The Combine are still public enemy number one in Half-Life: Alyx, but moving the series to VR has done wonders for their overall health, Valve have told me. Whereas before "the average lifetime of a Half-Life 2 Combine soldier was probably somewhere between 10-20 seconds," according to Half-Life: Alyx's lead programmer and designer Robin Walker, "as soon as we started to do play-testing in VR, we saw enemies lasting for a minute or two of life. And when you're a development team looking at that, that's incredibly exciting because you can do some much more with AI and performance and enemy speech."
Indeed, Valve weren't expecting Half-Life: Alyx's combat to translate very well into VR when they first started play-testing. They noticed very quickly that players were "obsessed with collecting stuff", which allowed them to get more mileage out of Half-Life's more traditional exploration elements in VR, but "we had assumed that other things like combat wouldn't come along for the ride as well, that we'd lose something there," says Walker.
Fortunately, their play-testers proved them wrong. "I think one of the main reasons for that is because a lot of Half-Life: Alyx is about doing a lot of the same things you've done before, but doing them all in new ways," explains Walker. "For example, you've reloaded guns before, but here you're going to reload guns in a very different way. Because of that, things like reloading occupy your attention fully as a player, even though you're doing something a fair bit slower than you would if this was a non-VR game. If you press the R key in the first level of Half-Life, you're not doing that any slower than you are in the last level or anything. That's essentially what's happening.
"So what we found was that combat in VR gave us the best of both worlds. Players actually take longer to do everything, but find the entire experience more involving [...], and that gave us all this extra time. The number of opportunities you have to create a great experiences when you've got an enemy that's going to last a minute or two instead of ten seconds is enormous."
That extra time did cause some extra problems for Valve, however, as early playtesters were coming out of those encounters "feeling incredibly stressed," says Walker, "so some of our pacing had to change." Indeed, when Valve were still prototyping Half-Life: Alyx, they built their Combine encounters with the same rhythms of a traditional Half-Life 2 fight. They had three gun fights ready and waiting for playtesters to get to grips with, but "after the first one people were saying they needed a break!" Walker recalls.
Of course, part of that extra stress comes from the sheer physicality of playing a game in VR. "When you have fast-paced combat like when you get to the Combine, you're re-loading, you're scrounging for ammo, you're taking physical cover and moving your body, and it's just a different experience," adds Valve's Jim Hughes, who previously worked as a designer on Half-Life 2: Episode 1 and 2.
The end result is something that's "definitely toned down" from their original plans for the game, says Hughes, "but it felt really cool that everyone came out of [those later playtests] with the same reaction of, 'Wow, I just felt like I experienced something.'"
Alas, perhaps even the final version of Valve's Combine fights could do with being toned down a bit further, as our Graham found they were the least satisfying enemy to fight in his Half-Life: Alyx review. It's not all bad, as he also said that "aiming a weapon with your motion controllers and pulling off a single, destructive shot feels better than Half-Life’s combat ever has, and HL: Alyx's aliens provide you with opportunities to do this again and again," but the Combine were a bit of a weak link overall.
Still, while VR has brought unexpected health bonuses to the Combine, it's been less good for City 17's resident pigeon population (at least when RPS vid bud Matthew is around, that is):