Eve: Valkyrie alpha: Hands-on with the Oculus Rift's killer app

The high-stakes gamble behind CCP's Oculus Rift pack-in

This Monday, CCP Games will begin inviting over 1,000 players into the Eve: Valkyrie alpha. Outside of a few trade shows and the yearly Fanfest gathering in Iceland, this is the first time the larger virtual reality and space simulation community will be able to try the game.

This is a big deal.

Eve: Valkyrie isn't just a departure from the more methodical political intrigue of CCP's Eve Online. It's also the publisher's first major virtual reality release. There is also the fact Valkyrie will come bundled with every Oculus Rift that has been pre-ordered. The stakes are incredibly high; it's not just CCP's reputation on the line, but Valkyrie will be one of the first experiences that players have with retail virtual reality.

If Valkyrie is disappointing, it's possible a whole generation of players will feel let down by their $599 purchase. If it's successful? It will open a whole new world for gaming.

Where to start

I've been playing the alpha for a few hours now, and it was fascinating to explore Eve: Valkyrie away from the expected trade shows and planned events that make up a game's preview cycle. I was at home, on my own rig, and could fly as often as I liked.

When you get serious about the game, you quickly realize how much is going on.

"I would advise new players to do basic training first," Andrew Willans, lead designer on Valkyrie, told me. "It's something we haven't really advertised, but I want to draw people's attention to it.

The training program explains the game's controls — I played Valkyrie on a standard gamepad, although it also supports flight sticks — and shows you how to use your guns, countermeasures and look-to-lock missiles. "It's kind of a playground; you can spend as long as you want in there and it's up to you when you exit," Willans said. "That would be my first tip, to get used to the basic rig."

It's good advice, as Valkyrie can be initially overwhelming. Your gut lurches as your fighter is shot out of the capital ship's tube, directly into battle. It takes a few rounds to get used to tracking the movement of the enemy by moving your head. It can be easy to get lost in the somewhat amazing fact that you're piloting a fucking spaceship, much less think about doing it well. You have to allow the wonder of it all to wash over you before you can focus on your skills as a pilot, and the training mode is a great way to fight past that initial "wow" factor.

Valkyrie shot

The final version of the game will do a better job of getting players up to speed, I'm told. There will be a playable prologue that sets things up before you appear in the game's hub, and the training will explain a bit more of the game's story and explore who you are in this world. This isn't just a multiplayer game, and there will be many ways to play. That was by design.

"One of the battles we'll be facing is that since we have such a low pool of players from day one, but it will gradually increase throughout the year, we have to keep players engaged," Willans said. "We'll also have a range of player-versus-environment elements." These missions will flesh out the game's world and introduce the characters while allowing you to play by yourself, away from the pressure of your teammates or human-controlled enemies.

The trick is to offer different ways to play so everyone, no matter their comfort level with action games or VR, will have a place to begin. It's not just a matter of having many different modes, but different intensities of play.

"We don't yet know who our audience is. It would be crazy to assume everyone who buys an Oculus is a hardcore gamer; I don't think that's the truth," Willans said. "We're going to have a really diverse cross section of people who are buying the technology."

Valkyrie will feature a "scout" mode where players can enjoy flying around the environments and taking in the sights and sounds. The team is even hiding "loot crates" and audio logs in the scout mode, so you'll be able to learn more about the world and why these battles are taking place by flying around on your own.

This will also be a good mode for introducing friends and family to not only Valkyrie, but virtual reality in general. If someone doesn't want the stress of a dogfight but would love to experience the fun of piloting a ship, scout mode will be there. There will also be survival modes, where the game throws increasingly difficult AI-controlled pilots at you, if you'd like to hone your skills away from other human players.

Eve: Valkyrie's alpha is focused much more on the multiplayer portion of the game, however. And holy shit, is it intense.

The art of knowing where to look

"One of the weird things about VR is that you'd imagine that once you're immersed in a cockpit, everything becomes easy; because you're in a cockpit, it just makes sense," Willans said. But that's not the case, and I found myself struggling with remembering to look down at the readouts to check the status of my ship. How fast am I flying? How are my shields? You have to tear your view away from the action in order to look down and get data that, on a screen, is immediately available.

