VR headsets aren’t all created equally. We at GameSpot have tested out the newly released Half-Life: Alyx on the four biggest VR headsets: Valve Index, HTC Vive Pro, Oculus Rift, and Oculus Quest.
From a top view, it’s no surprise that the Index is the ideal platform to play Alyx on, considering they’re both made by Valve. But it’s also the most expensive and currently in short supply. The Vive is the next best opinion; it’s designed for steam VR, which makes setup with Alyx easy, and you can swap out the subpar Vive controllers with the Index’s to take advantage of the finger tracking.
While you may lose some of the more advanced features playing on an Oculus, you’re still going to have a good time with Alyx. The only headset we have trouble fully recommending is the Oculus Quest, as the Oculus Link software is still in beta and can have connection issues. But if you already own a Quest and are willing to put up its shortcomings, it’s still completely possible to play Alyx on it.
Below we break down the pros and cons of each headset based on the experiences of five people on staff, each with different VR setups. You can also watch the video version above. If you want to know what we thought of the game, check out our Half-Life: Alyx review. If you don’t own a VR headset and are interested in picking one up thanks to Alyx, check out our in-depth breakdown on the best VR headsets as well as where to get the best VR headset deals.
Valve Index — Michael Higham, Associate Editor
I played the entirety of Half-Life: Alyx on the Valve Index for review, and everything worked perfectly fine. But that speaks more to having the proper space and physical set up for the base station sensors and room for your own actions. The Index headset is arguably the best, most sophisticated HMD so far with a max refresh rate of 144Hz and a 130-degree FOV (the highest of mainstream VR gaming headsets), and its resolution is on par with the high-end Vive Pro. Of course, you need the proper rig to get the most out of, and my setup with a Core i7-7700K and Nvidia RTX 2080 was on point. However, the HMD isn’t necessarily the reason why you’d want to play Half-Life: Alyx on the Index, it’s the controllers.
The Index controllers are the closest a pair of VR controllers come to imitating the feel of having virtual hands. That’s because their padded straps comfortably hug your hands, allowing you to loosen your grip entirely and still have the controllers in place. Now, the reason why this matters for Half-Life: Alyx is because the game always accounts for your in-game hands, giving them more agency and a higher level of interactivity than most VR games. Objects, doors, and some mechanisms react to your hand motions without having to “grip” them, simulating the actions of actually moving these things in real life. You’ll be catching items and throwing grenades a lot in the game as well, and it just feels so right to perform these actions when you can just let go altogether and open your hands in these moments.
The Index controllers also have pressure-sensitive sensors on the grip for each finger, so when it comes to grabbing things in-game, you simply close your hand as if you’re really grabbing stuff. (All other VR controllers have a second set of triggers for your middle fingers that typically work to grasp objects.) Even something as small as the Xen grenades, which react to how tightly you grip and activate when squeezing them, showcase the importance of pressure-based interactivity. And it’s nice to give the middle finger to a dead Combine soldier and have the controllers recognize the gesture in true form.
Of course, the Valve Index might be the most expensive (and seemingly hardest to find) VR gaming set up right now. It’s not necessary to go with the Index if you just want to experience Half-Life: Alyx, but I do believe it’s the best option. | Twitter: @michaelphigham
HTC Vive Pro — Jean-Luc Seipke, Video Producer
The HTC Vive seems like the next logical headset of choice as it was co-created by Valve and shares the same ecosystem as the Index. I used the Vive Pro, the best version of the Vive, and the second-best headset on the market in terms of display. My PC uses an RTX 2070 with 16GB of RAM and an i7-6700k CPU, and Alyx looks and runs excellent. I did run into some issues where the game started to drop frames and hitch while streaming, but that is the only technical hiccup I’ve had, and the rest of the time has been smooth.
Like with the Index, you have the option for both sit down and room-scale. The extra freedom to walk around an environment can add a lot to your experience, and I highly recommend it if you have the space for it. Being able to duck and jump physically is surprisingly fun and helps make the game even more immersive. Just have someone around to watch over you; otherwise, you might hit your hand as I did.
Let’s Play Half-Life: Alyx
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Where the Vive falls short is in its controllers. Being one of the first major VR controllers, they feel quite primitive compared to the competition. Lacking the Index’s advanced finger tracking means you have to use the trigger buttons to hold things. It works pretty well, but it doesn’t have that natural feeling of picking up an object the way you get with the Index.
Even when compared to Oculus’s Touch controllers, the Vive controllers have a more clunky design that causes them to clank into each other. Don’t get me wrong, they get the job done, but it always feels like you’re the younger sibling that got stuck with the inferior 3rd party controller.
