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Playing Elite on the day NASA detailed its mission to Mars

It was an interesting day to try my hand at virtual reality space flight and fight.

Sitting in a lounge chair in a downtown New York hotel room, with an Oculus Rift headset strapped to my face and high-end flight stick and throttle in my hands, I couldn't help but be reminded of the day's big news from NASA.

I spent the time leading up to this scheduled appointment with the team behind Elite: Dangerous, watching a historic, live press conference from NASA.

It's called Orion, the gathering of administrators and rocket scientists told the world, and if it succeeds it will take people to Mars. If everything works out, if there are no issues and a team can be put together, it would be another six years at least before Earth said goodbye to its intergalactic explorers.

As a fan of science fiction, growing up on Star Trek and Star Wars and Heinlein, it's hard to keep the butterflies away when NASA starts talking about a Mars landing.

I thought about it during my short walk to the hotel to see Elite, a space combat and exploration game built on the premise that a future society splits in two, some sticking around Earth and the rest breaking away to the distant edges of the universe.

When I arrived, I couldn't help but ask David Braben, the director on this game and co-writer of the original title, about the real world news and its timing.

"It's great and exciting and fun," Braben said, launching us into a conversation about the game's astrophysics, the state of our universe and the game's AI-driven procedurally generated universe.

A blizzard of stars

"The night sky is a blizzard of stars," he said. "We have been unbelievable lucky the solar system hasn't had a close encounter with another star, but within another thousand years there will be.

"Systems pass through each other, some of those could cause serious change."

Like our conversation that day, Elite does an admirable job of blending reality with science-backed fiction.

The game has all of the extra terrestrial exoplanets known to humanity in it, for instance.

"We have 160,000 star systems from star catalogs," Braben said.

Because the universe is by no means fully discovered, let alone viewed , Braben and his team at Frontier Developments fell back on procedural technology to populate the universe, having the computer base those decisions on the current thinking about the universe.

"All 400 billion of the stars are in there," he said. "It's as accurate as we can make it."

The end result is a game that isn't just interesting on a gameplay level, but also on a scientific one, Braben said.

And that's just the game's background, the interstellar tapestry upon which the space opera of Elite will play out.

In the game, set in the year 3300 or so, humans have traveled to space and spread around Earth out to a few hundred light years. In the year 2300, a group of disenfranchised people head out into the unknown, settling on about 100,000 light years away.

"They settled there, built up an empire and explored until they met the [Earth's] Empire," he said. "They have existed in a state of cold war since."

The game drops players into this tension allowing them to decide which side to support and how to fit in.

"You can run guns to rebels or you can help the peace forces," Braben said. "The way this works, the player determines the outcome of this war."

And the game both reacts and tries to feed the tension with things like a news feed.

At one point in the earlier version of the game, which had its full release earlier this month, the developers ran a news feed with a speech from the leader of the rebels, making it clear he was a communist.

"We saw the players changing sides," Braben said. " The rebels were also doing things using terrorist activities to pollute a trade."

And that trade happened to be one of the ways many players make in-game currency. That too led to a shift in player loyalties.

The game also plays around with the notion of war, of slavery, of taxes, all mixed together to get players to base their in-game decisions on more than just what color a uniform is, or the types of ships and weapons a side might have.

And of course, driving this all is the amazing, immersive experience of being in the cockpit of a space ship, exploring the unknown and getting into combat.

Virtual reality

While the PC game can be played on a screen with keyboard or controller. I opted to try playing the game using Oculus Rift and a set of expensive flight stick and throttle controllers.

The headset is an incredible experience.

Once strapped in, my view includes not just what's happening outside the ship from a first-person perspective, but the entire, completely functional cockpit and what you'd expect to see of your own body.

But it was the arms, and hands that most yanked me into the virtual world.

My arms dropped away from my body naturally leading to two virtual reality hands gripping flight controls that looks like what I felt in the real world.

Moving my hands around on the real flight stick or throttle, made my virtual hands move in time.

The effect was almost alarming.

Beyond the incredible immersion of the experience, using the headset gave me quite an advantage. I could quickly look around at ships in space without the need for extra controls or buttons, all while flying and firing.

Looking at either extreme sides of the cockpit brought up in-game holographic menus which allowed me to adjust engine output, tweak weapons and do other things that would typically require a bit more complexity without the headset.

In short, it made me more dangerous.

While Braben says the team has been focusing on the Oculus Rift in terms of virtual reality, they are also looking at the PlayStation 4's Project Morpheus and other VR set-ups.

Most important to Braben, though, is that people realize that while the game supports the Oculus Rift, and also the outer limits of a robust gaming PC, it is still a fantastic experience for those with more typical set-ups.

"We support a standard console controller," he said. "I love playing on those. I don't bother with the flight stick. I play on a Macbook Pro and I play with a controller and it works fine.

"You don't have to use the keyboard for anything."

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