How Valve Revived Half-Life (Part 1)
This is a spoiler free article. Part 2 will not be. I promise.
I was working on a lengthy discussion of Metro Exodus’s failings in the weeks leading up to March 13th, the date my country federally declared a national pandemic on its hands. But then that happened and everyone’s attention went elsewhere, mine included. I also had to clear my plate because a VR headset had arrived and we were ten days away from something I had been waiting on for 13 years, the thing that definitely cleared everyone’s shelves and rearranged everyone’s priorities (sarcasm).
Half-Life: Alyx is critically hard to discuss for those unable to experience it at this moment in time, despite it being easy to say it’s one of the strongest VR experiences you can have right now. It’s a good game with really great and unforgettable moments, but VR currently has shortcomings. It runs and feels great, except when it doesn’t. It captivates, except when it doesn’t. I want to talk about this game in a non-standard review format. I want to talk about the (1) things that Half-Life: Alyx is adapting well from old Half-Life formulas into VR and why that works so dang well in making Half-Life feel new again and revived. I also want to talk about (2) the problems that plague Half-Life: Alyx that kept it from becoming the greatest Half-Life game ever.
And I also want to talk about (3) how in less than 10 minutes Valve brought the body of Half-Life back to life. But that one contains spoilers, so we’re saving it for a “part 2” article. We’re going to focus on parts one and two today and leave that third thing for next article. Deal?
Alyx: The Half-Life VR Proof of Concept
Half-Life games have successfully combined three different elements into video games since 1998: Believable worlds. Intense action-based gameplay. Puzzles.
In Half-life 1 the shooter genre was transformed by using an Earth-based “modern sci-fi” disaster story to ground us at a research facility. So much about the later parts of the game take place in parts of Black Mesa that many humans will never come to see in their own lives, as well as alien worlds that defy imagination (sorta, Xen wasn’t great in this game). And yet, the game is completely dedicated to creating a world that feels like one players can imagine is real on Earth. The early sections of the game work furiously to give you that sensation. And it works. The storage warehouses, the elevated train ride into the facility, the office complexes, parking garages, and various industrial complexes all feel naturally designed from one moment to the next. These efforts pay off further in Half-Life 2 and its episodes despite taking place in a future version of Earth in which aliens have been occupying the planet for something close to two decades and draining its resources. That should be something hard to visualize. The year 2020, Earth, invaded by aliens two decades ago, and the planet is heavily spent. And yet, the game still manages to feel like it takes place in a setting one can imagine, with its scientific elements meshing well with the more old-world-half-dead vibes that Eastern European inspired architecture would naturally make one feel. The coasts are severely drained, the buildings are decrepit and a shambles, and Orwellian alien structures create unique hard juts in the environments around us and provide a stark dark blue contrast to the more earthly colors in City 17.
The intense action-oriented gameplay has not always survived off of the utilization of a firearm, but no Half-Life game has shipped without giving players a gun in one hand to fight their way through survival. So much of what made Half-Life 1 an iconic experience to players wasn’t through its utilization of unforgettable weapons. Though some of them are, none of them really become something as comically recognizable as something like the BFG-9000. Instead, Half-Life surprised the world by first giving players a utilitarian melee weapon that spoke as much punk-rock vibes into the shooter genre as it does serve a fantastic fast and rapid method of dodging and weaving enemy attacks or breaking down crates in the way. These mechanics translated over into Half-Life 2 excellently and properly adjusts the feel of the crowbar into something that fits more with Gordon’s slower movement speed in the game and its episodes, as well as its physicality. The firearms are loud, frenetic, and serve specific functions. And each game features a variety of enemy types that also help determine the pace of the action-oriented gameplay. Small waves of bullsquids, houndeyes, and hazardous barnacles make for different movement requirements from the player. Meanwhile soldier varieties make for very frantic and high tension firefights filled with explosions and cinematic setpieces. The first game then mixes these elements together in all-out battles between you, the soldiers, and the aliens. Half-Life 2 and its episodes also uses these methods of getting players comfortable with different encounter types to combine them in the later sections of its games in larger experiences. The sequels do eventually hone in and focus the gameplay against soldier-types at the end of Half-Life 2 and its episodes, but there is an element the Half-Life games of the 00s have that makes a major difference: Physics. The implementation of the Havok physics engine into the Source engine for unique gameplay in combination with the gravity gun gave these games a sensation and weight to their gameplay that is hard to find and enjoy in many other games out there. And that plays right into the game’s puzzles.
