12 big things we learned about Half-Life: Alyx today

Alyx Vance returns in Valve’s new VR prequel, due in March of 2020.

Finally, a brand new Half-Life game has finally been announced, and while it’s not exactly Half-Life 3, it’s still pretty exciting. Here’s everything we know about VR prequel Half-Life: Alyx so far, including the release date, how long it will be, and which famous Half-Life characters will make a return.

The release date is March 2020

You can play Half-Life: Alyx in March 2020, although no exact release date has been set yet. The game will retail at $60, but is free to anyone who owns a Valve Index VR headset.

It’s Valve’s biggest project yet

Remarkably, this is the biggest group of people Valve has ever had working on the development of a single game. It’s been in development for a long time, according to Gunpoint creator and former PC Gamer editor Tom Francis. 

“Half-Life: Alyx is the largest game team we’ve had yet,” Valve designer Greg Coomer tells us. “About a third of the people on the project have worked on previous Half-Life games, some all the way back to the first Half-Life.” Coomer adds that new employees, including those from recently acquired Firewatch developer Campo Santo, have “played an important part in bringing fresh perspectives, which has always been a crucial part of our process.”

“We didn’t set out to make a Half-Life game,” Robin Walker, programmer on Half-Life: Alyx told IGN. Valve began experimenting with VR using assets from Half-Life and Portal, though the movement and momentum of the latter wasn’t suitable for VR. Half-Life was.

Initially it was only a brief Half-Life VR experience, but that changed in large part to the reactions of playtesters. “As we started to put people through this 15-minute prototype,” Walker told Geoff Keighley, “they would spend 45 minutes in it doing a bunch of stuff that we’d never really… they exhibited a bunch of behaviors we’d never really seen players exhibit in the sort of flatscreen 2D, desktop environment.”

Here’s the Half-Life: Alyx system requirements

While the Index itself just calls for 8 GB RAM and a GTX 970 at minimum, Alyx’s system requirements are a bit higher, but still pretty modest.

MINIMUM:
OS: Windows 10
Processor: Core i5-7500 / Ryzen 5 1600
Memory: 12 GB RAM
Graphics: GTX 1060 / RX 580 – 6GB VRAM

It sounds like a proper Half-Life game, and it’s as long as Half-Life 2

Valve promises that Half-Life: Alyx will feature “all the hallmarks of classic Half-Life” including “world exploration, puzzle solving, visceral combat, and an intricately woven story that connects it all with the characters iconic to the Half-Life universe.” The story is set between the events of Half-Life and Half-Life 2 and sees Alyx and her father Eli secretly mounting a resistance to the brutal occupation of Earth by the Combine, mysterious invading aliens. “As Alyx, players take the fight to the Combine to save the future of humanity.”

So welcome (back) to City 17. One screenshot shows the Combine stronghold, the Citadel, under construction, with hunter-choppers carrying large metal panels toward it. Another screenshot shows what look like proto-Combine Metrocops pointing their guns at Alyx while a city scanner, one of the photo-taking robots from Half-Life 2, hovers behind them. We also see Combine barricades blocking off streets in the city.

Some speculated that Half-Life: Alyx might be a short demo for Valve’s new VR hardware, Valve Index, but it’s actually a full-length game. According to the studio, internal playtesters have taken about as long as it takes to finish Half-Life 2 to get through the entirety of Half-Life: Alyx. Valve designer Greg Coomer also adds that some players “take much longer as they choose to more deeply explore and interact with the environment.” So we’re looking at least 20 hours of play here, which is a significant chunk of time—especially for a VR game.

It’s the first Half-Life with a voiced hero

Half-Life hero Gordon Freeman, of course, never utters a word. But Alyx will have plenty to say when you play as her in Half-Life: Alyx. “Early on we decided it was important that playing as Alyx felt different to playing as Gordon Freeman,” says Coomer. “Alyx being an active participant in conversations made it much, much easier to incorporate narrative into the game in natural ways, and as a result there’s a higher density of storytelling over the course of the game.”

And a new actor is playing Alyx

While Alyx was portrayed by Merle Dandridge in Half-Life 2, the younger version of the character in Half-Life: Alyx has been recast. This time Alyx will be played by Ozioma Akagha, an actor who has starred in a number of videogames including Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst. “Casting choices are incredibly hard, especially considering the time gap,” says Coomer. “But when we heard Ozioma’s performance we knew we’d found the right Alyx.”

