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Half-Life: Alyx is a meticulously crafted experience, and stroke of game design genius, that resurrects a 13-year dormant franchise and reinvents it for the future.
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Half-Life: Alyx is familiar. In comparison to previous installments in the franchise, it even looks a bit samey. You get guns, you fight terrifying headcrab-controlled zombies, mow down the militant Combine, solve puzzles, and try to liberate a world from a multi-dimensional alien takeover. On paper, it’s hard to pinpoint a hugely notable difference between Half-Life: Alyx and Half-Life 2, a 16-year-old game. Yet, Half-Life: Alyx is unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Yes, it’s a VR game, and the immersion that comes from that defines the experience. However, beyond the virtual reality is a video game so meticulously crafted and so spellbinding in its execution that the familiarity and simplicity becomes a stroke of brilliance.
In the opening moments of the game you have time to interact and play with the world. Before you get your hands on any guns, one of the first things you can arm yourself with is a marker. Using my actual real-life hands and the Vive’s controllers, I picked up the marker and began drawing on a window with it. I could clean it off with an eraser or smudge it off with my fingers. This moment, seemingly inconsequential in the moment, actually served as the bedrock for what would come by rewiring my brain and opening my mind to possibilities that the game would execute on in the hours following.
From there, Half-Life: Alyx tossed me into pits of vast darkness with a flashlight to provide some small level of visibility. There, horrifying monsters surrounded me, crippling me with fear as I screamed in panic and fumbled to reload my gun. Frazzled and afraid, I dropped my magazine on the ground because I was physically trembling in real life, trying to get a grip on the situation while headcrabs flew through the air towards my face. Moments later, I was hacking a terminal in a heart-pounding minigame, only to be thrust into the piercing daylight of City 17 where I went guns blazing into a firefight against the militant Combine. In an old train yard, I ducked and weaved around the environment, physically crouching and taking cover, aiming my sights through narrow openings in the environment.
It’s a gameplay experience that can only be truly understood, felt, and appreciated in VR. And it’s further enhanced with the implementation of the Gravity Gloves. Half-Life: Alyx takes one of Half-Life 2’s most defining weapons, the Gravity Gun, and cleverly adapts it to fit your hands, enabling you to yank and pull items towards you and catch them mid-air. Nothing is more satisfying than pulling a wooden plank into your hands and using it to bat a headcrab out of a window. It brings a smile to my face just thinking about it. And I haven’t even talked about Jeff yet… but I won’t spoil that for you. Just know that Jeff is great and absolutely terrifying.
By the end of the game, I was pulling grenades out of the air and tossing them back at groups of enemies, using one hand to swiftly grab a health vile and inject myself while using the other to fire my shotgun around the corner, all the while accompanied by the pulsing, hypnotic beats of Alyx's incredible drum and bass-focused soundtrack. The game transitions you from moments of sheer terror to puzzle-solving to teeth grinding gunfights. New enemy types are regularly introduced to you along the way too.
The true magic of all this is the game never bogs you down with tutorials; it doesn’t hold your hand. Its design is so elegant and its mechanics feel so natural that learning to play Half-Life: Alyx is simply doing what feels instinctual. At the same time, you’re never completely lost either, the game always subtly leads you to exactly where you need to go next without making you feel like you’re being ushered in any way. Alyx's pacing is flawless--a testament to its unadulterated game design and focused execution. From using the marker in the opening moments to eventually getting to a John Wick level of confidence with loading guns, the game teaches you everything without ever telling you anything.
Beyond the virtual reality is a video game so meticulously crafted and so spellbinding in its execution that the familiarity and simplicity becomes a stroke of brilliance.
The iconic world that Half-Life 2 established becomes even more tangible thanks to Alyx’s writing and characters, which includes Russell (voiced by Rhys Darby), who is one of the greatest companions in recent memory. Russel is a resistance member and inventor of the Gravity Gloves, and assists Alyx on her journey. His comical quips calm your nerves during scenes of tension, and Darby's delivery quickly makes Russell's voice a comforting blanket in the more horrifying moments. Other scenes give weight and depth to Alyx’s character, and her perception of a post-alien controlled world (a world she was born and raised in). These moments are warm, grounding, and humanizing, which is valuable in an otherwise solitary journey. You feel the stakes of a world overrun by an oppressive regime in a way players never could as Gordon Freeman. As Alyx, you live her life as a member of the resistance; a spy hiding in plain sight, until being thrusted head first on a desperate journey to rescue her father.
All of this is bookended by a conclusion that pulls the rug from underneath your feet, gives you a helping hand to stand back up, and then sucker punches you just as you’ve managed to find your footing. It’s an ending that left me gasping for air and catching my breath long after I had already taken the headset off. And not only are the game’s final moments likely ingrained in my memory forever, it also recontextualizes the entire franchise. Without giving too much away, Half-Life Alyx reinvents the franchise in a way that charts the path for the future of the series.
Whether you have an existing affinity for Half-Life or not, Half-Life: Alyx is something not to be missed. The difficulty in experiencing it, however, lies in its barrier. It is currently locked to PC and VR requirements. But, those able to play Half-Life: Alyx will no doubt agree that it sets a new bar for VR games, and its excellence will hopefully usher pave the way for more developers to explore VR to present meaningful experiences.
As I noted, Half-Life: Alyx is familiar, but the game is so holistic in its design, mood, pacing, gameplay, writing, characters, horror, and comedy, that it distinguishes itself as distinct and unique. Valve games are few and far in between these days and yet Alyx oozes such confidence and awareness of itself that it shows that the studio is still among the best when it comes to game design. And beyond achieving all of that, it manages to resurrect a legendary, seemingly dead franchise to deliver something that is unlike anything else you’ll play this year.
It’s Half-Life, through-and-through. It doesn’t need to prove itself as anything else. But, once again, positions itself as one of the most influential and important franchises in the medium.