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The joy of playing Half-Life 2 in VR

Nearly 20 years later, Half-Life 2 feels contemporary all over again

A gun is reloaded in a grey, urban landscape in Half Life 2's fan VR mod, with the RPS 100 logo in the top right corner.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Source VR Mod Team

Civil Protection officers are shorter than I thought they’d be. Don’t get me wrong, I'm very much a Short King myself, but I assumed the gas mask-wearing enforcers of City 17 would be more vertically intimidating. As I defiantly refuse to pick up litter in Half-Life 2’s opening sequence, I find the approaching officer and his raised electric baton to be weirdly adorable. Until he hits me, of course. The resulting crack gives me such a fright that I fling my arms out and smack my hand against the corner of a bookcase.

This has been my experience of playing the first few hours of Half-Life 2’s excellent fan-made VR mod, a completely free add-on that transforms Valve’s 2004 masterpiece into a full virtual reality experience. Under my direct control, Gordon Freeman is less a time-displaced MIT graduate with a penchant for murder and instead a gawking tourist who’s more interested in staring at canal architecture than liberating humanity. I spend the majority of my time leaning in really close to walls and muttering, “That’s interesting,” before a leaping headcrab shocks me so severely that I damage some more furniture and scare the cat.

I’ve played Half-Life 2 countless times over the last two(ish) decades. Alone. With friends. On the PS3 (Bad). I have liberated City 17 from Combine forces. I have lobbed sawblades at other players in the bathrooms of Nova Prospekt. I have made a gurning Gman flip the bird towards a disgusted Eli Vance in the burning ruins of Ravenholme. For a few years in the mid-2000s, Half-Life 2 was my everything game, offering a foundation upon which hundreds of mods were built. I know the layout of Half-Life 2 better than some areas of the city I live in currently.

The player throwing a can at the guard in the station at the start of Half-Life 2, in Half-Life 2: VR Mod
City 17 feels less dystopian when you run away from civil protection officers giggling like a teenager with a crush.

Well. I thought I did. From the fresh perspective of virtual reality, City 17 and its surrounding areas feel eerily familiar yet largely unrecognisable. Staring up at Dr. Breen as he snivels away on a giant screen in the game’s opening, I am struck with a sensation I can only describe as experiencing something that had previously only happened in a dream. This impossible space is now tangible. Tactile. I am no longer just looking through Gordon’s eyes. I am a physical presence where Gordon should be. Male Citizen 07 is talking directly to me. He - and pretty much every other NPC in City 17 - is voiced by John Patrick Lowrie, who I met in real life a few months ago, and the collision of reality and fiction is so extreme I have to take the headset off because I feel a bit sick.

I’m no stranger to VR games. Not even Half-Life VR games. I’ve played through Alyx twice now, and experienced nothing but a giddy sense of wonder. But Alyx was new. Fresh. Half-Life 2 is the opposite of that. Alyx was like embarking on a journey into the unknown. Half-Life 2 VR is like crawling into a photograph. I shouldn’t be allowed to do that. Why is everyone so weirdly proportioned? Help.

After Dr Kleiner fails to teleport me to Eli’s lab, I am thrust outside his hideout and into an abandoned train yard. In the distance the Citadel - the Combine’s regional headquarters - shrieks and shifts in response to my arrival. I stand and watch as its exterior slides open, a stark sight against a dull horizon. I was never meant to be here. Not in this exact way. This game was designed, developed and released in an era where proposing you attach two screens to your face would have had you arrested.

From behind the controls of an airboat, the player watches a helicopter drop bombs into a canal
I expected the airboat sections to be too intense in VR, and although they can be stomach churning, the lengths the mod team have gone to making vehicle sections in particular more comfortable is remarkable.

And yet Half-Life 2 is perfectly suited to VR. Its twenty-year-old(!) physics system is so sophisticated that you can’t believe it holds together when faced with the full range of human movement. As I twist the gravity gun to launch a barrel at a group of zombies through a gap between buildings, I find myself laughing out loud at how ludicrously flexible it is. Most VR games don’t offer the same degree of freedom as Half-Life 2, and this was a game originally designed to be viewed on a CRT and controlled with a mouse that has a ball in it. It’s incredible.

Although combat is brilliant, it’s not why I’m here. I’m a tourist. I almost wish I could turn the (cuddly) Combine officers off entirely. I want to walk around these quiet spaces undisturbed, with my hands behind my back like a dad in an art gallery. I want to tilt my head and observe the pixellated posters from a fresh angle, to spot new details I’ve never noticed before. I want to stand on the banks of the canal and watch a dropship circle lazily above an eastern European tower block. Half-Life 2 is gorgeous, and you don’t truly realise it until you see it with your own eyes.

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