Last summer I spent my evenings playing Half-Life 2 with the official VR support. Since then I wrote my Oculus article but have been so busy I didn’t get to finish this one until now. I have not done a great amount of editing, but at least I’m posting it, finally :) As the consumer version of the Oculus Rift is still a way off this could be interesting for a few people.
My VR experience of Half-Life 2 affected me so much I made this my Christmas card last year. Marketing people, take note, virtual reality changes minds. For better or worse. And yes, I didn’t really have brains left to do a proper cover photo, at least I get to post this ;)
I quite quickly settled to a mode where the crosshair was locked to the center of my view, I basically aimed where I pointed my head, and walking was done in the same direction. I found that if I used modes that had me play with the mouse I would forget to use the head tracking much I think because moving the mouse is easier than rotating my head, physically. As I really wanted to utilize the key features of the Rift, one being head tracking, I stuck to the face-gun-mode.
Character movement felt a bit clumsy sometimes. I would get stuck on small objects and then get launched forward when I got loose. Spaces that looked small enough to get through weren’t, which felt wrong in VR as the sense of scale is very good. Playing the game on a monitor it’s much easier to accept that your character is too large to fit. I found myself comparing heights to my own ability to crouch or climb, not Gordon’s.
At some points I was surprised by my own reactions, I’ll try to reminisce a few of them.
During the airboat chapter I found myself gawking at a huge falling chimney. It made me stop the vehicle and just look at it with mixed horror and awe. Immediately afterwards I realized what I had done, and found it interesting that I had not just gunned for getting past the chimney before it hit the ground, that is what I would have done if I played on a normal screen. In general it feels like I was more careful with decisions and risk taking while playing in VR, it feels like choices will cause more real consequences.
While walking around in the sewers or some tunnel where the only light came from my flashlight, I found the darkness intimidating. The limited battery of the flashlight does not help! It was quite disconcerting hearing odd noises when unable to see, and then… as it happened, when the flashlight had recharged and I flicked it on again, turning around I was suddenly up close with a zombie that had not been there before! Scary for real! I was in a flooded tunnel, and Apparently they rise from below the surface of the radioactive waste, it being radioactive thus dangerous to touch I was stuck on a small platform meaning I was also unable to just escape!
Enemies are mostly quite comfortable to handle. Zombies are slow, soldiers stay at a distance as they are shooting, barnacles are stuck in the ceiling. The things that freaked me out the most are enemies that rushed towards me, then most often a fast zombie but also head crabs had me jump at several occasions as they surprised me!
I have not quite put my finger on why it’s scary, but comparing it to real life it is sure more scary to stand next to a lion than seeing one at a distance. It is also harder to keep track of things that are close to you. The running zombies sure creeped me out in Ravenholm, a night level, just that I knew they could come from anywhere was discomforting, and then to hear the running noises… I just wished to get out of there :P
Characters are pretty believable even though looking a bit dated graphically, it actually felt comforting to get together with friendly characters again after some stretches alone. Just hearing a human voice, even if I knew it was playback, was soothing after a session of running around getting shot at and battling hordes of ant lions.
Dog is a bit scary when he runs around, a large bulky metal creature. Moving vehicles gives a fright, especially as I managed to get killed by trains several times as well as an amok APC with Dog on top… Seemingly I kept being in the wrong place!
You get used to falling, but it’s a bit jarring the first few times. In a level you climb the underside of a large damaged bridge I fell multiple times so I learned then how it felt. That the screen turns red when you die is good, it’s a clear sign what has happened. It’s not like you feel it in any other way, had the camera just fallen to the ground it would feel like you had just fallen over.
Striders are scary after you have understood how hard and dangerous they are! They are a bit odd, but feel more organic than I thought earlier. The large ant-lion beast is also a bit scary, but it still feels a bit like a push-over. He was scary the first time, but then I got used to dodging and well, I did play on easy because I didn’t have much time to replay things so I wanted to progress fairly quickly. It still took me 26 hours!
The sense of scale you get in the Rift is actually quite astonishing. I can now imagine things from the Half-Life universe in the room I am in as I know how large they would be. It will probably be quite important to get things in the right scale for developers.
Tall buildings are very impressive, large MOVING things are VERY impressive! Just like in real life huge constructions fascinate me. I cannot wait to experience more out-of-this-world architecture.
An interesting side effect from playing in VR is that I have formed actual spatial memories of the places I’ve visited in the game. I know them way better than areas in most other games I have played, at least for just having run through it two times ever! Sure I still got lost when I play, but I’m easily lost in real life too, but the vivid memories I still have of the virtual space is a new experience.
These two factors I think ties in to how I felt afterwards. I was way more attached to the Half-Life universe than I had ever been before, even if I was fascinated with and played the originals back when they were released. This time around I came out of the game completely ready to buy a plush head crab and I actually read up on story conspiracy and Half-Life 3 rumors!
Weapon selection HUD is nice but needs work. Personally I would like to try having it in a grid instead of just a four way cross. When picking with the directional pad I could just as well press up left left, or right down right or whatever, instead of left three times, up two times etc to pick a specific weapon. It will probably end up perfect. It seems to get tweaked between the different updates, I’ve had two or three variations of the HUD so far, one where the rocket launcher and grenades were missing so I had to press buttons on my keyboard for those. But when all the weapons were included the HUD grew so wide I couldn’t really see the things furthest out.
