Half-Life 2 was the first game I played in virtual reality. Back in the prime time of 2013, I was lucky enough to get my unsightly sausage mitts on an Oculus Developer Kit – the prototype headset that ultimately led to the Oculus Rift. Naturally, given the name, there were no games for the dev kit outside of some incredibly basic demos. But there was Half-Life 2, for which Valve implemented a hacky VR mode that you could activate with a console blunder.
What you got was this weirdly retro-futuristic experience, as you explored a grainy, letterboxed version of City 17 that was nonetheless completely there, enveloping your vision like a crab. Suddenly, the intro station has become a vast vaulted church of misery and implied menace, so you have to crane your neck to watch Doctor Breen spout propaganda from his giant, rectangular screen. There was an extra force in the Civil Protection, making their pushing and shoving with riot sticks much more physical. At one point, I dropped into a nondescript drainage sinkhole on Kanal Road, and my stomach physically dropped as the ground rushed towards me.
It was probably the most cyberpunk thing I’ve ever done, a glimpse of the future seen through the memories of my past. And then it was gone. The SDK went back to my publisher and Valve disabled Half-Life 2’s VR mode for reasons I can’t google anymore because the algorithm locked onto the Half-Life 2: VR Mod recently published.
This new mod is a fan-made project blessed by Valve that can be downloaded for free on Steam, but requires you to own Half-Life 2 vanilla to run. Unlike the Spit-and-Paper version of Valve’s Half-Life 2 VR, this is a much more complete conversion, adding touch controls, reworked weapons that work with said controls, VR-compatible menus, and even more.
The game’s opening has been tweaked slightly, with camera effects removed, so G-Man stands rather awkwardly in front of you as he unfolds his stuttering monologue. But then you get off the train to City 17 and look at Doctor Breen’s perfectly groomed beard again. Now, however, you have hands, allowing you to pick up this box (and throw it at the metal bonce of the civil protection officer). The VR mod doesn’t include the same click ‘n’ flick object capture system as Half-Life: Alyx, instead opting for a simpler “hold trigger to pick up”. That said, you can still grab items from a reasonable distance, which means you don’t have to constantly bend down to collect ammo and medkits.
Other ideas were thoughtfully borrowed from Half-Life: Alyx, such as attaching UI elements to your hands in-game. Your HEV suit health display projects holographically from your left hand, while your ammo count is visible at a glance to your right. The mod also borrows Alyx’s weapon selection method, where you hold down the right stick to bring up the weapons menu, then wave your hand over the appropriate weapon icon to select it. Everything is designed to help maintain the fluidity a shooter needs. Firing a burst of your pistol into a corner, then quickly glancing at your wrist to check your ammo, is a very natural move.
Speaking of guns, the real magic of the VR mod is in its reworked weapons. Not only can you freely aim and fire each weapon with your hands, but they’ve all been given new VR-specific interactions. The submachine gun can be fired with one hand, but is much more stable when held with two hands. Weapons are also reloaded manually, by pulling ammo over your shoulder and inserting it at various points on the weapon. This works better for some weapons than others. Inserting clips into the pistol and SMG is more satisfying than reloading the revolver, for example. But everything works, and works well.
You can line up saw blades to cut through multiple zombies with frightening precision
Other weapons are upgraded in different ways. Freed from its prison in the bottom right of your screen, Gordon’s Crowbar is given a new lease of life, allowing you to physically smash your way through ammo creations and hit manhacks for sixes. But the highlight, like when Half-Life 2 originally launched, is the Gravity Gun. Unlike most other weapons, which are slightly harder to use in VR due to the more nuanced aiming requirements, the highly analog nature of the Gravity Gun makes it even easier to use than in the base game. You can line up saw blades to slice through multiple zombies with frightening precision, while throwing explosive barrels at combo soldiers is as easy as breathing.
In short, the Source Mod VR team did a great job bringing Half-Life 2 to VR. But we should also acknowledge Half-Life 2’s own contribution to this mod. The game’s extremely fluid locomotion makes movement very easy on the stomach, while the physics-enhanced world perfectly matches the tactile nature of virtual reality. My biggest concerns were with the vehicle sections, which I expected would turn me green faster than a shrimp smoothie. But I played through Water Hazard with only the slightest hint of nausea, which was as surprising as it was relieved (by the way, the moment the chimney collapses in Water Hazard is a real “Holy shit” moment ” in VR.)
There are a few areas where the mod struggles to conceal Half-Life 2’s flatscreen origins. Some characters look a bit odd in VR. Alyx, for example, is disconcertingly thin, while you can really see the polygons in Eli Vance’s head. It’s also worthless that Gordon Freeman is canonically 6’2, so if like me you’re what’s technically called a “shortarse”, it adds a slightly odd vibe to some of the character interactions. More generally, some mid-range and long-range combat encounters can be a bit tricky, as can some Route Kanal sequences where you have to fight while swimming through water.
But these are just minor flaws. Half-Life 2: VR Mod is a fantastic adaptation of a classic. If you own a VR headset, it’s almost as much a must-have as Alyx itself. More than that, it also clearly demonstrates why Valve chose to create the next Half-Life VR, beyond the ruthless business rationale for helping to modify Valve hints. Half-Life just works well in VR, from world design to combat to the highly tactile nature of its systems. Who knows if we’ll ever see another Half-Life game, let alone another Half-Life VR game, but so far this is a perfectly acceptable stopgap.
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