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What's the best VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx?

Every VR headset tested for comfort, visuals and experience

Featured post Best VR headset for Half Life Alyx

Half-Life: Alyx may have been built from the ground up to support Valve’s super expensive Index headset, but as you may have seen from my Half-Life: Alyx PC requirements and VR headset specs article, you can actually play it on any VR headset that supports SteamVR, including the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift headsets and any Windows Mixed Reality headset. Heck, you can even play Half-Life: Alyx on Oculus Quest if you connect it to your PC via Oculus’ Link software and a high-speed USB cable. The key question, though, is what VR headset offers the best Half-Life: Alyx experience?

To find out, I’ve tested the game with every VR headset I’ve been able to lay my hands on: the Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift S, the HTC Vive Cosmos, HTC Vive Cosmos Elite, and, of course, the Valve Index. Below, I’ve put them all head to head (or should that be headset to headset?) to find out which one offers the absolute bestest best Half-Life: Alyx experience, rating them all for comfort, visual fidelity and how easy they are to use and play the game with. Which VR headset will emerge triumphant? Let’s find out.

As a brief reminder, here are Half-Life: Alyx’s minimum PC requirements, which are all above what you need to get each of the headsets I’ve tested running in the first place. As I found out in my Half-Life: Alyx VR performance article, though, the minimum spec is really only best suited for playing the game on Low to Medium quality settings, especially if you want to make the most of your headset’s top refresh rate.

Half-Life: Alyx minimum PC requirements:
OS: Windows 10
CPU: Intel Core i5-7500 / AMD Ryzen 5 1600
RAM: 12GB RAM
GPU: Nvidia GeForce GTX 1060 (6GB) / AMD Radeon RX 580 (8GB)

To make sure that PC performance isn’t an issue here, I’ve used the following components to keep Half-Life: Alyx running nice and smoothly: an Intel Core i5-8600K CPU running at stock speeds, 16GB of RAM and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2070 Super graphics card (which is the minimum GPU I’d recommend for pushing into those higher quality settings), along with all the latest Windows 10 and graphics drivers installed. I also played the game on High quality when testing each headset, and I used a mixture of its teleport and continuous movement modes.

To set the baseline experience, I started with my cheapest VR headset, the Oculus Quest, before moving up the VR food chain based on price. That way, we can see how the experience evolves versus how much money you’re spending, and whether shelling out the top dollar for the Valve Index is really worth it. So, without further ado, let’s get those cybergoggles on.

Half-Life: Alyx on Oculus Quest

Half Life Alyx on Oculus Quest

Once you’ve set up the Oculus Quest to work with your PC (follow my handy How to play Half-Life: Alyx on Oculus Quest guide if you haven’t already) and connected it via a high-speed USB-C to USB3 cable (available from Amazon US or Amazon UK), this standalone VR headset makes for a surprisingly decent Half-Life: Alyx experience.

Despite having the lowest refresh rate of the five headsets on test here, I didn’t find it overly nauseating and I was able to use both the teleport and continuous movement modes without issue. The newly updated Continuous mode did make me feel a little sick, admittedly, but the regular movement options worked just fine.

Thanks to the Quest’s combined resolution of 2800×1600, the world of Half-Life: Alyx looked lovely and sharp inside the headset, and its OLED panel meant that colours were rich and vibrant. Most importantly, they didn’t look too oversaturated, either, which can sometimes happen with certain OLED displays. There was a slight port-hole effect around the edges of the Quest’s display, however, and I was constantly aware that there was a lot of sunlight creeping in from the bottom of the headset.

Still, the Quest’s 6 degrees of freedom (DOF) tracking worked well, and standing next to a particular bright window didn’t impact its ability to keep track of my body movements (which can’t be said for every headset on this list). The only slight downside is that its two Touch controllers (which are the same ones used by the Rift S) were only able to map the movement of my thumbs and forefingers when I wasn’t pressing any buttons. In order for it to track my other three fingers, I had to press down on the controller’s rear trigger. Not the end of the world, all told, but you’ll soon see that other headsets in this list are able to track all five fingers no matter where they’re resting on their respective controller.

The only major problem with playing Half-Life: Alyx on the Oculus Quest is that darn cable. Whereas other headsets sensibly position their PC connector cables to run down the back of the headset behind you, the Quest has to make do with its front-facing charge port. This means the cable connecting the headset to the PC is effectively coming out of your left temple, which can get in the way of moving your left arm depending on where you’re standing/seated and how far away you are from your PC. The Anker cables that Oculus recommends as an alternative to their super expensive (and currently out of stock) fibre optic cable do, admittedly, have the disadvantage of sticking straight out of the headset, rather than at a right-angle like the official Oculus ones, but I’d imagine that even the Oculus cables will occasionally get in the way of your left arm movements depending on where you are in relation to your PC.

I also found the Oculus Quest to be the least comfortable of the five headsets, which meant I wasn’t able to play Half-Life: Alyx for very long before I had to take a break. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that I have a tinier head than most, but I found that I had to pull the straps quite tight to make it feel secure enough on my face so it didn’t fall forward when I moved about, which in turn made it dig into my cheeks quite a bit. I also had to set the interpupillary distance to its smallest possible setting to make everything look nice and sharp, which ended up pinching my nose after about half an hour or so.

