Half-Life: Alyx – First Impressions
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
After some of the usual VR teething issues, I got Alyx working, and oh my god, are the first impressions good!
Almost immediately the game places you on a balcony with a view of the Citadel. I’m playing on an Oculus Rift S, which often has fairly obvious screen-door effect, especially when displaying large vistas, and I won’t deny there is some of that here. However, the fidelity is leaps and bounds ahead of anything I’ve seen in VR, and the first thing to emphasise is just how amazing the view is. The Citadel looms in the distance, a mass of exposed architecture and wiring. Helicopters carry new panels towards it, dwindling into tiny dots in the distance. Beneath it, under thin patches of smog, lies the distinctly Eastern European architecture of City 17; the squat metal-roofed houses that could be in Prague, Warsaw, or St Petersburg interspersed with the modern brutalism of Combine architecture. Between the buildings, in the narrow streets, a few pedestrians mill about, their gait immediately familiar to anyone who has spent enough time with Half-Life 2. And surrounding all that is the noise of the city, punctuated by the calm, even female voice of Combine Overwatch. It’s probably weird to miss a dystopian overlord, but how I’ve missed you!
In short, it’s an impressive opening, and immediately establishes the balance between nostalgic familiarity and novel, jaw-dropping technology that I imagine Valve were gunning for with Alyx.
Of course, it’s a Half-Life game, so once I collected my jaw from the floor, I proceeded to mess about with every object I could find. Matchbox, watering can, radio with adjustable antennae, bucket with some rotten apples in it, Dr Kleiner’s book – anything that looks like it can be picked up and tossed about can be picked up and tossed about, and everything responds more or less as it ought to. There is a pleasant snappiness to the controls too; you are rarely stuck scrambling to pick something up, to hold on to it, or to manipulate it.
In other words, there doesn’t seem to be any of the jank we’ve got used to with VR. Things look good (even the rotten apples are exceptionally high fidelity models, and I won’t mention the tears of nostalgia as I stepped inside my first City 17 corridor); they move around smoothly; they interact with you and each other properly. The sense of immersion is complete within minutes, and it wasn’t long before I was confused about where I was when I started bumping into the edges of my play area.
There are some very nice narrative touches and details too. Perhaps the most intriguing early find is a globe (yes, of course you can spin it). The globe has been written on and I can only assume it shows the progress of the Seven Hour War, the conflict during which the Combine established complete control over Earth. (If that’s right, then it looks like North America was wiped out entirely, and City 17 is somewhere within a several-thousand-mile radius of the Urals in Russia).
Oh, and obviously I drew some penises. The game accurately models pen and whiteboard physics, including being able to rub stuff out, so I had to rub out all the maths and draw a penis. I just had to.