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It's the simple actions that make Half-Life 1 in VR so convincing

Roll on Half-Life: Alyx

A new Half-Life game is only a few weeks away, but it occurred to me that there was no reason to wait for Half-Life: Alyx if I wanted to experience Vortigaunts in VR. I thus spent some time this weekend fussing around Black Mesa in the Valve Index, using a Half-Life 1 VR mod. It's impressively feature packed and easy to set up, but it was a simple ladder that sold me.

The Half-Life 1 VR mod has been in development for years, with the most recent update at the end of last year. There are a lot of games that users have hacked VR support into, but HLVR is better than most because it goes the whole hog. You can see your hands in-game; you can pick up objects using the grips of your motion controllers; you can use every weapon, including guns, as melee objects. It also has a bunch of comfort controls, like the ability to teleport and turn in fixed increments if first-person free movement makes you feel woozy.

If you're as big a fan of Half-Life as I am, then it's delightful just to inhabit familiar spaces in virtual reality. I've walked into the lobby to hear Barney talk about how his system crashed dozens of times, but pressing the alarm under his desk by reaching out why my real hand is all new. Plus, now I can show the scientists how I groove everytime I put the HEV suit on.

The mod comes with some other non-VR related changes, such as female scientist models. Their spoken dialogue was made by taking the audio files from the original game and running them through an automatic processor to make them sound like women. It's a little strange - but 22 years later, so is all the original audio.

Soon enough, you cause the resonance cascade, and begin the fight against the invaders from Xen. Combat works quite well, though its clear that this is not what these weapons were intended for. It is hard to aim the crossbow without crosshairs and the hornet-firing alien arm is massive. What was more unexpected was how frightening I found it. I was fine with headcrabs leaping at my face, but Half-Life 1 is much more of a horror game than its sequels. I was getting genuine heebie-jeebies from being closed-in by zombies, and from hearing the grumbling of Vortigaunts from around corners. It suddenly made me remember that this is how I felt when I first played the game aged 13: that Black Mesa was a real, dangerous place, and I was trapped there. (It also made me hope that Half-Life: Alyx is less of a horror game, because I could not stand a whole experience like this with modern visual fidelity.)

It's also in combat where I experienced moments of major slow down. My computer was built for VR 4 or 5 years ago - it's an i5-6400 with 16GB of RAM and a GeForce GTX 970, if that means anything to you. Half-Life 1 was not built for VR at all, obviously. It was still fine most of the time and playable around the occasional framerate dips, but I want to make clear that there are limits to this mod's powers.

I was sold by Half-Life in VR from one of the game's earliest interactions, however. Inside the test chamberrrr, before the sample arrives, you have to climb up a ladder and push a button. I was dreading this. The worst thing about the VR mod is the jumping puzzles, because that's where your in-game vision and real world body are most in conflict. I thought ladders would be the same. They were sticky, hard-to-dismount death traps in the base game, and climbing and falling from them VR seemed like a recipe for losing my lunch as well as my HP.

Then I walked up to it and thought, well, it would be cool if I could climb it with my actual hands. So I tried it and:

It actually works! It works in the way that VR does at its very best, where intention and action perfectly align in ways that feel natural and obvious.

Half-Life 1 works well enough in VR that I'm excited to return in Half-Life: Alyx, an experience built from the ground-up with VR in mind. My ladder experience has extra relevance too, since Alyx's special ability in Half-Life 2 and the episodes was her proficiency at climbing. Valve wrote in a recent Q&A on Reddit that there was no jumping in the game, and that "because the game includes the ability to mantle in continuous motion, you don’t need often need to jump. For instance, if you need to get past an obstacle like a crate, you mantle up rather than jump up." I am hoping I can go Jason Bourning up some buildings, but even climbing over crates sounds just great. Half-Life loves some crates.

If you want to play Half-Life 1 in VR yourself, it's pretty straightforward.

How to play Half-Life 1 in VR

  1. Download the Half-Life 1 VR mod from the archive link on this page.
  2. You'll need Half-Life 1 installed on Steam. It's free at the time of writing, and cheap the rest of the time.
  3. Extract the contents of the mod into your Half-Life folder. That'll be within your Steam install folder at \steamapps\common\Half-Life\, most likely.
  4. Run HLVRLauncher.exe.

The launcher will ask you to patch your copy of Half-Life. This edits Half-Life's copy of OpenGL.dll in such a way that if you later try to play any Half-Life 1 engine (GldSrc) game online, such as the original Counter-Strike, you risk being banned by Valve Anti-Cheat. I recommend simply hitting the 'unpatch' button after each VR play session to avoid that scenario. It's basically instant to patch and unpatch, so there's no reason not to.

After that, you can launch the mod. You'll probably want to use your mouse to hit 'New Game', but from then on you can do everything else in-game via motion controllers.

The HL1VR mod was made by a small team including Max Vollmer, Formic.Sapien, Rorin and DoomMarine23. It should work with any headset that supports Steam VR, but if you're using an Oculus Quest, you can try Lambda1VR as an alternative Quest-only VR port of the game.

Half-Life: Alyx is due out on March 23 and I can't wait. Yes, I'm also playing Half-Life 2 in VR as well - but that's for another post. If you're looking for something tailor made for your headset, check out our list of the best VR games.

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