Scramble the Alert Fighters: A Virtual Reality Reflection

Robby Kasparic 2016-11-17

Like several other staff members here at Imperium News, I attended the festivities in EVE Vegas during the last weekend of October. It was quite fun and I would love to do it again. Getting to meet lots of people that I had only spoke to over voice comms was an experience, one punctuated in importance by recent events. Outside of that, one of the things that I was personally looking forward to was trying EVE Valkyrie, CCP’s Virtual Reality starfighter game. Having been what could be politely termed enthusiastic about starfighters since hearing “Lock S-Foils in attack position” for the first time, I wanted to give the game a shot.

To help frame my excitement leading up to my first flight in Valkyrie, it’s important to understand my history with games where you fly a fighter. While out of state visiting relatives, one of my cousins introduced me to a game called Rogue Squadron. The game placed you in control of an X-Wing or several other Rebel starfighters at various locations throughout the Star Wars galaxy. Being as much a giant nerd as a kid compared to now, I was hooked instantly. While my family did not have a Nintendo 64 or a PC capable of running the game, I happily lapped up every chance to play it that I could. Zooming around in a X-Wing was really cool.

My first taste of the genre on PC came from a demo of Starlancer provided by my uncle. Later, it was Freelancer, Crimson Skies, and Rogue Leader, a staple on the family Gamecube much to my sister’s Pikmin-loving disappointment. Rebel Strike was my first introduction to multiplayer dogfighting, and while the platform was not the greatest, I enjoyed shooting my friends down a lot. Finally, Battlefront II arrived and with it online play. The group I spend my limited High School playtime with had few better pilots than me, and too many Friday nights were spent crammed into the virtual cockpit of an A-Wing, TIE Bomber, or ARC-170.

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The Predator Light Fighter from Starlancer, one of my first favorite fighters.

What all these games lacked was easy to use cockpit views. I constantly wanted to fly “sitting” in the cockpit for some reason I could not place at the time. Inevitably, I would change to cockpit view for a game, get my butt handed to me, and switch back to the ubiquitous third-person camera. The lesson would not stick, and on seeing a space dogfight play out I would try it again only to run into the same problem. Everything from the opening to Revenge of the Sith to any sequence with Vipers in Battlestar Galactica would set this off. It was very difficult to look around and fly at the same time, and without the ability to see outside of a fixed view it was difficult to maneuver. These disadvantages could have been overcome with more practice and “getting gud”, but with a lot of other life activities that was not a possibility.

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The cockpit view from the original Rouge Squadron game. Looking at anything off to the side was a huge pain with the N64 controller.

Eventually, life pushed me away from dogfighting games and into other various virtual universes. One of these was a game called EVE Online, some of you may have heard of it. While the spaceship itch was well taken care of, I could not shake the feeling that sitting in the cockpit of a virtual fighter would be cool. While there were no single player games that felt like they would be good fits, the multi-player possibilities were much greater. When I attempted more modern games like War Thunder or World of Warplanes, I gave the cockpit views an honest try before giving up on them due to the same reasons. It added a lot of difficulty and the feel of realism was not good enough on a typical display to make that tradeoff worth it.

All this brings us to the morning of October 28, in the Planet Hollywood Hotel and Casino. As the formal EVE Vegas events are kicking off and people are slowly filtering into the ballrooms, a line has begun to form off to the side of a raised platform with eight computers set up on it. The headsets in front of them give away the purpose of the setup, this is the Valkyrie demo. Were you looking for me that morning, the front end of that line is where you would have found me. I had heard about Valkyrie when the current VR headsets were just starting to become reality in their Dev-Kit versions. My excitement had been muted. I knew from early specifications that my computer would not be able to handle one of these headsets, and upgrading was not in the cards at that time. So I followed the game in passing, reading things as they came up in my day-to-day wanderings. By Vegas, a couple things had changed. First, my system is starting to show its age and it will soon be time to replace it. Second, the data on the various headsets had firmed up a lot, so I could ensure that I would be able to run one with no issue on a new computer. Finally, I would also have a chance to try Valkyrie before dropping the money on all the necessary hardware. The CCP Employee manning the head of the line began to let people into the testing area, I was sixth in line.

