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Half-Life: Alyx review: VR dystopia, played in a real-life dystopia

Escaping to try Valve's first Half-Life game in years was a bigger challenge than I expected.

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In Half-Life: Alyx, the Citadel looms over all.

Valve

As I'm wandering through a dark hallway, with just my virtual flashlight in front of me to light the way, I hear the voice of my friend, Russell, in my ear. He's trying to calm me down by telling me about sandwiches, before they disappeared. This most amazing food, he recollects to me. All these ingredients from around the world, assembled into a foot-long thing. An impossible meal. As I hunt for more ammo clips and shining bits of treasure, and am legitimately terrified about something leaping out at me in the dark, I try to remind myself, this is just a game, Half-Life: Alyx, in VR. A nightmare that isn't real. But when I take my headset off when my watch buzzes to remind me to come back and help with the kids, who are home for an indefinite period of time because of the coronavirus pandemic, I feel like I'm still trapped inside a dream.

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It's strange to escape a world that seems increasingly dystopian for a world that is... more dystopian. As the kids run around screaming and I worry about food supplies and New Jersey now has a curfew, I creep upstairs and head to my home holodeck that I've assembled: small sensor cubes with snaking wires stacked on storage boxes and my bookshelves. A Valve Index VR headset, cabled to an Alienware laptop on my desk. 

I slip on strange controllers with hand-straps, like motorcycle handlebars with joysticks and buttons. I wear them like gloves, and I can wiggle my fingers and see my virtual hands. 

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My hands in Half-Life: Alyx can be seen floating in front of me. I can wiggle my fingers and check my stats.

Valve

I'm explaining this because you probably don't have a VR headset, and I want you to understand what I'm doing. 

Now: I'm gone from my office. I'm on a balcony where I see a European city ravaged by giant long-legged nightmares, while a wire-festooned tower climbs infinitely into the sky. This is how Half-Life: Alyx begins, like an immersive theater experience, a Sleep No More where I can explore Half-Life's universe, pick up artifacts, enjoy just wandering around, opening drawers, taking a few steps in the walking space of my limited office play area.

The graphics in Half-Life: Alyx are stunning. Once I'm in a spot, I can wander, and the details are amazing. Worn propaganda posters. A newspaper that I can pull out of a rusted mailbox and read its faded headlines. A radio I can tune to different stations.

OK, I should note that I've never played all the old Half-Life games. I'm sorry! I played Portal. But I love VR, and am fascinated that Valve's first new Half-Life game in years is VR-only. It's out today.

VR isn't a mainstream thing yet, despite four years of promises and progress. VR headsets are expensive, clunky, sometimes difficult to set up. The experiences can be amazing, when there's good software. Valve's newest Half-Life game is entirely made for VR, so for PC gamers who've been waiting for a new Half-Life game all these years, Half-Life: Alyx won't be your choice unless you own a VR headset, or are planning to. And you'll need a gaming PC good enough to play it.

In that sense, recommending Half-Life: Alyx is kind of a pointless question. If you have a VR headset that works with SteamVR (and there are more than you think), then this is a clear must-buy, a AAA game in a landscape where there aren't large-scale titles like this made that often. If you got a Valve Index VR headset, it comes free. And if you don't have VR, you're not getting it.

Read more: The best VR headset for 2020

So I won't be referring to these in Half-Life story terms. I'll just be conveying the experience. 

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This was a scary bit.

Valve

Deep into the quarantined zone

Ready Player One is all about a kid who escapes dystopia for better places. Half-Life: Alyx reverses that feeling. It's also single-player, so it's not a metaverse where I'll be meeting with others. In a way, it's a throwback experience in a futuristic shell. 

The game's journey, so far, plunges me into a quarantined zone where terrible horrors await, mutated alien victims, head crabs that leap onto people's heads and turn them into walking, suffering zombies (I can't stop thinking of Alien's facehuggers). There are plenty of weird weapons, and puzzles I can solve, and close-quarters shootouts with surprise enemies. The more I play, the more I feel like I'm plunged into a first-person shooter, and the controls melt away and become intuitive.

The retro-future vibe reminds me of the Bioshock series, in a different sense, but with that same disorienting and extremely rich sense of world-building atmosphere. The game's style also reminds me of hints Valve gave from earlier Half Life universe-themed VR demos that a rich wild world would someday come. 

Half Life: Alyx feels like it has enough for a series of films, maybe. I'd love to see what could happen with other players in a multiplayer expansion, too. 

Controls and headset options galore

Valve offers an impressive amount of control customizations. If you use Valve's standard method of play, you'll zap around from place to place by aiming your controller, much like other VR games -- it's what I've come to use most often, a teleport-style movement. Another mode offers some animation between jumps, like you're zooming forward. You can also set movement to where you turn your head, or aim your controller. These could be great if you're sitting down, or unable to easily use full motion. 

Using Valve's grip-like Index controllers is the best way to play, because the game transposes virtual hands into the game that map to finger motions. I can grab boxes, push open doors. I can pull things out of storage and load my gun, or inject medicine into my hand. Valve has button-push alternatives for many of these controls, so there are always fallback options.

I played mostly on the Valve Index, but I also played on an Oculus Quest, through a USB-C link cable beta that turns the Quest into a PC-compatible VR headset. It worked surprisingly well in a pinch, but the Quest suffers some lag and controller tracking hiccups with my review build. The game's controls map well enough to the Oculus Touch controls, so much so that they feel nearly as good as the Valve Index grip controls for the game. The Quest gets weighted down by having a USB-C cable jut out the side of the headset, too. But other than that, I was able to play the game, and even walk around in my office.

I played on an Alienware M15 laptop with a Core i7-9750H processor, 16GB of RAM and GeForce RTX 2080 graphics, which costs $2,800. Valve requires at least an Intel Core i5-7500 or AMD Ryzen 5 1600 and Nvidia GeForce RTX 1060 or AMD RX 580 graphics or better for the game. (An Alienware M15 that just meets that spec costs $1,350.)

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How much time can I afford to escape?

I haven't finished playing Half-Life: Alyx yet, because home conditions are more cramped than I expected. Carving out time to escape into VR right now is something I want to do, but isn't easy to manage with WFH life and a family in my house with me. I'll keep playing, and absorbing it all.

I also feel selfish escaping to VR right now, to a solitary experience that no one can share with me. And odds are, you won't be sharing it either, because most people don't have VR headsets, and they haven't been easy to buy. That's why I'm hoping Valve finds a way to adapt Alyx for other PC gamers, too, because this type of game is a welcome gift right now. If you have all the parts, however, and the time, this is a stellar (albeit stressful) excursion.

VR still needs more games like this, and more, to turn it into the ultimate destination. And it needs other people, in multiplayer, too. And while I really appreciate playing -- and I think it's the best VR genre adaptation since Astrobot: Rescue Mission on PlayStation VR -- what I really want in VR is Portal. Or, for VR games like Half-Life: Alyx to eventually work untethered, over headsets I can put anywhere without having to move back to my VR room, like I can do with the standalone (but less powerful) Oculus Quest... but connecting with others, too, so it's not just me, alone in my virtual dystopia. I'm hoping that comes next.