Set five years before the events of “Half-Life 2,” “Half-Life: Alyx” follows the adventures of Alyx Vance, a nineteen-year-old woman who is a resistance fighter in a guerrilla organization that is fighting the Combine, a militaristic alien force that has taken over the Earth. Early in the game, Alyx works to free her father who has been taken prisoner by the Combine before turning her attention to tracking down a super weapon before the Combine can make it operational. Frankly, I haven’t cared much one way or another for the game’s boilerplate sci-fi story. It’s the world of “Alyx,” with its gameplay and its unprecedented level of detail for a VR game that have astonished me.
Those who have played “Half-Life 2” will likely remember the gravity gun, a firearm that could pull distant objects (such as barrels) to itself, and launch them. “Alyx” iterates on the concept by presenting players with gravity gloves, which prove to be splendid tools in a VR space. Using Oculus Touch controllers, which double as my hands in the game, I can point at an object in the distance — ammo, boxes, or what have you — and, with a flick of the wrist, pull it toward me and catch it with my hand. A most fun game mechanic.
One of the first diverting moments I had in “Alyx” happened when I spent a couple of minutes pestering one of the series’ signature zombies as it paced back and forth in a small, enclosed office. From the other side of the room’s smashed window, I’d reach forward and use the gravity gloves to pull assorted office objects from the room toward me and then pelt the zombie with them. Groaning with annoyance, it would try in vain to claw at me through the window as I, cackling maniacally, would take a few steps back (in real life) to avoid his reach.
“Alyx” is stuffed with interactive objects that ground the player in its world. Using a multipurpose tool, you’ll find yourself tracing the electrical wiring along walls to send power to an elevator, as well as turning over spherical 3-D puzzles in your hands to unlock doors. The puzzles are easy to grasp, though not always easy to execute. The adjective “magical” leaps to mind when I think of how they made me feel connected to the world.
There have been many moments that have left me breathless. Though I’ve shot many a flammable barrel in a game, there is a huge gap between shooting an object while sitting on a couch in front of a TV and actually using the physical gestures necessary to pick up a fuel canister, toss it at an enemy, shoot it, step behind a wall for cover and crouch. The first time I got into a firefight with a few Combine soldiers while in a building I felt as elated as I was when a teacher showed me “Wolfenstein 3-D” (1992).
Yes, there are other VR shooters, but none of them have displayed anything close to this level of ambition and finesse. Running the game on high settings on an Alienware computer with a Nvidia RTX 2080 Super graphics card, I was not only impressed by how good the game looked, but how satisfying it was to move through its world.
“Half-Life’s” ties to survival-horror shine in “Alyx.” One enemy that most who have played “Half-Life” will remember are the Barnacles — monstrosities that attach themselves to the ceiling and dangle their long, thin, dark tongues close to the ground. VR makes their presence more unnerving. A random moment I loved happened when I pulled an object toward me that a Barnacle caught then with its tongue and devoured. I moved into place underneath it while carefully avoiding its grotesque appendage and fired a few shots, killing it and causing it to spit up my item. In that moment, and several others, I felt noticeably transported to one of the most vivid science fiction worlds I’ve experienced.
These days, what a precious thing it is to be positively astonished.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.