Can Valve tempt gamers to try virtual reality?

Image source, Valve
Image caption,
Half-life remains one of gaming's best-known series, despite there not having been a new title in more than a decade

Game developer Valve has announced a new title in its well-known Half-Life series of games.

The next one, called Half-Life: Alyx, will be available in March 2020. More details are due to be released later this week.

First, some history

Gamers not born when Half-Life was released in 1998 may not be aware of the hold it, and its various follow-ups, have on older players.

Half-life rejuvenated the first-person shooter by injecting it with much needed realism, a strong story and a memorable hero in Gordon Freeman. The potent combination made it hugely successful and it is widely regarded as one of the best games ever made.

The love affair continued with Half-Life 2, released in November 2004, which introduced a detailed world with realistic physics that players could exploit, via the game's gravity gun, to solve puzzles or defeat enemies. It too regularly tops lists of best games.

Valve has released extra episodes for Half-Life 2 but those who cut their gaming teeth on the two titles have eagerly awaited the third instalment.

Online, every hint about HL3 that has surfaced over the last 15 years has been dissected and pored over by fans.

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Gamers weaned on massive, multiplayer games such as Fortnite may find Half-Life a bit tame

Is the new game Half-Life 3?

Not quite. Ars Technica reports that it will be set after the first game and before the second. A sequel to one and prequel to the other.

Half-Life: Alyx is an entirely new game only playable via virtual reality. Valve has helped develop the Vive VR headset with HTC but it said the game would also work on the Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality VR systems.

As its name suggests, the game will focus on Alyx Vance - one of the main characters in Half-Life 2.

The original game introduced an alien technological superpower called the Combine that, once it was unleashed on Earth by Gordon Freeman, conquered the planet in a few hours.

Alyx's father, Dr Eli Vance, became head of the resistance fighting the Combine's malign control, so it is reasonable to assume that the game will deal with the early days of the fightback.

Why is it only available in VR?

Valve has a history of pushing the boundaries in PC gaming and Half-Life: Alyx continues that trend.

In addition, Valve has a vested interest in getting people to try, and buy, Vive headsets. The basic Vive model costs £499 in the UK, $399 in the US, and the higher-spec models in the range cost a good deal more.

That high starting price for VR gaming means only really dedicated, older fans have tried it.

In addition, many of the games available to play in VR have been titles that would do as well on a flat screen.

If Valve manages to make Half-Life: Alyx an immersive VR experience that exploits the possibilities of the technology it could mean new gamers give it a try, said industry analyst Piers Harding-Rolls from IHS Markit.

"A Half-Life VR game will definitely increase consumer interest and awareness of the tech, and result in a bump in sales of PC-based VR headsets," he said.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Valve has experimented with different control systems for the Vive headset

He doubts it will fuel an "explosive" surge in VR sales simply because the cost of a headset, and a PC to power it, is so high.

What can we expect from the game?

Valve has remained tight-lipped but there are hints about one aspect of the gameplay.

In September, a leak from Valve's core gaming software suggested it was working on a novel control system called "grabbity gloves".

These will allow players to point to, attract and control distant objects - a bit like the force powers the Jedi use. The world in Half-Life: Alyx will probably be very responsive and open to manipulation via VR controllers.

Who will play it?

Good question. The gaming world has moved on enormously since HL1 and 2. Valve is still widely influential thanks to its Steam gaming platform and other titles such as Counter Strike, Team Fortress 2, Dota 2, Left 4 Dead and Portal.

But players' attention is now divided between massively multiplayer games such as Fortnite, League of Legends, Apex Legends, Call of Duty, Overwatch and many, many others.

For many of these people, the arrival of Half-Life: Alyx may be too little, too late to tempt them into donning a headset and taking on the Combine.