Half-Life: Alyx - Gameplay: puzzles & combat
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
In a recent (highly recommended) IGN interview Gabe Newell and Robin Walker of Valve said that many members of the Alyx team got into game development because of Half-Life 2. The more I play, the more obvious this is, but whereas I was initially overwhelmed by it in an unequivocally positive way, I’m now in two minds. I need to complete Alyx and collect my thoughts, which I will do in a final post in a few days, but my hesitation comes down to this: Alyx feels like VR fan service to Half-Life. Exceptionally high budget, exceptionally polished and executed, but fan service all the same. This is perhaps nowhere more obvious than the puzzles and combat. And before I’m hanged, drawn and quartered by the three people who might read this, I’m not saying Alyx is bad. It is, so far at least, phenomenal and absolutely the ‘killer VR app’ everyone was hoping it would be. I’m just saying things aren’t consistently amazing in all areas, and give us food for thought about the tremendous legacy of classic Half-Life and the long shadow those games still cast on current game development.
Puzzling in Alyx comes down to two things: traditional Half-Life 2 physics puzzles and new ones involving a multi-tool. The former are familiar fare. For example, in an early section of the game you need to retrieve an item held by a corpse suspended from a piece of rope. The rope is attached to a crank made out of a bicycle wheel, which is held fixed by a metal tube stuck between the spokes of the wheel. Remove the tube and the crank will spin out of control, letting the corpse fall too far. Replace the tube too soon and the corpse will remain too high up. The puzzle is a simple exercise in gripping and turning the crank with one hand, while waiting to replace the tube at the right moment with the other. Yet, like interaction in Alyx more generally, it’s elevated by VR: success feels tangible and satisfying.
The multi-tool is brand new to Half-Life and allows two types of interaction: hacking and rewiring electrics. Hacking is comprised of a set of simple mini-games, which involve either connecting up matching nodes, navigating a dot between obstacles, or manipulating lines of energy to connect nodes. These puzzles are presented as holograms and can be walked around, peered over and under, and moved. As the game progresses, they get more complicated, with more nodes, more obstacles, moving obstacles, etc. It’s basic, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen before in other games, but it’s a fun distraction that in VR feels like worthwhile interaction with Combine technology.
Rewiring is effectively an increasingly complicated game of flow-redirect, not dissimilar to the hacking mini-game in Bioshock. You find a power source, use the multi-tool to follow the wiring behind a wall, and change the flow of electricity at strategic points. It’s a cool idea that mixes up the pacing, but it gets very fiddly in a confined gameplay area and can break the immersion: I can’t count the number of times I’ve bumped into furniture during this.
What you have then is a curious dichotomy. The physics puzzles are the best, but they were already the best 15 years ago and are very much essential Half-Life. The hacking puzzles are fine, but they just fine, and, much like the crafting I discussed yesterday, they feel layered over essential Half-Life elements like an obligatory 2010s gaming trope. Which is where I’ve started noticing the fan service aspects of Alyx: the essence of Half-Life puzzling is flawlessly captured, beautifully re-created, and in many cases elevated by Half-Life faithful-turned-pro-game-developers. But the new stuff feels non-essential and a little half-baked, as if there was a bit of trepidation about messing too much with the formula, but not enough to scrap it altogether.
The combat is wonderfully visceral, especially during more manageable situations, i.e. when you have time to take cover, line up a shot, and appreciate the way it impacts. Perhaps in recognition of this the game rarely presents you with more than a couple of enemies at a time. When it does step it up – several headcrabs falling from the ceiling at once or multiple waves of Combine – it transforms into one of the most intense gaming experiences I’ve ever had, with plenty of involuntary screaming and sweaty palms. This is due not just to the immediacy of VR, or the fact that guns have to be physically aimed, but also to the fact that they have to be manually reloaded and cocked. The reflex to reach behind your shoulder for a gun clip, slot it into your gun and cock back takes several hours to develop, and in the first couple of chapters there are moments where you are comically dropping clips all over the floor until you are bludgeoned or headcrabbed to death. But once the reflex is there, being able to coolly reload your gun in the face of a shambling zombie and kill it just before it gets to you is one of the most rewarding game experiences I’ve ever had.
I already mentioned yesterday that there appear to be just three guns, but these can be expanded upon using the crafting mechanic: laser sights, bigger clips, tactical targeting, grenade launchers, different firing modes, and so on, can all be purchased for the price of resin, which lies scattered all over the game world and incentivises the immersive sim-like exploration in Alyx. This, combined with the fact that the right reflexes take a while to develop and so more guns would only mean more clumsy fumbling for me, means that I don’t miss having more guns. However, I do miss being able to use the environment as a weapon. In Half-Life 2 you could use the Gravity Gun to pick up saws, barrels, boxes, and other paraphernalia and lob it at your enemies. This was especially handy if you ever ran out of ammo. I’ve already discussed that the interactions in Alyx are limited to smaller items, so this isn’t an option. Which means that I’m often in a lot of anxiety about the amount of ammo I have left. There is always just enough, mind you, but the speed with which you burn through it and the lack of alternatives makes it feel much more like a Metro game than Half-Life here.
The combat also suffers from a similar problem to the puzzles: 7 hours into Alyx and I suspect about half way through the campaign, I have only encountered three new enemy types: an armoured headcrab, a hulking Combine super soldier, and a dog-like creature that I won’t discuss so as not to spoil things here. With the exception of the latter, the new enemies aren’t a great deal of fun to fight. They are fine, but they are not as good as the ones taken straight from Half-Life 2. As I’ve argued before, this sort of thing makes narrative sense – Alyx is a prequel, after all, so why would there be lots of new stuff compared to Half-Life 2? – but it does present the dichotomy again: Alyx is at its best when it’s adapting classic Half-Life into VR; it is exceptionally good at this. It’s less good, or perhaps just less boldly ambitious, at presenting its own interpretation of the franchise.
Fun tangent: Russell and the metaphysics of identity
Russell gives you a pistol at the start of the game, and you upgrade this pistol throughout. At one point, with enough upgrades intalled, Alyx and Russel exchange some quick banter about whether it can really be said to be Russell's gun anymore. The reference here, of course, is to the problem of identity over time in the metaphysics of identity: in essence, how much can a thing change before it stops being that thing? For more, see this article.