By Nathan Grayson on October 25th, 2013 at 3:00 pm.
I love the idea of being in space, but I’ve recently come to realize that the reality of space is entirely horrifying. No air, no gravity, no control. Humans weren’t meant to exist outside our warm, loamy cradle of a planet, and mortality’s icy hand becomes much harder to ignore when it’s inches away from your face. That’s the power of EVE Valkyrie, the suck-the-air-out-of-your-lungs appeal that virtual reality – truly well-done virtual reality – brings. It’s one thing to watch your EVE ship float around from some detached camera angle like a roving intergalactic deity, but it’s quite something else to see fog overwhelming your cockpit’s glass, creeping like fear. Can that added element of immersion sustain a full game, though? And are Valkyrie’s other elements up to snuff? Here’s what I found during an all-too-brief play session.
I felt my stomach lurch as my ship rocketed out of a claustrophobically narrow hangar. As someone who grew up having no trouble with speedy racers and shooters of all shapes and settings (I remember Tribes 2 matches better than most of my graduations, birthday parties, etc), this was a new sensation. It was most akin to a drastically reduced version of the feeling people get when a rollercoaster drops. Whoosh. My in-game “body” moved before my brain was prepared to acknowledge or understand it.
At that moment, I looked up. A glass panel. Back. The rest of my chair, riddled with bumps and contours for comfort. Down. I had legs and arms and a torso. They were stock still. Well, at least my in-game avatar was feeling pretty calm about the whole thing.
Seconds later, space engulfed me. The narrow tunnel opened up, revealing a glittering sea of stars, dotted with precarious asteroids. Ships buzzed and hummed about, just barely audible over the deafening disquiet of space. And then, as often is the case with games, I found myself in a fight.
But it was less like a typical videogame space battle and more similar to those scenes in Battlestar Galactica when a pilot’s glass cracks or the prospect of death otherwise looms heavy. I can’t think of many space games that – anti-gravity aside – couldn’t have been more or less replicated with a pleasant, birdies-chirping blue sky background. In Valkyrie, I was there. Everything was massive and fatal and terrifying, and a new HD Oculus Rift kit only made that all the more apparent. That brittle pane of glass separating me from an infinite, unyielding vacuum suddenly felt much, much thinner.
It was a bit like seeing the movie Gravity in 3D, an experience which had me gazing up at the night sky and shouting, “YOU’LL NEVER TAKE ME” before skittering into nearby basements for weeks afterward. That film went to great pains (and, in doing so, arguably caused them) to be extremely physical – to engage a sense that’s often ignored by screen-based media. Sight and sound get front-row seats, but touch/feel? What’s the point when we can’t actually be there?
So Gravity shoved all of its action into enclosed angles, was in constant motion, and never let up. It tricked our senses into believing we were there even though we weren’t. My heart tried to escape from my chest in the same way I wanted to escape from the theater. Piloting a ship in EVE Valkyrie felt similar. Spinning and spinning and spinning. Everything so close to my eyes that I reflexively attempted to dodge when enemy ships came whirring directly at me. I didn’t get motion-sick or anything, but this heavy, knotting tension was ever-present, even after I got the hang of combat and started to hold my own.
But maybe that’s just personal fears and phobias I brought along to the experience. I imagine that really engaging with virtual reality will be a slightly different experience for everyone, and that’s in part what makes it so exciting. Outside of my own gut reactions, though, where does that leave EVE Valkyrie?
Well, the build I played was a tight yet exceedingly basic space shooter – controls far more arcade-y than sim-y. Visually, details teemed and squirmed right and left, but combat took the form of stripped-down dogfighting. It was serviceable, but nothing revolutionary. One trigger (I was given an Xbox controller for the purposes of the demo) handled machine gun fire, but the other offered a far more Oculus-specific means of attack. If I held it down, a lock-on reticle would appear, preparing a barrage of homing missiles for whatever fly I couldn’t swat with manual aiming.
Here’s the thing, though: I had to physically look at enemy ships in order to begin the lock-on process. That little detail made a huge difference, physically engaging me ever-so-slightly, but increasing my sense of “there”-ness exponentially. Also, it just felt damn cool to dart my head in one direction and then watch something explode seconds later. Before long, I found myself dancing through missile trails, gunning nearby foes from on-high, and – simultaneously – hurling missiles at ships that had the misfortune of popping into my peripheral vision. I multi-tasked like the most diabolical of space squids.
I did have some trouble, though. Escaping from enemy missiles was pretty wonky, given that I couldn’t launch any flares to get them off my trail. Instead, my only option was to physically look down at a holographic pseudo-map near my character’s lap and pinpoint which direction the missiles were coming from. It’s actually a pretty cool idea on paper, but in practice it was extremely frantic and confusing. Maybe with more time to practice I’d have gotten it down, but as was, I just spun wildly like a drunk bee while praying that the Gigantic Projectiles That Absolutely Could would get distracted by, I don’t know, a satellite or god or something.
EVE Valkyrie’s still very early, and CCP’s only just now really knuckling down on turning it into more than a razzle-dazzle tech demo. That shows, but not necessarily in a bad way. The groundwork’s in place, and the potential’s there. That much is certain. But what happens when the virtual reality “wow” factor wears off? And how long will that take, exactly? Those are the big questions surrounding not only CCP’s giant leap into more-first-person-than-ever space, but virtual reality in general. Opportunities for mindless gimmick-ery abound, but I really, truly hope that – deep in the reaches of this new universe gaming’s about to plumb – we also find far more than that.
Check back soon for an interview with CCP about plans to expand Valkyrie and connect it with the rest of the EVE universe. Also, read this and become worried that we might not see Valkyrie on PC for quite some time.