Reality Bytes: Half-Life 2: VR Mod is a fantastic adaptation of a classic – Rock Paper Shotgun
Half-Life 2 was the first game I ever played in VR. Back in the primordial days of 2013, I was lucky enough to get my ungainly sausage-mitts on an Oculus Developer’s Kit – the prototype headset that eventually led to the Oculus Rift. Understandably given the name, there were not games for the developers kit outside of a few incredibly basic demos. But there was Half-Life 2, for which Valve had implemented a hacky VR mode that you could activate with some console tomfoolery.
What you got was this weirdly retrofuturist experience, as you explored a grainy, letterboxed version of City 17 that was nonetheless completely there, enveloping your vision like a headcrab. Suddenly, the introductory train station became a vast, vaulted church to misery and implied threat, such that you had to crane your neck up to watch doctor Breen spout combine propaganda from his giant, rectangular display. There was an added burliness to Civil Protection, making their shoves and riot-stick thwacks that much more physical. At one point, I dropped down some nondescript drainage chasm in Route Kanal, and my stomach physically lurched as the ground rushed up to meet me.
It was probably the most cyberpunk thing I’ve ever done, a glimpse of the future viewed through memories of my past. And then it was gone. The dev kit went back to my editor, and Valve disabled Half-Life 2’s VR mode for reasons I can no longer Google, because the algorithm has latched onto the recently released Half-Life 2: VR Mod.
This new mod is a fan-made, Valve-blessed project that’s free to download on Steam, but requires you own vanilla Half-Life 2 to function. Unlike Valve’s spit-and-paper version of Half-Life 2 VR, this is a far more comprehensive conversion, adding touch controls, reworked weapons that function with said controls, VR-compatible menus, and so much more.
The game’s opening has been slightly tweaked, with the camera effects removed so that G-Man stands rather awkwardly in front of you as he reels off his stuttering monologue. But then you’re stepping off the train into City 17, and gazing up at Doctor Breen’s exquisitely manicured beard once more. Now though, you have hands, letting you actually pick up that can (and actually throw it at the Civil Protection officer’s metal-encased bonce). The VR mod doesn’t include the same click ‘n’ flick object-grabbing system as Half-Life: Alyx, instead opting for a more straightforward “hold down the trigger to pick-up”. That said, you can still grab stuff from a reasonable distance, meaning you don’t need to constantly bend down to collect ammo and medkits.
Other ideas have wisely been borrowed from Half-Life: Alyx, such as attaching UI elements to your in-game hands. Your HEV suit’s health readout projects holographically from your left hand, while your ammo count is visible at-a-glance on your right. The mod also borrows Alyx’s method of weapon selection, where you hold down the right-stick to bring up the weapon menu, then hover your hand over the relevant weapon icon to select. It’s all designed to help maintain the fluidity a shooter requires. Firing a burst from your pistol around a corner, then quickly glancing at your wrist to check your ammo, is a very natural movement.
Speaking of pistols, the real wizardry of the VR mod is found in its reworked weapons. Not only can you freely aim and fire every weapon with your hands, they’ve all been given new, VR specific interactions. The submachinegun can be fired single-handed, but is much steadier when held with both hands. Weapons are also reloaded manually, with you pulling ammunition from over your shoulder and inserting them into 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 it all works, and works well.
Other weapons are enhanced in different ways. Freed from its prison on the bottom-right of your screen, Gordon’s crowbar is given a new lease of life, letting you physically smash your way through ammo creates, and whack manhacks for six. But the highlight, as it was when Half-Life 2 originally launched, is the Gravity gun. Unlike most other weapons, which are slightly more challenging to use in VR due to the more nuanced aiming requirements, the gravity gun’s highly analogue nature makes it even easier to use than in the base game. You can line up sawblades to cut through multiple zombies with frightening precision, while punting explosive barrels at combine soldiers comes as easily as breathing.
In short, Source Mod VR Team has done a fine, fine job porting Half-Life 2 to VR. But we should also recognise Half-Life 2’s own contribution to this mod. The game’s extremely smooth locomotion makes movement very easy on the stomach, while the physics-enhanced world fits perfectly with the tactile nature of VR. My biggest concerns related to the vehicle sections, which I fully expected to turn me green faster than a prawn smoothie. But I played through the whole of Water Hazard with only the slightest hint of nausea, which was as surprising as it was a relief (incidentally, the bit where 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 of the characters look a bit weird in VR. Alyx, for example, is disconcertingly thin, while you can really see the polygons in Eli Vance’s head. It’s also worth nothing that Gordon Freeman is canonically 6’2, so if like me you’re what’s technically known as a “shortarse” this adds a slightly weird vibe to some of the character interactions. More generally, some mid-to-long range combat encounters can be a bit tricky, as are certain sequences in Route Kanal where you need to fight while swimming in water.
But these are minor quibbles. Half-Life 2: VR Mod is a fantastic adaptation of a classic. If you own a VR headset, it’s almost as much of a must-play as Alyx itself. More than that though, it also clearly demonstrates why Valve opted to make the next Half-Life VR, beyond the hard-nosed business justification of it helping to shift Valve Indexes. Half-Life simply works well in virtual reality, everything from the world design to the combat to the highly tactile nature of its systems. Who knows if we’ll ever see another Half-Life game, let alone another VR Half-Life game, but until that day comes, this is a perfectly acceptable stopgap.
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