Half-Life: Alyx is nearly upon us, releasing on March 23rd for PC-compatible VR headsets and free for Valve Index owners. As the first major title in the series since Half-Life 2: Episode 2 released in 2007, it’s been built from the ground-up for VR and changes are afoot. Let’s take a look at 12 of the biggest changes that you need to know about before diving in.
A Prequel But Also “The Next Part”
Taking place before Half-Life 2, the story focuses on Alyx and Eli Vance as the two battle against the alien Combine forces which have already claimed the Earth. As such you can expect the resistance to be established, which could lead to interactions with the likes of Dr. Judith Mossman, a former scientist from Black Mesa, and Wallace Breen, the former Black Mesa head-turned-administrator for Earth.
However, despite canonically serving as a prequel, Half-Life: Alyx has been described by Valve programmer David Speyrer as the “next part of the Half-Life story.” Speyrer actually recommended playing Half-Life: Episode 2 before Alyx for “reasons that will become clear as you progress.” One theory is that the game will feature events post-Episode 2 or even teases of what could come next, especially with the G-Man making an appearance during the announcement trailer.
This is pretty obvious but Half-Life: Alyx is the first game in the mainline series to have a voiced protagonist. Instead of Gordon Freeman’s stoic expression peering back at everyone as orders are doled out, Alyx will actually respond to others. When told about potential threats like Headcrabs, she’ll verbally respond. It may not seem like a major change but series’ fans will probably appreciate the distinction.
New Voice Actors
There are plenty of returning voice actors – Mike Shapiro as the G-Man and Ellen McLain as the Combine Overwatch broadcast voice are a few notables. However, Ozioma Akagha is now voicing Alyx as opposed to Merle Dandridge, keeping in mind Alyx’s younger age in the prequel. Robert Guillaume voiced Eli Vance in the previous games but passed away in 2017 – James Moses Black is taking his place. Despite high expectations, Valve is excited for fans to hear his performance.
Previous Half-Life games offered up a mix of exploration, puzzle-solving and action-packed gunfights. Half-Life: Alyx channels a more methodical approach, emphasizing a slower pace in keeping with the VR form. As IGN First noted in its preview of the first four hours, the sheer detail of the environments, up close and personal firefights, and various hidden objects facilitate this pace well. You’re going to want to explore these levels because they look interesting and have all sorts of useful items.
In previous titles, there weren’t really upgraded weapons per say aside from, say, the Gravity Gun becoming the Dark Energy Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2. Half-Life: Alyx introduces upgrades for your weapons, unlocked through Resin scattered in environments. Resin must be inserted into weapon stations for upgrading but you also need to solve special 3D puzzles to get those stations running. Not a ground-breaking new mechanic for a shooter but a rewarding incentive to explore levels all the same.
Physical Reloading and Aiming, Shooting Over Cover
Get used to manually reloading weapons, inserting magazines and physically aiming your gun to shoot enemies. Thanks to the VR nature of the game, you’ll also be able to peer around corners and angle your weapon to shoot foes without being exposed. That includes moving an explosive barrel beneath a Barnacle, taking cover, extending your hand and aiming up to shoot it from relative safety. Since combat takes place in tighter areas, you’re motivated to seek out and use different kinds of cover to gain an advantage. For example, car doors can be opened and block shots while you aim through the exposed window to obliterate foes.
You’ve probably noticed that all of the gun action is one-handed. This allows for having a free hand to perform other tasks, like hacking into terminals, grabbing and throwing items, and of course, reloading. Even healing from a station uses your free hand, which is a nice quality of life change since you can now heal and fight off surrounding enemies with your gun hand.
Gravity Gloves function much like the Gravity Gun – surprise, surprise – allowing you to pull objects from afar. They’re not necessarily great at pushing objects so don’t count on firing razor blades back at Headcrab Zombies. What you can do is pick up objects and throw them physically, whether it’s a trashcan lid or grenade. One of the cooler moments seen thus far is grabbing a grenade from an unsuspecting enemy’s pocket and flinging it at their face. The gloves are also useful for grabbing ammo from dead enemies at a distance.
Speaking of throwing things, let’s talk about Headcrabs. They won’t just leap and scratch you but physically attach to your face. However, you can rip them off and throw them out a window. It’s possible to get even more creative and throw a Headcrab at a nearby foe, incapacitating them briefly while you finish them off. Just try not to panic whenever a Headcrab lunges at you especially in the more dimly lit areas.
Different Movement Options
Valve has been showcasing a number of different ways to move about Half-Life: Alyx. Blink automatically places you in the next destination with a brief screen fade and is cited as the most “comfortable” option. Shift allows for moving to locations with a fast linear motion. Continuous is for moving constantly based on your head orientation and Continuous Hand will allow for constant movement based on your hand orientation. So don’t worry if you’ve only been seeing teleportation movement till now – there are other options.
For a series that’s spawned so much in terms of multiplayer, from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to Team Fortress 2, Half-Life: Alyx will be the first Half-Life title to not have any multiplayer modes at launch. It’ll still be a fairly hefty single-player game, comparable to Half-Life 2 in length. Plans could also change down the line but for the foreseeable future, the story is where it’s at.
Source 2 and Hammer Level Editor
On the plus side, Half-Life: Alyx will ship with all the tools of Source 2 along with updates to the Hammer level editor for VR support. This will allow players to create their own levels with user mods also supported through the Steam Workshop. Now, what kinds of mods you can expect or how quickly they’ll roll out remains to be seen so don’t go expecting a full recreation of Portal 2 in VR on day one.