Half-Life: Alyx (2020), Valve’s made-for-VR entry into the fabled Half-Life series, launched late last month on SteamVR-compatible headsets to near-universal praise. If you don’t own a VR headset but still want to play though, I’d caution you against playing it for the first time with the new, unofficial PC monitor mod. Get a VR headset and don’t spoil it for yourself.
Whatever your opinion on the nuts and bolts of Half-Life: Alyx, it’s actually an honest-to-goodness VR game, and not a glorified experimental mod like we’ve seen in the past. There’s nothing wrong if you like playing those sorts of VR-supported titles (Alien: Isolation is great, don’t get me wrong) but with four years of consumer VR under our collective belts, it’s safe to say we’ve moved beyond those sorts of things from a game design standpoint.
Valve specifically designed Half-Life: Alyx with the intuitive input of head-tracking and motion controllers in mind, which if you remove, nullifies much of the fun they designed around those things. You might compare it to playing Dance Dance Revolution with a gamepad instead of arrows to stomp on. This ground-up VR design philosophy renders the game ostensibly un-portable to traditional monitors. I say ‘ostensibly’, but it seems that there’s now a keyboard and mouse mod for Half-Life: Alyx, which you can see in action below in the developer’s promo.
I won’t go as far to say the mod is entirely terrible per se. It no doubt took time and dedication to make, but it definitely feels like it’s entirely missing the point of VR’s existence. Looking past some of the inherent jank, which you can see when the user moves his POV too quickly for the renderer to catch up, there’s so much you’d miss out on by jumping the proverbial VR turnstile and playing Half-Life: Alyx on your monitor.
Motion controllers aren’t just there so you can breathlessly inspect the front and back of your hands in virtual reality. They’re actually additive to immersion in other, more important ways.
The fact that the controllers themselves have very few buttons in comparison to a keyboard, and are closer to gamepads in manufacture, shouldn’t fool you into mistakenly writing off VR controllers as a more simplistic input method.
Motion controllers may offer less ‘mechanical’ complexity, however VR game designers instead focus on creating ‘virtual’ complexity with things like shooting and reloading weapons, throwing objects, gestural commands, managing resources—all the things that would otherwise be handled with a scroll, hotkey or floating 2D menu.
That doesn’t mean using motion controllers is exactly effortless at first blush either, but provided you grew up with working hands, reaching forward and grabbing something is probably second nature to you by now.
Doing a common task like reloading a magazine, force grabbing a grenade with your ‘gravity gloves’ and throwing it through a broken window while shooting a head crab in one smooth chain of movements is a whole different experience to whipping your viewport around with a mouse and pressing a combination of ‘E’, ‘1’, scrolling the little mouse wheelie and left clicking. Executing an arcane combination of keystrokes may be commonplace for entrenched PC gamers, but it reaches almost comical levels when that also entails essentially dragging your limp virtual hands with your face and gripping an object with a left click.
While motion controllers are fundamental to interacting with those sorts of objects, it’s fair enough to say you can technically abstract those tasks away simply enough with cursor and a few key strokes to some extent. But when confronted with 3D puzzles, like Half-Life: Alyx’s many puzzles, both dexterity and the ability to naturally look around is key. That’s where the mod really starts to break down and you really wish you had a VR headset.
Immersion is King
Like fun, fear is also subjective, although it’s hard to argue that you’d be more afraid of an enemy when sitting in front of a monitor as opposed to confronting it in stereoscopic 3D. I’ve played my fair share of flastcreen horror survival games that have left me barely able to blink, but nothing has prepared me for the terrifyingly immersive feeling of something literally breathing down my neck.
Watching Twitch streams of Half-Life: Alyx played in VR doesn’t do it justice either. The game’s comparatively fewer enemies look laughable when compared to the never-ending hordes of Half-Life titles past. It seems Valve’s mantra throughout creating Alyx was ‘less is more’, as each enemy requires more user concentration to kill in VR than with a mouse and keyboard, making it an objectively less interesting game when viewed through the lens of a computer monitor. Not so in VR. One name comes to mind (no spoilers) and it rhymes with ‘Reff’. Enough said.
Flatscreen videos of the game only show a thin slice of its environments too. And not to understate just how visually stunning Half-Life: Alyx’s visuals are, which feature a wide range of interactive objects and detailed interiors and exteriors—as a new VR user you might be surprised at just how much of this immersion comes from positional audio. Something clicks in your brain that says “I’m really here” when you turn your head and audio is anchored to your skull correctly. Even more so when that audio is coming from a headcrab lurking in the airduct above your head.
Wearing a VR headset is essential to syncing up these perceptual systems, putting you more on edge in a game like Half-Life: Alyx than you might normally be at your desk. Check out our interview with game designer Robin Walker to get an inside peek at Valve’s development process, which approached the game’s development with a ‘one room at a time’ design philosophy.
That said, even if the PC monitor mod gets more polish to the point that it makes HLA look like a native PC game, it would still be missing these fundamental pillars of immersion that just aren’t worth hobbling to say you finally played the first Half-Life game released in over a decade. You’ll blow past intricate rooms just begging to be explored. You’ll frustratingly fumble with objects that would take you a split-second to pick up and throw in your inventory. You’ll rob yourself of what we considered a [10/10] VR gaming experience.
A word of advice: get a used headset for cheap. Hunt online for a deal on a new, cheaper headset like an Oculus Rift S. Heck, borrow a 2016-gen PC VR headset from a friend. Play it in VR. You bought the game, so you might as well actually enjoy it.
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If you’re still curious you can download the driver on GitHub, which includes a quick installation guide. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.