The long-awaited ability to play Valve’s seminal 2004 shooter Half-Life 2 in virtual reality became a reality only last week. Almost ten years ago, a man named Nathan Andrews managed to cobble together a playable Virtual Reality adaptation of the timeless classic. Before Vives, Indexes, Quests, or Oculi even existed.
Andrews took a chance on a resonance cascade scenario while attempting to piece together a functional base for a full Half-Life 2 VR mod using only a Sony HMZ-T1 and specialist motion-tracking equipment. Over the next decade, dozens more volunteers would add to the on-again, off-again effort with the vain dream of one day using a crowbar to bash foes in a mostly realistic virtual environment.
Thanks to the dedication of the Source VR Mod Team and their open beta on Steam, Half-Life 2: VR Mod is finally playable. There is still more to accomplish, as evidenced by a public road map, but the entire primary campaign is live and feels very unreal. Even with its rough edges, Half-Life 2: VR Mod is a must-try if you have the chance.
You can see the differences right away. With your newly enhanced depth perception, you may get a completely new perspective on the opening sequence of The G-Man. Inside of him, images flash and seem like fully realized 3D places, into which you can peek and experience increased depth and dimension. The scene is given greater significance in this revised presentation.
It’s awesome for what it is: a virtual reality video game with stunning visuals. Turning your head quickly and easily allows your eyes to follow flying objects and the explosions of barrels. Half-Life 2’s graphic brutality and realistic physics are no longer abstract concepts happening on a flat screen in front of you; instead, they take place in a three-dimensional world where you can actively participate. All of it feels so normal that it’s easy to forget it’s the culmination of a decade of fan-made hacking.
Even though the weapons still need some polishing, it’s exciting to be able to virtually pick them up, look them over, and use them in battle. Virtual reality crowbar battles against hostile flying man hacks are so ridiculously entertaining that I want their standalone mini-mod.
Whacking these items gives me “Zone Minutes,” as my Fitbit informs me. It’s a lot of fun to aim and fire the 9mm pistol (and yes, I am only aiming with one hand). The reload mechanics in this mod can be a little awkward compared to those in more recent VR games, but the gameplay is still fast-paced and exciting.
It’s as though this was always how Half-Life 2 was meant to be played. You can easily lose track of time with this mod, whether you’re playing it in virtual reality or the original Half-Life. It feels like it’s on its way to being a good VR game in its own right, and it’s easy to tell that it’s not just a tech demo or a mod.
Flatscreen to VR Discord server members, led by WormSlayer, have been working on the Half-Life 2: VR Mod project since its inception. WormSlayer noticed Andrews’ early prototypes and volunteered his services, beginning with the rifle models.
From what WormSlayer has said, the mod’s early days sound like they were cobbled together like the rest of City 17. WormSlayer told Kotaku that Andrews used a “Sony head-mounted TV, a pistol controller for a console, and a professional 3D tracking system.
” The Sony HMZ-T1 was the headset in question, and according to WormSlayer, it had “an eye-watering resolution of 640×720 per eye, with a 45-degree field of view.” The Oculus DK1 was the first piece of hardware launched by the merged Oculus and Meta. In a 2013 film uploaded on YouTube, you can watch footage from those early days.
Because it was such an early attempt at mass-market VR, there were certain to be hiccups as the project progressed because new technologies were always emerging and making older ones obsolete. “Valve and Oculus both abandoned the idea of using a VR headgear as just another monitor,” WormSlayer explained. While this was a good idea, in theory, it ended up breaking Half-Life 2’s virtual reality support.
As a result of such change, the group stopped trying for a while. Andrews left the team altogether. However, the vocal VR community convinced WormSlayer to change their minds. They were “certain” that “OpenVR support could be hacked into the existing project,” WormSlayer added. As a result, the project came to life again, making significant progress before falling back to sleep as key participants moved on.
The Flatscreen to VR community was able to rally a new team, and the fledgling Half-Life 2: VR Mod experienced a second rush of activity. Since the playable public beta has been released, all attention has been redirected to finalizing and polishing the product.
As exciting and playable as Half-Life 2: VR Mod currently is, there are still certain concerns, primarily with performance, that need to be addressed. As WormSlayer put it, “even with our hacked-together DXVK implementation, we’ve been fighting to reach FPS targets in some places because the old engine is very single-threaded and only supports DirectX 9
.” The game’s performance has been great so far, and I haven’t even gotten to the latter, more frenetic parts of the game. However, if you’re not used to VR, this modification could be unsettling because of the lack of a teleportation option.
Even after 18 years, playing with Half-Life 2’s physics and technology is a blast. The ability to digitally pick up and move objects only adds to the realism of the virtual reality (VR) setting. While not as expansive in terms of gameplay as Half-Life: Alyx, the VR Mod for Half-Life 2 works well as a VR-ready predecessor. The crowbar and the integrated flashlight provide it with some unique conveniences and amenities.
\Many of the game’s puzzles can be tackled again with a new perspective now that players can realistically control things in the area.
The most unexpected aspect of this experience for me has been how it has altered my opinion of the game’s characters, notably the game’s mute protagonist.
Gordon Freeman is unobtrusive even when he’s wreaking havoc. But even the simplest form of interaction, a nod to an NPC, doubles the amount of dialogue available. The ability to wave at Dr. Kleiner in Half-Life 2 and hear his exclamation of delight at your arrival has me wondering if Gordon Freeman is, in fact, a waver. Does he nod his head to show he gets it? When people talk to him, does he nod or shake his head? I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to realize this.
It’s also creepy when NPCs make eye contact with you. You might expect to encounter this sensation in more recent VR games, thus its presence in a game from 2004 is surprising. Toeing the line between cartoonish and realistic, the models’ simplicity allows for soft head motions and eyes that hint at personality and awareness.
I’m not going to argue that being able to show emotions by nodding, gesturing, and staring people in the face makes for a more exciting experience in Half-Life 2 (that honor goes to brutally beating the shit out of metal man hacks with a crowbar and seeing this classic game in true 3D), but it does alter the game’s mood.
The fact that you can’t see your hands when steering the airboat is a minor but unfortunate drawback. My gaze never left the G-Man as I sped by him on my escape from the Combine; in fact, I would have liked to stare and point dead at him as though to say, “I see you motherfucker. Yes, I do recognize you.
I’m excited to continue exploring Half-Life 2: VR Mod and see what other interesting alterations the new format motivates me to do. More work needs to be done by WormSlayer and the team, including upgrades to the weaponry, changes to reduce motion sickness, and AI-upscaled textures to modernize the game’s older visual elements.
Those improvements are much needed, but getting back inside this classic game in its first playable form is exciting in its own right. Those who enjoy Half-Life and have a PCVR headset should grab this immediately.