Non-Gamer Review of Half-Life: Alyx

The insane becomes reality. The impossible happens.

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  • Half-Life: Alyx is not just for hard-cores of the series, it’s for everyone
  • It will scare you senseless over and over again
  • Developer Valve set a new bar for VR games

My first Half-Life in-game experience was a creepy turkey-like alien flying at my face. I had seen that creature before, but only on Twitter where people were buying stuffed animal versions of it. I just thought they had a weird taste in stuffed animals. Turns out, it’s the synonymous ‘head crab’ enemy in Half-Life. Going into Half-Life: Alyx, I knew nothing about the Half-Life series. I never played 1 or 2, let alone watched them.

The only reason I bought Alyx is because it had glowing reviews at launch, and it was touted as the first AAA game for VR. If you’re curious about my thoughts on this being a VR only game, I’ve shared a paragraph at the very bottom.

Genuine Fear!

I’m pretty sure I lost 10 pounds playing this game. I spent the majority of my time with shaky and sweaty hands. Yeah, I know, too much information, but it’s the honest truth. I was genuinely scared of playing. At one point, I panicked and took off my VIVE headset. It was frightening every step of the way. After every game, my voice was coarse and raspy, despite talking very little.

All of a sudden, everything went blood red. I am dead.

I didn’t see the tentacle in my way, as it blended in so well with the rest of the environment. Yes, I was eaten by a barnacle. The name does not do it justice. This thing is disgusting and deadly. An amorphous oozy blob with layers of teeth. Anything that touches its tentacle gets pulled up and devoured alive. When not eating, it lingers, making a disturbing gurgle sound that resonates in the room and hallways. When it’s killed, it spits out the remnants of its victims, mostly blood, guts, and human skulls. Fear is baked into every aspect of this game.

Insane Environments and Realistic Scale

It isn’t just the creepy aliens, which I imagine are what things from hell look like, it’s the scale of everything. This is something that, in a non-VR game, is pretty impossible to fathom and rarely impacts gameplay. Here, it’s very apparent that a building is 20 stories high and that a monster is twice your size.

As the main character, you circumnavigate through City 17, which includes tunnels, caves, apartments, and secret bases. Most look futuristic or post-apocalyptic. There’s also a clever use of lighting or lack thereof for the majority of the game. It looks eerily similar to the Upside Down world from Stranger Things TV show. Dark, dusty, and something nasty is awaiting you as its next victim.

Game Science (Physics)

In most VR games, the user can only engage with items that are related to gameplay. For example, you can grab a hat that’s a clue but not an inanimate book object. In Half-Life: Alyx, you can engage with whatever you feel like. Pick it up, examine it, throw it, or smash it. Is it a big heavy object? Use two hands. Is the cupboard closed? Open it. I did a lot of smashing FYI.

One thing I didn’t realize had a significant impact but does is that you can’t put your hands through objects or walls. In most VR games, you can. Perhaps it’s a problematic mechanic to code? In the case of Half-Life, you can run your hand across a surface like a wall or a table, but never through it. Everything becomes a lot more real because you are confined and have to traverse around objects like you would in real life.

Open World Feel

When I wasn’t shaking in my boots and struggling to reload my weapon in fear, I found myself in awe of many City 17 scenes. It felt breathtaking to look out over the wreckage of the city from the top of a building. It was mind-blowing to be standing inside an apartment that felt lived in yet half the building was split open. It was awe-inspiring to stare up at an alien ship.

As you traverse through the city, you encounter all these different scenarios and situations. Although you’re on a particular journey-way, it’s done in a way that doesn’t feel limited and makes it feel more like an open world with options. Only if you get lost, will you understand the space limitations and confines. Otherwise, the story brings you nicely through where you need to go in an action-packed way. The game gives you enough wiggle room to look around, without letting you get too lost, go too far ahead or backward that you’ll get confused as to what to do next.

Real-Life Stress

Just when you think you understand how to play and succeed, the game switches up, and you have to do and learn something new. This makes it incredibly frustrating while helping keep things spicy.

In-Game Example:
⚫ You cannot shoot through windows
⚪ You need to shoot through windows, looking carefully at those that aren’t reinforced

There are other occasions where you need to stand and fight and others where you need to evade. And when it changes, it’s never obvious. The mid-game trains you to be a gun-toting badass, and the latter half, you need to be more sneaky, or you’ll run out of ammo and die. I learned the hard way, and actually prefer it that way. As soon as I got comfortable, they shook things up.

Not Buzz Worthy

Haptics! The VIVE controller haptics seemed to randomly chime in, which made it confusing and not super enchanting. I expected it to buzz and rumble differently for each weapon, but it didn’t. The haptics only made sense closer to the end of the game with the electricity weapon. I could feel the charge up and burst, which convinced my brain I was holding a dangerous weapon in my hands. Having experience with haptics, I believe this may be more of an industry problem of having to develop for different platforms. That said, this is, in my opinion, the big missing piece of the entire game. By finessing touch like they did for the other senses, (minus smell which no one is ready for) would tip this from epic to insane immersivity.

Conclusion And Rank

Half-Life: Alyx looks amazing, is fun to play and will keep you engaged. If you want to wander and be hands-on with the environment, you can. If you want to run through guns blazing, you can. I’ve played a few VR games, including brand new titles, and Half-Life: Alyx is the best game VR I’ve ever played. By far. 100%. Full stop. The insane becomes reality. The impossible is happening. This game sets a new bar for all VR games.

Half-Life: Alyx Rating: 9.5/10

Why This Game Is VR Only

I keep reading about complaints that Half-Life: Alyx should have been a regular PC title with VR capabilities. There was an article on Forbes about it, which blew my mind. If you’ve ever played a ‘VR supported game,’ you know the implementation feels half-baked, whether the look and feel, controls or movement.

Yes, I understand the world of console and PC titles are converging, titles like Fortnite and Modern Warfare. But this is VR, and that isn’t technically feasible right now, so it doesn’t make sense. This game is built for VR. The controls, the visuals, the texture, the mechanics, and everything else.

FYI, this game is not for children, and I would not recommend anyone under whatever rating their touting. It’s gory, violent and gross. Just like Nanodots Magnetic Constructors (support me and buy some!), adults can have things just for them. Sorry, not sorry, kids!

Strategic alliances (haptics & magnetics) at Founding team @Nanodots. Writes about VR, tech, startups, and autocross.

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