From chunky big 2D pixels to 4k high definition three dimensional ray-traced masterpieces — there is one thing you can always bank on.
Video gaming is always evolving. So are the platforms we play them on.
A Brief History of VR
Consoles and computers have been around since the late-1970s (proper) and while VR headsets seem like brand new tech — consumer virtual reality has been around since 2012 in one form or another; entering the mainstream in 2016.
That means virtual reality is over four years old at this point; longer than many console game system life cycles.
Until March 2019, virtual reality had some pretty steep barriers to entry. A powerful PC, expensive headgear and a convoluted system of sensors scattered around a large play area. This changed when Oculus released the Quest headset; a relatively inexpensive stand alone device that required no sensors and no computer — a device anyone can use; anywhere.
But has virtual reality gaming improved over the last four years?
Gaming Novelty Always Struggles
When gaming paradigms try to shift, developers often struggle trying to harness the new-found novelty into gaming that people love.
Sometimes this works in a Big Way(tm) like with the motion-controlled Nintendo Wii. Other times, this doesn’t work out; like the Nintendo Wii U’s “personal screen” (which I thought was amazing; like an early Switch).
Those who have been around the VR gaming industry knows that VR has been treated like a novelty for some time.
What I mean is — there is a small subset of gaming genres that have gotten the VR treatment (with various degrees of success) — but a lot of genres are left out of the equation. Even those that dip their toes into those waters are often rather lack luster or lose the appeal of the genre’s roots.
VR has taken some crazy chances with gaming too — such as the oddly popular The Under Presents (which I can’t get into personally, but it has a rabid fan base).
But, The Public at Large doesn’t feel these are good enough uses for VR. If it isn’t mil-sim gun porn or multiplayer at the very least? It is not mature. $15 is too much for a 5 hour game.
“There aren’t any AAA experiences for virtual reality.”
Perception is 90% reality. Fortunately, perception also says that anything with “Half Life” in the name means quality (see Lambda1VR).
Half-Life: Alyx — Five Years In The Making
Compliments of Wikipedia:
Half-Life: Alyx is a 2020 virtual reality (VR) first-person shooter developed and published by Valve. Taking place before the events of Half-Life 2 (2004), players control Alyx Vance as she and her father Eli fight the occupying alien Combine. Players use VR to interact with the environment and fight enemies, using “gravity gloves” to manipulate objects, similarly to the gravity gun from Half-Life 2. Traditional elements from the series return, such as exploration, puzzles, and physics-based combat.
Recognizing the demand for a large-scale VR game, Valve began experimenting with a Half-Life VR game in 2015. Development entered full production in 2016, with the largest team in Valve’s history. Described by Valve as its “flagship” VR game, Half-Life: Alyx was developed with the Source 2 engine and supports all PC-compatible VR headsets. It is the first Half-Life game since Half-Life 2: Episode Two (2007), and was released on Windows on March 23, 2020. The game received critical acclaim and has been described as VR’s first killer app. Critics praised its graphics, voice acting, writing, sense of nostalgia, and atmosphere.
It is worth noting that Half-Life: Alyx (just HLA from now on) is squarely a PCVR game for use with PCVR headsets only.
This means it is not available for Oculus Quest native.
Playing HLA: Getting Started
As a fan of the franchise and being a big VR fan, I was eager to hop in and see how HLA might take VR gaming further; after all it is being called the “VR killer app” (although that crown probably belongs to Beat Saber already — it has sold over two million copies).
As an Oculus Quest user, I elected to go wireless using the excellent Virtual Desktop application to stream the game to my headset. I have a long background in using the Oculus Rift, but that’s on loan to a friend who is enjoying it so this is my only choice at the moment.
Fortunately, I have a very clean, optimized network and a powerful enough PC to overcome the overhead of Virtual Desktop and still run the game with great settings.
For those curious, I’m using Virtual Desktop V1.11 on Windows 10 64-bit. The PC is hardwired over gigabit and I have hand optimized every leg of my network to and from the Quest.
I’ll tell you right up front that paying $60 for a VR game felt … dirty. I am not one of those people that believe I need 60 hours of play for a $5 game, but this is literally the most I’ve ever paid for a VR game (the other being Asgard’s Wrath — which was a full $20 cheaper). At 66GB install size, I had to wait a bit before I could play.
Then I strapped in and held on for the ride.
Playing HLA: The Mechanics
You will hear a lot of talk about how revolutionary HLA is as a VR title. But during the first hour of play you probably won’t understand what all the hubbub is about.
Especially where mechanics are concerned.
