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The Culmination

Gareth Harmer Posted:
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CCP’s first foray into virtual reality gaming, EVE: Valkyrie, has just entered alpha. A fast-paced, multi-player spacefaring shooter, Oculus is bundling a copy with every consumer version of the Rift, making it the first destination for thousands of VR trailblazers when the headset starts shipping next month. Until then, a few lucky gamers will be helping to iron out the kinks and prepare the way. And I’m one of them.

I’d been anticipating this moment for years: the early prototype was so immersive, it convinced me to by an Oculus Rift by itself. After returning to it, both at FanFest and at Gamescom, that hunger didn’t fade. It was lightning in a bottle – a tight coupling of gameplay and hardware that felt like they were meant for each other – that made it the topic of conversation at every convention it was shown. ‘Have you seen the latest Rift prototype?’ closely followed by ‘Have you played the latest Valkyrie demo?’

It makes this moment feel like a culmination. No more snatched glimpses at expos, and no more test hardware. This time, I’d be using my own rig, an Xbox controller, and an aging (but functional) DK2 to fight through asteroid fields and spaceship graveyards. But, even with this rudimentary setup, the experience is hugely addictive.

Out of the Tube

In Valkyrie, the launch tube is a thumping, hammering crescendo that starts every game. My small fighter – a bare frame of metal and plexiglass – shoots out into the cold and the quiet, giving me a moment to peek around the dense asteroid field. It looks like a mining operation – I can make out a Venture and Procurer, their lasers chewing through the rock. An Orca shuttles into view, the vast cargo ship dominating my vision for a moment. And then, as I fly around it, the enemy squad swings into view. I pump the thrusters to get in closer and try to pick out a few stragglers from the frenzied ball of carnage. Picking one, it’s time to move in.

The most important task of VR is presence – making you feel like you’re inside the cockpit, right in the thick of the action. It’s why the balance of hardware and software is crucial in maintaining the illusion, updating your view of the game as you move your head around and nudge the controls. Responses need to be instantaneous and relevant to avoid motion sickness, and create that feeling of kinaesthetic projection when the controller in your hands disappears.

This is the magical alchemy that EVE: Valkyrie performs. I’m not thumbing a stick to move around or perform stunts, I’m banking right and pulling barrel rolls. I’m not tabbing around my viewpoint, I’m glancing over my shoulder to check my six. I’m not mousing crosshairs, I’m lining up my sights and pulling the trigger. Yes, the experience doesn’t work unless all the parts are in place. But, as a result, it all works together incredibly well.

Target Rich Environment

I lock targets and edge closer to move within missile range. They haven’t spotted me yet, being tied up dogfighting with one of my own teammates, and I’m planning to take advantage of the surprise. I can tell them apart by the exhaust trails they leave behind – blue for allies, red for enemies, which makes it easy to read the battle from a distance.

That doesn’t mean I’m flying in the dark. My cockpit is lit up like a Christmas tree, with crucial information scattered around my field of view. The fighter’s health and shield level appear as bars running down each side of the plexiglass visor, with the latter recharging gently when I’m not under fire. I’ve also got relative indicators for velocity and ‘capacitor’, which depletes whenever I thumb the booster jets. Red boxes and arrows hover around like a heads-up display, constantly pointing me towards the fight. It all feels integrated, with none of it feeling like an artificial and immersion-breaking overlay.

It’s time to announce my entrance, so I focus at the target and trigger my missile lock to unleash a volley. A full load will be enough to take down someone’s shield, but it’ll take several to pop their ship open and expose them to the cold, harsh vacuum of space. While my team-mate keeps them tangled up, I focus on cutting them down with a mix of homing missiles and heavy guns. It works, as the fighter breaks apart in a ball of metal and orange.

Carnage is rarely one-sided though, and it doesn’t take long for me to pick up some interest. I can use countermeasures to knock off some incoming missiles, and some tight turns around an asteroid to bounce more, but it’s tough to shake them off. Even as I weave around some kind of industrial base, I can see my shields are getting depleted. A volley of missiles lands with a thud, and the canopy starts to splinter and crack. I can hear the glass creak around me, and my teeth instinctively grit as the fighter barely hangs together. Then, another explosion, the glass shatters, and the cold floods in to claim me.

An Important Symbiosis

EVE Online remains a stalwart MMO, with the spacefaring sandbox appearing as tangible and solid as the unique community that surrounds it. But this is the first time I’ve felt truly embedded in that universe, playing a part in some small skirmish a galaxy and epoch away. From those early days playing X-Wing vs Tie Fighter and Wing Commander, Valkyrie comes across as the next chapter in satisfying, intimate space combat.

Then again, this is only the first week. In future updates, I’ll be digging more into the squad-based experience of teaming up with friends, and some of the progression systems and ship variety that’s ready to unlock.

Ultimately though, it’s clear that both Oculus and CCP need this partnership to work. The Rift needs a flagship game in order to demonstrate the power and potential of virtual reality to a sceptical audience, and Valkyrie needs VR to truly demonstrate itself as a unique experience that extends significantly beyond the arcade shooters of yesteryear. The combination is incredibly potent and well-worth pulling on a headset for, but it’s likely to be tinged with uncertainty until the first consumer kits are in the hands of players in the Spring.


Gareth Harmer

Gareth Harmer / Gareth “Gazimoff” Harmer has been blasting and fireballing his way through MMOs for over ten years. When he's not exploring an online world, he can usually be found enthusiastically dissecting and debating them. Follow him on Twitter at @Gazimoff.