"People are so focused on what's going on, they're so focused on targeting enemies and so involved with the surroundings and taking all the information in, they miss a lot of the core information that's almost at their fingertips, but isn't noticed," Willans explained. Then he said one thing that unlocked the game for me:

"You should feel like that stuff's not necessarily important," he said.

Paying for Valkyrie

Yes, there will be microtransactions, but don't worry, you'll get the content you care about for free.

"We don't want to charge people for new game modes or maps; we don't want to dilute our community," Willans said. "It's very precious. We want to keep our players.

"There will be ways for players to invest further in their Valkyrie careers beyond the Founder's Pack, if they choose," the game's website says. "From XP boosters, premium ship skins, decals, interiors and beyond, we know some players will want to build out their experience. We will provide the option of additional purchase, but the game is not designed to require it."

Eve: Valkyrie itself is free with your pre-order of the Oculus Rift, and the "Founder's Pack" will cost $59.99 after the hardware is released.

Once I took a breath and paid attention, it all snapped into place. You can hear the sound of the engines and feel the haptics through the controller to know when things are going on. Your shields flash when you're being hit, and you can get a sense for how and when to engage new targets based on the fire you've taken. Your targeting reticle for the missiles shows you how many you have available or how many have locked on to your target.

"That whole cadence of just being in the game should make it a bit more primal," said Willans. "You shouldn't be looking around at the stats the way you would in a typical 2D game; you can't take in that level of information all in one bite." The design of the game and all the forms of feedback through its world and the controller make the actual data a little less important. Once you understand what's going on, you begin to loosen up and get a better sense of what your ship is doing.

You can fly by feel.

"We've tried to make everything as immediate and as intuitive as possible," Willans said. "That permeates through the hub as well."

Eve: Valkyrie's menus all give a sense of a location in virtual reality, and they react to you. So when you're gazing at a series of options, you'll see more data become available, or all the options. It feels reactive, and natural. "We're still not at the end of that journey," Willans said, and he stressed that CCP is bringing in people who have never used virtual reality, and may not even be regular gamers. The menus are designed to be usable by anyone, regardless of their prior knowledge of how games work.

A living product

The alpha is designed to test Eve: Valkyrie's multiplayer, but the game won't be "done" when it launches alongside the Rift in late March. "It's a live product," Willans told Polygon. "It is constantly evolving."

CCP is also holding back the majority of the single-player content for the game's official release.

"We want to spend as much time polishing that as we can," he said. "It's not just the maps, but the dialogue and making sure we've got all the final actors' performances in there. It's the AAA standard that we're trying for. I don't want to show them in a half-finished state or even an 80 percent finished state."

There's another aspect of this: The Oculus Rift Development Kit 2 — the hardware on which most of us will be playing the alpha — is a major step removed from the lower latency and higher resolution of the upcoming retail Oculus Rift.

Even if you have a powerful gaming PC, the DK2 will limit the graphical fidelity of the game. Experiencing the cinematic touches and story of the single-player campaign using retail hardware will have much more impact. I asked if it was hard knowing people will be playing using hardware that's not as good as what will be available at launch, and Willans agreed.

"A little bit of me dies inside," he said, laughing. "It's such a big leap from the DK2 to the Crescent Bay, and the engineering sample for the retail unit is phenomenal; it's so comfortable." But until the retail unit is released alongside Eve: Valkyrie in March, any testing by players has to be done on the DK2 hardware. "Yeah, it hurts a little bit inside, but having a larger community is what's really important for us."

That's what is driving the alpha. This is a first taste of the game that's being sent to players who have already bought into virtual reality — the people who have a DK2 at home and whose system meets the minimum requirements of the retail Oculus Rift hardware. The alpha is about how learning how people play the game, but also about introducing the dedicated into the world of Valkyrie.

"That community's vital," Willans said. And today, they begin to play.