Overall, I’d give it 3 / 5 headcrabs.

Half-Life: Alyx on Oculus Rift S

Half Life Alyx on Oculus Rift S

Immediately, comfort levels rise 487% switching over to the Rift S, thanks in part to its wonderful lightweight headband. With adjustment controlled solely by the circular dial at the back of the headset, the Rift S isn’t just easier to fit than the Quest, but it also removes a lot of the pressure from the top of my head. The front still digs into my cheeks a bit after a while, but overall it’s a far less top-heavy headset than its standalone sibling, and I was able to wear it for a longer period of time. Not massively longer, all told, as my cheeks did feel quite sore after a while, but the pressure was nowhere near as bad as it was on the Quest.

Strangely, despite having a lower resolution than the Quest, the Rift S looks noticeably sharper in-game. Perhaps this is because of the Rift S’ superior fit, making it easier to position on my head without endlessly faffing with interpupillary distance dials and the like, or maybe it’s just a weird quirk of its LCD display. One thing’s for sure – the thicker padding around the Rift S’ lenses means that there’s far less light bleed than the Quest, making for a more immersive experience overall.

The cable is still a bit of a pain, admittedly. Here, Oculus have fastened it to the side of the headset, but it doesn’t go as far back as HTC or Valve’s respective headsets. As a result, I still felt it curling round my shoulder at times, and it continued to be a nuisance when I started moving my left arm a lot – which you do repeatedly in Half-Life: Alyx whenever you have to reach into your backpack for more ammo. It wasn’t quite as troublesome as the Quest’s cable, but it was an annoyance all the same.

Still, its tracking felt just as accurate as the Quest, and I was able to move around my play space easily without it losing track of me. It does, admittedly, fall into the same hand-tracking pitfalls as the Quest, due to the fact they have the same Touch controllers, but as I said above, it’s really not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things.

I wouldn’t say the Rift S’ integrated speakers were any better than the Quest’s either. Indeed, the audio could be quite tinny at times and a lot of Half-Life: Alyx’s atmospheric music didn’t leave much of an impact as a result. The Rift S does, at least, give you the option of attaching a dedicated pair of headphones thanks to the 3.5mm headphone jack on the left-hand side of the headset, but I wouldn’t recommend using a full-blown gaming headset with it. This ends up feeling quite cumbersome after a while, and became increasingly less comfortable as time wore on. Opting for ear buds proved to be the better option, as this didn’t apply any extra pressure on the top of my head, but it did mean having another cable (albeit a thin one) bashing against me while playing.

Still, overall, a definite step up from the Quest in this case. I give it 4 exquisitely rendered bread rolls out of 5.

Half-Life: Alyx on HTC Vive Cosmos

Half Life Alyx on HTC Vive Cosmos

Moving on to the Vive Cosmos, this involved a teensy bit more setup than the Rift S, if only because this particular headset needs to be plugged into mains power. It also wasn’t quite as easy to get it comfortable on my head. Despite having the rather nifty feature of being able to lift the entire headband at a right angle to the headset, allowing you to easily snap it over your head rather than stretch it like the Rift S, I had to spend quite a bit of time faffing around with the rear dial and interpupillary distance stick at the front of the headset before it was a) stable and b) produced a clear enough image.

This is partly because the Vive Cosmos has the slight benefit of sitting just that bit further away from your face, meaning there’s less pressure on your cheeks as you play. However, the downside of this is that it made it harder for me to get a sharp picture. Indeed, the only way I managed to prevent the screen from descending into a blurry pixel fest was by tightening the headband so much that it ended up like some kind of medieval torture device. Instead of my cheeks getting sore, I now had full-blown headcrab on my face.

And yet, even with this insanely tight headband in place, there were still moments where I felt like I needed to push it closer to my face to eliminate some of the blur, and I had to take a break after about half an hour because the force against my head was just too much.

I also had problems with the Vive Cosmos’ tracking. In bright sunshine, the headset’s built-in sensors produced a message saying the environment was too bright. In the evening with the lights switched on, it would sometimes warn me the environment was too dark. There was simply no winning. My hands jittered all over the shop, too, making it difficult to use Alyx’s flash light with any degree of accuracy, and it was particularly flaky when I used my left hand to support my right while firing my gun.

I wasn’t a fan of the Cosmos’ controllers, either. Not only did they have worse finger tracking than the Rift S’ Touch controllers, but the trigger buttons felt sticky and spongy as well. They required a lot more force to press down fully, resulting in a lot of failed attempts at grabbing ammo from behind my head – which really isn’t useful when you’re being preyed upon by multiple headcrabs and zombies in the dark.

The audio was a fraction better, but I couldn’t say I noticed its 3D spatial audio coming into effect in Half-Life: Alyx. Still, it’s definitely a plus that they’re off your ear, like the Valve Index, and they’re easy to adjust, too.

Overall, though, the Vive Cosmos definitely didn’t live up to the same standard as the two Oculus headsets. I give this 2 / 5 barnacles.

