“Half-Life: Alyx” Review: The VR FPS is still locked in its Vault

"Alyx"'s story centers around stealing a superweapon from the sky-suspended Vault, pictured. It's not as substantial a story as the game thinks it is.

“Half-Life: Alyx” is the moment VR headset owners have been waiting for. That’s right: Big-name VR games have finally moved from tech demo to launch title.

“Alyx” is the first single-player adventure in nine years from the studio that modernized the first-person shooter, Valve. It’s the first game in 13 years in the series that made that modernization happen, “Half-Life”, after players were left with a massive cliffhanger in 2007. Given “Alyx”’s exclusivity as the first major adventure to come to PC VR headsets, the game seems poised to do that again. But instead, it putters up as the typical showcase of the wonderful immersion power of VR. So when the game reveals its surprisingly robust survival-horror game loop, featuring scarce ammo, the physical reloading of weaponry that requires real-time movement, and a feeling of dread slowly creeping into each peaceful second, it’s surprising. The loop is incredibly streamlined. Altercations in “Alyx” are quick and energetic but deeply tense, the search for life-saving ammo and upgrade-bestowing resin is desperate, and the beauty in environments moving from each fight to the next is absorbing. Players just repeat from there. In a world of bloated, system-heavy, constantly updating games-as-services that all compete for players’ precious time, that makes “Alyx” worth some of yours on concept alone.

The loop works best after the game introduces the Combine, an alien race that overtook Earth in just seven hours. Combine turn the combat tactical, as “Alyx” is truly a room-scale experience; players are encouraged to crouch and peek out from cover-littered dystopian landscapes to get a shot in. The Combine are really good at flanking the player, too, turning combat into a frantic search for a safe place in a minefield. The physicality of VR makes “Alyx” indescribably palpable; it’s one thing to press a button to dodge a headcrab or hide from gunfire, but it’s another entirely to physically move out of the way. The game triggered my fight-or-flight reaction at least 10 times during gameplay. There’s truly nothing like it, inside or outside of the VR space.

The problem is that “Alyx”’s sleek gameplay also makes it as sturdy as the cardboard boxes that litter its landscape. The game’s engine runs fast, but burns out quickly. After the fifth fight-loot-walk loop in a row, the once exhilarating combat “Alyx” runs on turns into a drudge. So the game inserts small, 20-minute sections of horror, puzzles, or exploration to break it up—but their hit-or-miss quality only leads players to beg for the combat back. Chapter “Jeff” is the outstanding trouble, made up of 20 minutes of throwing bottles to distract the titular blind zombie from eating you. It gets tedious fast—and it’s likely some of the most frustrated I’ve ever been in VR. Give me a list of the game’s 11 chapters, and I’d give you back 5 of them–arguably half of the game–that could be cut or changed without the supports collapsing beneath it. “Alyx” would be much better off if it focused on and expanded its loop, rather than dangling a new carrot in front of players’ faces every half-hour.

The game’s need to keep its loop fresh also destroys its pacing. The first quarter of “Alyx” is pure discovery—a gorgeous spectacle that unveils an incredibly solid game loop. Then the middle half of the game is largely held together by a series of trudging, repetitive fights and distracting side-segment chapters that hold no story development, largely included so the game can reach the length required to call itself a full adventure game. The final quarter picks up the slack immensely, but “Alyx”’s obsession with being the first “full-length” VR game (whatever that means) turns it from a great eight-hour game to a mediocre 12-hour grind.

It’s also worth breaching price when talking about a game like this, as it’s likely “Alyx” will cost more than $60 for most players. “Half-Life: Alyx” requires a processor and graphics card that only about a quarter of active PC gamers own, according to Valve’s self-conducted hardware survey, adding $300-$600 to most players’ entry ticket—not to mention the additional $300-$1000 cost of a PC VR headset in a world that both doesn’t have them in stock anywhere and is quickly moving to standalone VR consoles like the Oculus Quest. Before I entered college, I spent $2000 on the highest-end laptop I could afford. Two and a half years later, I’m barely skating through “Alyx” on its lowest settings. A drawn-out, thin experience that costs $1000 more than Valve is asking for a majority of players is simply not the system seller it’s rumored to be. But it is a good start, and the solidity at the center of “Alyx” still proves it’s not a bad game. It’s mostly a bonus; a proclamation of the power and potential of dedicated VR for people who have already bought into it. The question now is if “Alyx” does what Valve’s explicitly intended for it to do—and brings other huge developers into the space.

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