Last week, Valve announced the first Half-Life game in over a decade, and on Thursday the world got to see its first footage. Without straying into hype territory, it feels safe to say Half-Life: Alyx is a capital-B, capital-D Big Deal. Its existence certainly raises questions for the Half-Life series, for Valve as a studio, and the future of virtual reality.
Half-Life: Alyx seems poised to fill in gaps in the series' largely ambiguous story. The corresponding release of Geoff Keighley's "Final Hours" story on Half-Life: Alyx's development will shed light on other projects Valve has kept secret over the last several years. When it goes live, analysts will watch the player counts to see if a decades-old FPS series can really get VR headsets into more homes. Truly, we're going to learn a lot with the release of Half-Life: Alyx, no matter how it's received.
Here are the five most-pressing questions Half-Life: Alyx needs to answer in some way when it comes to SteamVR-compatible headsets in March of 2020:
What Is The G-Man's Plan For Alyx?
In Half-Life 2: Episode Two, the G-Man delivers a warning ("prepare for unforeseen consequences") to Alyx's father Eli Vance by using Alyx as a seemingly hypnotized messenger. Then, Eli finally tells Gordon Freeman that he, too, has interacted with the G-Man: the G-Man both delivered the crystal that set off the resonance cascade in Half-Life, and also rescued Alyx from Black Mesa.
Earlier in Episode Two, the G-Man tells Gordon that he saved Alyx despite "objections that she was a mere child and of no practical use to anyone." The G-Man is clearly playing a different sort of game with Alyx than he is with Gordon, who the G-Man basically seems to see as resourceful, silent, goateed muscle. Hopefully Half-Life: Alyx will give us some idea of what the G-Man's plan is and why Alyx has to live her life in harm's way while Gordon keeps getting plucked out of time at the G-Man's whim.
How Did Everyone From Black Mesa End Up In City 17?
The website for Half-Life: Alyx specifies that the story not only takes place between Half-Life and Half-Life 2, but that Alyx and Eli have been secretly building a resistance for years since being relocated to City 17. By some sequence of events, after escaping the Black Mesa research facility in New Mexico, Eli and Alyx end up in... Eastern Europe. By the time of Half-Life 2, fellow Black Mesa personnel Barney Calhoun, Isaac Kleiner, and Arne Magnusson are also part of the resistance network formed around City 17.
Then there's Dr. Wallace Breen, former Black Mesa administrator and human figurehead for the Combine; he also resides in City 17. In Half-Life 2, it's easy to write off all these characters being gathered in one place as the result of the resistance maturing, finding ways to gather everyone with the right skills to take on the Combine. However, knowing that Alyx and Eli were relocated to City 17—and not knowing whether Kleiner, Breen, or any of the others are there by the time of Half-Life: Alyx—Half-Life: Alyx could shed light on whether the resistance formed organically, or resulted from someone pulling the strings. The Combine, the G-Man, or the Vortigaunts could have taken steps to put the Black Mesa crew back together. What if the resistance was manufactured?
What Would A Half-Life 3 Even Look Like?
In conversation with The Verge, Valve's David Spreyer recommended playing Half-Life 2: Episode Two before Half-Life: Alyx "for reasons that will become clear as you progress," and also said Valve "would love to continue pushing forward" with the series. So, does that tell us that things are looking up for Half-Life 3?
Maybe, maybe not. Valve's Robin Walker told Geoff Keighley that "Half-Life 3 was a terrifyingly daunting prospect," and that creating Half-Life: Alyx as a VR title helped the team get over the idea of making a sequel. With that in mind, you have to wonder if Valve would make Half-Life: Alyx with a sequel in mind—wouldn't that team be under similar pressure? Also, if Alyx is a success, would a Half-Life 3 also need to be in VR in order to feel like a true continuation of the series' trajectory? Could the series ever go back to having Gordon as a silent protagonist?
Whether or not Half-Life: Alyx sets up a continuation of the Half-Life series, the way it's received will tell us more about what a follow-up could be than any statements coming out of Valve at the moment.
Can Source 2 Revitalize The Mod Scene?
With the release of Half-Life: Alyx, Valve will also let people create new levels with Source 2 and an updated version of Hammer, the engine's level editor. By making development tools for the original Half-Life easily accessible, Valve opened the door to countless mods. Some of those mods like Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat went on to become official Valve titles, while many others served as the entry point into the games industry for scores of developers.
While plenty of other games enjoy active, thriving mod scenes, few have ever rivaled the vitality and variety of that sprang forth from the tools Valve released alongside Half-Life and Half-Life 2. Select Source 2 tools have made their way to the public via Dota 2 and Valve's previous VR work, but Half-Life: Alyx will finally let modders start crafting new levels and games. If the tools are a substantial improvement over those of Source, we may even see Source 2 emerge as a viable alternative to industry leading engines like Unity and Unreal.
What Can A Killer App For VR Learn From It?
Our friends at Digital Foundry have posed the question: could Half-Life: Alyx be VR's first true killer app? Let's assume that it isn't, either because the gear required to run it is still too expensive compared to standalone VR headsets or because the Half-Life series turns out to be more niche than a mainstream VR jumpstarter needs to be. What, then, could the next killer app contender build on from Half-Life: Alyx's toolset?
Early in Half-Life: Alyx's trailer, we see the player lean around a corner while placing their hand on the geometry—perhaps Valve has come up with a novel way to make interacting with the environment feel more real in VR? Maybe the finger tracking features exclusive to Valve's Index controllers will pave the way for future design innovations. Half-Life: Alyx could be the standard bearer for including multiple locomotion styles in VR.
If Half-Life: Alyx does take the killer app crown upon its release, then the answer to this question is basically "everything." A more realistic outcome to hope for is that, like the Half-Life games before it, Half-Life: Alyx ends up being the first to really nail ideas that have already been tried in the VR space. Remember, Half-Life 2 wasn't the very first game with good physics implementation, but it was arguably the most novel and far ahead of Trespasser, the last game to largely sell itself on physics. Half-Life: Alyx already shares "looking at hearts on your body as a health readout" with Trespasser—perhaps it shouldn't share the burden of overly high expectations.