I chose teleportation as my movement style. I know; locomotion is MUCH more enveloping, but I didn’t want my first experience in the game to be a nausea-inducing mess (like Ultrawings was before I turned on some comfort settings) and the game also recommended this motion style so I accepted it. This uses the Robo Recall style where you can also change your viewpoint during the movement process (by rotating your feet before moving).
The game opens with you overlooking a city — and it will take your breath away. I’ve never seen anything look that good in virtual reality and that is no hyperbole.
Over the course of the next half hour, you’ll be taken through the the story line intro and be introduced to the playing mechanics.
Along with “real world” interactions (turning this, pulling on that, pushing the other thing) your main means of acquisition is something the call “gravity gloves”. Valve’s other franchise, Portal, uses a lot of gravity manipulation so this was their way of putting a spin on “force grab” mechanics that pretty much every other VR game uses.
Essentially, you hold up your hand/glove and point at objects that glow when you can interact. This could be an ammo clip, resin, empty cans, boxes — not everything of course, and not everything you can manipulate makes sense to do so — you then “grab” it and “flick” your glove toward yourself. The item then flies back at you where you must grab it.
Because of the IP tie in, people get excited about the gravity gloves, but in reality? It is a bit sloppier than straight up force grabbing although it may be a bit more satisfying as a whole. It is worth noting that using this method allowed them a few unusual puzzle elements (won’t ruin it with a spoiler) — so I must give credit where it is due.
Still, taking the rose colored Portal glasses off? You may prefer force grab mechanics more than gravity gloves.
Guns are handled pretty well, too; although again — nothing revolutionary here … nothing we haven’t seen in other VR games.
Your pistol will require you eject and reload magazines — along with some slide mechanism release before you can start firing. Partial ammo magazines you eject are wasted bullets which often means you’re low or out of ammo in the middle of a big fight.
There are no melee weapons (at least, not yet). You can use random gas cans as sort of bombs by placing them and shooting them near enemies.
While the core mechanics are nothing out of the ordinary, the story isn’t over.
Playing HLA: Secondary Mechanics and Puzzles
Sure, the basic mechanics are nothing special — there are secondary mechanics that are so incredibly satisfying they are worth mentioning all on their own.
I don’t want to ruin all the fun, but I’ll have to discuss at least one of them for you to properly appreciate the level of detail the developers took to make this unusual and exciting — even though it is technically just a basic action of self-healing.
Recovering health is standard for most adventure games — especially if there is a horror element involved. There are a few mechanics in VR for this that are already established; taking pills, applying a bandage or sometimes just “grabbing” a health kit.
The way that Valve chose to do this is a text-book example of how HLA has taken the things to the next level.
You will find health stations along your path. The first one is “free”; that is — you can use it without doing any gathering or preparation.
You pull down a lever on this station and a little platform comes out for you to put your hand on. A little vial containing what appears to be an alien larva is inside with some fluid. As the machine is activated, the larva is crushed in the tube and presumably his vitality is transferred into these little needles that stab essence into your hand.
The whole thing is fascinating to watch; something as simple as restoring health becomes something more.
“Production values” like this are littered throughout the game and this extends to puzzles as well as secondary mechanics.
There are micro-puzzles to turn on devices along with more story-driven puzzles that are required to be solved in order to continue the game.
Most of these puzzle types are standard fare for this type of game on the PC or console, but less seen in the VR realm — and you can see Valve’s hard five year effort at work here. Puzzles are neatly crafted, fun to solve (mostly) and look/act great doing it.
I would have thrown a video in here, but I don’t want to present any spoilers as part of the fun of the game is uncovering these interactions and figuring them out.
Playing HLA: Visual Eye Candy
We already mentioned the opening scene being breathtaking, but the insane visuals don’t just stop there. Every crack and crevice in the game looks good. Textures are rich and enveloping. The maps are carefully created to allow them the best possible look while maintaining an appropriate amount of environment.
This is what separates a seasoned developer like Valve from the small, newer developers that typically work on VR projects. Let me explain.
Without getting too technical, VR gaming requires double the resources as the game is being rendered to two “screens” at once. The nature of VR also means that areas “around” your eyes have to be ready to render too — since you could quickly pan your head around.
The more you have to render, the LESS you can render and keep up with the smooth nature of visuals required to keep VR from becoming a jittery nauseating mess (you’ve played one of these horrible messes, haven’t you?)
This is why Oculus Quest native games look a whole lot less beautiful than more powerful console VR or PCVR games where there is more horsepower to drive the graphic fidelity. There are modern miracles like The Climb on Quest where the graphics look great despite the platform.
