This piece contains massive SPOILERS for the end of Half-Life: Alyx.
Set five years before the events of Half-Life 2, Half-Life: Alyx's story is simple but consequential. I thought it was worth taking an extremely spoilery look at it in order to see where it leaves the series. Please, please, please do not read on if you haven't played the game and want to experience all this for yourself! Also: I'll be talking about the main beats of the story, but I won't be talking about any of the set-pieces, which tend to occur as complications on the way to a narrative objective. The set-pieces in this game should not be spoiled at any cost!
So what happens in Half Life: Alyx's story? (Spoilers!)
Right. So in a lot of ways, Alyx stays pretty close to the narrative template laid down by Half-Life 2. Valve likes to keep things straightforward, so once again there's a big object on the horizon and you're headed towards it for most of the game. (The game also uses the Half-Life 2 trick of giving you a massive OP damage boost in the final sequences - pay-off for all that trouble it's put you through up until then.)
In this case, the big object in question is a Combine facility suspended in the sky about City-17. Eli Vance, Alyx's dad, who you spend the first part of the game rescuing, has discovered that the Combine is storing something special in this place. The idea is that it's a super-weapon of some kind that will maybe allow the Resistance to really stick it to the Combine.
You spend most of your time in Alyx working your way towards this location, teaming up with Vortigaunts who will help take down the power cables holding it aloft above the streets. But by the game's final act, when the thing itself is looming overhead, Eli's no longer sure it's a weapon. In fact, the Combine seem afraid of it. This isn't a storage facility - it's a prison.
The idea of something that the Combine are afraid of is even more tempting to the Resistance, of course, and Alyx quickly works out what's in there: it's got to be Gordon Freeman. Setting him loose would be a big win for the Resistance, and so we push on to the facility.
Once inside - we are right at the end of the game now - it's revealed that the Combine haven't caught Gordon Freeman. He's still missing. Instead, the facility has been storing the G-Man, the mysterious figure who pops up throughout the Half-Life series, generally moving Gordon Freeman in and out of the action at opportune moments.
Freed, the G-Man explains that his employers like to give events a nudge now and then - and he suggests they're not afraid to make multiple bets, on various time-lines, as it were. (I think this is what he's getting at: he's cryptic and I wasn't taking notes as I had an Index clamped to my face.)
He goes on to explain that his regular operative, Gordon Freeman, is no longer useful to him. He's looking for someone else to mix things up from time to time. To this end, he offers Alyx a favour. He will save Eli from his death at the end of Episode 2 - this is five years into the future when Alyx takes place. Alyx thinks that's a lovely idea, and the favour is granted. But then she discovers that the G-Man's price is that she now works for him. So she goes into stasis or whatever it is, until the G-Man needs to deploy her again. Alyx is the new Gordon Freeman.
Roll credits. But as we're living in a post-Marvel world there's a scene after the credits. And it's pretty thrilling. We're suddenly at the end of Episode 2. Eli is alive and the alien creature that was going to kill him is no more. So Eli's waking up Gordon - that's suddenly us - and telling us that Alyx has disappeared. She's been taken, and he's not happy about it at all. Cue Dog popping up with a familiar gift - it's Gordon's crowbar! We take the crowbar as Eli says, "We've got work to do."
Where does Half-Life: Alyx's ending leave the series?
So. This is pretty interesting stuff, I think, even if it does leave you with the slight sense that Alyx has really just been a game about moving the pieces around to get everything ready for the next bunch of games. What form will they take? We've got Alyx in stasis ready to be dropped into action, but we've also got Gordon and Eli, and Gordon's even got his signature weapon back. This gives Valve options, clearly.
But more than that, it ties into the leaked ending of Half-Life 2: Episode 3 that popped up on the internet a few years back. Episode 3 would have unfolded quite differently - and I think Eli still would have died. But it would have ended, as far as I can understand, with Gordon being replaced by Alyx in the G-Man's affections. Alyx goes off to statis to wait until the time for her to be useful arrives, and Gordon's left out of the action.
My overwhelming impression once the whole thing was done was that I was happy to have played through a game that was primarily concerned with retconning and setting up future games. Mainly because the actual set-pieces in Alyx are so thrilling that they don't really require too much of a plot to string them together. But also because it's hard to sit through that ending without feeling like Valve is properly back in the Half-Life business.
The question now, then, is how long will we have to wait for more?