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Game Of The Year 2020 - Half-Life: Alyx

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Half-Life: Alyx is an incredible blend of the best VR concepts with expert execution, and it paints the storied franchise in a whole new light. There's just nothing like it.

Over the last week, we revealed what we believe are the 10 best games of 2020. Today, December 17, we reveal which of the nominees gets to take home the coveted title of GameSpot's Best Game of 2020. You can follow along with all of GameSpot's other end-of-the-year coverage using our Best Games of 2020 hub.

It's never easy coming to a consensus when choosing our Game of the Year here at GameSpot, especially in 2020 which was packed with games that affected us in profound ways. During our discussions, some of our team waxed poetic about the blessings that Animal Crossing: New Horizons gave in a year we mostly spent away from friends and family. Some spoke to the awe-inspiring ways Final Fantasy 7 Remake defied expectations to deliver powerful multifaceted messages to its players. And others were right about Hades being an absolute marvel of creativity and craft--and the same goes for all the other games that made it in our list of the 10 best games of 2020. Ultimately, we could only choose one winner, and after hours of deliberations as a group, our award for Game of the Year goes to Half-Life: Alyx.

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Mainstream VR devices have been available for several years, but VR itself is still not in the mainstream of gaming. That may make our decision to award our Game of the Year to a VR title puzzling for some--after all, despite the increasing affordability of VR hardware, it's still relatively costly to get into this space. The physical accessibility barrier that can hinder playability certainly played an important factor in our deliberations, too. We also recognize that as GameSpot staff, we're privileged to have access to the proper hardware. But our selection criteria also weighs quality, innovation, enjoyment, and how these experiences transform our idea of what games can be. Half-Life: Alyx excels in every regard, pushing the medium forward as something wholly unique. It exceeded the monumental expectations of a beloved yet enigmatic franchise that went dark for 13 years, and did so in such convincing fashion.

Often in VR games, you're cognizant of the fact you're in VR for one reason or another, whether it be the natural extension of the game's concepts or the quirks of interaction that remind you of technical limitations. Half-Life: Alyx is such an immersive, enthralling, and smartly designed game that you forget you're in VR altogether and experience it for what it is. Valve brought together different mechanics that we've seen in VR games thus far--gun handling, reloading, reactive physics, object interaction, environmental puzzles, horror--and executes on them in top-notch form. The result is a cohesive whole, never over-relying on one concept or gimmick and instead making them complement each other from start to finish.

Putting this game in VR is a bold direction for a franchise as big as Half-Life. Although, if anyone were to do it, it'd be Valve, and if there was a game that would exemplify the potential of VR, it'd be Half-Life.

Half-Life: Alyx never overstays its welcome--through its 10-to-15-hour runtime, it always knows when to move on; its most memorable moments stand out because of that. Knowing headcrabs lurk in pitch-black darkness while you're finding the way forward is absolutely unnerving, then that tension shifts when you make it to frantic firefights against Combine soldiers, where you need to use the environment to your advantage. Then things slow down for some exploration and clever puzzle-solving before the introduction of new threats ratchets up the intensity once again. Sometimes the game combines all these elements together, but not before prepping you through previous challenges.

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In true Half-Life fashion, levels are so meticulously designed as to cleverly lead you toward discovering how to progress. There are no waypoints, objective markers, or hints on your HUD, but the game isn't so obtuse as to require a guide to figure things out. It's intuitive in that way, teaching you how to overcome its challenges instinctively, giving a distinct sense of accomplishment. When you escape the throes of "Jeff" in one particular chapter--staying calm while frantically finding solutions, covering your own mouth to not make noise, and just being as careful as possible--it's an unmatched feeling, and that's one of many examples. Half-Life: Alyx largely does what the franchise has always done, using subtle visual cues in the environment to lead you forward amid all the action. But the nature of VR amplifies the series' design philosophies and gives a renewed appreciation for them, as if they were always meant to be experienced in VR.

The newfound intimacy that's felt in this iteration of the Half-Life world is what makes Alyx's adventure resonate more than previous entries. The way you examine your surroundings for clues and also piece the narrative together makes it personal. Between the abandoned sectors, underground passages, and decayed structures all touched by the Combine's presence, it's City 17 like you've never seen it before. Half-Life has always been efficient in its storytelling, saying a lot with very little, showing rather than telling. The moments you're actually face-to-face with characters, or in the presence of Vortigaunts, or finding solace in your new friend Russell quipping over comms, are more impactful.

The very nature of VR tech is used for incredible narrative effect, and in that last chapter, Half-Life: Alyx makes its statement as to why it needs your hands to bring its message to fruition.

As you can tell from the game's title, this is Alyx Vance's story. She's been one of the more fascinating personalities in the series, and it's through her eyes that you have a better understanding of her father's fate in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, and more broadly, the wheels that turn the Half-Life universe. Throughout this game, you're constantly engaged in its systems and mechanics as stakes become more dire, but always craving the answers to where the journey is going. It's in the final hours when everything falls into place and the revelations wash over you with an overwhelming sense of awe. The implications flip your understanding of where Half-Life has been and where it goes from here. And the way that's communicated to you, the player, only lands with such emphatic impact in VR. The very nature of VR tech is used for incredible narrative effect, and in that last chapter, Half-Life: Alyx makes its statement as to why it needs your hands to bring its message to fruition.

As stated at the top, the question of its inherent barrier to entry and accessibility factors were not ignored in our decision. Half-Life: Alyx makes major strides in this regard, however. You can play through the entire game while seated, or with just one VR controller, or even if you have limited physical space. The Gravity Gloves themselves let you pull off some awesome tricks during heated action, but they're also your tool to easily interact with important objects without having to physically reach for them. Crouching down can be set to a button press rather than moving your body, and being able to use different locomotion options simultaneously can help make the world easier to navigate. These options help ensure that more players won't miss out on what it has to offer. Half-Life: Alyx doesn't have an answer for every physical limitation VR imposes, but it goes to lengths to account for several hurdles players may face. It represents the progress that's being made to create a VR experience that can reach a broader audience and sets a new standard for future VR games to build from.

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Putting this game in VR is a bold direction for a franchise as big as Half-Life. Although, if anyone were to do it, it'd be Valve, and if there was a game that would exemplify the potential of VR, it'd be Half-Life. This game delivers that incredible feeling of playing something genuinely unique while just being a superb game on its own merits. Half-Life: Alyx leverages what we know about its world and makes us rethink its place in gaming from both gameplay and narrative perspectives, and quite literally puts its pivotal and unforgettable moments solely in your hands.

As VR matures, and presumably grows, hopefully more people will have the opportunity to see what this game is all about. Yes, it's our Game of the Year for 2020, but Half-Life: Alyx's influence and impact will only grow stronger in the years to come.

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Michael Higham

Senior Editor and Host at GameSpot. Filipino-American. Ask me about Yakuza, FFXIV, Persona, or Nier. If it's RPGs, I have it covered. Apparently I'm the tech expert here, too? Salamat sa 'yong suporta!

Half-Life: Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx

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