I shrieked in terror the first time a headcrab jumped out at me in Half-Life: Alyx, the triumphant virtual-reality (VR) return of the seminal video-game franchise.
In my panic, I missed most of my pistol shots and dropped the magazine in my desperate attempt to reload. A red mist covered my view as the headcrab sucked my brains out.
The iconic enemy of the Half-Life series, the headcrab looks like a headless, plucked chicken with four spindly limbs, albeit one with a gaping maw on the underside - when viewed on a computer screen.
But cut off from reality in my snug VR headset, surrounded by the game's near-realistic graphics and excellent sound design, the headcrab is absolutely terrifying.
It is a perfect example of how the greater immersion enabled by VR elevates the survival horror aspect of the Half-Life series.
Set between the events in Half-Life 1 and Half-Life 2, Alyx is not the long-awaited Half-Life 3 sequel. Instead, it expands on a secondary character from the older Half-Life games, Alyx Vance.
I found her personality and the banter with fellow Resistance member Russell more engaging than with the silent Gordon Freeman (Half-Life's protagonist).
The level of detail in Alyx is unmatched for a VR title. With around 15 hours of play time, it is fairly long for a VR game, especially as I played at a snail's pace in order to admire this virtual world.
Like older Half-Life games, Alyx's world follows - or at least simulates - real-world physics. I can smash a window with my pistol, break a bottle by throwing it against a wall or open a door by turning the knob. As it is a VR game, I actually have to reproduce these actions using my two VR controllers and not simply click a mouse button.
But it can be tedious having to walk up to objects to retrieve them. Alyx solves this through its best feature - gravity gloves - that lets you point at an object and make a "come here" gesture to send it flying towards you.
Combat in Alyx feels more tense and real than any game I have played before. For instance, reloading a weapon involves multiple steps, such as reaching behind to my backpack for fresh ammunition and pulling a slider to ready the gun. You can also duck behind cover in gun fights and shoot blindly around corners.
But it can be tricky (and even nauseating) to move around in VR, especially for those new to it. The developers appear to be aware of this and enemies (at least at the normal difficulty level) seem to stay in place longer instead of rushing towards me, thus giving me more time to react.
One complaint I have is that you cannot physically attack an enemy with objects in the game. Only your guns work against them, which breaks the immersion. It also means you cannot smash headcrabs using a crowbar like Gordon Freeman.
Alyx also introduces several 3-D puzzles that require you to manipulate holographic items with your hands, such as moving a dot through hoops before time runs out.
But its best puzzle is an entire level involving an all-powerful yet blind enemy that will leave you sweaty and breathless.
The game's VR-only nature means that many gamers will not be able to experience it. Even if you are willing to splurge on a VR headset (the cheaper ones cost around $400), these devices are mostly out of stock because of the current pandemic.
But for those lucky enough to have a VR headset and a decent computer, Alyx is not to be missed. Not only does it effectively reboots the venerable Half-Life franchise, it is also the best single-player VR game ever made.
Gravity gloves are fun
Amazing level of detail
Sound design and voice acting
Some gameplay mechanics break the immersion
Rating: 9.5/10 (ST Tech Editor's Choice)
Price: $49 (PC only)
Genre: Virtual reality action adventure