Following a more than decade-long wait for a new game to bless the Half-Life series with its presence, Valve recently made a surprise announcement. After having worked on various projects that never saw the light of day for the past decade, one idea stuck with the legendary developer, namely that of making a VR game.
The studio knew it wanted to create a major game for the niche platform after people seemed to be looking for more substantial experiences following the launch of the HTC Vive and, after ruling out Portal as a potential VR project because they knew there was a good chance that all that flinging yourself through portals would ruin a lot of carpets, Valve settled instead on making a game in the Half-Life universe.
Alyx was created solely for VR systems, and that's because the company didn't want to compromise its vision by bringing the game to a broader audience, a move that would have inadvertently made the experience suffer as they cut corners and made adjustments to make the game fit on more traditional input devices. For example, Valve didn't want to be shackled to the mouse and keyboard, as Dario Casali explained:
"It began as an exploration of VR, and the more we used the controllers and the headset, we realized the amount of interactions this gives, the amount of possibilities these things give us, the more we explored it and the more we realized that there's so much opportunity that we can't really translate back to the keyboard. When you can track your hands separately from your head, they're all 3D space, all simultaneously tracking and moving, you just can't really get that with a mouse and keyboard. And when you put that into game mechanics, the kinds of interactions that we can do now, we couldn't possibly do with a mouse and keyboard."
So it's VR-only and it isn't too far off either, as Valve, through the announcement trailer for Half-Life: Alyx that you can see above, also announced the release date to be as soon as March 2020. As the name implies, this new adventure follows Alyx Vance and her father Dr Eli Vance, both of whom players will know from the previous instalment in the series, Half-Life 2. The characters, Alyx more so than Eli, were the allies of silent, crowbar-wielding protagonist Gordon Freeman, and helped him on his journey after he managed to escape the Black Mesa Research Facility, the Xen aliens, and the Hazardous Environment Combat Unit found in the original.
Alyx and Eli, both part of this mounting resistance, played a big part in getting Gordon through his mission against the Combine after he was awakened by the mysterious G-Man. In the Half-Life timeline, players will find themselves in City 17 between the two main games, and as the trailer suggests, this VR entry will feature G-Man, at least in some capacity. Whether or not he will play a central role is uncertain, but judging by the trailer, the horror element fans will know from the iconic level of Ravenholm is still very much present in the coming VR title.
We can also assume that both characters will be staying very much alive since it would otherwise put a big crack in the lore canon, as this VR title is set before the events of the second game. What's more, both characters are being portrayed by different actors this time around.
Alyx suddenly emerging from the shadows after these years has many Half-Life fans excited and even though it's not the Half-Life 3 that fans have been waiting eagerly for, it's a sign of life from a studio about a franchise that many of us thought would never see the light of day again. But what can we expect from a gameplay perspective? Well, we know that this is a pure VR game, and that Valve's work in this area puts them at the forefront of the virtual reality movement. Certainly, we see silky smooth animations in the trailer, as Alyx explores, leaning this way and that, before a headcrab tries to give her a kiss.
One of the things that defined the series was Freeman's gravity gun, and the way that Valve played around with physics. That's a theme that the studio is looking to return to here, this time via Alyx's gloves, as we've been promised "deep environmental interactions, puzzle solving, world exploration, and visceral combat". Apparently, throughout the game's more than 15-hour runtime, we'll be rummaging through shelves as we search for supplies and manipulating tools as we interface with alien technology - it all sounds very intuitive.
Those who own a Valve Index (before the end of the year) will get Half-Life: Alyx included in the price, as well as some additional content (you'll be able to explore the environments of the game, get additional weapon skins, and some themed content for CS:GO). That said, it will still be supported on the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift, and it doesn't sound like you'll be missing out on a tremendous amount of content if you're not rocking an Index. The game will support seating, standing and room-scale VR, and three different types of locomotion (continuous, teleportation, and shift) - it looks like accessibility is also at the forefront of the game's design.
Another interesting addition, which was a footnote on the listing on Steam, is the news that the studio plans to ship modding tools for the game at launch. So many excellent games were born out of the modding scenes for Half-Life and Half-Life 2, and it's hard not to be at least tentatively excited about the things that the community might try to create. Could we be about to see another explosion of creativity in the VR space? We certainly hope so.
All in all, we're very much looking forward to hearing more about the title at The Game Awards on December 12/13. We can't imagine Valve would return to this most sacred of franchises unless it was felt that a point could be made, and the VR space is long-overdue something truly exciting to call its own. There are still plenty of studios developing VR games (we recently played Stormland and loved it), but can we honestly say that there's been a genuine hand-on-heart triple-A system seller before? Half-Life: Alyx could be that game, assuming Valve nails it, of course.