Last Updated: January 13, 2022
If there ever was a game worthy of upgrading or building a gaming PC for, Half Life Alyx is it. As a Half Life fan who fondly remembers HL1 as one of the very first PC games I ever played as a kid, and also as a firm believer in VR (and AR) being the inevitable future of essentially all entertainment, when Alyx released to overwhelmingly positive reactions I was relieved and so glad Valve lived up to the huge pre-launch hype.
Not that I ever doubted them, as they are in Rare company as developers after all (a cut above the rest). However you look at it, the game is a masterpiece that doesn't come around often, and a must-play whether you're a Half Life fan or not. It takes a lot to trigger me, but if you own a VR headset and haven't played it, I'm literally triggered.
But on a serious note, Alyx is well and truly the best VR game of all time (so far). If you were ever on the fence about VR and its future, experiencing it first-hand will surely shift your perspective and open your eyes to the limitless possibilities of this exciting new medium (watching gameplay videos doesn't count, as it just cannot do the experience justice). But let's cut the hype before I start sounding like I'm auditioning for Valve's marketing team, and let's get into specific hardware requirements for all levels of performance.
No matter which frame rate you seek, and at which visual settings, I've done the extensive research for you to share my findings on choosing the best value parts for a smooth Alyx experience (starting with 90Hz which is what most VR headsets run at, and then 120Hz and 144Hz for the headsets that support these fast modes). If you want full PC build examples based on the current market to go along with this guide (not just CPU and GPU recommendations), check out the best PC builds for the money series alongside this guide.
Let's first go over the official bare minimum specs provided by Valve themselves if you want to simply run the game. A GTX 1060 6GB or RX 580 graphics card, paired with a modest i5-7500 or R5 1600 processor and at least 12GB of RAM will allow you to run the game relatively okay-ish on low settings. But to avoid dropped frames and stuttering, you definitely want to aim at least a little higher with your hardware otherwise it's not going to be smooth all the way through.
See Also: Best PC VR Gaming Headsets
That said, one of the million great things about Half Life Alyx is Valve have expertly optimized it very nicely to run surprisingly well on mid-range setups, so depending on the performance level you're after (90FPS, 120FPS, etc), you may not need as beefy a PC as you might imagine. Relative to how visually stunning the game is with its painstaking attention to detail and meticulously crafted environments, the game runs like a champ.
The most common refresh rate for PC VR gaming these days is 90Hz, which is supported by all of the current best PC VR headsets. Therefore, reaching 90FPS performance should be your target, and ideally you want to stay above 90FPS at all times to avoid dipping under. Whenever you dip under your VR headset's refresh rate when gaming, the software temporarily enables a VR interpolation technique called asynchronous reprojection that basically cuts your frame rate in half and renders the game at half your headset's refresh rate to avoid input lag (so, 45FPS if gaming at 90Hz).
Not the end of the world if your game kicks reprojection into gear every now and again, but it's not ideal if you want the smoothest VR experience as some people will notice the difference between 90FPS and a reprojected 45FPS, especially if you're prone to motion sickness. Dropped frames in VR is more noticeable overall compared to flatscreen gaming, which is why you want to use the right settings for your particular hardware to avoid it as much as you can.
Valve lists a GTX 1060 6GB and RX 580 8GB as minimum recommended GPU for Half Life Alyx, along with an older Ryzen 5 or Intel i5, but these specs will not give you a nice clean 90FPS and above at all times in the game (not even on the lowest settings). For 90FPS on low settings, you'll need a better graphics card.
Speaking of lower settings, don't worry because Alyx looks absolutely fantastic no matter the graphics settings, and it's genuinely hard to tell the difference between them unless you really stop and actively look for the difference, which can actually still be difficult to discern in most scenes unless you're comparing say low vs ultra settings.
In other words, low vs medium settings, or medium vs high settings - it's very unlikely you will notice the difference. Even low vs high and low vs ultra is tough to spot, and I speak from experience here. When I played through the game last year, I used a RTX 2060 Super, and even though I could easily run medium settings decently, I settled on low settings to avoid reprojection all but completely, and every single aspect of the game looked just amazing. When I tested other settings - even ultra - I hardly noticed a difference in visual quality.
Keep in mind this is not the case with most games (VR or regular), hence why I'm making a point about it so that people are aware not to be scared off by avoiding or postponing playing Alyx simply because your PC isn't good enough to run it at high or ultra (in the fear that you'll "ruin" such a monumental game). In many PC games that boast beautiful graphics, there can indeed be a stark difference between settings where playing on low could sour the experience somewhat. But in Alyx, thanks to Valve, that's just not a thing.
I had that concern going in, as I feel a game as rare as this should be treasured and experienced to its full potential, but that concern was quickly squashed once I carefully compared low vs medium vs high vs ultra settings. Lower settings took nothing away from the immersion: the environments, textures, effects, character models, and so on all look stunning no matter which settings are used.