Puzzling in Half-Life 1 did involve your occasional button push or lever throw here and there, but it was often working to make the player do platforming as a form of puzzling. This element bordered on “okay” to “not fun” in terms of breaking up the monotony at times, with many complaining about the unique jump methods used with the Long Jump Module at the end of the game. Half-Life 2 and its episodes brought a fresh change with its physics and allowed Valve to develop better puzzles to break the monotony because video games had never been this interactive before with your physical environment. This is an element of video games given a user specific interaction and even action-based toolkit with the Gravity Gun, allowing the puzzling and the action to be interfaced with at the press of two buttons. It makes for incredibly intuitive gameplay that only started to feel boring and repetitive (puzzle-wise) by the time Episode Two came around. But physics brought more than just “game-focused” design changes to Half-Life, it brought a new level of detail to video games in general in ways that weren’t just the visual. The sensation of picking up barrels, bricks, soda cans, and tons of other imaginative junk changed not just Half-Life, but video games in general. It may have been “just the first” to bringing this massive change to the industry’s standards, but that influence can be seen even years later when playing games like Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the Deus Ex sequels, or Arkane games. It’s safe to say that once Valve found ways to implement physics into its puzzling, the series vastly improved. And I don’t think the two aren’t related.
So how effective is Hal-Life: Alyx at bringing these elements to the present? I think it’s safe to say it does it really well, and somehow puzzling is the design element that sits in the game the poorest (but we’ll get there). VR easily adds an experience that makes many environments feel real by default, but the game itself does this in ways that aren’t just enhanced by Half-Life: Alyx’s VR-scale visuals. The level design works to help players comprehend the intricacies of any singular level they play through. Even early on a sense of direction and comprehension of where you are and where you came from to get there is clear. You start one level on a train bridge over another intersecting train track and make your way down through a service section and come out on the lower level. The largest chapter in the game, The Northern Star, is an incredible feat at showing players the ins and outs of an entire hotel from lobby to top floor. And the chapter before the last has the player fighting their way across a huge infested trainyard, fighting Combine, headcrab zombies, and Antlions alike. Fantastically, you get a view of where you’re going in the end chapters, and can see all the difficulties you traversed when you finally get there. It feels like thinking about Souls-like level design (sans DS2, but including its DLCs) and yet this isn’t using metroidvania level designs. The game is simply dense and Valve are happy to remind you of how VR can maintain your capacity for internalizing it all. Slap onto that the sprawling urban-Orwellian designs that made Half-Life 2 such a believable world in the first place, great character performances any time someone is talking, and the generalized sense of visual scale setup from the very first vista in the game, and Half-Life: Alyx’s believable worlds are a shoe-in.
Then there’s sense of scale in models impacting the immersion. This is, arguably, the point in the game that people have been nitpicking the most in terms of visual representation of a “real” world in the game. Creatures and humanoid-type models alike all do feel kinda…big-ified. The first realization of this is when you come across the intimidating Combine Overwatch models early on the in the game as they arrest Eli to setup the story. They’re big. And chonky. And at first that doesn’t seem too alarming because it’s a literal enforcer-type soldier with some big weapons and heavy armor. But then a couple more times early on in the game’s first real training chapters you’re presented with headcrab zombie bodies (sans headcrabs) and you have to move them out of your way. This introduces two things: 1. How amazing and kinda real it feels in VR to struggle with moving a dead body. I found it not really responding to methods of pulling, but instead to methods of rolling (or hand-over-hand). It also reveals 2. The bizarre notion of having to actually rummage around bodies for extra ammo or health now. It’s a mental trip that makes you realize VR could really change the landscapes of some video games. Remember that scene looking for some coins in a certain dead character’s pockets in season one of The Walking Dead? Now think about the weight of that in VR. Anyways, getting back to this whole “models are a little huge” problem in this game, most character or creature models do feel a little excessively large. Zombies feel about the right size, but once you run into more Combine soldiers, some barrels, some traffic cones, and Antlions (they’re big bois), it all does start to seem kinda too large. But these things never feel off-scale in relation to everything else around you. Finding a dead Combine soldier pinned to the wall by a dismembered Antlion claw won’t feel off, it all makes sense in relation to everything else. I feel like part of this is just a reality of VR, but there’s some amount of sense it makes when you consider Alyx is about 19 and maybe a character of average female stature (about 5' 6"). Should things be this much bigger if Alyx is maybe a few inches shorter than Gordon? Nah. But do you get used to it? Yeah.
