Half Life: Alyx review (Oculus)

An early contender for 2020’s game of the year, Half Life: Alyx marks a successful return to one of Valve’s most iconic franchises in a VR-exclusive action adventure that is out now for all major PC-based headsets (as well as the Quest, as long as you connect it to a PC).

For years, it seemed as though Valve was done producing big AAA games. Episode 3 for Half Life 2 never came out, key staff working on the franchise left the company and Valve seemed content focusing mostly on their Steam platform. And then, rather suddenly, Half Life: Alyx was announced, exclusive to VR yet very much a full Half Life title featuring Alyx, whom we remember from Half Life 2.

Best of all, it was going to come out rather soon as well – which is good timing considering that VR felt like it was losing a bit of momentum a few years after it went mainstream with the launch of PlayStation VR back in 2016. Of course it’s no coincidence that Valve has its own (Index) headset now, but Alyx is compatible with most major headsets out there – at least the ones that are natively supported by Steam.

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Half Life veterans no doubt remember Alyx Vance and her father Eli, who played key roles in Half Life 2. In Valve’s VR take on the franchise, you don’t play as Gordon Freeman but take control of Alyx in her quest to save her father as she travels through City 17 to get to him. It’s a change of perspective in more ways than one, because while Alyx is a supporting character to Gordon Freedom you now have Russell communicating with you and breathing life into the narrative.

Besides pushing the narrative forward, your interactions also serve as tutorials, which range from familiar items like a gun and various other weapons to a pair of gravity gloves which (of course) work great when paired with a good set of motion controllers and let you attract and throw items at will. They’re also a throwback to Half Life 2’s classic gravity gun, so it’s a very natural fit with the Half Life universe as well.

Since Alyx has also been handy with tools and helped out Freeman this way, it’s no surprise that Half Life: Alyx has you solving puzzles and overcoming obstacles using Alyx’ skills as an engineer. These sometimes translate into little minigames that are well geared to VR, but never feel like gimmicks. There’s a high level of interaction with the game world in Alyx, and not of the “you can interact with this because we want you to, but forget about touching the next thing” variety. Instead, you’re very free to play around with and experiment with things, or just cause destruction because you feel like it.

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An excellent and ever-evolving set of gameplay mechanics (which has always been a Half Life staple) makes for a stellar narrative campaign that’s quite a bit longer than most titles developed from the ground up for VR (Resident Evil 7 is longer, but VR was optional there). In some sections you’re having shootouts in VR where you use cover, in others you have to physically shield your mouth as you try to keep yourself from breathing in dangerous fumes. There are great moments of immersion all over the game, and many of them are as good as they are because they aren’t spoon-fed to you but feel organic.

Of course VR also makes darker scenes all the more terrifying, but even these scenes are mostly effective because they’re rarely used instead of being go-to mechanics just because they ‘work’. With some excellent writing, top notch production values and superb gameplay mechanics, there is little to fault about Half Life: Alyx. There’s even a variety of control options to choose from, so based on what you’re comfortable with you can either teleport your way through the game or use smooth location. From my perspective, it also helps to have a bit of room to move around, no matter what your preference is – this mainly applies to the ability to take cover and fire around corners, which is a lot more fun when your headset isn’t telling you you’re getting close to a table in real life.

If you’re set up with a Steam-compatible headset, you owe it to yourself to play Half Life: Alyx. It’s a new benchmark for VR gaming and hopefully a taste of more to come in the Half Life universe.

Score: 9.4/10

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