Half-Life: Alyx takes City 17 to the next level

(Image credit: Valve)

It's been 15 years since Valve released Half-Life 2, but City 17 has never strayed far from my mind. This anonymous Eastern European city remains one of PC gaming's most evocative settings, where faded Soviet Modernism collides with the brutal, otherworldly architecture of the occupying Combine.

When I think about Half-Life 2, I think of yellow tenement blocks being devoured by monolithic, intimidating alien machinery. Lonely playgrounds with empty swings, propaganda looping on holographic billboards, and the Citadel looming over it all. And now Half-Life: Alyx lets us revisit that remarkable city, refreshed and reimagined with over a decade's worth of advances in graphics technology, and in a way where we can actually reach out and touch it.

It's not clear what City 17 was called before the Combine assigned it a number and made it their new capital on Earth. This geographic ambiguity is intentional, but there are traces of real-world cities in its design, including Half-Life 2 art director Viktor Antonov's hometown of Sofia, Bulgaria.

It's implied that City 17 was, at some point, under communist rule. Public buildings with grand Neoclassical architecture sit uncomfortably alongside rows of charmless, functional mid-rise tower blocks. And you don't have to work very hard to draw parallels between how the Combine invasion force is running the city now, and how the Soviet Union might have long ago.

Take a virtual tour of the new City 17 in the video above.

Half-Life: Alyx begins not with the usual train ride, but with you standing on a cracked stone balcony overlooking the city. Before you stretches a sea of terracotta roof tiles, corner domes, and brick chimneys, periodically interrupted by incongruous chunks of jagged Combine technology.

And through the mist of the morning haze you can see the shadow of the half-built Citadel, leeching power from the grid through a tangled mess of electricity cables. It's a beautiful, powerful image, and all the more impactful because you're there, craning your neck to look up at the tip of this colossal, unholy spire as it vanishes into the clouds. It's terrifyingly huge.

It's a strange sensation seeing a place like this, which has looked the same in my mind's eye for so long, suddenly rendered with such fidelity. That's not to say the impact of Half-Life 2's version of the city has been dulled by age. It still looks great, and always will, thanks to the careful brilliance of its art direction. But with the visuals modern gaming PCs are now capable of processing, and the added intimacy of VR, the things that make City 17 such a memorable, haunting setting are granted extra power.

It's a strange sensation seeing a place like this, which has looked the same in my mind's eye for so long, suddenly rendered with such fidelity

The relatively low-resolution textures in Half-Life 2 don't hold up to much scrutiny today, meaning the original City 17 often looks best from a distance. But in Half-Life: Alyx, a game where you're frequently leaning into things for a closer look, poking through cupboards, or picking up food packaging and studying the Cyrillic lettering, a lot of effort has gone into making it look good up close.

The level of detail in even the most innocuous object is impressive, from cracks in an old beaten-up leather sofa, to dust coating the windows, which you can wipe away with your hand. These details lend City 17 a feeling of tactile richness, and add to the illusion that it's a place, not just a place-shaped box.

Early in the game, Alyx finds herself in the Quarantine Zone: a sealed-off area infested with alien creatures from Xen, including a new species of headcrab with an armoured shell. You have to fight through dilapidated apartment blocks, which are being slowly consumed by Xen's strange flora.

And as you move through forgotten spaces that were once homes you see dusty traces of their lives. A newspaper, yellowed with age, resting on a table by an armchair. Plates laid out on a dining table for a meal that was never eaten. All of this evocative decay tells a story, with detail unimaginable in 2004.

(Image credit: Valve)

Later, Alyx visits the Northern Star, a once-grand city hotel, now left in a state of disrepair. This is one of the most visually striking locations in Half-Life: Alyx, with shafts of dirty yellow sunlight pouring through its cracked windows, revealing dust-coated surfaces and the suitcases of the former guests.

In some of the rooms you'll find bedrolls on the floor, suggesting the building was repurposed as makeshift housing when the Combine invaded. It's exciting enough revisiting this setting with updated visuals, but getting to see new parts of it, especially when they're this well-realised, is a treat.

The distinctive, melancholy atmosphere of Half-Life 2's first act, where any rebellion against the intimidating might of the Combine invaders seems hopeless, is felt even more strongly in Half-Life: Alyx. The city is cold and oppressive, with no art, commerce, or leisure to colour life there.

In a subway station you can see faded, peeling posters for operas and concerts that were likely never performed before the Seven Hour War devastated the planet. The sadness of the eerily lifeless City 17, with its silent squares, abandoned cars, and empty cafes is even more resonant thanks to this deeper level of world-building, and it's almost overwhelmingly bleak at times.

The important thing is that Half-Life: Alyx doesn't just recycle Half-Life 2's setting, but takes what it did well and expands on it. I also appreciate how, despite the absence of Viktor Antonov, the artists at Valve have remained true to his artistic vision. Every location you visit has that distinctive City 17 feel, of the past being rubbed out and perverted by Combine machinery; of two wildly different levels of technology in an uneasy state of co-existence; and of feeling like there's no way the Earth will ever be the same again.

That was the root of what made Half-Life 2's setting so memorable for me, and in Half-Life: Alyx, Valve builds on that brilliantly.

Half-Life: Alyx released today: Check out our review and guide to choosing the best GPU and headset. Also check out our updated log of every Half-Life 3 announcement, leak, and hoax from over the years. 

(Image credit: Valve)
Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.