Half-Life: Alyx’s gameplay is something that truly feels transformed here. Physics plays a part of that, but not necessarily as much a part as some might want. The real change is in how VR has already been making first-person shooters a thing of the future. The notion of squeezing your arms and head between wooden panels and the sensation of doing so while taking aim at a zombie or pointing to pick up an item is one of the numerous gameplay experiences in Half-Life: Alyx that will turn a VR-newbie into a “true believer”. I wasn’t spouting VR’s infinite capabilities when the dust had settled on Half-Life: Alyx, but I was reeling with water cool experiences that would’ve felt impossible to tell in any other delivery service. One time I found myself low on pistol ammo, pushed back by a wave of two headcrab zombies (TWO, TWO is enough to make you swamped if the ammo is low enough and the hallways are tight enough) as well as two separate headcrabs leaping around the area. When headcrabs leap on your head, you have to scramble and do an animation of swiping down your face to try and push the headcrab off. So, in a panicked early frenzy of trying to get ahead of the race for my life, I reached my hand out to start that process, but the headcrab hadn’t latched onto face yet. Instead, I caught the headcrab by one end! I was in too much shock at this feat that I missed my opportunity to shoot it while still in my hands. The headcrab squirmed its way free and I instead used the (very cool) Gravity Gloves to fling a brick over into my hand. On the headcrab’s next leap, a throw of luck managed to smash into the headcrab and give me the opportunity to fire off some finishing rounds.
Mixing the physicality of a Half-Life game to the scale and capabilities of VR makes for video game experiences you won’t get anywhere else right now. And that’s what excels best at transforming Half-Life with the addition of VR. The action-oriented gameplay puts a fire underneath any type of encounter players would’ve had with Half-Life before. Zombie experiences are creepy and unnerving, they double as fantastic tutorials for “you need to think of a solution now and start executing it”. I can’t even begin to describe what it’s like making your way through the dark with a flashlight, explosive barrels are everywhere around you and you’re trying to shoot your way between wooden boards to kill some barnacles while avoiding the explosives. Antlions were never this good before, they exist as a mixture of light-gun-game arcadey fun limb fights, sniper spit monsters, and quickly advancing swarms. The Gravity Gloves are a gem of an idea that must’ve felt like magic to Valve once they started seeing their implementation work. It’s insanely satisfying to manipulate objects this way and it works so dang well most of the time. And the Combine fights, ho-boy, let me tell you about the Combine fights.
Headcrab Wrangler George - Clip of SuperBunnyhop - Twitch Clips
Clip of SuperBunnyhop Playing Half-Life: Alyx - Clipped by TheTyper
Valve have kinda become the king of pacing in first-person shooters, its a result of their insane level of polish and playtesting. They also use these elements to their advantage in trying to iterate and train the player. And preparing the players for the fights they’ll experience later in the game against the Combine must’ve been Valve’s greatest challenge in Half-Life: Alyx (next to getting this game VR ready for as many headsets as possible). This is because the Combine need to feel dangerous and relatively smart without being impossible to overcome. The Combine have never been that dangerous to players, but instead fun to overcome in unique ways. Making that feel like the right level of challenging and prepping the player for the various things they’ll need to do to beat them had to have been quite a task for VR. So they start the player against small duo squads of Civil Protection, wielding pistols and sub machine guns. Then the players have to face off one (ONE!) Combine Overwatch enforcer wielding a shotgun and a shield. The AI shows its weaknesses here, at points the enforcer stopped dead in its tracks after I had turned a corner running away from the enforcer. It said it lost my visual. It just…didn’t advance at all for a good 15 seconds and I was able to get a shot off immediately after he walked into my sightlines. But when he advances, nothing is going to stop him and you can’t just put your face in his sightlines, take a shot, and know that he’ll drop that easily. He’ll keep going in most cases and really pin you down.
It’s these early-on intimidating experiences that prepares you for the type of quick thinking you’re going to have to do when facing two of these enforcers at once after an entire squad of sub-machine gun soldiers and a heavy repeating cannon soldier much later on in the game. This stuff is nuts for one person to overcome in a VR space. But once you’ve done all the hours of gameplay training you for this, the experiences are incredible. I can’t possibly explain how strong the back half of Half-Life: Alyx’s shootouts are. I wanted to tell all my friends, “You haven’t lived until you’ve found yourself scrambling down on your knees to avoid bullets and then rush your way into a port-a-potty and struggle to close the door just so you can avoid a grenade blast.” I didn’t tell them that, but I “lived” that experience and that’s just hilarious and incredible all at once when you think about how you make those decisions so immediately and have to work out those actions with your hands and feet. You’ll squeeze your way behind cover just to avoid that stray bullet that might eat away at your health and that delineation of detail between “in cover and not” doesn’t feel like a cheap way to beat the player here. It feels tense, and it feels like when you don’t make decisions and take action, you lose. I did find some frustration in getting grenades to throw in directions I want, but there also times when grenade tosses went perfectly and accomplished what I ultimately was working towards.
