I'm at a press preview event for EVE Valkyrie [official site]. It's CCP's multiplayer dogfighting VR game which they've just announced will come bundled with every Oculus Rift headset at launch. As lead game designer Andrew Willans explains the project: "The goal from day one was always to make you feel like a badass space pilot – Tom Cruise in Top Gun in space."
I first took Valkyrie for a spin at FanFest earlier this year and the moment which stuck with me from that fledgling flight was when I dodged a pursuing craft by doing a loop-the-loop, coming up behind them and killing them. It was the exhilaration of a slick kill amplified by the "OH BOY I AM IN SPACE" which my brain was doing the whole time.
I'm telling you this mainly so that you know I am capable of cool space manoeuvers and can reference this intro when I later tell you about how many times I died while roaming one of the maps solo in peaceful exploration mode.
ANYWAY. Valkyrie is now much closer to being fully formed. There are still "what ifs" and "we'd like tos" but they exist alongside an increasingly solid game and explanations of how things like progression systems work and what form the PvE elements of Valkyrie have taken. Here's what I found when I donned my headset:
The main mode we were playing was a 5v5 team deathmatch. Each side starts with the same number of clones which represents your team's collective allowance of respawns. Clones are the bodies you use to pilot the ships. When your ship explodes the clone dies and you move to another clone body – that's what the line "see you in the next life" is about in the trailer. The objective is to either burn through all the enemy team's clones or to be the team with the most clones remaining when time runs out.
You launch out of carrier ships which have pulled up to the battlefield then fly about doing space murdering and maybe a bit of space healing. The exact range of your abilities on the battlefield will depend on which ships you've brought to load into the launch tubes of the carrier. "I don't know if we'll call it a launch tube at launch," says Willans. "We might call it the deck but basically you've got this four card hand, effectively. You're assigning these ships before you go into battle so they're your options once you get into battle."
The classes of ship break down as fighter, heavy and support with a few hybrids sloshing about in the mix too. Fighters are Valkyrie's assault class and are intended as all-rounder ships. Decent speed, decent armour. Heavies are tanks. Heavily armoured and slower but with a powerful blast weapon which deals splash damage, letting you attack multiple units as they group up. They also have a microwarp drive which lets you scoot forward when you've charged it up as a compensation for the decreased mobility. Supports are the medics of spaceworld buffing shields for allies and removing them from enemies. They also have deployable spiderbots.
"How you'll see it in the world is like a faint spiderweb. If an enemy dropped it and you fly through that it will remove your shields, you'll get EMP damage and you'll see little spider running round the cockpit and start trying to chisel through the glass. It's pretty cool in VR." If you fly through a friendly web you'll get your shield recharged.
In the preview session we have everything unlocked but in the real game you'll need to earn XP for each class by playing. The XP allows you to unlock new ships, upgrades, colours, interiors and so on. The XP across all three classes feeds into a central rank called your pilot reputation level. The XP you can earn in the classes is uncapped but the pilot reputation level is capped at fifty at the moment. Customisations are largely cosmetic because of balance issues but the progressions and unlocks should grant access to a range of ships supporting various playstyles.
Willans gives the example of someone thinking "I really like using spiderbots and the microwarp drive but I want a gatling gun - we have a ship that's in one of the progressions which has those properties and it becomes your favourite. That's one layer of the tactics."
I went into our first match with a Wraith – one of the fighter class – because it seemed relatively nippy and all-purpose, plus I remembered doing well with one at FanFest, but after a terrible performance early on I found myself switching to the support class option CCP had put in my selection box. The Wraith gives you a gatling gun on your right trigger and a set of homing missiles on the left but I wasn't finishing foes off fast enough (my gatling gun aim is atrocious). With the support ship I had a beam on my left trigger which can buff friendly ship shields and take out those of enemies. Being able to take out those shields before unleashing my gunfire improved my kill count somewhat. We weren't co-ordinated enough to make use of the friendly shield buffing, though, although I can imagine that changing if you were on voice comms.
Sidebar: An interesting point about the homing missiles is that they use a "look to lock" system designed to get people turning their head more in the game. "A lot of the time you put people in VR and they wouldn't move," explained Willans. Now you have to. For the missiles you hold down the left trigger button to bring up a secondary reticle. It's this one you use to lock onto ships by looking at them. Releasing the trigger fires the missiles.
Pro tip: maybe also try to keep an eye on where you're flying because this is how asteroid-based spaceship insurance claims get made.
So there are spaceships and spiderbots and the thrill of VR. But is it actually fun?
Prevarication is something I want to be careful about because I don't want it to be read as a lack of enthusiasm for the game. Valkyrie looks fantastic but I wasn't excited when I played that day. I've been thinking about why that might be. The feeling I was having was one I know from other team-based games. Getting killed over and over is simply not much fun. Our side of the fight was the losing side and I could feel that frustration I associate with MOBAs where your team is getting trampled or has fallen behind or where you yourself feel like you're playing terribly. Getting a kill or a killstreak feels amazing in games like this. Being on the receiving end of someone else's killstreak, not so much.
There's no in-match levelling so the other team won't be pulling ahead in terms of firepower but there are other ways you can end up in patterns that make your own space life difficult. One is that the team can fall off their tempo. By that I mean if the other side gets a few pick-off kills suddenly your numbers are depleted and ships are then waiting to respawn. If you aren't careful you just end up in a rhythm of dripfeeding kills because the other team has a numbers advantage and picks people off as they rejoin the fray. You see it in games like Overwatch and Paladins too.
