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Thursday, February 22, 2024

'Half-Life: Alyx' Shows VR's Power, but Might Not Win Converts

The catacombs beneath City 17's Quarantine Zone are dark and infested with zombies. Possessed by alien monsters called head crabs, an iconic Half-Life staple, they wander the tunnels, attacking anyone they meet. You think you have a perfect trap: an explosive barrel in a pathway that's blocked by two zombies. Perfect videogame logic. You fire a quick shot from your pistol and hide behind a nearby corner, peeking out to watch them lumber closer.


They step forward, almost there … Until the lead one sees you, rears out its arms, and swings them wildly, knocking the barrel off the table and sending it flying past your head. You don't bother to look at where it went. You can't take your eyes off the zombies. Here's where, in the virtual reality environment of Half-Life: Alyx, you might notice things about them that you wouldn't in any other medium. Like how big their arms are. Or how they're taller than you. You start shooting, backing away, your heart in your throat.

VR can be an intense and strange experience. While mostly elaborate smoke and mirrors—motion tracking plus wraparound screens and just the right amount of sensory deprivation—virtual reality, as a medium, conveys a sense of being that most mediums don't. When it's working properly, it gives the impression that you're actually physically occupying a novel, digital space. It's not quite the full realism that VR's most significant proponents suggest. It's more like a surreal, waking dreamspace, a reality you inhabit even as you face its own unreality, a morass of little imperfections that make the whole thing feel more like an engrossing hallucination than The Matrix.

Half-Life: Alyx, Valve's newest, VR-exclusive game, is an attempt to take advantage of the particularities of VR's dreamspace for fairly traditional ends. The game begins like a tech demo, with you as Alyx Vance, years before the character is set to become Gordon Freeman's sidekick in Half-Life 2, leaning over a balcony in the slums of alien-controlled City 17. There are objects to tinker with, a whiteboard to write on, and a striking vista to glance at. Then it progresses to a phone call with Alyx's father, some lore, and, quickly, a mission that involves fleeing from the alien Combine and racing against time to a set, linear goal that the game will now shepherd you toward.

It is, in short, a Half-Life game, just like any other. The game does so little to change or progress the logic of the Half-Life series that, if such a thing had been done before in VR, it would be called unambitious. But here, now, what's most striking about Half-Life: Alyx is how effectively Valve manages to pull it off.

It helps that Half-Life, as a series, is well suited to the needs of virtual reality. In a medium that is still trotted out by most adopters only as a party trick, Alyx benefits from the fact that Half-Life is a fundamentally curated experience. It's the type of triple-A traditional videogame experience that might, in fact, be most suited to VR. Half-Life as a series might be best described as a sort of rollercoaster, a curated suite of locations and self-contained events that don't rely on player agency. Play is fundamentally reactive. The player removes obstacles, including enemies, and pushes forward according to the demands of the situations they're put in. While the berth of possible interactions is still fairly wide, especially in the more directly interactive virtual reality, the engagement experienced by the player is still basically controlled by the designer. You never make choices about how to play a Half-Life game, and here that allows Valve to curate a set of Half-Life-style experiences that take advantage of VR's strengths.

For Alyx, that means most of the player's time will be spent exploring novel spaces, fighting, and solving environmental puzzles. Strikingly, it all works fairly well. Much skepticism of VR is due to the potential for movement within VR space to create motion sickness in the player, a problem Alyx skirts by including support for essentially every type of VR movement. Players can teleport short distances instead of walking, generally considered the safest movement option in terms of swirly stomachs. Or you can set it up to let you walk around continuously using the left analog stick, like in a standard first-person shooter. You can do this to walk either in the direction your hands, and therefore likely your body, is oriented, or you can move in the direction your head is facing. Continuous movement synced to hands feels like the most organic option, but even this reviewer found it only tolerable for roughly an hour without breaks.

illustration of a VR headset

The WIRED Guide to Virtual Reality

Everything you ever wanted to know about VR headsets, Oculus, Vive, and simulator sickness.

By Peter Rubin and Jess Grey

This robust approach to movement allows the rest of the experience to flow rather effortlessly. Simple, small interactions shine in VR, and Alyx highlights them. One of the gadgets the player receives early on is called the gravity glove, and it allows you to highlight physics objects and propel them toward yourself so you can catch them. While the gesture—flick, then catch—takes some practice to perfect, it's satisfying every time once you master it. This gadget lets the player toy around with the environment while easing the sometimes messy physics of trying to reach out and pick things up in VR, which, in Alyx, works organically sometimes but not always. Even so, rifling through the environment is quietly riveting. You might find yourself spending a lot of time going through cabinets drawer by drawer, pulling them by hand to check for spare ammo or powerups. Doors are a sudden pleasure, too, especially the way you can push open a door with one hand while pointing your weapon warily through the gap with the other. Alyx sings in these small, embodied moments, using them to bring an experiential immediacy to what is generally a standard sort of videogame experience.

The dreamspace of VR also enhances the tension of the game's more stressful moments. Half-Life has some horror in its DNA, and that horror is exceptionally striking in virtual reality. VR makes you ask questions you wouldn't ask in other videogames, like, wait, how do I load my gun again? Weapons are loaded with simple, fairly realistic gestures—pistol magazines are inserted into the weapon manually, as are shotgun shells—that are still challenging to perform under pressure if you're inexperienced at doing them. This is a videogame where you can get frightened enough by an approaching head crab to drop your last magazine, forcing you to rifle around the area hunting for it while it bears down at you. Physicality matters here, and things like getting flustered, having bad aim, or being disoriented have meaningful (though never punishing) mechanical costs. Alyx, as a full-fledged triple-A videogame made in VR, asks you to consider how your coordination and physical perception impact the experience of play. If VR continues to grow, that prospect may at some point become old hat, but right now it's engrossingly unique.

But will this legitimize VR? That's the question always asked with a game like this. With Valve successfully transferring a traditional videogame to the VR space, is that enough to push mass adoption of VR? It's an understandable question, but it feels wrongheaded. Virtual reality is a cumbersome, expensive technology with obvious limitations. It can produce incredible experiences, but the wider adoption of the technology is a question tied up not only with software but with questions of privilege and accessibility. No single game can make or break VR. The more important question is, what does the excellence of Half-Life: Alyx mean for Valve's role in the future of the medium? The last time Valve created a game like this was Half-Life 2, which it used to push players into the Steam ecosystem, which is, over a decade later, the building block of a veritable digital empire. Don't ask what this game will do for VR. Ask, instead: Will Half-Life: Alyx have a consolidating effect on Valve's efforts to stake control over the VR ecosystem? And is that a good thing?

That's the issue about Half-Life: Alyx, a reason to be reserved in praising what is undoubtedly one of the best VR games made so far. Because it's easy to say that Alyx is a good game. But it's nearly impossible to know what that's going to mean.

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