It also all makes you tired. You can playtest and pace test all you want, Half-Life: Alyx’s transformation into VR for action-oriented gameplay does physically wear you out like any VR game would. After fights I found myself putting my hands on my knees. I was sweaty, exhausted, my back hurt, but I wanted to keep going and sometimes would. When I beat the game I finally came to my knees, not out of some “blown away” response to the game’s ending (though there was some of that), I just physically pushed past what I was capable of and ached all week because of my numerous long sessions with the game. It was great.
And then there’s puzzles. Puzzles are maybe the black sheep of Half-Life in VR. And it’s not necessarily the physics puzzles, but instead the variations and different types of AR/VR puzzles utilizing Alyx’s multi-tool. There’s about five different types you will run across anytime you’re playing the game, most of them involve a sort of hacking feature to open or unlock something. The most common three you find are spheres, light paths, and re-wiring. Re-wiring is neat at first as it allows you to follow circuit pathways behind walls and enable or change what power is flowing where. In the best versions of this puzzle, it creates methods of enabling or disabling gateways, making for fun times trying to get through environments with clear roadblocks in your path and having to figure out how to open what doors you need. But in the worst cases of these puzzles, you find yourself trying to reach around and through clutter and geometry that just makes your VR hands glitch out or it’s not really clear why you can’t put your hand into certain places. Sometimes you can’t do it without taking damage either and it’s not clear where your hand is supposed to go otherwise. These full-room circuit tracing sequences at some points drag on or just traverse too many rooms and lead to getting lost. The problem is you always have to be close enough to a wall for the lightbeam cast by your multi-tool to reveal the circuitry, which means you’re bound to run into collision issues, distances issues, you name it. And it did feel like those issues increased as the puzzles got more complex as the game went on.
Light Path puzzles are maybe the simplest and one of the stronger ones as a result. You have several blotches taking up a 3D space in front of you. You can physically walk through these spaces and there will be one, two, or three different spheres in the space that shoot light beams out in specific directions but you can pull on those spheres to change how the light is cast. Your goal is to line up the light beams to the splotches so that everything is lined up and lit up. It’s simple, but fun and takes great advantage of being in a 3D environment because it’s not just about up or down, it’s also about that Z-axis.
But the Sphere puzzles, oh man, they can burn in the fires of Doom Eternal’s Earth Hell for all I care. Sphere puzzles are the worst in this game, and yet they’re the most common. A globe is projected in front of you and you can move it with your hands physically, carefully turning it or even move it closer or away from you. On two points of the sphere are little security lock icons, and you need to grab one with your multi-tool and drive it across the globe to the other one without hitting the moving enemy icons that are also on the globe. As Half-Life: Alyx progresses, you have to sometimes repeat this action a couple times over to unlock items, and the density increases like a bullet hell game. There is one trick: If you let go of your security icon and stop moving it, it will not be touched by the enemy icons. But the instinct is to move the globe and icon at the same time, which makes for unweildly mistakes that just don’t work in this VR environment. The size and proximity of your globe, where you’re standing, all of these make for very poor non-fluid jittery actions that lead to mistakes left and right. It became frustrating, especially when you realize the best solution for this was one that would’ve taken greater advantage of VR too: Put the players INSIDE the sphere and have their extended multi-tool arm physically moving the path they need to take to avoid the obstacles. This would’ve been perfect and way more fun as other VR showcases like the flying shooter game in Valve’s own “The Room” proved. Video Game Dunkey’s spoiler-free video on Half-Life: Alyx even showcased my frustrations about this puzzle.
There’s a decent memory match game that also takes place on a sphere for some hacking puzzles, I liked that one fairly enough. But the king of VR puzzles in Half-Life: Alyx was unexpected: It was tripwire hacking. To disable a trip wire in Half-Life: Alyx, you get your face really close to the line and have to carry this little light orb through a group of circular hoops that are in a nice 3D space in front of you, and sometimes a red orb will pursue you so you have to quicken your pace. This feels incredibly intuitive, frenetic, and as razor-wire-tense as “WHICH WIRE DO I CUT?”-experiences. You might accidentally glitch your hand into the trip-wire nearby, but that only happened to me once. This thing was an instant win for me and I looked forward to braving the hacking mini-game for trip-wires every time I could. It was a blast and felt perfect. What I wish I saw more of though were the few and far between physical puzzles in the game, typically involving the rotation of circular objects on a Combine terminal so that light could pass through from one side to the other, or managing levers to open up weak spots in a system that I had to then shoot down. These types of puzzles that interacted with real physical objects actually made me realize the potential for a Myst-like puzzler in VR as those games always utilized the large world around you as the groundwork for the puzzles (in fact, Obduction apparently has a VR mode? I kinda want to try it out).
