Conventions are all about trying new things, and I did just that at PAX South, sampling for the first time two of the hottest new pieces of tech – software and hardware – that gamers are drooling over: Elite: Dangerous and the Oculus Rift.
I strapped myself into the Oculus Rift's VR headset with some difficulty. Getting it over my glasses took some work, and once it was on, the edges of my vision were blurrier than I would have liked. I don't know if that's how the Rift naturally works or if it was just that way because of my particular situation (I have a very strong prescription), but it wasn't a good first impression. It did little to dissuade me from the notion that the Rift is an expensive and amusing toy but something that will have trouble finding its way to the masses the way that, say, motion-control devices did with the previous generation of consoles.
Those mechanical issues aside, seeing the world through the Oculus Rift is an amazing experience, and something everyone should try at least once. I felt totally immersed in the game and the environment, and, after a few minutes, I found myself actually looking up rather than moving my eyeballs to track the enemy ship I was trying to (unsuccessfully) shoot down. I honestly wasn't expecting much, but once I acclimated myself, it was easy to shut out all other distractions and feel like I was really inside the cockpit of a starship. It was suitably depressing to take the headset off and return to the bland and boring world of two dimension. Well, on the monitor... the world was still in three dimensions. You know what I mean.
Regardless of how I was looking at the game, I definitely fought the controls. That was probably due to a couple of factors: having it be my first time playing, and the control-stick/throttle controls I was using. (I'm a boring, bland keyboard-and-mouse kind of guy.) That said, from what I've been reading, I'm not the only one who struggles with the controls, and it was one of the first things I asked Producer Eddie Symons about after my demo. “You can't get away from the fact that you're flying a starship, and that's going to be difficult,” Symons said, but it was still something the team wanted to address.
Another common complaint was that while the galaxy of E:D is truly enormous, there just isn't a whole lot to do in it. That's not unusual for a sandbox game, where most of the excitement is supposed to be provided by the players, but it is still a concern. Symons told me about the new mission system coming to the game in February as an example of the type of content they were looking to implement. One example would be that a planet would need a lot of a certain type of cargo, the kind that would take hundreds or thousands of players to fulfill.
About that galaxy: yeah, it's big. Symons told me that it took Frontier Development's 100 staff members two years to create the Stellar Forge system and populate it both with real star systems and planets, as well as they are known, and procedurally generated systems to fill out the rest. So far, he said, only about 600,000 star systems have been discovered, out of the 400 billion present in the game, and he estimates that the whole galaxy could be explored in, oh, about 150,000 years or so. There's a movement, called the Great Exploration, that's attempting to chart as much as the galaxy as possible, but it's got its work cut out for it. Heck, we might discover warp travel and get to those other systems for real before players manage it in game.
Even with the mission system, though, Elite: Dangerous players will mostly have to find their own fun, and E:D does offer a goodly number of activities, from the aforementioned exploration to trading, mining, and, one would presume, a number of less-than-savory occupations. I asked Symons to tell me about some of his escapades, and he spun me a yarn about being a smuggler of “onionhead,” a kind of rare and totally illicit drug that he kept supplying to a system to the point that he found himself on the game's most-wanted list – but only at #4. Keep trying, son, you'll make the big time some day!