This week in Zero Punctuation, Yahtzee reviews Half-Life: Alyx.
I kind of feel bad for Valve. "Rejoice, ye faithful, for official Half-Life games have returned from their long hibernation in a giant cocoon of money! Now, the true believers will be rewarded with- Where the fuck is everyone?" We're all in quarantine 'cos of the global pandemic, Valve. "Oh. Would now be a bad time to ask people to buy our thousand-dollar VR headset?" I rather suspect it would be, Valve, yes. Still, now could be the perfect time for the VR revolution, since everyone's stuck at home looking for ways to cover their eyes and ears and go "la la la, not listening" to current events. And much as the boringly-named "Valve Index" sounds more like something related to insider trading in the plumbing industry than a VR system, I personally found that it represents great value for money, mainly because they sent me a free one. 'Cos I'm a reviewer. So I'd better review it.
How does it compare to my old Oculus Rift? Well, the image is crisper, and it doesn't take up fifteen USB ports; it just takes up nineteen power sockets instead. That's not true; in reality, it takes up three power sockets, and isn't it a shame that I have to break character to clarify that because some of you mouth-breathers don't understand exaggeration for comic effect and think "hyper-bowl" is what Sony's PR department eats cereal out of? Yes, I know it's pronounced "hyperbole", I couldn't think of a better joke.
The controllers are chargeable rather than battery-powered - very nice - but they're less than optimal for the larger-handed gentleman. I find, to press the Start buttons, I have to bend my thumb joints to very uncomfortable angles like I'm trying to fold my thumbs into extremely small IKEA flatpacks. Still, I like how the finger tracking means every game now has Brutal Doom's "flip middle fingers at the enemies" feature, and the "strap across the palm" design makes it possible to actually throw things in VR games without also physically throwing the controller and seriously upsetting my dog.
But let's get to the star of the show: Half-Life: Alyx. I remember saying once that Valve would probably never do another Half-Life until it could in some way represent a technological step forward like Half-Life 1 and 2 both did, and it really is a burden, having to be right all the time; no one will play Trivial Pursuit with me anymore. Begone, you fan-made golden calves of Slack Beta and Cunt Down The Wee-Wees; Half-Life: Alyx is a continuation of the Half-Life canon, intended to be the hot app that VR still kind of needs. "Oh, how necessary to the canon can it be, Yahtzee? Surely, we'll be going through the plot knowing that nothing permanent can happen, because it's a prequel set five years before Gordon Freeman shows up and wipes everyone's bumsies." That's what I thought, but then, the ending suddenly pulled my trousers right down and started affecting the established plot. So since I don't want to spoil it, sorry, Half-Life fans; better crack open those swear jars and start a VR fund (or more realistically, watch someone on YouTube play it). But forget about that.
Half-Life: Alyx is a lovely piece of escapist fantasy set in a world with an actually competent government, albeit one that's just a little bit too murder-y. So a young Alyx Vance of the human resistance movement must firstly pursue her captured father, resistance leader and amazing human MacGuffin Eli Vance, and secondly, a potential superweapon that could finally defeat the Combine but obviously won't, all the while chatting to a comic relief dotty scientist character on her radio, who could easily have been Dr. Kleiner from Half-Life 2, but isn't. Maybe they couldn't get the voice actor back. But they didn't get any voice actors back; the dude now voicing Eli sounds as much like the previous dude as he does Whitney Fucking Houston.
It's odd to play a Half-Life game where the main character speaks and can tell the people around them to stop being such prannies, but it's still unmistakably Half-Life, with its trademark monsters, linear narrative gameplay, and weird emotional tone. I mean, humanity has essentially been enslaved by the Borg, who systematically subject them to gory, nightmarish body horror, but everyone's really cheerful and yukking it up with their pet headcrabs. Yes, I know humans strive to be upbeat during a crisis, but there's this one very Resident Evil-y chapter in Alyx where we have to sneak around an indestructible monster who's this hideously mutated human who will tear us apart if he finds us and looks to be in immense suffering, and then we're told that their name is Jeff, and everyone talks about him like he's the one asshole in the friend group who keeps hitting on waitresses. "Oh, that Jeff; Jeff sucks." "Hey, I trapped Jeff in a garbage compactor." "Sucks to be Jeff!" Sometimes, Half-Life's storytelling feels like what happens when an entire game has Asperger's Syndrome.
The nature of VR means that Alyx's journey involves a lot of picking through pokey rooms, in contrast to how Gordon Freeman spent entire chapters doing action stunts in his turbo roadster while kissing his biceps and steering with his buttocks. But this is why I like VR: because somehow, it's just as absorbing to rummage through a room full of cardboard boxes looking for the perfect one to wear on your head. And that's why, if they do mod a non-VR version of Alyx, it'll probably be about as much fun as playing Pop-up Pirate without the pirate. The VR is essential. Alyx is a refinement of the VR action adventure in every sense; it looks great, and it's taken the Boneworks model - my previously-favourite VR game - and removed all the janky and physically-exhausting stuff that are fun in their own way, but don't suit an immersive story experience, 'cos it's hard to focus on reading a book while doing star jumps.
So melee combat's de-emphasized, as not everyone can comfortably swing imaginary crowbars and stuffed polecats around, not without cracking their knuckles on their long-suffering dog again. And no two-handed guns which, in VR, tend to feel as natural to use as a fencing sword with a comically large rubber dildo strapped to the end. Pistol, shotgun and SMG; it's the All One-Handed Gun Show, which is what my old boarding school used to call the period immediately following lights-out. No dual-wielding, either, which is a shame, although dual-wielding in Boneworks was only fun until you needed to reload, at which point, you feel a bit stupid, unless you could think of a way to toss a fresh clip into the air with your rapidly-softening dick. Also, no physics climbing; just ladders. And ladders continue to be the one thing Valve games just cannot figure out. In this case, you sort of vaguely grab a rung, and then Alyx instantly zips to the top like she's queefing rocket exhaust, so the immersion takes a bit of a fanny fart to the face there.
But otherwise, Alyx is my new exemplar for VR narrative action games; it's engaging in all the ways that count, and it being an official entry for a big franchise is a significant step for VR becoming less of a janky novelty. "But will it be what finally breaks VR into the mainstream-" No. No, this is what I, as a VR enthusiast, have come to accept, listeners: every big mainstream success in the last two decades of video games has been about making them more casual or more social, and VR is the antithesis to both. You can't craftily alt-tab into it when you're supposed to be working (unless you've got pathologically-unobservant supervisors), and you can't do it while hanging out with friends (unless you really want them to leave, and they missed all the other hints you dropped). So I think it will always be niche. But so fucking what, frankly? You really need something to have mainstream popularity to like it? That's like only liking caviar when it's had peanut M&Ms mixed through it.
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