Half-Life: Alyx is a game too large for its platform. If you were to give it physics, the way Valve would have back in 2004, it'd be teetering dangerously on top of the VR market – which just last month CD Projekt told investors was "very, very small".
"And I could add a few 'verys' here," said VP of business development Michal Nowakowski.
It's a curious situation – a new Half-Life which, short of forking out for specialist hardware ahead of March, most won't play. What we all have, though, is the trailer: a breathless and beautiful trip back to City 17 that anyone with YouTube and an internet connection can enjoy. In fact, it's part of a legacy of great Half-Life trailers – some artful, some charmingly weird – which are nostalgic treasures in themselves.
The Half-Life 2 reveal that never was
Valve nearly announced its bold reimagining of the FPS a year early, with a proof of concept reel intended for public viewing in 2002. But Gabe Newell – the biggest hill in the company's otherwise flat hierarchy – decided it wasn't high-octane enough for E3.
You can see his point: this is more tech demonstration than trailer, with the slow and steady pacing of a strider. But it's a welcome reminder of what wowed about Half-Life 2 back then – not just the physics, or the metropolis, but Alyx's face in all its nuance. At a time when Monsters, Inc. was the cutting edge of Hollywood animation, Valve broke ground, rooting its rules for facial expression in the work of a '70s psychologist who trained police officers to detect liars. You can see the effort was worth it when Alyx's eyes widen – telling you that something awful is happening before you see it.
2003 was the year Half-Life 2 broke cover, and so after a drought of footage came a deluge, as if an airboat had displaced all the water in a City 17 canal. Much of it isn't worth returning to now, since it simply depicts scenes from the finished game, but the G-Man demo still sticks in the mind.
The stunted alien speech and eyes that follow you around the room are consistent with the company man who's been watching Gordon Freeman since Black Mesa. More entertaining, though, are the faces that simply don't belong to this interdimensional bureaucrat: the frightened rabbit eyes, pouting bottom lip, and Dennis the Menace smirk. Arguably, the G-Man has never been so disturbing as when waggling a come-hither eyebrow at the camera.
'Free Yourself' on OS X
A runner sprints through a dystopian tunnelscape, pursued by masked guards, into a vast room where lines of mindless minions listen as words of compliance fall from the mouth of a despot on an enormous screen. Our heroine spins a brass-headed hammer as if competing in the shot put, then lets it fly straight into the face of authority, which explodes in blinding light.
That was the Ridley Scott-directed Super Bowl commercial that introduced the Apple Mac, just before the clocks turned midnight on the last day of 1983 – an anti-Orwellian vision of revolution. Whether the Apple of today are anti-Orwellian is up for debate, but Valve paid fine tribute to Scott's work when Half-Life 2 came to OS X. The trailer is almost shot-for-shot, but the peroxide heroine in running shorts is replaced by Alyx, the guards by Combine troopers, and the despot by Dr Breen. In a perfect final touch, the hammer becomes a crowbar.
Most trailers are understandably limited by their purpose, which is to communicate what a game actually is before it comes out. The modders behind the Black Mesa remake had no such stricture: everybody already knew how Half-Life played out, which gave the devs room to play with the form.
Black Mesa's accident-prone workplace was rinsed for maximum dramatic irony in this promotional video for its weapons and research division. It's the subtle touches that lend proceedings their eeriness: the familiar combat environments, Marine Corp testimony and VHS artefacts. For a more spectacular slice of fan-made cinema, it's worth watching last year's Black Mesa: Xen trailer too.
When a unit of Combine soldiers stomps down a City 17 hallway, there are only a few seconds in which to act. Alyx swipes aside old tuna tins, empty cans and beer bottles until she finds it: a half-spent case of ammo. She plucks a single bullet between her fingers, rams it into her pistol, twists on the spot, and fires. It's the most exciting glimpse available of Half-Life: Alyx, and also the most poignant, since it proves beyond dispute that the game can't exist in anything other than VR.
Still, everyone gets to keep that punchline, from Flight of the Conchords' Murray: "It's unloaded now!"
Excited for Half-Life: Alyx? We've got this epic making of Half-Life 2 feature that you can read while you wait.