19 November 2019 10:41
Like Doc Brown, I once hit my head and saw the future. I didn't come round in the bathroom having the idea for the Flux Capacitor, but I did bonk my noggin pretty hard in the office games room and sit back, dazed but delighted with what had just happened. I was playing the Budget Cuts demo on Valve's room-scale VR. Budget Cuts is a game about infiltrating an office that's patrolled with deadly robots. Because of the room-scale VR, you're really there: your actual body is your in-game body.
More than just the future of video games, I really felt like I had seen the future of one series in particular. I still think that Budget Cuts is essentially the closest I've ever gotten to playing Half-Life 3. It's not set in the Half-Life universe, although its mixture of horrific technology and the banal and bureaucratic is not a million miles away. It wasn't made by a Valve team, although I gather the people who made it did end up working on the final game at Valve as incubees. Instead, it channels that magical thing that Half-Life has always done.
Half-Life, right, has always moved things forwards in terms of immersion. You can illustrate this pretty simply by looking at the introductions to the first Half-Life and the second. That tram ride in the original Half-Life was mind blowing. Instead you were riding into work, getting into character, learning about the strange, frightening, promising place that the game would have you explore. And it meant that when the shooting did start, the game felt like more than a shooting gallery. It still felt like a place that was in the middle of something pretty awful happening. Half-Life's gift was to show that a game could build a world around you that seemed like a world that might exist. Half-Life 2 starts on a tram of sorts, but then you're offloaded at some railway station, one amongst a sad handful of muttering refugees. One of them makes you pick up a drinks can and put it in the bin. One of them makes you pick up a drinks can! Half-Life had shown how restraint when it came to what you were actually doing, and lavishness in terms of scripting and world design, could root you right at the centre of a game. Now Half-Life 2 showed you a world you could touch, where different materials had different qualities - where wood was wood and glass was glass and magnifying lenses magnified and NPCs seemed to actually know where you were when they spoke to you. This was the game of the gravity gun, sure, but the gravity gun was just one expression of a world that hummed with material physics. No Half-Life 2, no Angry Birds. The things Budget Cuts solved felt akin to the things Half-Life was so good at solving. Movement in VR was a bit like shooting here - you fired a little ball of light that offered you a new spot to warp to via a portal. What really sticks with me about Budget Cuts, though, was a wall. This wasn't like walls in other games. Somehow, it felt like a real wall. The world wasn't just a thing of playful physics anymore. If any series could get you over that it was Half-Life. Valve has finally announced a new entry in the Half-Life franchise, some 12 years after Half-Life 2: Episode 2 first hit PC. Firstly, this new project doesn't seem to be Half-Life 3. Valve has confirmed the new game is instead called Half-Life: Alyx, and it'll be a "flagship" VR title for the developer. Rumours inevitably surfaced that one of the three games would be a new entry in the Half-Life franchise. I mean, if you want gamers to really take notice of VR, a new Half-Life is probably the way to do that. Unfortunately, we don't know too much about Half-Life: Alyx just yet, beyond the fact that it stars Alyx Vance and will presumably be available on the new Valve Index headset. We're excited to unveil Half-Life: Alyx, our flagship VR game, this Thursday at 10am Pacific Time. So no, this isn't Half-Life 3. Having said that, if Valve can finally make a new entry in the long-forgotten franchise after all this time, then I guess there is hope for a "proper" third entry some day. Perhaps I'm just being greedy and should be grateful we're getting a new game from Valve at all. Half-Life / Credit: Valve