The space-based dogfighter setting out to define modern VR gaming
The countdown begins as our ship adjusts itself on glittering red lanes before locking into place. Three… Two… One. Suddenly we’re propelled forward at such force we almost fall out of our chair, the speed and the roar rapidly increasing until there’s nothing but silence. We’ve gone from a warm clone bath to cold space in ten seconds and, aside from a pounding heartbeat, it’s an almost tranquil experience. Until the lasers start firing, that is.
CCP’s firstperson space shooter, which occupies the same universe as sci-fi MMO EVE Online, could be virtual reality’s most pivotal title. There’s a reason Oculus has chosen to include a copy with each headset that launches later this year. It’s the first experience many will have with the new tech and, like effective bundles of the past – Wii Sports and Wii Remote, EyeToy: Play and EyeToy – it’s a perfect showcase for both Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR.
But it’s immersive in a different way than EVE Online, less involved and more immediate, the spreadsheets and subterfuge traded for ten-minute bursts of scintillating space battles. “We’re set there, but we’re not connected to it,” says Andrew Willans, lead game designer. “We’re our own story, so effectively where EVE is focused on corporations and is very strategic and top-down, ours is more visceral. We put you into the pilot’s view.” Look down and you’ll see your body. Look behind and you might see wingmen. Lean forward and your avatar inches closer to dashboard instrumentation.
Since the multiplayer combat that forms Valkyrie’s backbone is heavily dependant on spatial awareness, VR has inherent tactical potential, meaning that it doesn’t feel crowbarred in, and it works to help rather than hinder. The main mode here centres on five-vs-five PVP battles, and deathmatch gives the purest experience of what CCP sets out to achieve: exhilarating 360-degree dogfighting. Here, threats from every conceivable direction mean pilots must cover all angles, glancing behind for bogeys on tails and tracking them as they attempt tricksy manoeuvres.
Each ship bears large transparent panels to enable sweeping views. In ordinary flight combat games, enemies dissolve into small red dots on your radar when they’re not fixed directly ahead of you, essentially ceasing to exist, but here they’re a visual presence no matter their relation to you. Hearing a scraping sound then looking up to see your ship trade paint with a bulky, screen-filling Reaver is a dramatic moment.
The same strategies apply in a King-Of-The-Hill-style mode in which pilots must fly to territories on the map and drop off drones to drain opposition power. It’s the best demonstration of the differences between the three ship classes: armoured heavies are effectively flying tanks, functioning best when parked near a territory and defending it through sheer overwhelming firepower; nippy fighters are able to move between territories fastest; and medic-minded support ships are squad-oriented, hanging back and buffing teammates’ health with energy beams.
“Every ship should have value, and the choices come down to your playing style,” Willans says. “When we were in San Francisco there was a guy who used support, didn’t know anything about the game, and he was mixing and matching, and debuffing and shooting me at the same time. It was really nice to see that he got into it really quickly and killed me.” That’s Valkyrie – an accessible spin on a sometimes inaccessible genre.
Recall, meanwhile, is the closest thing Valkyrie has to a singleplayer story mode. It follows the exploits of Rán Kavik who, after unwittingly awaking in a clone vat (her consciousness transported into a different body), is drafted into mercenary group the Guristas. Suspicious of their motives, Kavik forms her own splinter faction, the Valkyrie. ‘Warring space pirates’ is really all you need to know. DNA strands from deceased pilots form the mission structure, and you jack into each to play their memories. Primarily they teach and reinforce mechanics and modes without distraction from other people.
Story is communicated subtly and constantly. “We’re pre-alpha, so we haven’t got a lot of that stuff in yet,” Willans says, “but in terms of scripts there’s a lot of chat. So when you’re in PVP and you go into the lobbies, Rán will be responding to you, giving you either positive or negative reinforcement depending on how you’ve done in matches.”
Finally, survival is a wave-based mode set against increasingly tough waves of enemy AI. Information is still limited, but Willans says, “There comes a point where you don’t even need infinite waves. You’re going to be dead. The AI is really good, and we’ve almost got to keep an eye on that. We’ve got a very talented AI programmer and the things our ships do are pretty incredible.”
Fortunately, you have some powerful tools at your disposal. Take, for instance, look-tolock missiles, which are only possible in VR. Although ships have fixed-reticle attacks on the right trigger that fire where your crosshair points, holding the left trigger queues up a salvo while you use your head to aim a second crosshair. Turning your face to opponents and releasing the trigger to send a barrage at them feels intuitive and frees up your hands for evading. It’s a clear prod for people to engage in VR, even if it can get disorienting at times.
There are plenty of weapons, too. Heavies can use head-tracked ion cannons that deal splash damage on groups. The trade-off for this class’s slow speed is a micro warp drive activated by holding down the left trigger that lets you dash away from threats. Deployment abilities on X complement the two triggerbased ones, an example being the support’s spider bots: drop them and they’ll spin a blue web which, when foes fly through it, covers them in niggling sentries that pick apart their windshield and obscure their view. Friendlies flying through it get a health boost.
Level size varies but all of them aim to get you into fights quickly by cutting down on the long trudges from respawn points. The tensecond penalty, and the other ten seconds it takes to reach fighting range, gives a pace just shy of a modern FPS, fast while providing enough sin-bin-style punishment to prevent careless kamikaze play. Often it’s best to hang back and wait for teammates to join the battle, because you can easily fall into the deadly trap of fighting alone while they’re sitting out, and sitting out while they’re fighting alone.
The last thing Valkyrie wants is for you to sit stiffly in your chair facing forward. This is about using your head as an extra thumb or flightstick, about monitoring action that unfolds not only in front of you, but with you slap bang in the middle. It’s an intentionally thinner slice of the EVE pie, but as a result it’s just what flight combat – and VR – needs.
The space-based dogfighter setting out to define modern VR gaming