Wednesday, June 4, 2014

From VR to Valkyrie: The evolution of a game I'm going to love

Written by Phyridean

Why I'm here talking to you

In the introduction of our first episode, Ashterothi introduced me as someone with a "deep passion for Eve Online," which I think may have been a bit understated. I love Eve, warts and all, but I found something new to love at Fanfest 2013: Eve Valkyrie.

Since that fateful day when, in virtual reality, I rocketed out of the bay of a lone Archon and looked around in awe at my wingmates, some asteroids, a station, and a Nidhoggur and its wing of Einherji launching towards me, I've become addicted to Valkyrie.

My first launch in Valkyrie defies explanation. I've tried, but I've only ever seen the distinct sparkle of excitement in the eyes of people who've actually tried it. This probably only works with people who've dreamed of space travel of one kind or another all their lives, but if you are one of those people, Valkyrie hooks deep into you and gives you what is probably the most realistic sensation of space dogfighting you're ever likely to have.

If you're in that group and you have tried Valkyrie, you understand why I've now been to every event where the general public can try Valkyrie. I booked my first Eve Vegas in 2013 for the express purpose of trying  Eve-VR because I was worried that it would never get past the prototype stage. Fortunately, just before Eve Vegas, CCP officially announced Eve Valkyrie.

I was also lucky enough at Fanfest 2014 to win a raffle allowing me to play Valkyrie on Sony's Morpheus headset, and of course, I also spent time in the long line to play on the newly-available Oculus DK2s.

All this is to say that, bias aside, I'm as well-qualified as anyone outside of CCP to comment on the progress and a bit of the future of Valkyrie. Hit the jump to read my impressions.

People try Valkyrie for the first time at Fanfest 2013

The Four Valkyries

Eve-VRgins: Fanfest 2013

Eve-VR appeared as a demo at Fanfest 2013, running on Kickstarter Oculus headsets, and built by a handful of Eve devs in their spare time. When I sat down and put on the headset, the first thing I noticed was the "screen-door" effect as I looked around the interior of a Templar fighter and down at my virtual body: each pixel was easily visible and much of the peripheral graphics were blurry. An Xbox 360 controller and a pair of Razer gaming headphones completed the regalia of each Valkyrie pilot.

Once my craft and my two human wingmates launched, I no longer noticed the graphical deficiencies of the headset. I held down the speed boost button, which had no limiting mechanic, and kept it that way for the remainder of the match. Finally in range of the opposing Einherji fighters, I went first for the cannons—slung in giant, view-obstructing pods on either side of my cockpit—but found them lacking.

One of the defining features of Valkyrie and its predecessor is its missile launch system, wherein you hold down a trigger on the controller, look for your target using the unique capabilities of VR hardware and software, and release the trigger to fire missiles once they've locked on to your target. Through the course of several matches, nearly everyone who played discovered that missiles were gloriously overpowered and were thus the only sane way to kill opponents en masse.

The spectators of each match viewed them on a single large screen connected to the dedicated server computer, showing a top-down view of the opposed carriers with colored dots representing each fighter. This changed to a score display at the end of each match, with each pilot receiving points for confirmed kills.

The experience was barebones but exhilarating. Several people I talked to weren't able to ignore the screen door or had trouble wearing the headset over glasses, but I didn't meet a single person who didn't enjoy their time in space.

Introducing Eve Valkyrie: Eve Vegas 2013

Between Fanfest 2013 and Eve Vegas 2013, CCP demoed Eve-VR at E3, and after rave reviews and three best-in-show awards, decided to make it an official product with an official name.

Eve Vegas 2013 was the first time CCP showed Valkyrie to the public as Valkyrie, although the feature differences were subtle. The Oculus headset had improved to full 1080p resolution across both eyes, and the third-person spectator screen had changed from an RTS-style top-down view to a cinematic view that changed from fighter to fighter as each match progressed. That cinematic view remains in all subsequent versions of Valkyrie.

The gameplay, however, felt very different because of one relatively minor change: missile damage was greatly reduced, so players had to use cannons, which appeared to have been given a small damage increase. Given the speed still available to the fighters, kills were much harder to come by in Las Vegas than they had been in Reykjavik, but the fundamental experience of flying in space remained, and was probably enhanced, as some players broke off of difficult fights to just fly around the environment and take in the view. In one match, I took an arcing tour around an Amarr space station and through some asteroids before arriving back at the Archon to see just how big it was in space.

Valkyrie on Morpheus: Fanfest 2014

While Valkyrie on the PS4 with Morpheus and Valkyrie on the PC with Oculus are eventually supposed to be the same product, far more than hardware separated the two Valkyrie builds shown off at Fanfest 2014. 

The PS4s were apparently running something very similar to the Valkyrie build shown off at GamesCom. Compared to previous Valkyries, it was graphically much darker, with full numerical shield and armor hitpoint readouts in the HUD, and missiles with far greater damage output than the Vegas build, but still less than Eve-VR.

