For a certain class of video game fans, no news could be greater than today’s: half-life is back. at VR. As a brand new game from the creators of the series at Valve.
We are here to connect the dots between what has been announced, what’s been rumored, and what we’ve heard from well-placed sources. Rise and shine, half-life fans. We have a lot for you today.
Months of rumours, then a TGA leak
We should probably start with the game’s name, as revealed in a leaked Game Awards 2019 presentation and confirmed hours later by an official message from Valve† Half-life: Alyx is a brand new game in the half-life universe designed exclusively for PC virtual reality systems (Valve Index, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality).
In fact, this is the oft-teased “VR game” that Valve has been calling for the past few years that we should expect to see by the end of 2019. Today’s leak includes a revised March 2020 release window, which our sources indicate is likely, but also subject to change due to the phenomenon fans are calling “Valve Time.”
Today’s announcement has confirmed a harsh truth: Valve’s game development teams still can’t count to three. In HLAthe case is that because this is a prequel, not a sequel. And it’s a full single-player campaign with brand new VR content, although our sources can’t confirm how long it will take to actually beat the game.
The name of the game confirms what has been rumored for months: that you play this game from the perspective of Alyx Vance, a character introduced in 2004. Half-life 2† Instead of going forward in time, HLA will rewind to the period between the first two main lines half-life spell.
For those who have lost track of the timeline of the series, the original 1998 game saw the Black Mesa Research Institute lose an alien race (the Combine) on our planet. The sequel took an uncertain number of years later, with a network of researchers and resistance fighters working to eliminate the Combine’s invasion and domination of Earth, despite a human-fronted organization capitulated to the Combine’s control.
In both games, Gordon Freeman played a silent protagonist. This new VR game mixes things up by putting you in the shoes of Alyx, years before the events of HL2 and before Freeman returns to the series universe. (This won’t be the first time an official HL game wrested control from Freeman; the expansion pack for 2001 Half-life: blue shift with Barney, the beloved guardian from the first game.) We’ve gotten an indication that the game’s testing period didn’t show any part of Alyx’s body instead of your own, except for a few hands. But that could very well change.
Half-life 2 was arguably the game world’s first major “physics adventure” as it revolved around a clever Gravity Gun system that lets you pull and throw all kinds of items, big and small. We have received an indication that Half-life: Alyx follows.
A data breach from Valve’s Source 2 game engine, as discovered in September by Valve News Network, pointed to a new operating system referred to in the code base as the “Grabbity Gloves”. Several sources have confirmed that this is indeed an important control system in HLA†
How do they work? We’ve been getting hints that they could be more accurately described as “Magnet Gloves,” in the sense that players can magically point at distant objects and lure them to your hands. Instead of having to walk all the way to an object in VR or bend over to grab something off the floor, HLA players have a handy point-and-snag system. And we’re told that these are spiritual successors to… HL2‘s Gravity Gun, in terms of turning around realistic physics. Perhaps that means we may or may not be able to grab certain items due to physical systems or obstacles in real life.
However this system works, it seems to both favor the newer Valve Index controllers (which latch onto users’ knuckles and leave the fingers free to move) and compromise on older controllers like the HTC Vive controllers. wands. Valve has already announced plans to support all major VR PC systems for its next VR game, and these new gloves seem like the right system to scale to all the controllers you bring into VR.
But we also get the feeling that HLA is a serious showcase for Valve Index’s “Knuckles” controllers. We hear that almost every object in the world of the game is designed to be touched and manipulated by hands, both in terms of realistic physics and how real hands move through virtual objects. The best public information we have for this is a recent DigiPen presentation from a Valve developer. Ever wondered how doors are constructed in VR? Valve developer Kerry Davis spent more than 30 minutes on the subject, and our sources indicate that this research in every single hand manipulation system HLA†
Our sources have told us not to expect one iconic weapon HLA, however. Each of these sources mentioned that a virtual crowbar was tested at some point in the game’s multi-year development, but was eventually scrapped. To be clear, we don’t have any conclusive evidence that the crowbar won’t eventually come into play somehow. (If Valve plans to upgrade the game with a physical crowbar purchase, my sources have certainly never heard of it.)
Deliberately vague confidence…
After I got over my first shock that a new one half-life game exists, I’m amazed at another likely outcome: that this new game will be a masterclass example of how to build an adventure game around the unique features of virtual reality hardware.
Valve’s VR game design teams share the same frustrations with those quests.
I’ve played quite a few VR quest and adventure games since the launch of VR home headsets in 2016. Some have used engaging mechanics, but all too soon run out of new ideas. Others have packed familiar battles and puzzles into a VR headset in ways that would have worked just as well on a flat screen TV. And others have left VR users sitting or standing waiting for dialogue or long, boring walks.
What I know about HLAconvinced me at this point that Valve’s VR game design teams share the same frustrations with those quests and that HLA will not repeat their mistakes. The little bit I know about hand manipulation in the game has made me tingling with enthusiasm.
Plus, as Valve’s first game built from the ground up to leverage the company’s long-developing Source 2 engine, I’m hopeful that we’ll see a whole new caliber of facial animations and world details in a VR game waiting: kinda like how Half-life 2‘s use of the first Source engine blew gamers away in 2004.
Whether we fancy a game that the half-life namesake, on the other hand, remains to be seen. Will it really be long enough in terms of a satisfying single-player campaign? Will the mysteries of the plot, as staged between two major games in the series, be sold in immersive sequences from a VR perspective? Will we get a VR robot dog as a pet?
I’d like to assure readers that we won’t have to wait long to learn the answers to these questions and more, but, you know, Valve Time is a thing. We’ll be tempering our excitement as much as possible with zero guarantees of an actual release date until the game is in both our literal and virtual hands, and we at Ars will keep you posted as soon as Valve lets you fake us like Alyx for the sake of a HLA preview.