So, based on the current generation of graphics cards - RTX 3000 and RX 6000 series - for flawless 90FPS performance on medium settings, the best GPU for Half Life Alyx is a RTX 3060 or RX 6600 XT. These latest mid-range cards from NVidia and AMD can also do high settings quite well, but not flawlessly (you'll get the occasional dropped frames and slight reprojection). For low settings, a RTX 2060 Super or RX 5700 XT will be flawless, though you could use these for medium if you don't mind the occasional dip under 90FPS.
Going further down in the graphics chain to a RTX 2060, GTX 1660 Super, GTX 1660 Ti, RX 5700, or RX 5600 XT would be okay for low settings if you can't afford a 3060 or 6600 XT (or 2060 Super or 5700 XT), especially if it's the 5700 or 2060 which are the fastest cards of that bunch.
But I can't recommend those cheaper cards if you want to guarantee a very smooth experience all the way through the game, and also with the incredible mods which are more demanding than the main game since they're less optimized (and the mods are absolutely not to be missed in my opinion and I consider them integral to the overall Alyx package). Because Alyx can really eat up that VRAM easily, cards with 6GB of VRAM are fine if on a tight budget, but 8GB cards are highly recommended if you want the best experience.
As for choosing the best CPU for Half Life Alyx and getting the most bang for your buck, I highly recommend a Ryzen 5 3600 or a recent Intel Core i5 like the 10400 or 11400 (not much difference between the two). These CPUs are more than enough for a consistent 90FPS in Alyx, so no need for a stronger CPU unless you're wanting to run 120Hz or 144Hz. Instead of spending more to buy a better CPU than the 3600 or 11400, I would use that money on a better graphics card instead (again, unless it's for 120Hz/144Hz in which case your CPU requirements are higher).
In fact, you could go cheaper on the CPU if you wanted and still have a smooth ride in Alyx for the most part, such as getting a Ryzen 3 3300X or Intel Core i3 10100 since these processors are not far behind the Ryzen 5 3600. But personally, I would not, since those CPUs only have 4 cores and for Alyx I definitely recommend a 6-core processor. Half Life Alyx makes effective use of multiple cores, and can keep a 6 or even 8-core CPU busy.
You especially don't want to go too cheap on your CPU if you want to play all of the great mods after finishing the main campaign, because Alyx mods can be more CPU intensive since most modders understandably lack the optimization prowess (or time) of the geniuses at Valve.
If you're planning the absolute best PC build for Half Life Alyx at 90Hz, to reach that golden 90FPS and above throughout the game on high or ultra settings, below are the best value GPUs to get you to that promised land. CPU recommendations stay the same as they were for low/medium settings above, because higher graphics settings predominantly place more load on your GPU, and if a certain CPU can hit 90FPS on low settings it'll be fine to do the same at higher settings.
In most VR games, at 90Hz having a CPU bottleneck is unlikely when using any half-decent modern CPU such as a Ryzen 5 3600, and you're almost always going to be GPU-bound (as in, limited in performance by your GPU, which is what you want). In other words, a Ryzen 5 3600 or equivalent CPU is absolutely fine to max out Half Life Alyx, and will not bottleneck a RTX 3070 or RX 6800, so there's no need to spend more on your CPU unless you want flawless 120Hz or 144Hz performance (put that money towards the graphics card instead).
When you move to 120Hz VR gaming - supported by the Oculus Quest 2 and Valve Index - you want to look at investing in a faster processor if possible because hitting such high frame rates in Alyx will require a stronger CPU than is needed for 90Hz. Especially for a relatively CPU intensive game such as Half Life Alyx.
Sure, Alyx is much more GPU intensive than CPU intensive overall, and there are VR games that are a fair bit more CPU intensive than Alyx (like Boneworks). But hitting 120FPS consistently across the board during the whole of Alyx's campaign will take a fairly fast CPU. The Ryzen 5 5600X is the best value high-end gaming CPU overall right now, and is enough grunt for 120FPS in Alyx from what I gather. Paired with an RTX 3080 or RX 6800 XT and you're golden, even on maxed settings.
Aiming to reach a consistent 144FPS in the Valve Index's exclusive 144Hz mode increases both CPU and GPU requirements further, so for the best experience to avoid dipping under 144FPS it's simply, and quite obviously, a matter of getting the best gaming CPU and GPU you can afford.
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Indie programmer currently working on my first game release (after years of hobby projects), an atmospheric story-driven VR FPS/adventure built with Unreal Engine to be announced once I'm ready here and here (for anyone into VR FPS's). Also likes writing about tech, which helps to fund development of the game.
My favs of all time are OOT, Perfect Dark, MGS1, MGS2, GE007, DKC2, THPS3, HL1, WC3, Vice City, and KOTOR, with the most recent addition to my list of immortals being the VR masterpiece Alyx.
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