Half-Life: Alyx (2020), Valve’s made-for-VR entry into the fabled Half-Life series, launched late last month on SteamVR-compatible headsets to near-universal praise. If you don’t own a VR headset but still want to play though, I’d caution you against playing it for the first time with the new, unofficial PC monitor mod. Get a VR headset and don’t spoil it for yourself.

Whatever your opinion on the nuts and bolts of Half-Life: Alyx, it’s actually an honest-to-goodness VR game, and not a glorified experimental mod like we’ve seen in the past. There’s nothing wrong if you like playing those sorts of VR-supported titles (Alien: Isolation is great, don’t get me wrong) but with four years of consumer VR under our collective belts, it’s safe to say we’ve moved beyond those sorts of things from a game design standpoint.

Valve specifically designed Half-Life: Alyx with the intuitive input of head-tracking and motion controllers in mind, which if you remove, nullifies much of the fun they designed around those things. You might compare it to playing Dance Dance Revolution with a gamepad instead of arrows to stomp on. This ground-up VR design philosophy renders the game ostensibly un-portable to traditional monitors. I say ‘ostensibly’, but it seems that there’s now a keyboard and mouse mod for Half-Life: Alyx, which you can see in action below in the developer’s promo.

I won’t go as far to say the mod is entirely terrible per se. It no doubt took time and dedication to make, but it definitely feels like it’s entirely missing the point of VR’s existence. Looking past some of the inherent jank, which you can see when the user moves his POV too quickly for the renderer to catch up, there’s so much you’d miss out on by jumping the proverbial VR turnstile and playing Half-Life: Alyx on your monitor.

Getting Handsy

Motion controllers aren’t just there so you can breathlessly inspect the front and back of your hands in virtual reality. They’re actually additive to immersion in other, more important ways.

The fact that the controllers themselves have very few buttons in comparison to a keyboard, and are closer to gamepads in manufacture, shouldn’t fool you into mistakenly writing off VR controllers as a more simplistic input method.

Image courtesy Valve

Motion controllers may offer less ‘mechanical’ complexity, however VR game designers instead focus on creating ‘virtual’ complexity with things like shooting and reloading weapons, throwing objects, gestural commands, managing resources—all the things that would otherwise be handled with a scroll, hotkey or floating 2D menu.

That doesn’t mean using motion controllers is exactly effortless at first blush either, but provided you grew up with working hands, reaching forward and grabbing something is probably second nature to you by now.

Doing a common task like reloading a magazine, force grabbing a grenade with your ‘gravity gloves’ and throwing it through a broken window while shooting a head crab in one smooth chain of movements is a whole different experience to whipping your viewport around with a mouse and pressing a combination of ‘E’, ‘1’, scrolling the little mouse wheelie and left clicking. Executing an arcane combination of keystrokes may be commonplace for entrenched PC gamers, but it reaches almost comical levels when that also entails essentially dragging your limp virtual hands with your face and gripping an object with a left click.

While motion controllers are fundamental to interacting with those sorts of objects, it’s fair enough to say you can technically abstract those tasks away simply enough with cursor and a few key strokes to some extent. But when confronted with 3D puzzles, like Half-Life: Alyx’s many puzzles, both dexterity and the ability to naturally look around is key. That’s where the mod really starts to break down and you really wish you had a VR headset.

SEE ALSO
9 'Half-Life: Alyx' Mods We'd Love to See

Immersion is King

Like fun, fear is also subjective, although it’s hard to argue that you’d be more afraid of an enemy when sitting in front of a monitor as opposed to confronting it in stereoscopic 3D. I’ve played my fair share of flastcreen horror survival games that have left me barely able to blink, but nothing has prepared me for the terrifyingly immersive feeling of something literally breathing down my neck.

Watching Twitch streams of Half-Life: Alyx played in VR doesn’t do it justice either. The game’s comparatively fewer enemies look laughable when compared to the never-ending hordes of Half-Life titles past. It seems Valve’s mantra throughout creating Alyx was ‘less is more’, as each enemy requires more user concentration to kill in VR than with a mouse and keyboard, making it an objectively less interesting game when viewed through the lens of a computer monitor. Not so in VR. One name comes to mind (no spoilers) and it rhymes with ‘Reff’. Enough said.

Image courtesy Valve

Flatscreen videos of the game only show a thin slice of its environments too. And not to understate just how visually stunning Half-Life: Alyx’s visuals are, which feature a wide range of interactive objects and detailed interiors and exteriors—as a new VR user you might be surprised at just how much of this immersion comes from positional audio. Something clicks in your brain that says “I’m really here” when you turn your head and audio is anchored to your skull correctly. Even more so when that audio is coming from a headcrab lurking in the airduct above your head.

Wearing a VR headset is essential to syncing up these perceptual systems, putting you more on edge in a game like Half-Life: Alyx than you might normally be at your desk. Check out our interview with game designer Robin Walker to get an inside peek at Valve’s development process, which approached the game’s development with a ‘one room at a time’ design philosophy.

