Half-Life: Alyx is out now, and since it is a SteamVR exclusive, a lot of folks without adequate PCs or VR equipment are going to experience it vicariously through video. Whether you're playing it yourself or watching your favorite streamer take the journey, here are five can't-miss nods to Half-Life's series history to keep an eye out for.
None of these are particularly big spoilers for Half-Life: Alyx's storyline, but consider this a warning to the spoiler-sensitive amongst you.Spoiler Tag: Spoilers for callbacks, easter eggs, and references in Half-Life: Alyx.
Snarks Are Still Around, and They're as Cute as Ever
This callback is right at the start of Half-Life: Alyx, and is nearly impossible to miss. In the apartment building you start the game in, where Alyx is going about her regular monitoring of Combine activity, she's made something of a hangout spot for herself. She's not as adventurous as Dr. Kleiner, who keeps his debeaked Headcrab Lamarr as a pet in Half-Life 2, but she's got a Xenian buddy of her own: a bright red, one-eyed Snark.
Snarks were the living grenades you could pick up in the original Half-Life. They squeak and chirp, and can attack if the player if there are no enemies to explode on. As a weapon they have one of the best idle animations in first-person shooter history. There's something you can do with Alyx's Snark-in-a-jar that will net you an achievement—I'll leave it to you to figure that out.
Not Everybody Was on Board With Dr. Wallace Breen, Administrator of Earth
In Half-Life 2 and its Episodes, we were told very little about what happened between the Black Mesa Incident and Gordon Freeman's reappearance years later. We know that as Xen portal storms threw Earth into chaos, the Combine invaded. After a war that lasted only seven hours, Dr. Wallace Breen—the scientist in charge of Black Mesa at the time of the disastrous Resonance Cascade—somehow negotiated a peace with the Combine, putting himself in place as their chief human representative and dooming the rest of humanity to a life of oppression. This is mostly told to players by Alyx's father Eli at the resistance's lab and through some nearby, hard-to-read newspaper clippings.
Since Half-Life: Alyx takes place in City 17's quarantine zone, which hasn't been touched since shortly after the Combine invasion, you can actually find some of the last newspapers ever printed for yourself. With the fidelity and interaction of VR, you can actually pick up these papers (be careful, they flop about) and read some very believable news copy about how Breen's sudden ascendance didn't exactly go unquestioned. Early on, you can also find a copy of a magazine that looks very much like Wired with Breen on the cover in Alyx's friend Russell's lab, if you know where to look.
The Tripmine Trap Is Back
Surface Tension is one of the original Half-Life's longest and most memorable chapters for a number of reasons, but one of the best—and trickiest—setpieces is surely the room that's filled with tripmines. There are also a few explosive barrels and a missile overhead for good measure. You can't shoot the tripmines to disarm them since they'll still explode and blow the whole building up, and you also can't let the Headcrabs in the room cross the beams. Tripmines make an appearance in Half-Life: Alyx, and for old times' sake Valve puts a bunch of them in a single room with some explosive barrels and more or less says "good luck."
When you enter the room, it's also one of the few times Alyx uses a classic Half-Life soundtrack cut from Kelly Bailey instead of Mike Morasky's new music. In my chat with Erik Wolpaw and Chris Remo of Valve, we briefly touched on the subject of using old music and sound effects for nostalgia's sake. "As long as you recorded it well back then, it still sounds great today, so you can absolutely include that stuff without even redoing it," Remo says. "You can have literally the exact same waveforms that infected someone's brain in 1998 and they're still there.
"When I hear the Diablo 1 town music, that big open guitar chord, that just does something to my brain and it always will, you know? When it comes to working on this game, and incorporating that material, it's just a really great resource to have as long as you don't overdo it and cheapen it."
You Can Finally See What Baby Dog Looked Like
When Half-Life 2 players are first introduced to Dog, Alyx's lumbering robot companion, Alyx mentions that she's been building him up over the years. Eli initially created Dog as a protector for Alyx, but if you're just picturing a slightly smaller version of the good boy who can toss vans at the Combine, you need to think even smaller. Like, actual dog-sized small.
"What we thought of was that he had built him sort of as a baby monitor, a camera that followed [Alyx] around and let Eli keep an eye on her," says Wolpaw. You can find Alyx's sketched-out plans for what Dog becomes in her surveillance hideout, as well as a polaroid that shows you exactly what Dog looked like way back when: in Wolpaw's own words, "a little sausage Dog with a Scanner head."
People Talk up Gordon Freeman a Little Too Much
By the events of Half-Life: Alyx, Gordon Freeman's something of a folk legend amongst the small band of resistance members in City 17. At one point, while Alyx is out having her own adventure, she and Russell get to talking over the radio about Freeman's legendary feats at Black Mesa.
Russell might be old enough to remember life before the Combine, but he either loves a tall tale or is a bit gullible. Alyx asks him about the significance of Freeman's crowbar, and Russell tells her that Freeman fought through the entire Black Mesa compound using it as his only weapon. It's a good laugh considering Half-Life's very '90s commitment to carrying around a giant set of weapons, and it also serves as an illustrative moment: whether or not Russell knows the truth, there are lots of people who really have no idea what Gordon Freeman did at Black Mesa, which surely feeds into his near-mythical status with the resistance by the events of Half-Life 2.
For more on Half-Life: Alyx, check out our review and Erik's recommendations for things to read, play, and watch before starting Alyx. Also, keep an eye out for our full two-part Valve interview covering Half-Life, VR development, and more.