Levitation is a fantastic Half-Life: Alyx mod that apes Valve’s style almost too well

Half-Life Alyx levitation mod
(Image credit: Valve)

Last week saw the long-awaited release of Levitation (opens in new tab), an expansion-style mod for Half-Life Alyx. Developed over the past two years by solo mapper Shawn 'FMPONE' Snelling, Levitation aims to match Valve's exceptionally detailed mapping style and deliver around three hours of additional running and gunning through City 17's crumbling streets. Despite a couple rough edges, I think it nails it, but still leaves me with some complex feelings.

Levitation picks up with Alyx shortly after the main game's end, pushing the young freedom fighter back into the streets of City 17 on another mission for the resistance, this time with a new extradimensional handler watching her progress. No expense has been spared in recreating Valve's storytelling style, including the return of Russell and the G-Man in speaking roles. Russell in particular gets a great soundalike in Joey Bracken, and while his script is a little more on-the-nose than in the original game, I still got a few good laughs out of his nervous banter.

This gentle familiarity carries over to the levels, which feel like an abridged, remixed encore of Alyx's adventure, stripping you of your gear but quickly returning them, albeit un-upgraded. While visually distinct from Valve's maps, they share a similar eye for detail and encounter design. The detailing is perhaps a little lighter on the random object clutter, but these feel like authentic Valve maps. The only flaws I noticed were a couple low-res textures on rubble and other debris, and a couple corners where I could poke my head in and see unfinished geometry I wasn't meant to be able to. Overall, it's stunning that one man can mimic the style of a AAA studio so well.

Levitation's imitation of Valve's style is almost its undoing. While the environments are new, many of the setpieces feel like reprises of Alyx's high-points. There's fighting Combine troops in the streets and subways, a brief return of Jeff, an extended slugfest with the electric body-snatching critters and a sequence where you dash between cover as a stationary Strider fires at you. 

Levitation even culminates with a finale in a spooky house hiding weird Combine technology and another chance to play around with the special weapon that capped off the main game. It's a fantastic imitation, but I did find myself wishing for something new.

Not to say that Levitation isn't without its own ideas, but they're mostly in the form of the environments you'll be visiting, including an excellent running battle set around and inside a gigantic earth-moving machine. While subways and industrial tunnels have always been a Half-Life staple, Levitation features a great early setpiece gunfight, fighting through a moving subway train while under constant machine gun fire from trains on adjacent tracks. Those playing Levitation sitting down should set up a crouch button, while those standing will have to keep their heads down during this sequence. Combat is generally a little faster and more aggressive than the original game, matching Levitation's whirlwind pacing, but seldom asks you to deal with more than three enemies at once, matching Valve's approach.

(Image credit: Valve)

If you enjoyed Half-Life Alyx, then you'll have a great time with this.

One notable change from vanilla Alyx gameplay is that you'll never be starved for shotgun ammo in this campaign. There's a lot of close-quarters combat, and FMPONE doesn't want you plinking away at every enemy with the pistol. It's still immensely satisfying to jam a shotgun in a Combine trooper's face for a one-hit kill, and the reloading afterwards is still deliciously tactile, so I'm very happy. 

I also found myself using the Combine SMG a lot more actively this campaign, but that's likely due to me now understanding that you need to hold it with two hands to control its recoil. Two-handing turns it from a wild bullet hose to a pinpoint headshot machine, and I'm embarrassed to admit I completed the base game on Hard mode without realizing this detail. Gameplay-wise, the only snag I hit were a couple puzzles where the solution was 'look up' or 'look down', which again is more a Me problem than one inherent to the mod, but your mileage may vary.

(Image credit: Valve)

It's a terrible cliché, but if you enjoyed Half-Life Alyx, then you'll have a great time with this. It's more of the same, and given that Alyx is still one of the best VR games, that makes Levitation an immediate, unguarded recommendation and you should download it now

But as impressive as it is, it's far from the most creative or technically impressive community creation. If you want something totally new, give the two-part John Wick-styled Gunman Contracts series a shot. If you want Valve-style combat at its tightest and most replayable, try Incursion. And if you don't mind some rough edges, the Bioshock-themed Return To Rapture (Chapter 1 & Chapter 2) is absolutely enormous and includes plenty of new systems.

VR is still alive and kicking, but it feels like it’ll be a while until we see something like Alyx again.

Strange to say, but the final feeling that Levitation leaves me with is sadness. While there's undoubtedly more to come, it was the last major Alyx mod on the horizon, with the promising Alyx Bond - Runway being quietly canceled after an excellent demo release. Valve's post-release support for the game has been shockingly weak, seemingly only remembering to add basic mod tagging features in a patch two years after release. Until this year, it was a struggle to sift new maps and levels from texture-packs, models and assets. A limited mod SDK has also made adding new weapons, NPCs and UI elements an uphill struggle.

(Image credit: Valve)

Half-Life Alyx was a clear, exciting vision for AAA VR gaming that now feels largely forgotten by its creators and left to its dwindling, under-supported fanbase to support. VR is still alive and kicking, but it feels like it'll be a while until we see something like Alyx again, and it's hard to shake the feeling that without Valve's intervention, there's only so much its community can do to keep it alive. Great as my time with it was, Levitation left me with some far-from-uplifting vibes.

Addendum: At the time of writing, Levitation suffers from a gnarly bug that can disable AI if you die and reload a save during certain levels. This has been an issue with several Alyx mods, and prolific mapper CementStairs uploaded a small fix-mod for the issue. Download and activate it, plus this perennial mod compatibility tweak alongside Levitation. Make sure you've got both activated before you start playing.

Dominic Tarason

The product of a wasted youth, wasted prime and getting into wasted middle age, Dominic Tarason is a freelance writer, occasional indie PR guy and professional techno-hermit seen in many strange corners of the internet and seldom in reality. Based deep in the Welsh hinterlands where no food delivery dares to go, videogames provide a gritty, realistic escape from the idyllic views and fresh country air. If you're looking for something new and potentially very weird to play, feel free to poke him on Twitter. He's almost sociable, most of the time.