Half Life: Alyx is a technological marvel, but more importantly, it's the best game you can play in VR right now. A shooter that makes you feel smart, coupled with a truly immersive experience that will impress Half-Life hardliners and newcomers alike.
You play as Alyx Vance, working your way through City 17, trying to save your father, Eli. It would be a lonely mission if it weren't for Russell, who - thanks to a headset - chats to you along the way. In a masterstroke of casting, he's played by Rhys Darby from What We Do In The Shadows ("werewolves not swear wolves") and the banter is warm, funny, and never irritating.
He's also the one that talks you through your various kit, gravity gloves that hark back to the fan-favorite gravity gun and let you whip ammo and health and, well, anything, into the air and then catch it. Using them is surprisingly intuitive, and there are lots of chances to have fun with them as you explore the world. One memorable moment took place in a vodka distillery and let's just say... a smashing time was had.
As well as the gloves, Alyx collects a pistol, a shotgun, and a combine weapon, all which can be upgraded with resin you find hidden in the world. She also has an electromagnetic pulse multitool which is no use in combat, but can help redirect power in circuits, hack containers, and disarm tripwires, and there are mini-games that need a steady hand to go with each activity.
Jeff is more
With those simple mechanics, Valve builds a complex, beautiful machine and then lets you go hog wild playing with it. Despite the urban setting, you'll fight headcrabs and soldiers and physics in all kinds of settings, and boredom never once nagged at my brain while it was cooking inside my VR headset. At the risk of dropping a few spoilers, you'll meet Jeff, a monster who can't see you but can hear you, around the same time that you discover a plant that puffs irritating spores into the air. To avoid detection you'll need to cover your mouth to stifle any coughs, and find noisy ways to distract him. Another level takes place in a ruined zoo, complete with cute tiger masks - don't put them on, it feels fun but it obscures your vision something terrible - and headcrabs inhabiting ruined exhibits.
And each of those levels is more than a set dressing. The capabilities of VR means you can open cupboards and pick up boxes and rifle through drawers like an apocalyptic burglar. Sometimes you'll need to solve a puzzle by moving chairs, crates, and debris from the world around, and the lack of limitations makes it feel so much more satisfying to experiment. Sometimes you want to defuse a tripwire properly, sometimes you want to throw a soda can just right from a safe distance and let everything burn.
There are moments of genuine dread - dark corridors lit only by a tiny beam of light from your glove, being hunted by Jeff, and a major battle at the end of the game has left me with a sore shoulder and an alert on my Apple Watch as it seemed like I was in the middle of a workout. Fear not though, those with nerves of wool and dodgy tickers, the team at Valve has gone mercifully easy on the jump scares, so the tension is more one of creeping panic and nervous vigilance rather than a constant barrage of surprise headcrabs.
I'm not going to pretend there weren't a few problems. During one firefight with a bunch of combine soldiers, one of my hands disappeared. The one that I hold the gun in. A reload fixed the issue but it's not the sort of problem you face in a normal shooter. Sometimes I'd teleport and end up going through a floor or wall, into the game development version of the upside-down. Most of the problems were just hardware niggles, a controller losing tracking at a bad moment, or - and I hold my hands up - what seemed to be a huge malfunction but was actually a glass of water being placed right in front of the Index's sensor.
Some of these won't be a problem for people playing on different systems, like the Oculus Quest, or for people who have space for a permanent VR set up, or who are forensically careful. Some may have been patched by Valve too, who is still polishing the game right now. What matters is despite every glitch or frustration, it's still one of my contenders for Game of the Year.
If nothing else, the game will give you a new level of respect for video game protagonists. It's fine when you just expect Uncharted's Nathan Drake to pick up spare magazines, load a gun and pull off a headshot in five seconds, but when you're the one fumbling with the clip, forgetting to actually throw the grenade you're holding and trying to avoid a leaping head crab, it's a very different story.
More than anything, the game is a love letter to Half-Life, and there's a real danger the ending will melt the brain of any hardcore fans into just a pile of happy goo. I won't say more than that, but after everything Alyx and I had been through the ending was just as spectacular as it needed to be to honor our adventure. At one point it was the closest a game has ever got to replicating that feeling of being trapped in a dream, where you're trying to get somewhere but the normal rules don't apply. That will stay with me for a long time.
This is hands-down the best virtual reality money can buy right now, and feels like a tantalizing promise of just what the big game studios could achieve if they were willing to put their time and money into creating a AAA experience for VR platforms.
Reviewed on a Valve Index VR headset. It can also be played on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest (with PC cable) and Windows Mixed Reality.