Half-Life: Alyx – From VR comfort to Pacing
Updated: Apr 2, 2020
Today is the first real session with Alyx, taking me through the first two chapters of the game. That means a whole bunch of things are in evidence, and I’ll tackle them one by one, starting with graphics, VR comfort, immersion and sound, and pacing. I’ll look at Russell, the gravity gloves, enemies, combat, puzzles, story, and whatever else comes up as the week goes on. Oh, and no, I haven’t noticed the G-Man yet.
Graphics and VR Comfort
I mentioned the high fidelity of the game in the first post. It was the immediate thing that struck me and frankly I’m still in awe of it 2-3 hours later: the number of times I’ve stopped to stare at a view, or to mess about with some stuff just because it looks cool, or to lean around and under furniture. The closest thing I’ve played to it in VR is Lone Echo, but there many of the models have a grainy, blurry quality to them, like they are perpetually on the edge of clipping out of existence. In Alyx, everything is sharp, solid, and stands up to the closest scrutiny. It’s as true of a cigarette lighter as of Alyx’s pistol.
I’m starting to think that this is also the key to Alyx’s comfort. I’ve never been able to manage more than an hour in VR, and some games (looking at you, DiRT Rally) knock me sick in minutes. My last session on Alyx was over two hours and I feel completely fine. The game features four movement settings: teleport with screen fade (blink), teleport with fast linear movement, continuous movement based on head direction, and continuous movement based on hand direction. I’m using teleport with linear movement, which is one of the most comfortable movement types, but even continuous movement is a lot more comfortable than it is in any other VR game I’ve played. There are nice little touches, like a gentle fade to pleasant orange if you try to lean through solid objects or scenery, but I doubt they make that much difference to comfort. I think the main difference-maker here is that the engine is handling things smoothly and presenting a solid, sharp world to move through.
Sound and Immersion
The fidelity of the world also does wonders for immersion, of course. Weird Russian and other Eastern European fake product brands, adverts, Combine propaganda, discarded bedding, clothing, luggage, cutlery, books, food, alcohol: all can be picked up, looked at, thrown, often smashed. It’s Half-Life 2’s environmental storytelling but on an ostentatious scale. A drone exploded in front of me; I picked up its broken face plate and wondered who would bother cramming that much graphical detail onto what is effectively a piece of debris that in any other game would simply disappear after the explosion.
This is all complemented by the sound design. Picking up a 90’s era computer keyboard and finding that banging on the keys elicits a mechanical noise is a lovely touch. So is noticing that Alyx’s leather coat and jeans rustle as you crouch or bend round corners (by the way, I know it’s an alien occupation and all, but does Alyx just wear the same clothes for five years?!). And for anyone worried, Mike Morasky, the game’s composer, does an excellent job of capturing the atmosphere of Kelly Bailey’s work for the previous Half-Lifes, while injecting something of his own into it. It’s more ambient and more orchestral, but underscored by the same electronic sensibilities as Half-Life and Half-Life 2.
The famous Valve pacing is also on show. The game is noticeably much slower than any other Half-Life, but it has to be: even if I wasn’t standing around gawping at everything, I’m still much slower with my body than I am with a mouse and keyboard (no, I’m not that fat, it’s just hard, alright). But you never linger in any environment more than you need to, and the levels are peppered with the tricks Valve have perfected over the years to keep you moving without thinking about it: a lit doorway here rather than there, indicating it’s open; a red cable trailing from a gate around a corner, suggesting you ought to follow it; a corpse dangling from a window to draw your attention to it, so you realise that’s the direction you need to go (if anyone is interested in this, I highly recommend playing through the older games with the developer commentary). It’s clearly been play-tested to death and it works: after a while I felt like I ought to do stuff not to see how it works, but because it might be useful to me. In other worlds, I felt completely in the world.