While most of us are still waiting for our Oculus Rifts to arrive, EVE: Valkyrie [official site] has been building a name for itself as one of the most beautiful and intense VR experiences. Free with every Rift preorder, Valkyrie released last month, will be arriving later this year on the Vive, and, best of all, will sport cross-platform multiplayer between the Rift, Vive, and even Playstation VR. But despite the high praise, it's worth questioning whether Valkyrie is capable of being more than just a brief spark in the first wave of VR games due to its somewhat simple combat and progression. I braved the blustery winds and fermented shark bits of Reykjavik, Iceland during EVE Fanfest 2016 to find out what CCP has to say.
The biggest addition coming to Valkyrie is Carrier Assault, a new game mode unveiled during Fanfest that will finally let you take the fight to the large carriers which sit, rather pointlessly at present, on the far edges of each map. This new objective-based mode will task teams with capturing control points to drop a carrier's shields, at which point they can assault the carrier itself and destroy its main turrets. Where things get really hot and heavy is when pilots get to fly through a central trench in the enemy carrier to deliver one final blow reminiscent of the Death Star's demise in Star Wars. Carrier Assault, which is expected to arrive "early summer" along with a new map, looks like a strong opening act for Valkyrie's post-launch support.
"We're like 35—38 people and a small studio," says Andrew Willans, lead game designer for EVE: Valkyrie. "We made the launch, but there's a long list of things we want to improve." Since Valkyrie's launch, Willans and his team have been working on a roadmap that charts out major features based on both developer and community input. "We have a long list of things," Willans says, "but the players also have their lists, and we're looking for where those two combine."
Willans tells me that, apart from Carrier Assault and the new map, called Crossroads, social features are some of the highest priority items on their agenda. "We really want to make improvements to squadding, voice comms, to making friends and maintaining them." He is also quick to add that the progression system, which many have faulted for being too slow, is high on their agenda as they seek to make it more immediately rewarding. "That's the beauty of having a live game," Willans suggests. "You can make these changes as you go."
Unfortunately, as much as the 8-year-old in me loves the concept of Carrier Assault, the mode wasn't available to try out at Fanfest. Instead, I was able to jump into the new map and take that for a spin. Like everything I've played of EVE: Valkyrie so far, it was a gorgeous spread of space, complete with tumbling asteroids and various refuse, but its distinct features were only made more apparent to me after someone had to point them out. It turns out that vast swathes of space are hard to distinguish from one another.
It was also hard to get a sense of the map tactically, but I'll chalk that up to me being relatively green in the pilot's seat (though I did place first in all the PVP matches I played, a feat no one was interested in despite my constant reminders). The density of asteroids definitely adds some interesting opportunities for agile players who are able to use them to their advantage, but it's also easy to see Crossroads as another open stretch of space to loop around in.
A core pillar of what makes Fanfest such a fantastic experience is that the players are there to do far more than annoy Reykjavik locals by consuming all the beer on the island and then bellow out tributes to Prince at four in the morning before shouting "Reddit [sic] is recruiting." It's a weekend filled with rigorous sessions of player feedback, where CCP devs openly share their ideas and have fans do the same. "They're helping us — we have ideas of what's cool in space but then the players will say 'you know what's really missing, a sniper-style weapon,'" Willans says. "There are a lot of cool ideas we're kicking around, even things like new ship classes. We're already looking at and experimenting with what the fourth ship class could be." He goes on to add that, as plans for new ideas become more concrete, player feedback will play a key role in every decision.
All of that doesn't come without its own set of challenges, especially when players can take ideas and really run away with them to the magical lands of impracticality. "You really have to manage expectations," Willans says. "There are certain things we can't tackle. It's disheartening." Willans is quick to turn the conversation back towards the positive, citing his experience working at Ubisoft on The Division, The Crew, and Grow Home being like "maneuvering an aircraft carrier compared to being in a little frigate," even if that means sacrificing the massive scope and budget to do everything. "It's really about having that level of honesty and not shying away from what we do," Willans says.
But looking at many of the changes currently being worked on — and even at the current offering of maps that Valkyrie has — I can't help feel like all of it doesn't really stack up to the years of development poured into Valkyrie. When systems like the HUD are a key area of improvement post-release, it's easy to wonder if EVE: Valkyrie didn't have the smoothest development cycle.
When I put the question to Willans, he chalks a big portion of that up to VR being such an unexplored frontier for designing games. "With traditional mechanics in traditional 3D games, you might just go, oh, that's a no-brainer. But there's a lot more to consider with VR — you're in a fully immersive world and your [head movements are tracked]. There's a lot more of a juggle."
He goes on to explain how even something as simple as a spectator mode can lead to all sorts of interesting problems given the ability to freely move your head. Most of all, Willans wants everything within EVE: Valkyrie to not only be serviceable but also groundbreaking too.
"None of this happens by accident, the reason people say they don't get motion sickness or they call Valkyrie the posterchild of VR is because so much work has gone into that sensation, that sense of presence," he says. "Every element of Valkyrie that's there needed to be 'VR wow.' I want you to feel like a child looking up at the stars."
"We want to put more in there, but this is where we spent our dev-time, to make the experience of Valkyrie multiplayer — which is our core pillar, really — as best as it can be. And then we can fill out some of the other areas." Willans briefly mentions Valkyrie's somewhat forgettable story mode, Chronicles, saying that even that will see future updates and new missions for players to explore. "It's not about just adding more maps or game modes, it's about improving everything so that it's rock-solid."
Most people don't even have their Oculus Rifts, but Willans seems pretty keen on forging ahead and making sure that Valkyrie is an even more impressive game when it arrives on the Vive later this year. For now, Carrier Assault looks like a bombastic and welcome addition to the dogfighting. If you're one of the many running downstairs every morning to see if Santa has left a Rift on your front step, at least you'll have the consolation that Valkyrie will be even more fleshed out when you finally get to strap in.