For a certain class of video game fan, no news could be bigger than today’s: Half-Life is back. In VR. As an entirely new game from the series’ creators at Valve.
We’re here to connect the dots between what’s 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 rumors, then a TGA leak
We should probably begin with the game’s name, as revealed in a leaked Game Awards 2019 presentation and confirmed hours later by an official post 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).
This is, in fact, the oft-teased “VR game” mentioned by Valve over the past few years and the one we had been told to expect by the end of 2019. Today’s leak includes a revised release window of March 2020, which our sources indicate is likely—but also subject to change due to the phenomenon that fans call “Valve Time.”
Today’s announcement has confirmed a hard truth: Valve’s game development teams still cannot count to three. In HLA‘s case, it’s because this is a prequel, not a sequel. And it’s a full single-player campaign of brand-new VR content, though our sources can’t confirm how long the game will actually take to beat.
The game’s name confirms what has been loudly rumored for months: that you will play this game from the perspective of Alyx Vance, a character introduced in 2004’s Half-Life 2. Instead of stepping forward in time, HLA will rewind to the period between the first two mainline Half-Life games.
For those who’ve lost track of the series’ timeline, the original 1998 game saw the Black Mesa research institute loose an alien race (the Combine) onto our planet. The sequel picked up an uncertain number of years later, with a network of researchers and resistance fighters working to take out the Combine’s invasion and domination of Earth, in spite of a human-fronted organization that capitulated to the Combine’s control.
Both of those games starred Gordon Freeman as a silent protagonist. This new VR game mixes things up by putting you in Alyx’s shoes, years before the events of HL2 and before Freeman’s return to the series’ universe. (This won’t be the first time an official HL game wrested control from Freeman; the 2001 expansion pack Half-Life: Blue Shift starred the first game’s beloved security guard Barney.) We’ve gotten an indication that the game’s testing period hasn’t shown any parts of Alyx’s body in place of your own, beyond a pair of hands. But that could very well change.
Half-Life 2 was arguably the gaming world’s first major “physics adventure,” since it revolved around a clever Gravity Gun system that let you pull and toss all manner of item big and small. We’ve gotten some indication that Half-Life: Alyx follows suit.
A data leak from Valve’s Source 2 game engine, as uncovered in September by Valve News Network, pointed to a new control system labeled as the “Grabbity Gloves” in its code base. Multiple sources have confirmed that this is indeed a major control system in HLA.
How do they work? We’ve gotten hints that they might more accurately be described as “Magnet Gloves,” in that they let players magically point to and attract distant items to your hands. Instead of having to walk all the way to an object in VR or bend over to grab something from the floor, HLA players will have a handy point-and-snag system. And we’re told that these are spiritual successors to HL2‘s Gravity Gun, in terms of revolving around realistic physics. Maybe that means we can, or cannot, grab certain items due to real-life physics systems or obstacles.
However this system works, it seems to both favor the newer Valve Index controllers (which strap to users’ knuckles and leave fingers free to move around) and offer concessions to older controllers like the HTC Vive wands. Valve has already announced plans to to support all major VR PC systems for its next VR game, and these new gloves seem like the right system to scale to whatever controllers you bring into VR.
But we also get the sense that HLA is a serious showcase for Valve Index’s “Knuckles” controllers. We hear that most every object in the game’s world has been 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 to this end is a recent DigiPen presentation from a Valve developer. Ever wondered how doors are constructed in VR? Valve developer Kerry Davis went on for over 30 minutes on the subject, and our sources indicate that this scrutiny went into every single hand-manipulation system within HLA.
Our sources have told us not to expect one iconic weapon in HLA, however. Each of these sources mentioned that a virtual crowbar was tested at one point in the game’s multi-year development but was eventually scrapped. To be clear: we don’t have conclusive evidence that the crowbar won’t eventually appear in the game in one way or another. (If Valve plans to upgrade the game with a physical crowbar purchase, my sources sure haven’t heard of it.)
Intentionally vague confidence…
After getting over my initial shock that a new Half-Life game exists, I’ve come to be astounded by 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 been-there-VR’ed-that quests.
I have played quite a few VR quest and adventure games since home VR headsets began launching in 2016. Some have employed compelling mechanics but have run out of fresh ideas all too quickly. Others have slapped familiar combat and puzzles into a VR headset in ways that would’ve worked just as well on a flat TV screen. And still others have made VR users sit or stand around waiting for dialogue or long, boring walks to transpire.
What I know about HLA, at this point, has me convinced that Valve’s VR game design teams share the same frustrations with been-there-VR’ed-that quests and that HLA won’t repeat their mistakes. The little bit I know about hand manipulation in the game has me tingling with excitement.
Plus, as Valve’s first game built from the ground up to tap into the company’s long-in-development Source 2 engine, I’m hopeful that we’re in for a whole new caliber of facial animations and world details in a VR game—much like how Half-Life 2‘s use of the first Source engine blew gamers away in 2004.
Whether we’re in for a game that earns the Half-Life namesake, on the other hand, remains to be seen. Will it actually be long enough in terms of a satisfying single-player campaign? Will its plot’s mysteries, as staged between two major games in the series, be sold in compelling sequences seen from a VR perspective? Will we get a VR robot dog as a pet?
I’d love to assure readers that we won’t have long to wait to learn the answers to these questions and more, but, you know, Valve Time is a thing. We’ll temper our excitement as much as we can with zero assurances of a true 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 us fake like Alyx for the sake of an HLA preview.