do my best to explain:
Valve has done a tremendous job at making Half-Life Alyx just fun to explore, from fiddling with various objects and opening cabinets, to staring at glorious views. The physics on display are immensely enjoyable in VR, I’m sure a lot of us have seen a fair few videos of people doing funny stuff in virtual reality like making headcrabs dance, or trying to juggle with fragile ceramic cups, which only goes to show how much effort Valve put in to making this game fun to toy with.
There’s a great level where you have to sneak around a specific enemy who has specific rules, and you absolutely can’t make any noise whatsoever or you’ll be screaming in terror and running for your life. So of course Valve makes the level take place inside a Vodka distillery that’s filled all over with extremely fragile glass bottles that smash and make a loud noise at the slightest drop. Puzzles are designed around this very environment. Valve did such an amazing job of crafting each area with specific rules and environments that cater towards playing in VR. Everything just works like that.
And the story is wonderful too, especially if you’re a Half-Life fan. When Valve said players may want to revisit Half-Life 2: Episode 2, it wasn’t just to remind us what was going on in the story (even though this is a prequel), these games connect in ways that will make the most devoted glee with joy. If you by chance haven’t had the ending spoiled for you, it certainly has to be one of best reveals in video game history. Dialogue is witty, characters are funny, it has the typical Valve charm sprinkled in that truly makes it shine.
The gunplay is fun, as is with a lot of VR games, but Valve takes it up a notch by making the guns interactive as well. It takes some getting used to, but by the end you’ll be feeling like John Wick when popping out mags, inserting a new one and loading the chamber all whilst ducking behind cover waiting for the right moment to pop out and shoot. All the weapons have different ways of loading the gun, and I’ve never had so much fun doing so.
It’s also worth saying that Half-Life: Alyx is absolutely, without a single doubt, a truly terrifying horror game, I don’t care what Valve or anyone else says, Alyx is one of the scariest damn games I’ve ever played. Playing alone at night with the speakers down over your ears so the entire outside world gets shut out is not the best way of making sure something is definitely not scary. If you’re prone to being scared easily, I recommend having someone in the room with you, seriously, it can be really terrifying at times. I have never been so afraid in my life except for 2 distinct moments in this game, and I’ve played Alien: Isolation in VR. It may only be 2 levels out of many more that aren’t scary at all, but they will be forever imprinted in my memory.
Now let’s talk about the puzzles. They start out promising, I was very excited after seeing those gameplay videos to try a new world of puzzle-solving using a 3D space that you can actually manipulate. And at the start of the game they’re really fun, then they quickly increase in difficulty, and then for the second-half of the game don’t get any more difficult, so once you master the early ones, the rest aren’t much of a challenge. After how well they crafted the world specifically for Virtual Reality, the puzzles don’t utilize the 3D space as much towards the end as I would have hoped. They’re fun at the start, but then they stop becoming a challenge. I had more fun playing Simon Says in Rick and Morty VR than I did with most puzzles in Half-Life: Alyx.
The music is fantastic though, as usual. I don’t know where to get the soundtrack at the moment, but I need it in my life. Every track has been expertly created to make you feel awesome during combat, or absolutely terrified in scary situations.
Towards the end of the game it just becomes a shooting gallery though, I get that the story is coming to a close at this point and so we need to hurry it along, but exploration gets thrown out of the window in favor of just more and more bad guys with guns.
I experienced the game using my own HTC Vive, as I don’t have access to a higher quality VR setup at the moment, and so I can absolutely say without a doubt that someone with a Valve Index would absolutely have way more fun. That, and the bigger the room space you have to play around in, the more fun you’ll have. So those who just have to sit down and can’t move very much in VR due to a limited space will have a much less enjoyable experience. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what Half-Life: Alyx is, an experience. You may like that style of game, you may not, but hopefully that will help you decide whether to buy Alyx, or watch someone stream it.
Though I do have to mention that Valve put a lot of effort into making sure that no matter what headset/controllers you have, you can still experience Half-Life: Alyx. Maybe not as much as others with better headsets etc. But you can still experience everything he game has to offer.
With all that said, I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever play Half-Life Alyx again. Maybe every once in a while I’ll get a friend to play it just to see how they react to certain moments (I’m particularly fond of watching my friends go through the same horrifying experiences I had. Does that make me a sadist?).
VR is fun, ridiculously fun, and I’m absolutely a VR enthusiast. I may not have the latest headset, or all the VR games, but there’s something about VR that always draws me back in. Even after saying that, I’ll probably play some more Payday 2 or Beat Saber instead because there’s much more replayable value in those games.
I even love single-player story-driven games, but HL Alyx just doesn’t offer enough value to warrant a second playthrough. My opinion will most likely change when mods come out, and suddenly anyone can make a VR game just like Alyx, but for now I have to say that I was disappointed with the lack of replayable value after the story ended. I know that’s how some games are and that’s perfectly fine, but for a game this big to warrant an entire new gaming peripheral purchase, there needs to be something more on offer.
Half-Life: Alyx is a tremendous VR experience that should absolutely set the standard of quality for all VR games to come. But the lack of replayability value, and the scale factor of enjoyment dependent on your hardware and room size, holds Alyx back from being a truly astonishing game. Is it worth it alone to buy a headset for? I’m not sure, that depends on how big of a Half-Life fan you are. But I can say that there are tonnes of other VR games available that are worth buying a headset for already, and Half-Life Alyx will still be a significant entry in that list of games.