Half-Life: Alyx on HTC Vive Cosmos Elite

Half Life Alyx on HTC Vive Cosmos Elite

Finally, we’re into the realms of external tracking headsets. Technically, the Vive Cosmos Elite is exactly the same headset as the regular Cosmos – it just has a different face plate attachment and comes with two old-school Vive wand controllers and two base stations – supposedly to enhance its overall tracking capabilities.

But holey moley, track pads are not the way to play Half-Life: Alyx – especially after using four headsets with proper analogue sticks. They’re just not sensitive, tactile or responsive enough for the amount of movement you’ve got to do in Half-Life: Alyx. Whether it’s teleporting using the base of the right-hand track pad, or snap turning with the side of said track pad, I constantly felt like I was at a disadvantage with these old Vive controllers, and it quickly became increasingly frustrating to carry on playing past 30 minutes of cyber-goggling. Likewise, with so few buttons at its disposal, lots of previously intuitive controls on other headsets had now been assigned to different fingers or they’d been mashed into the track pad somehow, effectively forcing me to completely re-calibrate how I played. You do adapt after a while, but it was still horrible, and for this reason alone I’m jumping straight to 1 / 5 man-hacks here. Moving on!

Half-Life: Alyx on Valve Index

Half Life Alyx on Valve Index

Here we are, the big kahuna of VR headsets. The Valve Index is the most expensive VR headset on this list, but man alive can you see and feel where all that money’s gone. Not only is it the most comfortable VR headset of the big five, thanks in no small part to its copious fabric padding around the lenses and the rear portion of the headband, but it’s also the best sounding, as Valve’s integrated, off-the-ear headphones deliver a rich, full-bodied audio experience that makes everything from intense Combine fights to squelching barnacle tongues sound fantastic.

I had no trouble getting the Index to sit comfortably on my face, as its rear dial offered plenty of adjustment without making it feel like I was subjecting myself to a medieval head vice. Its interpupillary distance dial also goes a lot further than other headsets on this list, and you can bring the lenses closer or further away from your face as well, giving you plenty of options for finding the right fit and getting the sharpest possible image.

The Index’s tracking is second to none, too. I put its two SteamVR 2.0 base stations in exactly the same location as I did the Vive Cosmos Elite’s base stations (which, I should note, are only the 1.0 version, rather than the 2.0 model you get with the Index), and I didn’t have a single technical hitch throughout my entire play session. No jittery hands, nothing.

The Valve Index’s controllers’ finger tracking is the best of the bunch as well. Thanks to its light, outer tracking band, the Index controllers can accurately map the position of each finger, even when they’re not pressing down on the rear grip and trigger buttons. As I said earlier, it doesn’t make a huge amount of difference to your moment-to-moment gameplay, but it is a fraction more immersive to see your in-game fingers mimicking the movements of your actual fingers. Plus, the extra fabric band that slides across the back of your hand means you don’t always have to be gripping the controller for it to stay in your hand, too, which eases the tension a bit when your fingers need a bit of a rest.

The buttons themselves also offer plenty of tactile feedback, and feel much lighter and more responsive than the spongy triggers on the Vive Cosmos and Cosmos Elite. As a result, pulling stuff toward you with the gravity gloves feels a lot smoother and less frustrating, and I never missed any important ammo grabs from my backpack when I needed to reload.

I found the Index’s cable was the least intrusive of the lot as well. Valve have sensibly fastened it almost all the way to the very back of the headset so it properly trails down your back rather than falling away in front of your shoulder, and it definitely didn’t get in the way of my arms as much as the other headsets on this list. There were still odd moments when I felt it tangling round my legs a bit, but that’s a hazard of any PC-tethered headset.

Overall, then, it really is hard to find fault the Index, and for this reason I give it 5 bug-crushing Russells out of 5.

So, what it the best VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx?

Unsurprisingly, the Valve Index really is the absolute cream of the crop when it comes to playing Half-Life: Alyx in VR, but it is also madly expensive. For those of you who’d rather not spend almost a grand on a VR headset, the Oculus Rift S is by far the next best option for would-be Alyx-ers. At £399, it’s still a sizeable chunk of change, but its inside-out tracking is superb, it’s easy to setup and its comfort levels are pretty good as well.

As a result, go for the Index if you’ve got the cash, but for everyone else, the best VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx is almost certainly going to be the Oculus Rift S.

Phew! Glad we got that sorted. However, while we may have settled the argument over the best VR headset for Half-Life: Alyx, that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ve sussed out the best VR headset overall. Indeed, I’ll be taking an even closer look at each of the headsets I’ve talked about here over the coming weeks, writing up individual reviews of what they’re like to use more generally, as well as how their respective store fronts hold up in terms of exclusive games and VR experiences. Will the Oculus Rift S and Valve Index be able to hold onto their respective crowns? Only time will tell.

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Who am I?

Katharine Castle

Hardware Editor

Katharine writes about all the bits that go inside your PC so you can carry on playing all those lovely games we like talking about so much. Very partial to JRPGs and the fetching of quests. She's also RPS' resident deals herald.

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