WE WEREN'T EXPECTING to see a Half-Life game announced the week, or indeed ever, but Valve teased and then took the covers off Half-Life: Alyx.
So that was surprising. The fact that its a virtual reality game isn't so mind-blowing given Valve's work in VR. But on Thursday, the company dropped a short trailer for Half-Life: Alyx, and surprised us once again, as the game is a prequel rather than a sequel to Half-Life 2: Episode Two.
We weren't expecting Half-Life: Alyx to basically be Half-Life 3, but we didn't expect it to go down the prequel route either.
But it does, and we know that as takes place in City 17, which *spoiler alert* at the end of Half-Life 2 and the start of Half-Life 2: Episode One, gets turned into Borksville after protagonist Gordon Freeman wrecks the city's Citadel's dark fusion reactor when trying to stop antagonist Dr Wallace Breen's attempt to teleport away from a citizen uprising.
The trailer for Half-Life: Alyx shows City 17 in working order and filled with alien nasties, like the irritating and rather disgusting Facehugger-like headcrabs and human-alien Combine forces.
And in the city, Alyx appears to be on a mission to find some form of weapon to relieve the Combine's choke-hold over Cty 17 with the assistance of a clumsy, semi wise-cracking bloke from New Zealand (we think).
All you get to see of Alyx is her hands though, as being a VR game the entire viewpoint is first-person, with Alyx's hands being controlled courtesy of motion-sensing controllers, such as those of Valve's own Index VR set or the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.
Alyx's hands come clad in the "Gravity Gloves", which like Half-Life 2's Gravity Gun allow for objects to be pulled towards Alyx or blasted away from here, allowing for all manner of physics-based combat, puzzle-solving and foolery.
The game looks to be a neat blend of movement-tracking VR shooting and problem-solving by interacting with the environment around you.
This harks back to Half-Life 2, but it's likely to be a lot more immersive this time around, especially as everything is rendered in the Source 2 engine and looks pretty damn good, with hefty dollops of the dank and lived-in world of Half-Life 2 but with a modern graphical paint job.
"Half-Life: Alyx was designed from the ground up for virtual reality and features all of the hallmarks of a classic Half-Life game: world exploration, puzzle-solving, visceral combat, and an intricately woven story that connects it all with the characters iconic to the Half-Life universe," Valve said.
We won't bleat on anymore about what's in the trailer as you'll want to see that for yourself; just watch to the end for a neat fan-serving surprise.
While Half-Life: Alyx isn't likely to be the game Half-Life fans have been waiting for, Valve suggested that if it's well-received, the game giant could crank out some more high-fidelity VR games. And the work it's doing in VR should equip other developers with the tools and inspiration to see what they can do in VR using the Source 2 engine.
Steam Workshop support is also set to come with the game, which will allow people with the technical skills to create mods for the game; such modes in the past have resulted in full-fledged games, so this could be a step towards creating a richer vein of VR games.
Half-Life: Alyx is set to arrive March 2020 and will be supported by a suite of major VR headsets compatible with the SteamVR platform. Those who buy an Index headset can get the game for free, but that bit of VR kit ain't cheap.
You'll not only need a VR headset but also a PC with a decent spec to run the game. Minimum specs demand a machine with a quad-core Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 1600 CPU or better, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 or Radeon RX 580 or better sporting 6GB of video memory, and 12GB of system RAM.
Three remains the magic number
Half-Life: Alyx will be with us reasonably soon, so where does that leave Half-Life 3? Well still in limbo by all accounts.
The Game Awards' Geoff Keighley spoke to Valve developers David Speyrer, Dario Casali and Robin Walker to understand why Valve went with a VR Half-Life game and not a game that resolves the cliffhanger of Half-Life: Episode 2.
"In all honesty, back in 2016 when we started this, Half-Life 3 was a terrifyingly daunting prospect," Walker explained. "I think to some extent, VR was a way we could fool ourselves into believing we had a way to do this. By starting with VR and then trying to think about Half-Life and how that worked with it, and playtesting those, you're immediately in a space where we have something we understand well: Half-Life's core gameplay."
With Half-Life: Alyx, Valve set out to make a VR game, not a Half-Life game; that simply ended up happening.
Walker noted that is was "really easy" to effectively not think about making Half-Life 3 and focus on what people enjoyed the games and how the developers can "make forward progress".
"In some ways, VR was a little bit like the way the gravity gun helped us in Half-Life 2 where it just became the tentpole where you could wrap so much around," Walker said. "VR became this thing we could wrap everything around."
"Whereas Half-Life 3, if tomorrow they're like, hey you're working on Half-Life 3, it's like, ‘Ohhh god.' Terrifying!"
Aside from that, there was no mention of Half-Life 3, which means it remains consigned to the fevered dreams of Half-Life fans.
That might be a good thing, as while Valve pretty much struck gold on all the Half-Life games, first-person shooters have evolved a lot, arguably beyond the spectre of the Half-Life games. So Valve would need to pull out something very special for a more traditional Half-Life game to have the same impact as its predecessors, which could be one heck of an ask.
However, the fact that there is a new Half-Life game is promising, and that might mean there's still a glimmer of hope that a groundbreaking third chapter in the Half-Life story could be revealed. Just don't hold your breath. µ
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