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Half-Life: Alyx Review

Half-Life: Alyx is a long-awaited prequel in the beloved series, transporting players to virtual reality as they take control of Alyx Vance on a deadly mission to save her father and thwart the Combine threat.

Verdict

Valve has surpassed impossible expectations with Half-Life: Alyx, bringing a series long thought buried back into the limelight with extraordinary impact. While some might find it unfortunate that such an experience is housed inside virtual reality, I feel it's an innovative step forward for the series. If you have the means to play it, Half-Life: Alyx is absolutely essential. 

Pros

  • Virtual reality helps mechanics and narrative feel more alive than ever
  • Alyx is a wonderful lead character with a great supporting cast
  • Tense, oppressive and terrifying atmosphere throughout
  • Spells an exciting future for the series and Valve as a whole

Cons

  • Doesn't avoid all the pitfalls of virtual reality
  • Some puzzles become repetitive overtime
  • The ending is excellent yet might feel abrupt to some

Key Specifications

  • Review Price: £49.99
  • Release Date: March 23, 2020
  • Developer: Valve
  • Genre: FPS
  • Platforms: PC

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It’s almost cathartic to be playing Half-Life again. After a frankly agonising cliffhanger at the end of Episode Two way back in 2007, the franchise had fallen into obscurity. It remains a cultural phenomenon with fan projects, memes and discussion being omnipresent, but Valve had seemingly forgotten its existence, making the arrival of Half-Life: Alyx all the more palpable.

Half-Life: Alyx is a complete experience, yet takes the series to a medium its creators are determined to prove themselves in – virtual reality.

Throwing the fate of its biggest franchise into a polarising medium could’ve been a recipe for disaster, but Valve has proven naysayers wrong, and I count myself in that cabal. Half-Life: Alyx is a new benchmark for virtual reality, showing that experiences needn’t be hamstrung by half-baked mechanics and strange omissions to compete with their traditional siblings.

It’s quite the opposite, with Alyx transcending what came before it and rewriting the foundations of this franchise both mechanically and narratively. I can confidently say that Half-Life is back and isn’t going anywhere, and as a consequence will never be the same again; and I’m happily going along for the ride.

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Half Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx is built entirely with virtual reality in mind, with Valve pushing it as a “flagship title” for its Index headset. As a consequence, this plays unlike anything the franchise has seen before, but it’s surprising how much of the core ethos remains. The mixture of exploration, combat and puzzle-solving is untouched, as is the deep focus on narrative as you explore the dystopian confines of City 17. However, there are a few changes that elevate Alyx above what came before it.

The highlight of Half-Life: Alyx is the titular character herself, who brings new dynamics to a series which has only ever featured silent protagonists. Gordon Freeman was a mysterious badass, but his silent demeanour meant he was a vessel for players instead of a genuine character we could grow attached to. In Half-Life 2, Alyx Vance was his foil, bouncing off him in a way that made the world feel real. She was essentially talking to a wall, but her personality was awash with such charm that it hardly mattered.

She’s an exquisite lead, showing a passionate enthusiasm that’s reflective of my own as I returned to this franchise for the first time in 13 years, and it feels so damn good to be back. In a way, it’s like I never left as I spent the opening moments overlooking City 17, a city still under totalitarian siege from an oppressive alien regime. Despite taking place several years before the events of Half-Life 2, Alyx expects prior knowledge and you’re better off having it.

I won’t delve into the narrative weeds too much, since the finest surprises are best left untouched, with some moments leaving my mouth agape as I stared in disbelief. Valve is shaking the foundations of a series so acclaimed, a move which requires tremendous courage since one wrong step could incite outrage. But they’ve pulled it off, with every reference and plot curveball executed with perfection.

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Half Life Alyx

From a gameplay perspective, Half-Life: Alyx doesn’t escape all the design pitfalls we’d come to expect from virtual reality. Floating hands, teleportation movement and perspective issues are all present and accounted for, but Valve has introduced some innovative counter-measures to alleviate them. Alyx being a spoken protagonist is one such revelation. She grounds you in the world, ensuring you don’t feel like a floating spectre murdering everything in your path. Alyx has a mission, and you’re here to help.

