Half-Life: Alyx, Valve’s first single-player game since 2012’s Portal 2, is out now for virtual reality platforms. That has led me to write two separate articles. The first, a feature-length review, talks about the very, very good game in a vacuum; it assumes you have access to a relatively powerful gaming PC and a compatible PC-VR system.
This article, on the other hand, does not make that assumption.
What does it take to run Half-Life‘s VR-exclusive entry in March 2020? Which VR systems are the best? What’s the best cheap way to dive in without spoiling the gameplay experience? And is HL:A reason enough to buy into the PC-VR space at this point? Let’s dive in.
A refresher on the requirements
Let’s begin with the bare requirements to play HL:A: a Windows 10 PC (sorry, Windows 7 holdouts) and a SteamVR-compatible PC-VR system. The former has a minimum level of system specs, which I’ll get to later. The latter includes nearly every VR system on the market, with the obvious exceptions of PlayStation VR (which requires a PS4 console) and smartphone-shell solutions like Google Cardboard and Samsung GearVR. If a list helps, these headsets all work with the SteamVR software base:
While Varjo’s line of professional-grade VR headsets are advertised with SteamVR compatibility, we have not used any of them to test HL:A. I’ll update this guide whenever I do (and Varjo has begun the process of shipping a loaner headset my way for temporary testing).
Since a lot of you will test with Quest, here’s some nitty gritty
Oculus Quest’s listing has an asterisk because it’s the only compatible headset to require additional hoops to get working. Both cost extra money. One additionally costs time and VR performance. As such, it’s the only hardware to get a special “how to get working” section.
The simplest way to play HL:A with the “wireless” $400 Oculus Quest is to take advantage of its wired Oculus Link feature. (If you’ve never heard of Oculus Link, read my November 2019 explainer, then come back.)
The Oculus Link feature requires a cable with a USB 3.1 rating and a Type-C connector. The Type-C charging cable that comes in the Quest box is not rated for this speed (sigh). The cheapest one I’ve tested and confirmed working, a 10ft cable from Anker, is under $20 and in stock as of press time, while Oculus’ own version is currently sold out. The best part about Oculus’ version is its L-shaped connector, and while you can find similar 3.1-rated L-shape cables on Amazon, I can’t attest to their compatibility or performance.
No matter which cable you use, you’ll want to come up with a creative way to secure it to your headset or strap. Even with an L-shaped connector, its placement tugs on one side of your head in unideal fashion. Double-wrapped duct tape on the top of your headstrap is a bit clunky but at least moves the cable to a more balanced position.
Your other Quest option is to enable its wireless-VR mode. Before I explain how, I strongly urge you to not rely on this method. I tested HL:A via the Quest’s wireless pipeline with an unobstructed 5GHz signal between my headset and my router, but this introduced consistent, obnoxious visual judder in the game’s virtual world. Whether you’re lining up a pistol’s shot, spinning a puzzle’s spherical base, or just trying not to puke after more than five minutes, this judder will spoil your experience more than any dangling cable off the back of your head.
With that out of the way, you’ll need to purchase the Oculus Store’s $14 version of the Virtual Desktop app, then download and install two apps: the Virtual Desktop Streamer app on Windows 10 and the “side-loaded” Virtual Desktop app for Oculus Quest. The latter is more complicated. Oculus Quest’s OS runs on a fork of Android, which means you can download and install “unconfirmed” apps. While Oculus doesn’t block this entirely, it requires that users register their Oculus accounts as “developer” accounts.
SideQuest, an unofficial side-loading resource for Oculus Quest, has a handy tutorial for toggling developer mode for your Quest. As part of this process, you can either install and use SideQuest’s Windows app to install the Quest’s custom Virtual Desktop app, or you can ignore SideQuest’s app, follow steps 2-5 of its guide, and side-load the VD app yourself using the APK file found here.
More controller flexibility than we’d expected, honestly
With Quest’s mumbo-jumbo out of the way, I have great news. If you own any of the above compatible VR headsets, you can expect a serviceable method to play HL:A.
This is primarily because Valve scaled the game’s controls down to the lowest common denominator: the four-year-old HTC Vive wands. You do not need a discrete joystick to comfortably play the game. You do not need the Valve Index Controllers’ finger-tracking or grip-sensor gimmicks. You simply need a touchpad, a single trigger, and a single “menu” button on each controller to mimic the sensation of your real hands existing in VR. (Heck, you can play the entire game with only one Vive wand, thanks to the game’s welcome accessibility features.)
Should your system of choice include joysticks, the game’s “smooth motion” movement option works better. As my review points out, Valve gives players two control types: teleportation and smooth motion. The former is the default, and my preference. The latter resembles the kind of joystick control you’d find in a standard FPS video game, which some people may prefer, motion sickness be damned. HTC’s Vive wands support this method, as well, but you don’t get to anchor your real-life thumb on a convenient joystick when doing this. It’s somewhat awkward as a result and not recommended.
In terms of comfort and button spread, the Oculus Touch, Windows Mixed Reality controller, and Valve Index Controller all get the job done, and they’re also all shaped to fit comfortably into your hand—which mostly pays off when using the game’s “cock to reload” mechanic for guns. This description also applies to the Vive Cosmos controllers, which launched with the Vive Cosmos headset in late 2019, but these are my least favorite controllers on the list. For starters, they’re 63.5% heavier than Oculus Touch, at 211g with two AA batteries versus Oculus’ 129g with one AA battery, and this difference is burdensome after a few hours of play. Worse, they depend on light tracking via RGB sensors, as opposed to most VR controllers’ infrared sensing, which means the Cosmos pads always track a smidge slower and less accurately.
Even Windows Mixed Reality, whose headsets vary in terms of hand-tracked accuracy, is a better option across the board than the default Vive Cosmos option. You can also elect to get the Vive Cosmos Elite, which is compatible with the HTC Vive wands and Valve’s Index Controllers, but I struggle to recommend Cosmos Elite at $900 for a full set (headset, HTC Vive wands, tracking boxes). The Oculus Rift has a slightly lower resolution but costs a whopping $500 less, while $100 more gets you everything that’s superior about the $1,000 Valve Index.
As I’ve previously said, the Valve Index Controllers are my current faves on the market. Just know that their perks within HL:A are about immersion, not control. They sell the sensation of physically interacting with so many objects, whether by letting you open your hands to “touch” a cabinet handle or reducing the requirement of physically holding a controller for so many hours (since they neatly cinch to your knuckles).
I get the feeling HL:A could have offered more interesting controls or systems if Valve had made this game Index-exclusive, and Valve devs confirmed in an interview with Ars Technica that at least one possible weapon upgrade was nixed for that very reason. For now, the game is better with Index Controllers, but not enough that other systems’ users should feel the need to blow hundreds of dollars. (Index Controllers cost $280 as a standalone purchase, but they also require SteamVR tracking boxes and a SteamVR box-compatible headset. Meaning, they’re not necessarily a cheap add-on for most users.)