So why does HLA look so DAMN good where so many PCVR games seem to fall short?
Five years of development and the endless purse strings of a huge company like Valve helps, of course. Kick ass graphics cost money.
But experience and know-how make all the difference.
The less control and interaction you let the player have, the better the graphics can be.
Seems simple, right? A “duh” moment?
But think about the best looking VR games you’ve played; Moss, Vader Immortal series, The Climb, Batman Arkham VR … there are gorgeous VR games out there.
They produce a beautiful VR experience at the expense of large open areas and player interaction with environments.
HLA uses numerous tricks to keep the visual level up. Keeping you in tight spaces. Frequent level loading. Drastically limiting environmental interactions both indoors and outdoors. They limit concurrent character models. They use lighting in creative ways to add incredible ambiance and “hide” imperfections of the game.
They are “cutting resource corners” at every turn. But these devs never let you see behind the curtain or make you feel they are using voodoo to make this game look like it does.
It looks like a AAA game despite being on a “novelty” VR platform.
Playing HLA: The Story and Characters
We’ve discussed that the core mechanics are nothing special despite some amazing secondary mechanics that are really kind of there to make you forget how little there is do to outside of experiencing the story (that is what is known as a “backhanded compliment”).
If you strip away the great Valve graphics and design IP would this still be a fun game?
There is a story here … and it is enough to keep things going. There are interesting characters you’ll meet along the way.
But unlike “open world” games we’re all getting used to (and even taking for granted), this often feels on rails. Sometimes you can wander off the path, but clever level design will ensure you’re always being funneled in the right direction. It isn’t as railed as say Vader Immortal but you will find yourself yearning for some “side quest” type stuff or some alternative routes to explore — the latter you will find but they are there to throw you a bit more resin (to improve your weapons) or an extra clip (which you’ll need — ammo seems in short supply so far) and then dead end before you get off the beaten path too much.
VR is often about “experiencing” the game and less about “playing” the game.
HLA tempers the balance better than most; keeping encounters and interactions regularly paced so you’re not spending all your time marveling at the alien biology on the walls and floor — you feel like you’re doing something and not just “walking to the end”.
The $60 game supposedly lasts about 15 hours — which is a bit longer than the average VR “experience” but there probably isn’t going to be a ton of replay value here outside of sharing the experience with friends.
That puts HLA at the price of about $4/hour which isn’t the value that a lot of gamers are looking for. They took away Steam’s Family Sharing options from the title so you cannot even use the “five friend share” rule to add value to the product. It is exclusive to Steam, so you’re not likely to find a discount on third party key resellers.
As Dennis Hopper said in Speed … “You can’t beat me, you’re gonna pay me every dollar.”
I would like to go on record as saying that $4/hour is an acceptable price for me. I tend to take things slower and take in the sights, so I’m betting my game runs more like 16 to 17 hours.
Life Changing? Worth the Buy? Take a Pass?
I know — up to this point, you’re probably trying to figure out what my final disposition is on this title. I haven’t gushed endlessly and I’ve helpfully pointed out some of the title’s shortcomings.
That doesn’t mean I don’t like it.
In fact, I like it a lot. I haven’t been this excited to get my head under that visor in a while. Sure, I play Beat Saber almost every day (great cardio when you play like I do) but to be EXCITED about playing … to really be eager to put my family to bed so I can play … to be constantly worried how long the Quest will hold a charge tonight?
Well, let’s just say it has been a long time.
This title will piss some people off. Those expecting 50+ hours need not apply. Those expecting a true first person shooter with high body counts? Nope — not so far, anyway. Those looking for a deep role-playing experience should stay away. The spendthrifts that don’t believe ANY VR game should cost more than $20? Nada.
Hell, it really isn’t even Half-Life according to fans of the property. Maybe fans of this property should stand clear too.
HLA is a “VR experience” by almost every definition of the phrase. It is linear. It is designed for VR. The mechanics are similar to all the other VR games. It is “short”. It isn’t gun porn or Call of Duty. It isn’t multiplayer.
This is EXACTLY what Half-Life: Alyx is … the SOUP (VR game) that eats like a MEAL (a AAA premium title).
It sets a new standard for what VR games “can” be; not so much what the non-VR people “want” them to be.
For people like me — that enjoy the solo, story-driven 10+ hour experiences? This is a masterpiece in the VR space.
If you’re looking for an endorsement? You got it!
Already playing? Tell my readers how you like it in the comments below.