Half-Life: Alyx is familiar. In comparison to previous installments in the franchise, it even looks a bit samey. You get guns, you fight terrifying headcrab-controlled zombies, mow down the militant Combine, solve puzzles, and try to liberate a world from a multi-dimensional alien takeover. On paper, it’s hard to pinpoint a hugely notable difference between Half-Life: Alyx and Half-Life 2, a 16-year-old game. Yet, Half-Life: Alyx is unlike anything I’ve ever played before. Yes, it’s a VR game, and the immersion that comes from that defines the experience. However, beyond the virtual reality is a video game so meticulously crafted and so spellbinding in its execution that the familiarity and simplicity becomes a stroke of brilliance.
In the opening moments of the game you have time to interact and play with the world. Before you get your hands on any guns, one of the first things you can arm yourself with is a marker. Using my actual real-life hands and the Vive’s controllers, I picked up the marker and began drawing on a window with it. I could clean it off with an eraser or smudge it off with my fingers. This moment, seemingly inconsequential in the moment, actually served as the bedrock for what would come by rewiring my brain and opening my mind to possibilities that the game would execute on in the hours following.
From there, Half-Life: Alyx tossed me into pits of vast darkness with a flashlight to provide some small level of visibility. There, horrifying monsters surrounded me, crippling me with fear as I screamed in panic and fumbled to reload my gun. Frazzled and afraid, I dropped my magazine on the ground because I was physically trembling in real life, trying to get a grip on the situation while headcrabs flew through the air towards my face. Moments later, I was hacking a terminal in a heart-pounding minigame, only to be thrust into the piercing daylight of City 17 where I went guns blazing into a firefight against the militant Combine. In an old train yard, I ducked and weaved around the environment, physically crouching and taking cover, aiming my sights through narrow openings in the environment.
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