A screen shot from the video game Half-Life: Alyx.
Image courtesy of Valve Software
Games Reviews

'Half-Life: Alyx' Is Scary as Hell, and Proves Valve's VR Gamble Paid Off

Under the heavy burden from a decade of speculation and expectations, 'Half-Life: Alyx' delivers.
March 23, 2020, 5:10pm

So, was it worth the wait? Unanswerable.

Nothing could live up to the weight of expectations after Valve decided to walk away from one of gaming’s biggest cliffhangers and let speculation irresponsibly fester for more than a decade. Alyx is not Half-Life 3, nor is it Episode Three.

I can tell you that it is very good, with some misgivings, but it’s different from what I’d been expecting. For one, I did not anticipate Alyx is, essentially, Valve making a horror game. It’s scary as fuck. It is not a revolutionary game, but, again, it's definitely a very good one, and if Valve made games of this quality regularly again, we’d all be so lucky. But I’d watched the trailers, and it still wasn’t wasn’t clear why Valve felt the need to return to Half-Life in this format. They had to know making it for VR would make a lot of people mad—and leave many fans out. Now, having spent nearly 20 hours playing through the story, it makes sense.

In a lot of ways, Alyx reboots Half-Life. It keeps all the aesthetic trappings that we’ve nostalgically canonized over the years—the unmistakable chatter of Combine soldiers, the still-conceptually terrifying headcrabs, an emphasis on playing with physics, etc.—and drops everything into a new context. It works, but it’s an adjustment that takes a hot minute, and it’s hard not to view Alyx as, simultaneously, a chance for Valve to prove “Hey, we can do this.” The longer Valve ignored Episode Three, the longer Episode Three turned into Half-Life 3, and once it becomes Half-Life 3, the question becomes: How do we surprise people again?

Take the headcrab. It’s an iconic enemy that everyone, even if you’re not a Half-Life stan, knows. But like all horror villains, familiarity breeds complacency. Once you’re a plush toy, it’s hard to put the fear of god in someone. I can promise you that you will fear headcrabs again in Alyx—constantly. It’s much different to stare down a head crab, a creature whose sole purpose is to attach itself to your head and start sucking brain juice, in virtual reality. When a head crab appears, you have a few beats, maybe a second or so, before it launches into the air. That jump is no longer part of a screen that’s nicely distanced from your face, maybe even a TV on the wall, but a lunge directed at a headset connected to your face.

You can try closing your eyes?

You will panic, because Alyx expects you to. You will line up a shot at a head crab—and miss. More than once, I tried to close an eye, thinking it would help my ability to precisely aim. It didn't work. When you miss, that second to prepare will expire, and it will jump. You will frantically try to move to another part of the room, while it scampers along the ground. Your heart pounds, and it’s time to reload the gun. You press a button to drop the empty clip from your gun, and reach around to your back—literally—to grab another one. You add the clip to your gun, and turn to face the head crab. You aim the gun, take a deep breath, and pull the trigger—except you forgot to pull back on the slide, and now the gun is useless.

The headcrab lunches. And you scream into the dark.

The headcrab is scary again, and this is, in microcosm, why Alyx works. It’s a slower paced game, where you’re expected to patiently and methodically comb through each area, and where combat is equal parts intimidating and thrilling. More than once, I took a deep breath before entering an area sure to be teeming with enemies, whether grotesque horrors or soldiers, because of how quickly my heart was likely to start racing. Alyx (the character) isn’t some hardened veteran, but someone thrown into a desperate situation and quickly adapts.

One thing I want to stop and emphasize: this is, more than anything, a horror game. There are moments in the sun, there are times when you fight humanoid Combine enemies, but the vast majority is Alyx is spent combating and avoiding unknown horrors. It’s the most high-profile horror game since Resident Evil 7, a game I adored, but I don’t know that Valve has properly informed the public for how far they lean into this! Alyx feels like a bunch of Ravenholm fanboys got together and wondered what it’s like to make a full game out of it.

It’s awesome, in other words.

There is a moment in Alyx that I’ll never forget. I won’t spoil it for you, but it’s when the game introduces the “poison” variant of the headcrabs, the ones that act look and act like spiders. The closest thing I have to a working phobia is spiders—tarantulas, specifically—and the moment Alyx introduces this creature ranks as an all-time nightmare moment that I’ll never, ever forget. It’s as scary as anything I’ve experienced—movie, game, real-life—and when the sequence was over, I physically had to slow my breathing and say everything was okay.

If you told me some longtime employees at Valve have quietly written down ways to scare players— really scare them—for more than 20 years and decided Alyx was their chance to finally put them all into action, I would believe you. It helps explain why I fell so hard for this.

You can tell Valve approached every interaction in Alyx with a sense of “OK, in VR, how can we make this feel tactile?” It’s the way you click a button on the controller to activate a grenade, then lean around a corner— physically lean around the corner—and stretch your arm as far as possible, while applying a light touch to tossing a grenade at some enemies. When it works, it’s satisfying as all hell. When it doesn’t, it’s hard to pinpoint who’s at fault, part of the game’s most enjoyable tension. It’s no longer as simple as aiming a reticule.

