While exploring a worn-down warehouse, I look through a window and see a room full of zombies. Headcrabs — disgusting parasites that turn their hosts into monsters — twitch atop the heads of three former humans. No problem. I’ll just open the door, toss in a grenade, and mop up any survivors. I remove the pin and grab the handle. But it won’t turn. The door is locked, leaving me with a live grenade and nowhere to toss it.
Later, I’m on my hands and knees, trying to dislodge a jar from behind a shelf. Inside is a bug that will heal my wounds, letting me survive to another day. The predicament is my own fault: in my haste to grab the jar off the shelf, I knocked it off instead of picking it up. After some doing, I’m just able to, palm out, roll the jar along the wall and free it.
Then, while making my way through a dark distillery, I spot some ammunition in an upside-down crate. I lift the box to grab the ammo, and a bottle of wine I didn’t notice rolls off the shelf. I gasp, hold my breath, and grab the bottle just before it shatters on the ground. I’m not alone here, and I can’t, under any circumstances, let the other occupant know where I am, lest I meet an untimely end. Trembling, I put the bottle back on the shelf, grab the ammunition, and start breathing again.
These are three moments from Half-Life: Alyx, the latest effort from developer and publisher Valve, now available for PC. It’s a virtual reality horror experience with tight combat and a frightening world that begs to be explored. Set after the events of Half-Life, but before Half-Life 2, Alyx follows protagonist Alyx Vance as she attempts to rescue her father and uncover the secret of the villainous Combine’s newest weapon.
The Half-Life franchise, which launched in 1998, put Valve on the map. But it’s been dormant for more than a decade. Alyx is Valve’s first Half-Life game since 2007, when Half-Life 2: Episode Two famously ended on a cliffhanger. Fans of the series have long waited, and are still waiting, for Half-Life 3. Anticipation long ago turned to bitterness, then resignation and, finally, a joke.
Valve knows fans want more Half-Life. Alyx may scratch that itch, but it’s a different beast. “It’s not Half-Life 3,” admits Valve level designer Corey Peters. “It’s a different game than people are expecting, but it’s a Half-Life game that’s continuing the story in a new way.”
That, it turns out, is totally fine. VR gave Peters and the rest of the Alyx team a chance to try something new with the beloved franchise, and the result is a deeply enjoyable, gripping, strange experience. “The Half-Life universe seems to work really well in the VR space,” says Peters. And it’s evidence there are still plenty of stories to tell in the Half-Life universe.
While Half-Life 2 was about moving quickly, shooting enemies and solving some physics puzzles, Alyx is a slower, more methodological, scarier game. It smartly leans on Half-Life’s horror elements, shifting from run-and-gun action to more careful play in the style of a Resident Evil or Alien: Isolation. The medium likely made that necessary: twitchy first-person shooters typically don’t work well in VR, but a game like this is right at home.
“Because of the physical nature of [virtual reality], everything just takes time,” Peters says. “Everything from reloading the gun to positioning yourself to get line of sight. You have to physically duck down to take cover and peek your head around the corner.”
The last third of the game in particular is so compelling that I had trouble putting it down during the final hours. While so many VR experiences are little more than tech demos, Alyx is a full experience. I beat it in 12 hours, but I’m a VR enthusiast with real-life firearms training. Other players will likely take longer. And I’m already planning on coming back soon.
The only bummer is that many Half-Life fans may be left out. Alyx is built for virtual reality, meaning only those with a nice computer and a VR headset can play. The cheapest headsets that will run the game are the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S, which start at $399. Alyx was made for Valve’s own Index headset, which ranges from $499 to $999, depending on accessories.
Still, Alyx could restore many a fan’s faith in Valve’s gamemaking abilities. Its last effort, a digital trading card game called Artifact, failed. That led to an understandable belief that Valve’s focus on its Steam digital games market — an estimated $4 billion business — has distracted it from making truly great games. Alyx should put that logic to bed. Indeed, it’s possible that Steam gave Valve the financial cushion it needed to take such a risk — it’s the kind of weird game you can make when you don’t have to worry as much about failing.
Alyx is certainly still a risk for Valve. But in my eyes, it’s proof that the company can still make an amazing video game. I didn’t know I wanted that, but I did. I think Valve needed to prove it to itself, too. For years, fans have been asking if the company still had the magic touch. Could it make another video game that would linger in the mind long after the player had put it down?
Well, a day after finishing it, I can’t stop thinking about Alyx.