Yet another classic gaming franchise gets a much-anticipated sequel. Only in this case, Half-Life: Alyx shakes things up in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s not so much a sequel as a prequel/sequel. The action here takes place after the original game but about five years before the events of 2004’s Half-Life 2.
And you can only play this new title on your friendly neighborhood gaming PC.
And you can only play it with one of the various Windows-based VR headsets. (In fact, gamemaker Valve is including the game for free if you spring for of one of its specialized virtual-reality equipment bundles.) After you’ve jumped through all those hoops, though, what exactly can you expect from this latest and most techified Half-Life entry?
One of the first things you’ll notice with Alyx is the game’s detail. Unlike a lot of VR titles, this one goes the extra mile to wrap you in the granular minutia of the world you’re in, from the surround sound creaks and crunches, to the dirt under the fingernails of your virtual hands, to the scope of the huge city stretched out before you. There’s nothing low-def about this first-person shooter.
Of course, all that detail can, uh, cut in both positive and negative ways. More on that in a bit.
As far as the story is concerned, protagonist Alyx Vance finds herself in City 17, a metropolis located somewhere in Eastern Europe. This vast place has been overrun by a galactic army known as the Combine—a powerful interdimensional organization made up of enslaved species from across the universe. These wormhole fascists have incredibly advanced alien technology that allows them to modify lifeforms via bioengineering into, well, something akin to mutated super-soldiers.
So, those are the bad guys. And 19-year-old Alyx? She has her wits and the sweat of her brow to work with. Well, not really, but it feels that way sometimes. Alyx scampers forward in an attempt to save her father and to get her hands on a rumored superpowered weapon. Equipment-wise, she has a pair of gravity gloves—given to her by a tech named Russell, who’s always whispering humorous guidance in her ear—and a circuit-connecting device of her own invention.
The gloves give players the ability to point at glowing objects of importance and draw them to you with a flick of your wrist. And the circuit-connector allows you to solve environmental puzzles that redirect power and enable passage forward.
OK, those are the basics. But what will you encounter as you battle your way through crumbling industrial areas, high-tech alien facilities, underground nests and all sorts of other fungi-filled environs?
For starters, you’ll soon meet nasty headcrab creatures that latch onto victims and turn them into waling, bloodthirsty zombies. Oh, and blobby lightning thingies that zip in and out of hiding. Suspended, torn-open corpses, and creatures with dangling tongue-traps. Bubbling spores that swell and explode with poisonous gas. And on and on this list of noxious hazards go.
And here’s where the game’s meticulous detail and VR tech make a huge difference. Unlike your average digital shooter, this game’s shadowed, goo-covered environments feel much more pressing, festering and septic. And as headcrabs and the like spring out of the darkness in an attempt to eat your brain, and gigantic long-limbed robots lurch indestructibly after you through debris-strewn darkened caverns, you can’t help but jump and jerk with a natural survival instinct.
You’ll blast away with a small stockpile of upgradable weapons, of course, while the game’s fine-tuned specifics will impact you in other ways, too. From realistically rent bodies to the splattering gore of viciously torn open beasties to the healing stations that smash alien grubs into a pulpy juice and inject it into your hand, there’s a nasty queasiness to this virtual world’s proceedings that gamers cannot escape.
The fact is, Half-Life: Alyx has definitely realized the potential of virtual-reality technology and its immersive capabilities. Valve does VR detail very well. And for some, that will play out as an alluring draw. But a discerning parent will look at this game’s gory gunk and be far less enticed.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.