But if puzzles showed the weaker side of Half-Life’s transformation into VR, then VR itself is the very thing holding back chances of success here. Let’s take a brief moment to conclude this talk and look at what’s good or bad about VR and why Alyx shows those strengths and weaknesses.
The Problems that Plague Half-Life: Alyx are the Problems that Plague VR
VR is still young.
If I were to wrap it all up in one sentence so you could move on with your day after having read this far, it’s that above sentence. VR is still young. Because of this, Valve’s herculean task of making Half-Life: Alyx ready for as many VR headsets on the market as possible still results in too wide a variety of VR-related issues for people. VR is still a “power user” experience for the most part, which is why it hasn’t really found its way over onto consoles as a mainstay yet. I found getting myself set up with my Samsung Odyssey + a week before Alyx shipped and the setup wasn’t too difficult for me. But I work in I.T. and have been using computers my whole life. I could easily comprehend the settings, the software installed without issue for me, and I was playing games sitting first and worked my way into standing games before Alyx released so I knew what to expect. I play games at a fairly high FOV (around 100) and had no problems adjusting to the VR headspace. No motion sickness for me. But Alyx itself showed me the various problems and complications that can come up in VR. For starters, I needed to get Alyx-ready graphics drivers. That’s kind of an obvious thing to do for many, but I was concerned something was wrong with the headset or the extension cables I had bought from the get-go before I installed them due to the graphical glitches I was experiencing.
Then I was running into crazy odd sound issues where sometimes a bunch of static white noise would hit the headset speakers and only go away when the game paused. I had to go into the Steam forums and post about it to find out it was my USB extension cable not providing enough power to properly process all of VR’s high-data audio information. Eliminate the USB extension cable: Problem solved. I had a few times where my hands started to become less responsive in the game and tracking got messed up. In replaying the game SteamVR flat-out crashed twice. If your lighting isn’t bright enough it might mess with the headset’s detection of your controllers. I also found myself squeezing the left controller (my gun-hand) so much in the last five hours through the game out of sheer intensity that I was pushing the battery slot open because the Odyssey + cut corners on some build quality stuff in exchange for a headset that can compete really well against the likes of Oculus. All of this also sits at the feet of the issue that drove me absolutely nuts in my week of Half-Life: Alyx. SWEAT.
I live in one-room in a house with a relative. Most of my possessions are in this room with my desk, bed, table, and computer. I also have a huge window in my room, which means that my gaming computer and the window sunlight tend to work together to overheat my room more than any other in the house. I had to have a window open on cooler nights, move a bunch of junk around so I could have a large enough playspace, and somehow also plug in and turn on my fan so the sweat and heat wouldn’t just constantly fog up my VR lenses. It was frustrating beyond belief and always took a good 20 minutes of struggling before the room was cool enough and stopping every few minutes to clean off the lenses. Once I got things going, I was set and wouldn’t need to clean things up anymore, but it’s such a frustrating process just to get going on a launch day. Now if I want to play VR I know to get the window open on a breezy day/afternoon, get the air going if I can, and wait a little bit for the room to cool down before setting everything else up.
And these were just my issues. I’ve heard reports of people who get game crashes every time grenades get involved. Super Bunnyhop found a physics bug involving carrying items in crates or boxes that also crashes the game (Valve have since patched the game for this). Valve have provided a variety of accessibility options so that you can play VR in a way that is most comfortable for you, included one-handed options, and that should be commended. But VR sickness is still a thing for people. VR playspaces are not always something people can get (mine is barely effective and I had to use my chair mat to kinda help me understand the edges of my space). And there’s still glitches or weird physics problems. The Gravity Gloves aren’t just a transportation of the wonderful physics gun into the VR landscape, they’re a “cheat mode” to keep players from constantly bumping into objects, world boundaries, or struggling to pick things up off the floor because the headset could somehow lose tracking of controllers or lose balance when people bend straight down (it happened to me a few times for sure).
VR is still young. And that means VR has tons of things people are going to struggle with. And that’s so weird that the most incredible and revolutionary things about Half-Life: Alyx are also tied to the very things that can make it a 7 or 8 out of 10 for people. But, as the next article will explain, Half-Life: Alyx is very much Valve showcasing to the world that they’re ready to make many games this way, games that people have been wanting for a while. And that just means this technology will improve with future titles and more lessons learned over time.
But if VR is a baby, Valve love their baby. And they’re gonna cheer it on into the future, and I’m right there with them after Half-Life: Alyx’s ending.