I sat down in front of the computer, the public viewing display next to the tower displaying Gamma. This is my callsign. On the table in front of me sits an Oculus Rift VR headset. The volunteer helps me adjust it to fit my head, which did not take long. I tried not to be too impatient and let him go over what he needed to before I perched the headset on my forehead, grabbed the controller in front of me, and then slid the Rift over my eyes. What greeted me was a somewhat standard menu. In what would have been the table floated four outlines of fighter craft with a name below them. I ended up settling on the Wraith after discovering I had to look at one to select it. Floating directly in front of me was a map of the battlespace, what could best be described as a stereotypical Station Sanctum with two Wyverns floating in space. One was blue, my teams, and the other was red. As the pre-game countdown ticked to zero, I began to have trouble containing my excitement. The view faded to black as the timer hit zero.

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A shot of an unidentified fighter cockpit from an early build of Valkyrie. Given the ships around, it’s likely a Galentte fighter of some sort.

The environment began to load as lights came on in the cockpit and launch tube, the red lines streaking away to a small window of greenish-white light I assumed was space. I’m in a damn launch tube, I’m really in it. My brain knows I’m really sitting in a convention area in Las Vegas, but my eyes and ears are telling me that I’m about to be shot out of a Wyvern’s launch tubes. As I move my head around, so does the perspective inside the Wraith’s cockpit. Details like the map, capacitor, and shield strength stay in a fixed place, if I turn my head far enough I can no longer see them. I hear the launch countdown reach zero, and the controller in my hands vibrates. While it could not make up for the hard convention chair I was sitting it, it added to the sensation that I was actually in the cockpit. The Wraith cleared the launch tube and I was finally in control of my fighter. It was at this point I lost all control on my excitement. I was flying a starfighter, not “flying” it from a third-person camera, but actually flying it from the cockpit. Every twist and turn of the fight felt like I was there. It got to the point where I even started shifting around in my chair, most likely making a fool out of myself for the amusement of anyone watch. I finished that first round with one kill, the next I had four. On Sunday morning, I almost missed on of the presentations I wanted to attend because almost nobody else was in line to play and I was able to get an hour in the cockpit. This included one round with the legendary Baltec1, who promptly chose the largest and least maneuverable fighter possible.

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The author during a Valkyrie match. Likely getting shot down.

This was just a short experience with a controlled demo. I can’t tell you about the intricacies of Valkyrie’s currency systems or how all of its various fighters fly. I can’t tell you how it stacks up with other games that allow you do the same sort of thing like Elite: Dangerous or House of the Dying Sun. I might be able to convince you that CCP got some damn good voice actors for Valkyrie. What I can say is that this was an experience unlike any other game I have played in my life. For some brief moments over the weekend, I was no longer just attending EVE Vegas. I was flying a fighter. It is the closest I have ever gotten to being Wedge Antillies or Starbuck, the closest I have come to touching an X-Wing or Viper Mk II. Like a lot of people, I was skeptical about how VR would do in the “real world”. It’s expensive and requires some heavy computational firepower. After getting a chance to experience what the tech is capable of doing now, I have little doubt that VR tech is here to stay. While it may not ever become as commonplace as computers or smartphones are today, VR brings a lot to the table that ensures it will have a place on almost anyone’s desk. I know someday soon it will end up on mine.

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Comments

  • Andrew Sturgis

    I learned quickly that you should do Valkyrie before the heavy drinking, not the day after. The head tracking is good, but it can still lead to some heavy nausea if you’re already feeling hungover.

    November 17, 2016 at 5:01 pm
  • PewPew

    So you’re saying it’s a good game for people who have dreamed their whole lives of exactly that game?

    Sounds reasonable.

    November 17, 2016 at 5:48 pm