Weapons are a bit over-sized, not yet adjusted for VR. It mostly feel fine, but the gravity gun especially feel huge. The weapons are also not sharing the same 3D space so sometimes you can see them being deeper than the wall your are standing next to.
Aiming for the scout-car and airboat guns can be really off. I later read that it gets aligned to how you enter the vehicle, if I remember that correctly. So unless you face the direction of the vehicle when jumping on your crosshair can be anywhere!
I actually played most of the game thinking the sniper was broken. When I zoomed in the crosshair was fixed in place, it didn’t follow my view anymore. Near the end of the game I discovered that after zooming my controller stick actually moved the crosshair, weird! I would much rather just keep aiming with my head, it’s not like I haven’t used binoculars in real life, but I guess as the angular sensitivity is still the same it might be hard to actually keep on target.
What makes the immersion
Real time shadows. Using the flashlight casting shadows relative to my position was incredibly satisfying. I maxed shadow settings, not sure if it any difference, but why not.
Reflections. I upped the reflection settings too, it helped out the water quite a bit. Just water feels like a hard thing to simulate, but with high settings it was surprisingly convincing.
Particles. Lots and lots of particles: sparks, smoke, debris; it is all awesome, when it looks right. A few smoke puffs and atmospheric effects look a bit too much like floating billboards as they’re sprites.
In general, effects one would expect from real life helps me getting immersed. I could without problem lower the texture quality, surfaces just looked less crisp, but it was much easier to accept than having crappy reflections or no real time shadows.
Another thing HL2 is good at, no pop-in or visible LoD swaps. Pop-ins are when things move into the drawing distance, before that they are invisible as the game just skips rendering stuff that far away. I have noticed this in a few other experiences, but not in HL2, if they do it it’s very discreet.
Level of Detail models are different meshes depending on how far away an object is. Close up the resolution is high and far away it is much lower, there can be multiple models in between. If the change between models is not frequent and at a distance where it is not noticeable it severely reminds you of that you are looking at computer graphics.
Bonus round: VR mod
A month or so back I finally got around to trying out the Half-Life VR mod using the Razer Hydra for positional tracking. To have aiming decoupled from your vision is simply incredible. It allows for so much different gameplay. Hold the weapon out from cover, around a corner, raise it above your head, use the gravity gun and manipulate objects much more freely, angle the flashlight to what you want to see…
When I first tried it my younger brother walked into the room and was laughing out load as I sat there shooting with the pistol gangsta style, for me it was just comfortable that way and I didn’t think much about it. At that time I was just happy to have gotten it to work with hand tracking, but just last week I tried my hand at doing the positional tracking of my head / torso. I placed one Hydra in a chest pocket on a fleece vest and used the other as the gun. I still controlled walking with a 360 controller in my left hand.
When I first launched it I would just sway back and forth and be amazed by the parallax, the fact that things shifted in relation to each other due to different depths. Turn on the flashlight and see the shadows play when moving it about. This time around I was standing up instead, I figured it should be possible when tracking the position of the head, so I tried crouching and the tracking moved my view close to the ground. Very neat! See animations below!
There is one issue right now though, and that is the drift of the Rift and the fact the Hydra base station will not rotate with me. The hand tracking is done in relation to the view, and if you recenter when not facing the base station odd things happen. The amount of drift seems a bit random, but what currently varies the most where I live is temperature so I guess that might be a factor for the sensor.
As I mentioned the immersion is at an all time high when the tracking is keyed in, but when it drops out of sync it takes a dip for sure. In comparison locking the weapon aiming to the camera as I had it setup before never really gets any dips, the drift is completely unnoticeable as your in game body is always facing forwards. However, as you shoot with your face, the immersion is not as deep as with decoupled tracking.
Below is a list of issues that occurs which breaks immersion in the current VR mod:
- Hydra hand calibration is off, resets with a button press.
- Hydra axis gets inverted, restart the game, I think I get too close to the base station.
- Height calibration of the player is off, re-calibrate like with the hand.
- Cable tangle from Hydras, Rift and headset, mostly an issue when standing up.
- Rift drift, needs to be reset with a button press but make sure you are facing the Hydra base station when doing so.
None of these problems exist when running the simpler mode without the mod, they are probably mostly hardware related and the biggest issue which is Rift drift will be a solved problem in the consumer version. In spite of this it is currently still an amazing experience that I highly recommend to try if you have the gear.
I am currently waiting for the next release so I can play Episode 2 with the mod, which is a part of Half-Life 2 I have not actually played yet so it will be mighty exciting. The most memorable part from Episode 1? I only played the last quarter or so with the mod, but at the very end (might be a spoiler?) when we had finally gotten on the train, I stood there watching what happened, and then I naturally crouched down so I was at face height with the railing. This is real life crouching that was represented in the game, again I was playing standing up. It was fascinating how it really felt like I partook in the end of some kind of action movie, and how just being able to hunch down to feel more safe on a moving train added so much to the experience. The ability to act out, even with such a simple maneuver, really strengthened the sensation of actually being there.