One of my most satisfying interactions was while scaling the side of a building, slowly teleporting from one spot to the next by aiming my hand. (It’s weird at first, and the game offers different options, but I get over it.) I arrived at a window that required me to open it by leaning over and grasping two handles. As I lifted my arms above my head and looked forward, I saw a room with three zombies. Quickly, I slammed the window shut, before remembering I’d stashed a grenade in my inventory. Breathing deep, I slowly opened the window again, tapped a button to activate the grenade, tossed it forward like I was throwing a bowling ball, and closed the window again. Tick, tick— boom. Everyone was dead. This kind of player-to-enemy interaction would otherwise be hopelessly routine in another game, but making one’s body so central to accomplishing the task at hand proved endlessly novel.

Or there’s the time when the only way to move forward was to toss a grenade through a vent like I was shooting a freethrow, hoping to blow some explosives on the other side. I spent 10 minutes trying to get that dang grenade through the vent, cackling every time it effortlessly bounced in the wrong direction, because I couldn’t blame the error on anyone but myself.

But there are plenty of times where the game falls flat in this regard. City 17 is supposed to be a place where people lived, laughed, and died. Alyx is a game where you’re encouraged to pick up and look at everything around you. Unfortunately, there’s nothing notable to look at. Every room looks the same, every bathroom looks the same, every office looks the same. There is not some interesting story hiding behind that door. If you’re lucky, it’s a few bullets.

There are, weirdly, precious few attempts at environmental storytelling—something Half-Life, as a series, helped pioneer—and precious few reasons to spend time sorting through the many, many objects you can interact with. There are bullets and health and upgrade tokens to find, and rare exceptions like fully written front pages of newspapers fleshing out the world, but you won’t learn much about the people of City 17. You won’t open a drawer and get a sense of what happened before you arrived. No voice memos, no diaries. Nothing.

At a certain point, once I’d amassed enough ammo to know I wouldn’t be running out anytime soon, I stopped meticulously combing through every space I walked through. After opening yet another drawer and finding the same items I’d seen a million times, I mostly moved on. And yet, I kept poking around, figuring I was missing something? No, I was not.

That said, Alyx remains full of character. The dynamic between Alyx (Ozioma Akagha) and Russel (Rhys Darby), who briefly meet before talking through headsets, is terrific and genuinely funny. (I’m sorry I didn’t get you that vodka, buddy.) Like Resident Evil 7, it’s a joy to see AAA-quality production values applied to a VR game, and notably, the animation in Alyx is astounding. Your interactions with non-enemies is brief and fleeting but memorable.

Alyx, as designed, wouldn’t work outside of VR, but that comes with all the limitations of the medium, too. I’ve been a VR advocate since Oculus shipped its first prototype, always believing it was more than just a shot at “immersion” and a chance to define a new way of interaction. But I’m also someone who’s never shied from admitting how much bullshit comes alongside VR, and Alyx exposes those problems in new and still-frustrating ways.

I played through Alyx on a Valve’s high-end Index headset, a beautiful piece of tech that grants you a best-in-class display and controllers that feel like natural extensions of your hand. (The game supports a wide variety of headsets, but I did not have a chance to experiment.) My office isn’t big enough to accommodate walking around, and because Valve promised Alyx was a full-length game, I had every intention of sitting down. Alyx supports the sitting down experience, even if it’s probably best played standing up, but it’s also a game where you are constantly moving your head and body, leaning down and over to open drawers or examine items. After I smacked my hand into my desk for the billionth time, I moved the “play space” back a few feet. This did not, however, solve the issue of the headset’s lengthy cable wrapping around my chair constantly. Several times per session, I was forced to pause the game not because I needed a break, but because I couldn’t move and needed to spend a minute slowly untangling the cable from my office chair. It sucked.

It’s also a performance hog of a video game. My PC is quickly aging, but my GTX 1080 is usually able to brute force its way through a lot of things. Alyx, however, chewed away at my older CPU, despite the settings being at “low.” This didn’t prove bothersome for most of my time with Alyx—VR can get away with cutting corners on fidelity because of the way you interact with it—but there were a handful of sequences, especially towards the end when things ramp up, where my computer slowed to a crawl. It’s less fun to fight your way through a hallway of enemies when their animation is moving at half speed. Your mileage may vary.

All the problems were worth it, though.

Every night for the past week or so, I’ve put my daughter to bed, kissed my wife goodnight, and put on a headset that blocked out the rest of the world. When the headset went on, the world around me went black, and City 17, one of the central locations in the Half-Life universe, became my home. In those hours, I didn’t check Twitter, watch the news, or read a blog written by the latest person to claim they’ve become an overnight expert. At times, it made me self-conscious; why does anyone care what I think about a new Half-Life game, given everything? But it’s a testament to Alyx that I came back.

For a while now, we’ve wondered “What it would be like for Valve to make games again?” If Alyx is indicative of future performance, unforeseen consequences be damned, we should all be excited about what’s to come. I just hope more people get a chance to experience it.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).

This article originally appeared on VICE US.