At a press event people are trying things out, experimenting rather than practicing or being all MLG about it. If we had been playing seriously or if it was post-launch and my friends had formed a little squadron I'd probably have told everyone to wait and regroup to see if that reset the balance a bit for the fights. I've found myself chewing over what I could have done differently and wanting to play again.
"When you get this – and I'm sure you're going to get this! – and you're at home with your microphone on and your squad, that MOBA [knowledge] will shine."
Obviously other factors – individual skill, understanding of the different classes of ship, switching tactics and map awareness, or even how the matchmaking system finds opponents – are important and I'm not wanting to rake over a single loss in a videogame unnecessarily. Rather, I want to point out that playing Valkyrie for a second time having already processed the "HOLY SHIT IT IS SPACE" moment I started to see it as part of that family of skillz 'n' stratz* team games that can leave you feeling amazing or miserably frustrated. With that in mind I'll be interested to see how the player communication side shakes out – friendly, functional or quick to anger?
The other mode we tried has you capturing and holding control points. I play a lot of Control maps in Destiny so it's probably no surprise that the control maps here were my preferred stomping ground. Rather than you guarding the points yourself – an experience which works badly in virtual reality spaceships – you deploy drones in the nearby area and have them do the capturing for you. Deploying multiple drones speeds up the process and you can shoot enemy drones to destroy them, spoiling their own capture attempts. I spent most of my time trying to work out how to position my drones in hard to reach spots – in gaps in structures, behind asteroids.
"That's a sly technique. I like it. I appreciate that," says Willans.
The last mode I tried was Scout. It's the non-violent option that lets you just potter about on the maps without anyone trying to blast you out of the sky. It's been a much-requested feature at events, apparently and I can imagine why. People want to chill out and fly in space.
It's a slightly odd experience at the moment but the team are going to work on adding more information to reward the exploration. At the moment it's just a case of flying around the deserted multiplayer maps. It was useful for practicing maneuvers and scoping out playspaces but I found more of the sense of wonder in the multiplayer deathmatches. I suspect this is because as soon as you're concentrating on the space and not being distracted by death threats pew-pewing at you you're aware of how game-y the spaces are. You feel the limits so quickly and the impulse to explore planets in the distance is thwarted because as soon as you leave the map area you get a set of warnings and, if you fail to heed them, you blow up. It's simply not a space exploration game, it's a team-based shooter. I wonder what other people will make of the mode.
Oh, FYI the other two times I died in the non-violent mode were because I was experimenting with fast turns and careened into asteroids and space girders too many times.
I also had the briefest dabble with the PvE side of things but that was only a minute or two as we needed to start the multiplayer session. Basically the idea is that through DNA memory fragment technology things (it sounded a touch Assassin's Creed-y at this point) you'll be able to play through memory fragments from other pilots. One of them, Convoy, you might recognise from that Valkyrie trailer at FanFest earlier this year. The other PvE plan is for a survival mode where you face down increasingly difficult waves of AI foes.
Beyond this you start to run into uncertainties as the team are still working to finalise parts of the game or how particular systems will work. For example, ranked play is still being figured out, as is whether daily quests or challenges will be available at launch.
Speaking of launch, Valkyrie will be "premiering" on Oculus Rift, with all pre-orders of the technology including a copy of the game. As per Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, "[Valkyrie] perfectly captures the promise of immersive gaming, shooting you into a sci-fi adventure as you pilot a spaceship in search of combat. Battling your friends (and enemies) in multiplayer space dogfights is the ultimate VR thrill, and we’re excited to partner with CCP to bring this experience to Rift owners everywhere."
I think the bundling will be incredibly useful because trying to explain the experience of VR or a particular VR game to someone who hasn't done it themselves can feel like you're forcing them to look through pictures of your child. You're all enthusiasm (as with Palmer Luckey's quote) and they're politely interested but you worry they don't see how cool the thing you're explaining is.
"I can talk about VR to you all day, chew your ear off in the pub about how it's going to change the world and show you pictures but you will not get it until you have the headset on," is how Willans phrases it. "[The problem is] not unique to our game, it's unique to the medium. Do I imagine a world where every Game and HMV up and down the UK has got a VR station – I hope so. This is the way people will understand it. It's a challenge absolutely."
With Valkyrie, the team have started to focus in on delivering a wow factor from the moment you boot the game. Currently when you're browsing menus and customising ships you're standing in a huge hangar. Turning to look behind you you'll see the words "Crow's nest" on the back wall. Ahead is the edge of the mezzanine you're on, a sheer drop to the floor below (why you would actively choose to sit next to a sheer drop is not clear to me). Hovering in front of you are holographic ships and menu icons and so on – augmented reality inside virtual reality. It reminded me of the galaxy map room of the Normandy in Mass Effect.
"The whole of the front end, the UI, was done in the last 6 weeks," says Willans. "That was because we had an amazing game but there was no wow from the get go. There are a lot of people who are going to be into VR who might not be gamers, they might be VR enthusiasts. We really want them to boot the client and be like 'Holy shit, this is the future'."
Valkyrie is currently set for a Q1 2016 launch in line with the Oculus Rift release schedule.
*You might be horrified at this turn of phrase now but next year everyone will be saying it.