It’s hard to know how to review a game like Half-Life: Alyx. So much is expected of it. For Half-Life fans it’s the culmination of a decade-plus wait, not quite the sequel people want but at least a sign of life from a series long-dormant. Fans of virtual reality likewise pinned their hopes on Alyx to reinvigorate flagging interest in the platform and prove its worth. Can you divorce a game from its context? And if not, then how can you possibly review a game like Alyx?
Could it ever be enough?
Playing through Alyx this past week, I found myself vacillating between the two by the hour—and sometimes by the minute. Having finished, I think Half-Life fans will be pretty damn excited. I’m less sold on Alyx as VR’s savior, though.
Pick up that can, citizen
Set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2, Alyx details what happened between the Black Mesa event and Gordon Freeman’s eventual reappearance in City 17. It does not, as speculated before release, cover the “Seven Hour War,” the conflict wherein the Combine took over Earth. That’s already happened. The Combine are here, Striders and Gunships patrolling the rooftops.
The Resistance exists as well, and you—meaning Alyx Vance—are the tip of the spear. The Combine capture your father Eli Vance at the outset, sending you across City 17 with a pistol and the most rudimentary idea how to use it.
It’s a slow start. Cool as it is to see City 17 at lifesize, to fend off headcrabs and shuffling zombies, there’s very little memorable about the first few hours. I didn’t really mind it at the time, because I was still getting the hang of Alyx’s guns and generally enjoying the idle chatter between Alyx and Resistance figure Russel. Looking back on it though, it’s amazing how few “big moments” happen at the outset.
Half-Life: Alyx only really hits its stride in the back third, I’d say—and then it never lets up. The locations are more unique, breaking out of the crumbling-apartment-building drudgery that plagues the early hours. Combat encounters ramp up as well, with your upgraded guns helping fend off larger waves of enemies.
And Valve’s themed each chapter around a particular gimmick, with the gimmicks towards the end more unique and involved. There’s a brilliant chapter set in a vodka distillery where making noise means inviting almost certain death, and of course there are fragile glass bottles littered everywhere. Grabbing a handful of shotgun shells might knock a dozen bottles onto the floor, which forces you to really consider whether you need the ammo.
The last few hours are strong, and audacious, and every bit as cathartic as you’d hope after waiting this long for more Half-Life. (And too easy to spoil, which is why you won’t see much discussion of them here.) There are some incredible setpiece moments, bigger than anything I’ve seen outside of Lone Echo, …