Image courtesy Valve

That said, even if the PC monitor mod gets more polish to the point that it makes HLA look like a native PC game, it would still be missing these fundamental pillars of immersion that just aren’t worth hobbling to say you finally played the first Half-Life game released in over a decade. You’ll blow past intricate rooms just begging to be explored. You’ll frustratingly fumble with objects that would take you a split-second to pick up and throw in your inventory. You’ll rob yourself of what we considered a [10/10] VR gaming experience.

A word of advice: get a used headset for cheap. Hunt online for a deal on a new, cheaper headset like an Oculus Rift S. Heck, borrow a 2016-gen PC VR headset from a friend. Play it in VR. You bought the game, so you might as well actually enjoy it.

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If you’re still curious you can download the driver on GitHub, which includes a quick installation guide. Just don’t say we didn’t warn you.

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  • Adil H

    Surprised a lot. A person in his thirties or forties still prefers to play with the keyboard and mouse instead of playing with virtual reality

    • Cdaked

      Not me, and I’m in my Fifties.

      • sfmike

        No me and I’m 70. VR is the only way to play this game and screw pancake games. I want to be in the action.

        • Leon

          Yes after 4 years of playing VR exclusively even trying to play Red Dead 2 felt antiquated and so hard to get into. After 10 hours I never went back.

          • david vincent

            I still go back to flatscreen games from time to time when I need my fix of tactical/RTS/CRPG/Sim City-like games.

            RDR2 looks rad tho. Maybe it will got a VR mod one day, as GTAV had…

          • D-_-RAiL

            VORPX actually works well now.

          • david vincent

            Not with these kinds of games which are relying heavily on mouse & keyboard.

          • Alvin Lim

            no not me… i bought a rift s for this game. and its awesome

          • david vincent

            We are not talking about this game

  • I would love to see a comparison video showing off the differences. I get sick of explaining to people why playing HL:A without VR is like playing Call of Duty with a Super Nintendo controller. It can be done but you need to replace most of the key inputs the game is built around. I see all non-VR mods for Alyx as demakes. Its like porting DualShock games to work on the original PS1 controller. You hold back the game by limiting its inputs!

    • Crowbcat made an excellent comparison video between CS and Pavlov. I wonder if a similar thing could be done with HL:A.
      https://youtu.be/qwcHnG8EDTw

      • NooYawker

        What a great vid. I was a big CS:Source player, not so much CS:GO and I bought Pavlov early on and it’s NOTHING like CS. Actually handling the weapon, manual reloading, actually lining up your sight to shoot, getting shot at when you run out of bullets and reload or switch weapons in panic. It’s a whole new level of gaming.

        • Pavlov is awesome. It’s one of the few VR titles that I constantly play, there are always online matches on European and US servers.

          In terms of sheer immersion it’s unreal at times, the gunplay and weapon handling is excellent in VR, feels amazing on Index controller.

      • Watching the non-VR mods is painful at times especially when looking at the comments and seeing people say things like “Thanks for beta testing VR gamers!”. It might be fun to take the 15 minute video in the article and “recreate” it in VR. Of course the VR player will have to kill time after picking up a can or pressing a button. I’d recommend juggling!

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRoJpmez1po

    • mirak

      Why do you even care ??

      Let them eat shit.

      • Ignoring them might be the best route. Some flat gamers are really getting aggressive but I guess that is their loss…

        • Jack Red

          Some “flat gamers” as you call them might be getting aggressive because VR players get aggressive at the mere idea of there being a desktop mode for HLA.

  • brandon9271

    I’d like to see them solve the puzzle with a mouse.. That’s going to be a NIGHTMARE. lol

  • asdf

    I have a friend who hasnt tried vr, and says heed probably like it. yet hes so set on his belief that hed enjoy HL alyx on a keyboard and not in vr despite… Even though an entire group of people chatting on discord saying no the game clearly has vr elements that you’d lose and those are the elements that make the game great. its what it was made for.

  • Yeshaya

    How does reloading work? Is it a one button press that’s bound to a sequence of actions, or does he need to push separate buttons for each individual step?

  • Cdaked

    My eyes are bleeding.

  • mirak

    Why would monitor player read this article ?

  • Also, as Valve said, the initial part of the game is a long tutorial on how to use VR properly. Doing it on PC would be incredibly boring

  • impurekind

    Yeah, I can honestly say that playing this particular game in PC-only mode just misses sooo much of what makes it great. The Dance Dance Revoution example is very apt. Same if you imagined trying to play Beat Saber by just pressing directions on a d-pad. Sure, the rhythm aspect would still be fun, but it would be a sniff of the actual experience of playing the game in VR. Same is absolutely true of Alyx.

  • Holger Fischer

    Why? The same reasons, why you shouldn’t listen only to the sound of an action movie.

  • Anthony Hunt

    Same reason you shouldn’t go swimming without water. If you can’t afford a pool of your own, borrow someone else’s!

  • Sion12

    Without VR, Alyx would be one of the worst FPS of the decade

    • mirak

      This is stupid

  • Giggling Stoner

    Thanks for the advice, will still play it when a proper mod comes out

    • david vincent

      Sure, if you like to eat sh*t, go for it.

      • Giggling Stoner

        Don’t be butthurt bro.