At Gamescom this year I was lucky enough to have the chance not only to play the latest build of EVE VR (now known as EVE Valkyrie), but I got to experience it on the new 1080p panel-equipped Oculus Rift HD prototype. These are my thoughts.
An Interloper At Gamescom
Not only was Gamescom 2013 in Cologne, Germany my first real taste of an international games convention, it was also my first time anywhere as a card carrying member of the gaming press. Having spent so many years devouring coverage in magazines and websites it felt distinctly surreal to be the one doing the reporting. Surreal, and faintly terrifying – I felt distinctly ill-prepared for this new role.
However, I was amazed how patient and friendly everyone was in the face of my rookie bumbling and I soon lost my nerves. As I edged my way into the CCP ‘compound’ explaining that I had an appointment, I was greeted by attractive woman offering me drinks, delicious looking food and a rather swanky custom build glass enclosure sporting EVE and Dust 541 decals. Within were 6 seats, each of which contained both an Oculus Rift HD HMD with the new 5.5″ 1080p panel (which I later found out had been frantically constructed by Oculus Staff back in California and delivered to CCP just the previous day) and spanking new Razer Kraken 7.1 headsets (presumably purloined from the Razer booth a few booths away). Above the demo stations was a large flat panel screen which displayed a spectator, e-sports style view if the current in-game action.
When the time was right, we were ushered into the small presentation booth adjacent to the gaming demo area. Here we were treated to a quick summary of EVE Online and Dust 541 releases and progress over the last 12 months and what we were to expect in the next 12 months. Once done, we entered the demo area, now behind that glass, just a tantalising few minutes away from getting my hands on the game I’d been desperate to try since hearing about it some 3 months earlier.
Once we’d had the 360 Gamepad button configuration explained to us, we filed to our demo stations and donned our headsets and Rift HMDs. The difference between the trusty Dev Kit DK1 back home and this new device was clearly and immediately apparent, although not necessarily for the reasons you might expect. In fact, the first thing that struck me was the clipped FOV, represented by sizeable black bars left and right. This, as you probably know by now, is a product of the new Prototype being, essentially, very similar to the DK1 in terms of construction and specifically optics. It uses the same aspheric lenses found in the Dev Kit, which were originally matched of course to the DK1’s 7″ 1280×800 panel. Clearly, with the new panel measuring 1.5″ less diagonally something had to to give, and it’s the FOV. In fairness, all units had the retractable assembly full ‘retracted’ (i.e. as far away from the lenses as possible) to make it far easier and faster to roll people the demos with minimal fuss. It was much more of an issue for me than I thought it would be and one reason why this design is clearly and exhaustively referred to as a ‘Prototype’ NOT a Development kit.
However, to stop there would to do both EVE Valkyrie and the new Prototype an enormous disservice. The 1080p panel affords some obvious improvements in detail levels. The entire experience is easier on the eye with screendoor diminished but in no way eliminated – even with the naturally dark backdrop (this is space after all) pixels were still clearly evident as was the structure of the panel. However, even more so than the DK1, your brain tunes this out even more quickly as the pixels fade into a believable world. More important (in my opinion) though is the other attributes the new panel brings. Blacks are now wonderfully inky and well resolved, colours pop vibrantly and subtle hues are now brilliantly registered. This set of secondary attributes are the reasons returning to the original Dev Kit will be so difficult for me as they unleash something more important than raw pixels, the underlying artistry that goes into making a believable gameworld.
The new panel’s fidelity is the perfect canvas for EVE Valkyrie’s new polished and tweaked visuals. Improved lighting and texturing plus assets liberally borrowed from the EVE Online library lend the game a level of production quality difficult, if not impossible, to achieve in this game’s incredibly short gestation period. From the moment you’re dropped into the cockpit in your launch tube, you believe in your new virtual space instantly. Glancing around the subtlety in lighting washes over you thanks to that new panel and everything is rendered at what I’d estimate as 60FPS throughout, that is, the illusion of the gameworld moving around you is not distracting in any way, as can happen then lower frame rates creep into a VR game.
Once the headset is on, that’s it .. I’m gone, now in the hands of CCPs designers and SysAdmins, my eyes set into the invisible head and visible body of my new avatar. Another surprise, the game’s audio is incredibly evocative. The cockpit hums and incidental effects are perfectly in keeping with the game’s visual feel. When it’s time for launch, the sound of the warning klaxon inspires genuine tension as I brace myself for the fight that awaits you. One short, blindingly fast sequence later and I’m searching the heavens for foes, trying not to be distracted by the beautiful scale of the battlefield. The cockpit HUD is functional without being distracting. The main difference in this new build is the addition of a 3D representation of your immediate surroundings which sits towards the bottom of your view. Imagine a luminous, holographic map, staple of so many Sci-Fi movies, on it enemies and their projectiles are represented in 3D space. This addresses one of the frustrations mentioned by Jon Lander, Executive Producer of the game when he talked to me, namely knowing where the hell those missiles are coming from. It’s elegant and effective and I can see it becoming an absolutely vital tool in heated and busy space battles.
Elsewhere, the gaming mechanics are as beautifully simple as they were before. Hold down the left analogue triggers to engage ‘Missile Seek’ mode, this brings up a reticle that’s locked to your head’s view. The action is thus: Trigger -> Find Target -> Wait for Lock -> Release. And this is where the gameplay satisfaction first sets in. It’s the perfect evolution of the lock-on mechanic, seen in countless games before it. The key, is the head tracking. Finding a target by looking is completely intuitive, and furthermore unlocks your other controls for things like steering the ship out of danger whilst targeting enemies at the same time. It’s pure joy to play and provides much of the ‘cool’ factor EVE Valkyrie evokes in it’s player.
What could be termed ‘regular’ gaming mechanics, the pitch, yaw and roll of your ship are all also well judged with inertia and the weight of your ship tweaked just right. You never feel as if you can blame your ship for your piloting errors, and throwing her around the arena becomes transparent after a minute or so, which is pretty much all you can ask of a space combat game.
As I search for targets, close, lock and release again and again Valkyrie feels at home very quickly. As well as visual tweaks and polish, the development team are playing the game every day, which means that in the short weeks since it’s last outing at E3, gameplay has also been refined and rebalanced. Closing speeds and other mechanics have been honed and as a result the game feels like a labour of love, which of course is ostensibly what it is.
After only a few short minutes the demo ends and I’m returned to the real world again, and I want to play more .. already. What’s more, even after I leave the confines of the CCP press / trade booth I’m thinking about playing it and that feeling remains with me for the rest of the day. That is the mark of a great game.
Jon Lander told me that they are very diligently NOT specifying what ‘platforms’ EVE Valkyrie will be available to play on. That is to say, VR or no VR or the option of either. It seems to me that Valkyrie is the perfect example of a very traditional, and some might even say unoriginal genre enlivened and invigorated by VR. Not only the lock-on mechanic but the ability to search targets freely as you would were you actually in that cockpit plus the enveloping experience that a high-FOV HMD brings to the table. Thus, I find it difficult to believe Valkyrie will exist in any other form than VR — but who knows. We’ll have to wait until next year to find out for sure, and in the mean time I’ll continue to wish I was playing EVE Valkyrie right now.