A New Lease of Half-Life for VR

Valve’s revival of Half-Life franchise could be a big boost for VR

Last week, Valve Corporation unveiled plans to reboot its much-loved Half-Life series of video games with a fully-fledged virtual reality (VR) title. Its new game, Half-Life: Alyx, is set for release in 2020 and is already one of the most anticipated games of next year. Although the Half-Life franchise isn’t as popular as some other big names in gaming, it has a legion of dedicated fans, who have been asking for a new title for many years. This could encourage a wave of VR adoption by followers, and potentially pave the way for other game developers aiming to tap into the VR market.

For the uninitiated, Half-Life is a series of first-person shooter games set in a sci-fi universe where a player fights hordes of invading aliens and their allies. The first Half-Life game launched in 1998, with a full sequel in 2004, and a few smaller episodic sequels finishing in 2007. The reputation of the series was enhanced by the quality of the Half-Life games; they were credited with radically changing and improving the first-person shooter genre and won multiple Game of the Year awards. But because it has been dormant for over a decade, Half-Life lacks the reach of many large, modern video game franchises, making it seem like it was consigned to the history books as a cult favourite. Gamers have been clamouring for a sequel for years, to little avail until last week.

Out of the blue, Valve announced a brand new entry in the Half-Life franchise, complete with a short gameplay video that has already racked up more than 8 million views, demonstrating the level of anticipation for a Half-Life return. The new title, named Half-Life: Alyx, will land in 2020 through Valve’s SteamVR store, which works with tethered Oculus, HTC and Windows Mixed Reality devices, as well as Valve’s Index headset.

With so much buzz for the new Half-Life game comes pressure. Beyond PlayStation VR and Nintendo’s experimental use of VR on its Switch console, very few popular games franchises have made the leap to a VR edition. What’s more, big names such as Resident Evil 7 on PlayStation VR were ports of previous releases, with VR capabilities added later. However, Half-Life: Alyx marks an effort to build a major release in a popular video game franchise in VR, from scratch, and to deliver a great experience to a fanbase starved of new games. It’s undoubtedly a big task for Valve, but if it can rise to the challenge, it could have a huge impact on VR.

A well-developed, impressive Half-Life game could act as a real catalyst for enthusiasm for and adoption of VR, potentially bringing a host of fans into the VR fold. Valve will clearly see an opportunity to boost sales of its Index headset along with the launch of Half-Life: Alyx. Furthermore, online discussion boards like Reddit are already awash with people asking what set-up they’ll need to play the game. Even if people don’t buy a headset or play the game, the prevalence of game streaming on Twitch and YouTube means that awareness of VR gaming should rise as a result.

This is exciting news, but one of the big hurdles for certain VR content is the cost of building a powerful gaming set-up. Half-Life: Alyx will need a VR headset tethered to a powerful gaming PC, like the Valve Index headset, Oculus Rift S, or the HTC Vive Cosmos. Standalone devices such as the Oculus Quest, which are far more accessible, aren’t powerful enough. This could hurt the game’s ability to fuel VR adoption. And if the game fails to live up to lofty expectations, it could taint the credibility of VR as a gaming platform. However, based on what I’ve seen so far, I remain optimistic.

Half-Life: Alyx is clearly exciting video game enthusiasts, and if it manages to achieve commercial success, it could demonstrate the value of VR platforms to other software developers, potentially kick-starting efforts from other studios. This might seem like a lot of hype to place on a title, but the initial reaction far surpasses the interest in most VR games and could change the narrative for VR as a technology. I believe that the more major gaming franchises VR headsets can boast, the better, and the addition of Half-Life is a step in the right direction. It will be fascinating to see just how much of an impact the game will have on the use of VR for gaming, and whether other developers will take a page from Valve’s playbook if the game proves a success.