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Heads-On: Playing Elite Dangerous With The Oculus Rift

On the Frontier

My trip to Frontier was a costly one. All through the day, David Braben kept teasing me about a special surprise he had for me, one that I was forbidden to mention (until today). Was it the Thargoids? Was he a Thargoid? I took note that his office was curiously round, like the cockpit of a ship, and I warily entered it. It wasn't that: as I sat down, he asked me if I wanted to play Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift? Did I? I did. I'm allowed to tell you this because the Elite alpha has just updated support for Track IR, 3D TVs, and the Oculus Rift, and my time with it has convinced me I need a Rift in my life.

He gave me the device--and in my head he whispered "you will believe" while he was swathed in a heavenly shaft of light, but really he just said "put this on"--and handed me an Xbox controller. I've tried the Rift one time before, and it wasn't very smooth. It made me feel slightly nauseous, which was my final thought as I slipped the headset over my face. Though it arrived like this: "Don't you dare puke on David Braben's nice jumper."

I was in. A gentle turn of my head didn't elicit any comets of vomit, which was a good sign because the first time the effect was immediately apparent. I think the lagginess of the previous game was to blame, as it didn't keep up with my head movements. I was in a cockpit and beyond that frame I could see asteroids and the little spaceship I was to hunt down and destroy. They were a little low-res and pixelated (the Rift's dev kit is 640×800 per eye), but nonetheless my brain clicked and said: "You're in a space ship. You're in Elite."

Me, making a conscious effort to keep my tongue in my mouth.

My brain and I do a lot of talking, and it always sounds like a portentous TV character. But it was right: I was inside the new Elite! I did the thing everybody does when they put on the headset and span my head around like I was a human bobblehead. Just a few hours prior, if I turned like this, I'd have caught the attention of three Elite: Dangerous developers and their PR lady. Now I saw stars, asteroids, and even the back of my seat and the door of the cockpit. I looked down, but I was bodiless, though that's something Frontier plan on changing.

Apparently this build lagged a few weeks behind the one I'd been playing. It was also missing a crosshair, which I asked about. One will arrive, but Braben explained it's a tough element to get right: "They were disabled as they didn’t have a position on 3D. We’re experimenting with them at different 3D distances in the world – it feels wrong to have the gun-sight feel like it is inside the cockpit but should be further out into the world – a bit like they do with HUDs in real planes or even in some recent cars like BMWs. We will tune it until it feels ‘right’ but this is the beauty of an Alpha – we can adjust it over time."

All the impressive, immersive tricks the HUD needed to pull to help you to track a target aren't needed when you can just move my head. It changed everything. I tracked the ship for a little bit, watching it slink through the asteroids. I could still see the jets burn as he twisted away in front of me, though in the confines of the Rift he now felt further away. I boosted to keep him close, but instead of locking on to keep track, I just watched, tilting my head as he swam to the left of my view and then following with the ship's controls. If you think about that for a second, you'll realise it reverses a lot of what's true in dog-fighting situations without head-tracking: I'd have had to keep up with it before to keep it in view, constantly adjusting to keep it in sight. Now I knew exactly where I was turning to, which enabled me to adjust my speed a lot more accurately. The ship was never out of my view, though the missing crosshair did cause me some trouble with aiming. I won't be ending this piece with a triumphant final blast of my weapons.

But something better happened: I boosted a little bit more, trying to get the ship directly in front of me to help with my aim. It was fighting me all the way, swimming and spinning off centre, locking the pair of us into a spiral. I decided the best way to solve this was to get closer and just ram it. I steadied and then pushed the throttle all the way up, this time just minutely adjusting my trajectory to avoid oversteering. As I got closer, I fired again and the ship took evasive action; it pulled sharply up and I passed underneath him. I could see the detail of the ship as it drifted overhead: the thrusters burned on one side as it tried to push out and away, there was a little smear of damage from where I'd clipped it.

I followed the ship as it passed over my head, the transparent cockpit roof enabling me to track it without any trouble. It carried on, nearly dipping behind the back of my ship before I snapped out of it: he was trying to get behind me. I swapped power from the weapons to the engines to make my turn tighter, reversed thrusters, and let his momentum carry him back over me. I didn't lose sight of him at any point. It was a moment that took me out of the game, a purely instinctive response to the situation. I never thought about the steps I needed to take, I just did it. I felt like an amazing pilot.

It turns out Braben had a similar experience. He said: "To me, it felt quite different too. It felt very open. I loved the feeling of watching an opponent’s ship soar above my cockpit and as it came close seeing the damage I had done to it. It had the feeling of being in a cockpit of a small plane, where I could see all around me, rather than just looking out of a front window."

The rest of the time was spent trying to shoot it, but the missing crosshairs left me firing bullets into the abyss. They're probably still travelling, alone and lost. I'd quite like to join them. There are games you know how you're going to play before you ever get the chance to play them. When I pledged to the Kickstarter, it was with the aim of eventually playing as an Explorer class. I'd be alone and on the edge of space, the canopy of my ship creeping with ice. I always imagined that, in that position, I'd be aware of my surroundings, because all my memories of Frontier seem to be wrapped in a cockpit, and not sat in front of a portable television with a CD32 controllers in my hands. This experience was dangerously close to fulfilling that vision.

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