Half-Life 2’s Excellent VR Mod Is Almost Too Good To Be True
As of last week, a long-held dream of playing Valve’s landmark 2004 shooter Half-Life 2 in virtual reality has finally come to fruition. The journey began nearly 10 years ago, when a man named Nathan Andrews managed to hack together a functioning version of the all-time classic in VR. This was before any Vives, Indexes, Quests, or Oculi. With a primitive Sony HMZ-T1 and specialized motion-tracking gear, Andrews risked a resonance cascade scenario to splice together a working foundation for a full Half-Life 2 VR mod. Over the next decade, dozens of volunteers would contribute to the off-then-on-again project, all in hopes of one day bashing enemies with a crowbar in semi-lifelike virtual reality.
And now Half Life 2: VR Mod is ready to play, thanks to the hard work of the Source VR Mod Team and their free, open beta available on Steam. There’s more work to be done for sure—a public roadmap shows what’s to come—but the entire main campaign is already up and running, and pretty surreal to experience. Sharp corners and all, Half-Life 2: VR Mod is well worth checking out right now if you can.
The differences are quite immediate. The G-Man’s opening scene grants a whole other sense of scale since you have active depth perception. Images flash and appear inside of him as fully realized 3D spaces, which you can actually peer inside of and see with greater depth and dimension. This new presentation grants more weight to the whole scene.
As a video game graphics experience in VR, it’s super cool. Your eyes can track flying debris and exploding barrels with the ease and speed of just turning your head. The violence and realistic physics of Half-Life 2 are no longer just simulations appearing on a screen in front of you; they’re happening in a 3D space you feel a sense of presence and dimension in. It all feels so natural that it’s easy to forget this is the end result of a decade of hacked tech created by enthusiastic fans.
And while there’s still more work to be done on the weapons, it is a thrill to be able to virtually hold, examine, and fight with these classic video game armaments. Smashing the aggressive, flying manhacks with a crowbar in VR is so obscenely fun that I want a mini spin-off mod of this alone. And my Fitbit tells me I’m earning “Zone Minutes” by whacking these things. The 9mm pistol feels fun to aim and shoot (and yes, I am only aiming with one hand). More modern VR games tend to have smoother reload mechanics, so this mod’s feel a bit clunky sometimes, but the action remains just as hectic and fun.
In a way it feels like Half-Life 2 was always supposed to be this way. It is very easy to lose yourself in this mod, both as a VR experience and a Half-Life one. It easily pushes past the status of “tech demo” or “mod,” feeling like it’s shaping up to be a solid VR game in its own right.
The Half-Life 2: VR Mod project is currently being worked on by users from the Flatscreen to VR Discord server, led by WormSlayer, whose involvement goes back to the earliest days of the project. Back then, WormSlayer caught sight of Andrews’ early prototypes and offered his talents, starting with work on the gun models.
WormSlayer’s description of the mod’s early days sounds like something you’d need to slap together to survive City 17 itself. The assemblage of tech included a “Sony head-mounted TV, a gun controller for a console, and a professional 3D tracking system [Andrews] had access to,” WormSlayer told Kotaku. That headset in question was the Sony HMZ-T1, which sported “an eye-watering resolution of 640×720 per eye, and a 45-degree field of view,” WormSlayer said. That headset would be left behind in favor of the Oculus DK1, the first hardware the just-incorporated Oculus (now Meta) ever released. You can see footage from those early days in a 2013 YouTube video.
As such an early consumer VR experiment, the project was destined for some roadbumps as new tech hit the scene, quickly aging out existing standards. “Valve and Oculus both abandoned the idea of treating a VR headset as just another monitor,” WormSlayer said. “This was a sound idea for many reasons, but it effectively broke VR support in Half-Life 2.”
After that switch up, the team gave up for a while. Andrews retired from the project entirely. Eager VR community members, however, persuaded WormSlayer to reconsider dropping it all together. “[They] were confident they could hack OpenVR support into the old project,” WormSlayer said. And so the project sparked to life again, making great progress before once again resuming its slumber as essential contributors moved on.
Thankfully, the nascent Half-Life 2: VR Mod would indeed see a second resurgence when the Flatscreen to VR community mustered up a new team. Now that the public beta is out and playable, they’re focusing their efforts on bringing the project to a fully polished and finalized state.
As playable and fun as it is right now, Half-Life 2: VR Mod still has some issues, primarily regarding performance. “The old engine is very single-threaded and only supports DirectX 9, so even with our hacked-together DXVK implementation, we’ve been fighting to hit FPS targets in some places,” WormSlayer said. While I’ve yet to get to some of the more chaotic scenes of the game’s latter half, I’ve found performance so far to be quite good. Given that there’s no teleport-style movement option, however, this mod might be tough on the stomach if you’re new to VR.
Ultimately, the physics and tech of Half-Life 2 are still a joy to play with 18 years later. VR only amplifies the physicality of its world, with the ability to virtually pick up and manipulate objects. Half-Life 2: VR Mod is no Half-Life: Alyx in terms of the sheer amount of interactable objects, but it fits in well as a VR-worthy prequel. And with the addition of the crowbar and a head-mounted flashlight, it has more than a few features and comforts of its own. Being able to virtually manipulate objects in the world is a refreshing way to revisit many of the game’s puzzles.
The most surprising thing for me, however, was how this experience is affecting my perception of the game’s characters, especially the silent protagonist himself.
Gordon Freeman is a quiet guy even when he’s frantically destroying shit. But even just being able to nod at an NPC marks a 100% increase in inter-character interaction. Playing Half-Life 2 and being able to wave at Dr. Kleiner as he shouts with excitement upon seeing you makes me wonder: Is Gordon Freeman even a waver? Does he give a thumbs up to indicate he understands? Does he shake or nod his head when people talk to him? How have I never thought about this for all these years?
NPCs also look at you at eye level in a very eerie way. This feeling exists in other, more modern VR games, but it’s surprising to find it so present in a game from 2004. The simplicity of the models, with gentle head animations and eyes that give a hint of personality and awareness, just barely inches the game out of the uncanny valley into something that starts to feel realistic.
I’m not saying nodding, gesturing, and looking people in the eyes are the hot features you list on the back of the box (that’s saved for viciously beating the shit out of metal manhacks with a crowbar and seeing this classic game in true 3D), but it sure does change the tone of Half-Life 2. One nitpick here: It’s a shame you can’t see your hands while piloting the airboat. Not only did my eyes never leave the G-Man as I blazed past him in my escape from the Combine, I would’ve loved to stare and point dead at him, as if to say “I see you motherfucker. I see you.”
I’m looking forward to playing through the rest of Half-Life 2: VR Mod, spotting the unique changes the new format adds and inspires. There’s still work to be done by WormSlayer and the team, including more improvements to the weapons, tweaks to make the game a bit easier for folks prone to motion sickness, and even some AI-upscaled textures to give the more aged aspects of the graphics a bit of a facelift. Those changes will be very welcome, but for now this first playable version makes for a great way to jump back into this classic game. If you like Half-Life and own a PCVR headset, you should download this yesterday.