I think I’m officially old now.
So my friend offered to lend me his Oculus Quest which, after putting it off for an inordinately long time, I did. The system itself is pretty great, basically working seamlessly out of the box with only a few little bits of setup required. There are still hiccups of course, like it not behaving if you unplug and plug it back in (it wants another USB port) nor it wanting to power on until the battery is somewhat charged even if its plugged in. Then there’s the issue of the cord which, if you don’t cable manage it properly, becomes an annoying additional challenge to navigating whatever VR experience you find yourself in. Suffice to say there’s a lot of annoyances in just getting to the VR experience in the first place and from there you have another set of challenges to overcome.
You see I, like many others, usually play games to relax or unwind. It’s a decidedly non-physical activity and VR well… it is. So there I am, late at night, standing in the middle of the room ducking and weaving around working up a sweat when that’s really the last thing I want to do. I’m not unfit either but a combination of eye strain and the physical effort usually capped most sessions at an hour or less. I tell you all this as I think the simple experience of this being my first, true long form VR experience is as much a part of the experience as the game of Half Life Alyx is. So take what I say with consideration as whilst this is probably the best VR experience I’ve played it wasn’t exactly the most enjoyable experience.
Set 5 years before the events of Half Life 2 Alyx puts you in charge of the game’s namesake as she works against the combine to establish the resistance on earth after the Seven Hour War. You’re immediately captured by the combine but luckily the resistance is able to stage a rescue but only Alyx is able to be saved. Her father, Dr Eli Vance, is taken away and will likely be enroute to the horror prison Nova Prospekt for interrogation and execution. The game follows your quest to rescue your father in the now alien infested world of City 17.
Alyx, even through the screen door effect of current gen VR headsets, looks pretty great. It took some fiddling to get my eyes aligned just right with Quest’s limited adjustability but once I did it was pretty impressive. Playing around in the initial environment was also pretty great fun too, interacting with objects in a really natural way, even without the freedom of full hand tracking or controllers like the Valve Index has. There are some stark limitations though which crop up more often than not with a lot of things appearing like you can interact with them but are non-physics objects. Where Half Life 2 showed what was possible with good game physics Alyx does showcase what’s possible in VR but it just doesn’t seem as impressive as the former did. To be fair I haven’t played a ton of other VR games, so it’s possible that the leap in mechanics is greater than what my feelings would imply.
I’m not exactly sure how to label VR games in terms of their genre. I mean basically everything is first person in VR right? So saying it’s a VR-FPS is kind of redundant, but I don’t see anyone else calling Alyx a VRS or some other new nomenclature to distinguish it from it’s more traditional brethren. Regardless Alyx is a shooter with a heavy focus on making the most of VR as a platform. This entails puzzles which are made for manipulation with your hands rather than a mouse and keyboard, secrets that are hidden in places that require contorting your body in all sorts of weird ways and the usual mix of VR tricks just to remind you that THIS IS VR HOLY COW! There are a few notable mechanics that I think will end up becoming the norm for future VR games whilst others are things that only really work within the confines of the Half Life IP.
Combat is, to put it frankly, fucking terrifying as you’ll quickly learn that your mad gamer skillz mean nothing when you have to physically aim the weapon you need to shoot. Of course there’s also a bunch of other issues with how it works too, like closing one eye not really helping at all and the controllers being close, but not 100% 1 to 1 with your actual hand position in real life. This leads to combat that’s more akin to survival horror than a real FPS as the controls are more getting in the way than helping you. The enemies are coded not to take advantage of this too much however as combine soldiers who would’ve sprayed you with a full clip in 10 seconds in the original Half Life series are a lot more forgiving this time around. Still it is rather satisfying when you pop around a corner, squeeze off a few rounds and have all of them land perfectly or when you just offhandedly shoot a man-hack and it goes plummeting down without even getting near you.
Exploration is fun but it highlights just how limiting a space can be when you need to move around it like VR requires you too. I don’t have the recommended amount of space in my room to full utilise VR (it’s about 2.4m x 1.8m of useable space) and you’ll quickly run up against the guardian pretty much every time you’re doing a puzzle or engaging in intense combat. Combine that with the screen going full orange on you whenever you poke your head through something you shouldn’t and you’ve got a lot of moments that’ll break the immersion really quickly and remind you that you’ve been standing for 30 mins straight and oh god I just want to sit down.
I do like the puzzles in Alyx as a lot of them are things that really only make sense if you have both your hands working in 3D space. The same goes for some of the exploration puzzles which rely on you popping your head through areas or exploring objects in a way that’d be really cumbersome if it was implemented on a mouse and keyboard. That being said however there’s an awful lot in Alyx that straight up doesn’t need VR to work or the addition of VR doesn’t add much to the equation. So whilst I’d agree that, holistically, Half Life Alyx is a VR first experience I think the delta between it and a mouse/kb version isn’t as great as Valve would have you believe.
Putting aside the issues that can be attributed to VR as a platform there’s still some wonky parts to Alyx even months after its release. There’s the usual array of weird physics bugs which admittedly are pretty fun to mess around with from time to time but aren’t something I’m used to seeing in titles from developers like Valve (even if this is what you’d call a 1.0 VR game from them). There’s also issues around hit detection which show themselves most prominently with the barnacles as you’ll often chart a path seemingly past them only to get snagged. The glove detection is also pretty wonky sometimes, often not registering flicks for a couple tries in a row before finally working (which sometimes includes shooting the item right past you). A good chunk of these can be attributed to this being the first amongst its kind in terms of a VR experience but I guess I was expecting more from the great and mighty Valve.
The story is, at best, inconsequential given it takes place between the two major half life games and you know exactly what happens on either side of them. To be sure it has its moments, like discovering that Alyx is afraid of the dark or the on-going banter between her and Russell, but overall apart from usual in-scene tension moments the story doesn’t seem to add much to the Half Life world nor to the characters that are in it. It does avoid making things worse or retconning in things which is honestly all too easy to do, especially when all the original writers left Valve over 3 years ago.
Half Life: Alyx is probably the most in-depth and well polished VR experience to date but, at least for this old man, that doesn’t make for a spectacular gaming experience. To be sure there’s a great lot of moments when you’re fooling around in VR and you can see the potential the platform has but then that’s quickly swept away by all the negatives that come along with it. It is also highly possible that VR as a medium is just not my cup of tea in its current iteration and needs a few more iterations to reach the level I expect of it. I was somewhat expecting Alyx to be the one game where I’d finally make the splash to buy a VR headset of my own but it’s instead confirmed that I’ll stay away for another generation or two as both the hardware and the experiences just aren’t enough for me to justify the asking cost. Indeed it’s been enough of an experience that I’m not even sure I want to give Boneworks a go and I’ll maybe just give my mate his headset back earlier than I expected.
Half Life Alyx is available on PC right now for $84.95. Total play time was 6.3 hours with 46% of the achievements unlocked.