You can select from several control schemes, all of which accommodate a certain level of familiarity with virtual reality. The level of flexibility afforded to the player is appreciated, although I quickly got to grips with the default method and never changed it up. The real game-changer is Gravity Gloves, gauntlets worn by Alyx that allow her to interact with the environment in some fantastic ways.

With the press of a trigger and a flick of my wrist, I can pull the majority of objects towards me with ease, catching them in a way that always feels satisfying. I’m still astounded by how packed full of details the environments are. Almost every object no matter how insignificant has been rendered with the utmost attention. You can shatter a plate on the floor and inspect individual shards, or smash a hole into cover offering you an opening to slot your pistol into before firing upon enemies.

Gravity Gloves are also used to solve a variety of puzzles. You’ll follow glowing lines emanating from fuse boxes to open gates and lower force fields, leading you to explore rooms searching for a pesky port or two. Moving objects out of the way to access such things help the work feel alive. You aren’t just existing in a static space designed as little more than a shooting gallery. It’s a marvel, and something if not seen accomplished in virtual reality before.

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Half Life Alyx

Other puzzles involve precariously disarming mines by running your multitool through electronic hoops, or connecting nodes across a spherical globe you can hold in your hands. All of them are a delight to solve, but pop up too frequently when trying to unlock chests filled with precious ammunition and health items. They can feel like padding at the worst of times, but for the most part, they’re a fascinating treat.

Firefights are often short and sweet – designed to challenge but never overwhelm the player. Soldiers wield a mixture of shotguns, rifles and long-ranged weapons that will pin you down, forcing to use the surrounding area to your advantage. I found myself crouching in real life as I precariously hugged a wall, peeking out to take shots at encroaching foes. They aren’t afraid to approach you, so sometimes the best strategy is to wait things out.

The campaign has a melodic, thoughtful pace and always gives you room to breathe. Horrifying encounters into apartment buildings infested with headcrabs are bookended by light puzzle sequences where you’re free to get your bearings, with each chapter short enough that you’re easily able to take a break. Even when things occasionally grow repetitive, the stellar writing and dialogue pulls you through. You care for the small selection of characters on this journey, many of which fans will already recognise.

Russell is the sole newcomer, an eccentric scientist who communicates with Alyx through the entirety of her adventure. He’s witty, sarcastic and caring, possessing some of the funniest quips I’ve seen since Portal 2. Russell names Alyx’s Gravity Gloves “The Russells” – after himself – proudly boasting about how they’ll become a worldwide hit once humanity returns to normality. He’s a sobering reminder that despite the alien occupation, people are still holding out hope for something better.

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Half Life Alyx

Light progression makes itself known with upgrade stations throughout the campaign where Alyx can enhance her small arsenal of weapons with attachments. They’re appreciated tactical bonuses, but those who love realistic firefights can get by with skill and wits alone. Playing by the rules of Half-Life: Alyx makes the experience so much better, as you sink into its systems and roleplay your existence in its world. This is the most convincing setting I’ve ever seen in virtual reality, setting a new benchmark for the medium I struggle to see others beating.

One of my only significant qualms is the final act does conclude quite suddenly, as is franchise tradition. I’m pulled through a sequence of jaw-dropping plot revelations before the ends credits are thrust upon me. I’m breathless, astounded and in desperate need of answers – but those will sadly have to wait. However, I can see myself return for repeat playthroughs if only to master mechanics and spend more time in this battered, broken world.

Half-Life: Alyx – Verdict

Valve has surpassed impossible expectations with Half-Life: Alyx, bringing a series long thought buried back into the limelight with extraordinary impact. While some might find it unfortunate that such an experience is housed inside virtual reality, I feel it’s an innovative step forward for the series.

A book has been opened that will seemingly stay as such for years to come, and words are still being written as we speak. If this prequel is anything to go by, Valve might have finally learned to count to three. If you have the means to play it, Half-Life: Alyx is absolutely essential.

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