Thankfully because Valve worked on both the Vive and Index, you can mix and match the hardware by using the Index controllers with the Vive. The index controllers work flawlessly with the Vive, and after switching, I couldn’t go back. If you already own a Vive, I highly recommend picking up the Valve Index controllers if you can for a better Alyx experience. | Twitter: @JeanLucSeipke
Oculus Rift w/ Old Touch Controllers — Ben Janca, Video Producer
The Oculus may be one of the older headsets on this list, but I have got to say the experience of playing Half-Life Alyx on one has been fantastic. I actually didn’t run into many issues in my few hour play session. I only ended up having to break away, so I didn’t spend the rest of my day getting lost, exploring every corner of City 17. The touch controllers are also some of my favorites for general VR gameplay, so I felt right at home right from the get-go. I am also running all of this on a PC using a 1080TI, 16 gigs of RAM, an i7-7800X CPU, and I have to say everything ran very well!
I opened Steam VR through the Oculus software just to be safe and started Alyx up. I ended up playing for about 30 minutes until I noticed my height seemed sort of off. After reading around a bit, I saw suggestions saying to change the “Height Adjust” option to hybrid, and everything was smooth sailing after that. I really only had one crash after an hour and 20 minutes and nothing bad after that. I also didn’t experience any stuttering or frame dropping. After a while, I did come to appreciate how easy it was to transfer to playing from a seated position after standing too.
One thing that really made my experience great was my old touch controllers. Sure, Index has full finger tracking, but in my mind, I still have trouble telling myself to fully let go of them to grab objects in-game. The touch controllers only track half of your fingers, so the actual act of grabbing is with the ring finger, which let me never lose my grip. This works out well when throwing things at zombies or Combine soldiers since the space I play in is very small, technically smaller than I should be allowed to play in. All in all, I never really had issues using the old touch controllers. Everything from shooting, throwing items into barnacle tentacles, and grabbity gloving ammo to myself to catch all felt excellent.
I would say my experience with Half-Life Alyx with my old Oculus setup was overall great. Outside of adjusting the height setting at the beginning, I never ran into any issues. I’m also proud of myself for not hitting a wall or my monitor while playing. Though I did get scared by one of our cats jumping on my back while I was avoiding headcrabs, so take that as you will. In either case, I can’t wait to jump back in as soon as I get the chance! | Twitter: @BenJanca
Oculus Quest w/ Link | Jake Dekker, Video Producer
On paper, the Oculus Quest is the most questionable headset on this list. Given you have a VR-ready PC, the only way to play Alyx on a Quest is with an Oculus Link cable or a lengthy USB C to USB 3.0 cable. Once the headset is connected, you have to enable Oculus Link, and–in theory–your PC will take over the processing power, and your Quest will essentially become an Oculus Rift.
I have played roughly 6 hours of Half-Life Alyx on my Quest with a 1070TI, 16GBs of RAM, an i5 4690k, and a third party USB C to USB 3.0 cable I ordered off Amazon. The early hours were a rollercoaster ride and not the good kind. Most of the issues I ran into early on were due to the Oculus Link software itself, which is still in beta. Within the first 15 minutes, my headset, not the game, crashed four times. The game was still running on PC, but the Quest would lock up. Navigating the world felt jittery, and if I turned my head too quickly, the image wouldn’t be able to keep up, and I’d see black borders.
The headset lockups continued until I plugged my Quest directly into the motherboard. This solved the headset crashes, but the game was still jittery, especially whenever I first launched it. Eventually, the performance would even out, but everything always felt slightly jittery, especially in open areas.
The other hurdle you will undoubtedly face with the Quest is the controllers. Half-Life: Alyx was designed with finger tracking in mind, which means your range of motion is limited with the Oculus Touch controllers. Your pointer fingers are controlled with the triggers, your thumb closes when it’s on the control stick, and the rest of your fingers are mapped to the hand trigger on the side. This isn’t a huge issue once you get the hang of things, but snatching objects from afar with the gravity gloves can feel a bit awkward at first since you need to open your hand in order to tether to the object.
That said, once the performance evened out, and I got acclimated to my headset, and the Oculus Touch controls, Half-Life: Alyx felt playable. Sure, it isn’t as smooth as an Index or a Vive Pro, but it will undoubtedly get the job done. If the Quest is your only option, we recommend picking up an official Oculus Link cable or, since it’s still near impossible to get, the Oculus recommended Anker cable. | Twitter: @jacobdekk
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