How to Buy the Best VR Headset to Play Half-Life: Alyx
It’s been a long time since Valve took us to the world of Half-Life, but the wait may have been worth it. The newly released Half-Life: Alyx is being called a true virtual reality masterpiece. It’s actually driving many people to pick up virtual reality headsets for the first time, but the VR landscape can be confusing for new players. Here are your options.
First, Check Your PC Specs
Desktop VR games generally require substantial computing power, but Half-Life: Alyx is even more demanding than other titles. Valve says you’ll need at least an Nvidia GTX 1060 or an AMD RX 580 with 6GB of video memory. That’s a step up from the GTX 970 that most VR games require.
Half-Life: Alyx also has a surprisingly high CPU and RAM spec. You’ll need a Core i5-7500 or Ryzen 5 1600 CPU and 12GB of system RAM. The last Steam hardware survey showed only 45 percent of players have 12 or more gigabytes of RAM. The game also takes up 67GB of storage space, much more than other VR titles. That’s 10 times larger than Half-Life 2.
First-Party: Valve Index
The objectively “best” Half-Life: Alyx experience can be had with the Valve Index. The game comes free with the headset, which saves you $60 right off the bat. Valve also equipped this device with sharp 1440 x 1600 (per-eye) 120Hz LCDs. It also has excellent controllers that will work with the HTC Vive family.
The Index headset starts at $499, but the controllers add to the price. The headset and controllers are $749. You need external tracking stations, too. That brings the price for the full system to $1,000. The valve Index is, unfortunately, back-ordered for eight weeks at the time of this writing.
Premium but Expensive: HTC Vive Pro
The Vive Pro is similar to the Index with 1440 x 1600 per-eye resolution and a 90Hz refresh rate. It also requires base stations for tracking. It has full support for SteamVR, but the full setup could cost you even more than the Index. The headset is $599 (down $200 since launch), but it’s $899 if you want the controllers. Add on the base stations, and you’re looking at $1,199. On the plus side, the full kit is available at multiple retailers.
Versatile and Cheaper: Oculus Rift S and Quest
Oculus headsets work with Half-Life: Alyx and other SteamVR titles, but there’s also the full Oculus Store with its exclusive titles. The Rift S is much cheaper than the Index at just $399 with controllers, and it doesn’t require external sensor towers. However, the display is just 1280 x 1440 per-eye, and it’s sold out almost everywhere. The Oculus Quest is a standalone VR headset that you can connect to a PC via a USB 3.1 cable, allowing you to play Half-Life: Alyx just as if you had a Rift S. The display quality is similar to the Rift (not as good as the Index or Vive). You’ll have to buy the cable separately, too. The headset and controllers (no base station needed) costs $399, but again, it’s hard to find in stock.
Plausible but Not Great: Windows Mixed Reality Headsets
If you just really want to get into the world of Half-Life: Alyx and don’t mind a few compromises, Windows Mixed Reality headsets could be an option. The displays and controllers aren’t as good as the Index or Oculus, but they’re sometimes available quite cheap. For example, the Samsung Odyssey+ often goes on sale for at little as $279. Meanwhile, the HP Reverb is $599, and the Acer AH101 lands right in the middle at $349. Unfortunately, Windows Mixed Reality hasn’t been a smashing success, so these headsets are difficult to find.
What Should You Get?
Your best bet to play Half-Life: Alyx as soon as possible is probably the Vive Pro. It’s expensive, but it’s actually in-stock. The Index is good if you don’t mind waiting a few weeks, and Valve will let you place an order now. Everything else will look a bit worse and requires you to scour the web for resellers or eBay listings.