Honestly, I didn’t expect this. There were moments in Alyx, especially in the first few hours of the game, where I was utterly immersed and blown away to such a degree that I could hardly fathom myself playing pancake games again. The feeling did not last; but for moments there, inching forward in the dark amid headcrab zombies, barnacles, and explosive barrels, the thought of the next generation consoles not going all in on VR seemed silly to me.
Like, there are certain genres that once you’ve played them in VR, their traditional counterparts seem completely outmoded. I watched the recent PS5 reveal event and boy howdy does the next Gran Turismo look gorgeous — but I’d take Dirt Rally on my original VR setup (a Rift and a 1060) over it all day long. I’d rather race alone on a single track time trial with blurry graphics than play the new GT on my 4K TV because the former feels like racing around a track in a car and the latter feels like playing a videogame.
And that’s where Alyx started to fall apart for me. The game was VERY clearly designed around teleporation. Sure, it has smooth locmotion, but the encounter design isn’t tuned for it, and as such the gunfights become extremely straightforward and even boring to an extent. The guns feel good to use, their animations and attachments so, so slick… but if Half-Life 2’s Achilles’ Heel was its enemy AI than Alyx’s AI is an amputated shin stump.
Which isn’t to say Boneworks has amazing AI, not at all, but its encounters are designed around a grounded physics system and a fluidity of movement that approach what you’re familiar with in the real world. It’s clunkier; it’s less refined; but it doesn’t smack of a limited, on rails experience in the way Alyx does.
Like, Boneworks’ latest update, a Zombie Horde mode, makes sense because the entire conceit of the game is its physics-based funhouse. A similar concept in Alyx would fall flat on its face. Alyx oozes atmosphere, has endearing characters, and grounds you in a sci-fi adventure in a way that hasn’t been achieved since Lone Echo. But, like Lone Echo, once the ride is over what’s left is an amusement park ride you’ve already been on. Maybe worth experiencing a time or two, but its tricks have been revealed. Boneworks is a playground — it’s got tetherball and basketball and bouncy balls and you can make your own fun. I spent an hour just screwing around in its tutorial area’s weapon range, chucking kunai in slow-mo and driving daggers into a dummy’s body using the bullets from my gun.
Like, there’s only so many times you can open every drawer in a room and knock over some books to find ammo before you’re like, “when does the granularity of this game’s physics system actually translate into a leap forward for gameplay interaction?”. I can write the Drake equation on the window with this marker but the enemy’s are still going to stand still and let me shoot the explosive tanks on their back like I’ve been transported into a world where Earth was invaded and conquered by the dumbest extraterrestrial life imaginable. I was able to look past this in HL2 because it was a video game, but it’s so much harder to ignore while embodied and grounded in the world of Alyx. It is precisely because it sucks you in so damn well in every other regard that its combat model falls so flat.
Boneworks is messy and rough around the edges but I fucking love it. To be be pefectly honest, it feels MORE like a Half-Life 3 than Alyx does. In the way the original HL1 was a game changer for atmosphere, grounding you in its world and committing you to the shoes of the protagonist; and the way HL2’s physics and facial animation brought the world to life; Boneworks boldly pushes forward by answering so many of your “Can I do it this way?” questions with a resounding, “YES, YES YOU CAN!”. The pieces have been coming together for a while now, and I feel like Boneworks adds one more to the puzzle’s overall picture. Alyx didn’t feel that way for me. It felt like Half-Life 2 scaled back, but in VR. Which is still an incredible feat, don’t get me wrong, but it felt like an iteration or a divergence, not a whole new species in the way both HL1 and HL2 did.
It’s clear to me that Alyx is a stopgap measure. It does so much right, and I still respect and love it, but there’s a reason it’s not called Half-Life 3, why over the course of development it didn’t become the true successor to the throne. However, if they can marry its foundation with the forward looking ambition of Boneworks — well, we might just be on the verge of the next paradigm shift.