Most interesting, though, was the inclusion of three classes of ships available for selection each time your clone died. All pilots started out in a light fighter like those used in all previous versions, but upon death, a virtual menu very similar to Eve's character selection screen displayed a fighter, a heavy fighter, and a support ship. Other than the default fighter, I was only ever able to try the heavy fighter, which I did not find substantially less maneuverable. Its major difference came when I tried to fire a missile. Instead of holding down the trigger and waiting for a lock on, my fighter immediately lanced out with a thick beam of purple light in the direction I was looking.

I was never able to hit a fighter with the beam, but I was told by my wingmates afterwards that it was capable of destroying fighters in one or two hits. Talking to one of the CCP Devs present at the Morpheus demo, it was clear that this concept hadn't worked out quite the way they'd hoped, but that multiple ship classes were definitely still on the table. The support class, which devs advised us not to fly, had little offensive capability, but apparently had some sort of remote repair function.

Regarding the Project Morpheus headset: it's still bulky, the faceplate is too heavy and is far enough from the head to exert substantial inertial force when moving, and has a rubber interface with your face. No one I saw escaped without a ring of sweat around their eyes. However, it's roughly as graphically capable as Oculus DK1s to my untrained eye, and shows a great deal of promise.
Trying Valkyrie on the Morpheus headset

Rán and Rán we go: Valkyrie on Oculus DK2 at Fanfest 2014

Standing in line for Valkyrie on the Oculus at Fanfest this year seemed to take longer than any previous iteration, despite seven pilot seats available[1] and comparable three-minute match times.

The devs manning the Valkyrie station were careful to note the additional cameras installed on poles in front of each pilot seat. These were very fragile, he said, and Oculus would be very sad if we broke them. The seats themselves had been upgraded to auto-racing-style bucket seats, but each station otherwise had the familiar components: a gaming computer, an Oculus headset, a set of gaming earphones, and an Xbox 360 controller. The game was quite different, though.

Graphically, it was much brighter, using the orange-green hued nebulae from Eve as a background, and with a brighter yellow or orange star. The fighters handled somewhat more sluggishly, though with enough speed I was still convinced I was in a fighter-style craft. Because of the Oculus's new sensors, I was able to move my head up and over to see the space between the cockpit and the massive omnipresent gun pods, and moving my head backward and forward no longer caused a jarring disconnect with my virtual body. I barely noticed individual pixels in front of me. The HUD which had formerly been on the glass of the windscreen in front of me had been mostly removed, replaced by a holographic sphere with blips for ships around me and two bars representing heat and shields/armor, respectively.

Flying around, I immediately depleted my afterburner boost and overheated my cannons, new limitations that were surprisingly harsh. The missile reticle, instead of taking a fixed time to lock on all missiles at once, now locked on five missiles sequentially, and could be released as soon as the first missile was locked, or after any subsequent missile. Locking all five missiles took roughly the same amount of time as locking all missiles had in earlier iterations. Missile damage was slightly lower than or comparable to the Morpheus/GamesCom build.

And then there was the voice of Katee Sakhoff in my head, playing the part of Rán[2], former Guristas operative and newly-appointed trainer of New Eden's Valkyries. Before launch, she gave me a short briefing, and continued to update me on objectives—mostly to kill opposing Valkyries in the deathmatch mode we played—before telling me the operation was over. Her voice acting conveyed the urgency and a bit of the passion you might expect from a former member of the Guristas, and did a fine job of deepening the experience.
Valkyrie with Eric and Max at Fanfest 2014

Living in the Future: Beyond Fanfest 2014

I expect Valkyrie's launch features will depend greatly on how soon Oculus or Sony are able to launch a consumer product. Given that there was no release date announcement at Fanfest 2014, it's likely that Valkyrie will launch sometime in 2015. It's nearly a complete game now.

It would surprise me if the game doesn't launch with:

  • Multiplayer support, but probably not LAN or dedicated server support
  • At least Deathmatch, and variants of both Capture the Flag and King of the Hill
  • Three or more classes to choose from, each with different mechanics tied to look-lock
  • Some sort of single-player experience including bots that also work in multiplayer
  • Friendly fire in most or all modes

It would surprise me if the game does launch with

  • Any kind of direct integration into the Eve universe
  • The third-person cinematic view or the overhead view, even though every chance I get I ask devs to retain this for the consumer version

Regardless of what Valkyrie launches with, I'll happily do my job as David Reid's[3] dream customer and buy enough copies of Valkyrie to get all my friends who don't currently play Eve as addicted as I am. You'll be doing yourself a disservice if you love the idea of flying around in space and you don't give it a try when it launches.

1. Down from eight. One station had apparently lost a key piece of hardware, meaning that teams were 3v4
2. Rán is pronounced like "Round" without the "D". I'm glad to see CCP putting some Icelandic vowel sounds into the lore directly
3. CCP Pokethulu, CCP's CMO

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