G-Man and other familiar characters return

Maybe it’s not a surprise—it’s hard to imagine a Half-Life game without the mysterious G-Man, who even appeared in the mostly Gordon Freeman-less Half-Life: Opposing Force and Blue Shift. But it’s great to have it confirmed, and once again G-Man will be voiced by Mike Shapiro.

We’ll also see the return of the alien Vortigaunts, once again voiced by Tony Todd. Ellen McClain (the voice of GLaDOS in the Portal series) is returning as the sinister synthesized voice of the Combine Overwatch. 

Alyx’s father, Eli Vance, will make an appearance, although he’s been recast after the sad death of his original voice, Robert Guillaume, in 2017. “The new voice of Eli, James Moses Black, has big shoes to fill,” says Coomer. “But we’re all excited about his performance and can’t wait for players to hear it.” Black has appeared in This is Us and 24: Legacy, among many other film and television roles.

Other roles are voiced by Rhys Darby (Flight of the Concords) and Cissy Jones (Firewatch).

Alyx will have Gravity Gloves

Before the Zero Point Energy Field Manipulator (sorry, gravity gun) was invented and given to Gordon Freeman in Half-Life 2, Alyx had gravity gloves. We can assume these can be used in a similar fashion as the gravity gun, to lift, pull, and throw objects around. But there’s probably a lot more you can do with them in VR. A screenshot also shows them displaying what we assume is Alyx’s health status—three hearts are shown on the left-hand glove. How far we’ve come from Jurassic Park: Trespasser’s boob-mounted health meter.

Marc Laidlaw is involved, kinda

Original Half-Life writer Marc Laidlaw left Valve in 2016 after 18 years with the company, so he won’t be taking the lead on Half-Life: Alyx. “As with all Valve games, the writing is a collaboration between the writers and all the animators, actors, and the level designers who implement the narrative within the game itself,” says Coomer. “While Marc hasn’t worked on Half-Life: Alyx directly (he’s probably lying on a beach somewhere), he’s been generous with his time answering all the writers’ questions throughout the game’s development.”

There will be headcrabs

The idea of a headcrab lunging at you in virtual reality sounds horrifying, so of course they will feature in Half-Life: Alyx. “Little known fact, it’s actually illegal to make a Half-Life game without headcrabs,” says Coomer. “Also, the only reason we invested years of time, money, and effort into VR was so we could make a headcrab leap at people’s faces.”

Alyx’s store page on Steam notes that you’ll be able to rip headcrabs off your face and throw them at Combine soldiers.

Gabe Newell is excited

“Virtual reality has energized us,” the Valve founder says. “We’ve invested a lot of ourselves in the technology. But we’re also game developers at heart, and to be devoting ourselves to a VR game this ambitious is just as exciting. For that to come in the form of Half-Life feels like the culmination of a lot of things we care a lot about: truly great games, cutting edge technology, and open platforms.” It’s odd hearing Gabe Newell talking openly and candidly about a new Half-Life game. Maybe the Half-Life 3 jokes will stop now? Nah.

You can play it with any PC-based VR headset

Half-Life: Alyx is undoubtedly optimized for the Valve Index and its knuckle controllers, but Valve isn’t limiting the hardware you can play it on. It’ll be compatible with the HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift, and Oculus Quest if you have the PC link cable.

It’ll also support room scale, standing, or sitting play, and includes three movement options: teleportation, “shift” (which means you “smoothly zoom” between points), and regular analog stick walking and running.

Owners of any part of the Valve Index kit, including just the controllers, will get Half-Life: Alyx free. Those who own any Index hardware before the end of 2019 will get a few bonuses, including “alternate gun skins to embellish Alyx’s arsenal.”

It’ll be Steam Workshop compatible, too, according to the official site. “A set of Source 2 tools for building new levels will be available for the game, enabling any player to build and contribute new environments for the community to enjoy. Hammer, Valve’s level authoring tool, has been updated with all of the game’s virtual reality gameplay tools and components.”

For anyone wondering if there will ever be a non-VR version of Half-Life: Alyx, it looks like the answer is no. “The complexity going on there it’s so hard to… we would have to map an entire section of the keyboard dedicated to just interacting with doors if we wanted to have that kind of functionality,” Valve’s Dario Casali told Geoff Keighley. “The more we explored those mechanics the more we realized that In order for us to deliver a keyboard and mouse experience we’d have to ship a game that’s missing a lot of those interactions, and they were playtesting so well that we didn’t feel like that was a good idea.”

By Andy KellyChristopher Livingston

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