Dinosaurs. Terminators. Aliens. Movies have the monopoly on things that make our eyes bulge – but nothing has ever stamped its mark quite so much on a medium as two fighter pilots pew-pew-pew-ing the bells out of each other in the coldness of space. Ever since Hollywood directors could dangle plastic Airfix kits from strings and puff cigar smoke at them from just off camera, we've had it drummed into us that space is a frantic, glamorous and dangerous place in which you're only ever one errant laser bolt and a few millimetres of canopy away from an immediate, horrible and surprisingly noisy death.
Star Wars gave us its Death Star runs. Battlestar Galactica gave us sprawling battleship skirmishes, with barrages of ordnance traded back and forth between human and Cylon ships as plucky fighter pilots whizzed about inbetween. And while PC gamers have had a steady stream of space sims to bring that experience from cinema to their desktops, console players have had... well, almost none.
EVE Valkyrie – the VR-centric, multiplayer dogfighting simulator from EVE Online developers CCP – is looking to correct that, launching at some unspecified (but near-ish) point in the future on both PC (using the Oculus Rift) and PS4 (as a flagship title for Sony's own VR headset, Project Morpheus). But with almost 20 years of the space combat sim existing as the near-sole preserve of the keyboard-and-joysticks brigade, why bring first-person space combat to consoles now? What does virtual reality bring to the party? And why are CCP, better known for making a sprawling simulator sometimes referred to as a spreadsheet, the ones to do it?
"The age I am, I was queuing up to see Star Wars when it first came out," Valkyrie's executive producer, Owen O'Brien tells Red Bull. "I'm a big fan of Star Wars and the original Battlestar Galactica. Sci-fi is my favourite genre and has been since I was a kid. One of the first games I remember playing to death was the original Elite and I loved X-Wing Tie Fighter. So it's a genre I've loved for a long time and I'm glad to see it coming back. The whole genre seems to be having a bit of a renaissance; there's a resurgence of these space exploration and dogfighting games, and that's a great thing."
O'Brien credits the X-Wing Tie Fighter series as one of the big influences on Valkyrie's frenetic brand of dogfighting. Released on both CD and floppy disc in the early 90s, players would duke it out in the Star Wars universe from the low-res cockpit of the series' iconic fighters, tracking targets, monitoring their shields and blowing enemies into (some now wonderfully dated) explosions of grainy pixels.
"I think the funny thing is that obviously I have very fond memories of X-Wing Tie Fighter, and we actually booted it up again [for reference]," says O'Brien. "I kept saying to the guys, 'make [Valkyrie] more like X-Wing Tie Fighter', and they would say 'well, let's have a look at it'. And stuff that I remember being amazing about the game and groundbreaking at the time – the super high-speed dogfighting – was actually really quite slow. Everything happens at a really slow pace."
By comparison, speed and scale are right at the heart of what CCP is building in Valkyrie. When you head into battle in the cockpit of your fighter, you aren't just barreling around in empty space. Rather, O'Brien and the team are trying to bottle the feelings of BSG's epic, multi-ship conflicts, or the climactic Trench Run against the Death Star from the original Star Wars – where the tide of battle feels like it can turn on the actions of a single Top Gun pilot.
"You'll be fighting in and around [these big ships]," says O'Brien. "The reason why you have things like the [Star Wars] Trench Run is that it gives you an incredible sense of speed that you don't get in open space. You can be going exactly as fast [in open space], but it won't feel [the same].
"So, what we find in building the levels is that it's always good to have things that are whizzing by. There's a reason the Death Star was so cavernous, rather than being smooth, like, for example, a Borg Cube: it gives you a tremendous sense of speed when you've got things in your periphery flying past you. [That's] important, but it's almost [more important] that you're one small ship in this huge ambient war that's going on around you – missile salvos flying over head and things exploding left right and centre that you're trying to dodge your way through while you're on a mission, whether the mission is to take out the guy in front of you, or take down the shields of a bigger ship."
But despite those inspirations, O'Brien promises that you won't always be forced to hurtle in all cannons blazing. Depending on your playstyle, you'll be able to find a role supporting your team, with three customizable ship classes (the Wraith fighter, the Support and the Heavy) announced so far. Want to play as a lone wolf fighter ace? Then you'll want to pour your upgrades into shields and manoeuvrability. Alternatively, if you play well with others, maybe you'll skimp on shields and focus on raw firepower, trusting your wingmen to back you up should you draw too much attention from the enemy.
As in Call of Duty, you'll unlock different abilities the more you play, but, according to O'Brien, whichever customisation route you choose to pursue will always have trade-offs: what you add in speed you may lose in armour, what you gain in shields you might pay for in agility. Ship management in Valkyrie is like a giant, galactic game of rock, paper, scissors.
"The loadouts will be modifiers rather than power-ups, so whatever you gain in one area you lose in another. "It's not like, 'I've got a loadout that will take out everyone else'," he says.
"The goal is that if you want to play in a less aggressive and more supportive way with your team-mates, there will be a ship role that will allow you to do that. It's not just about being the Starbuck [Battlestar Galactica's top fighter pilot, played by Katee Sackhoff, who also voices your commanding officer in Valkyrie]. Sometimes it's more about map control, where you're in an area and trying to defend it; sometimes it's about providing support to the fighter class; and sometimes it's about, 'OK, I'm not even fighting at all, I'm just going to play the game carrying out the objective that will help me win this round', and that doesn't necessarily mean firing weapons."
For all the promise that Valkyrie holds as a space combat simulator in its own right, the other big draw for the game – the thing that's got gamers of all stripes interested, not just the virtual flyboys – is its status as a posterchild for the virtual reality revolution. Surgeon Simulator, War Thunder and Hawken have all been trotted out at gaming expos as examples of what the immersive technology can be used for, but Valkyrie has been built for VR from the ground up. It's in its blood; coiled up in its DNA.
"Before, you always had to imagine being in the cockpit and the graphics were helping, but it wasn't actually being in a cockpit and looking around," says O'Brien. "I think now when you try on these headsets there is a sense of not playing a game anymore, you're actually there, you're being, you are somebody."
But putting players into virtual cockpits isn't as simple as strapping a headset interface onto a regular space sim. To capture that feeling of the Hollywood space battle, O'Brien and the Valkyrie team actually had to unlearn some of the habits picked up from traditional, 2D game design. In your average space combat simulator, elements like a radar and a minimap are invaluable – how else to spot that enemy pilot on your tail, or dodge an incoming homing missile? But in VR, if you want to see what's behind you, you just do it the old fashioned way: by craning your neck round for a look and hoping you don't blunder into an asteroid in the process.
"One of the interesting things we're finding in trying to mimic that feeling of being in a cockpit is having [players] look round to see that somebody's on their six and [figure out] how to shake them," says O'Brien. "We're actually trying to strip back the UI a bit so it feels a bit more like the original dogfighting in World War 2."
Pilots making use of the Rift will have a definite advantage over those playing Valkyrie on a TV or monitor, according to O'Brien. He won't be drawn on the details of what the Rift will allow in terms of new combat abilities (although we've heard previously that the plans include being able to lock onto enemies just by turning your head towards them, like a modern–day fighter pilot) – but the heightened level or perception you get from the VR headset offers a tactical edge in itself.
"People who have the Rift on will have an advantage," says O'Brien. "They can look around, they can see things, they can see things in the corners of their eyes. We are [also] implementing more innovations in the game that I can't talk about, but that do require full 360 viewing. It's a completely different way of thinking. It's like if humans only had one leg and we'd been designing games for one leg, then all of a sudden you have two. That's a terrible analogy, but you know what I mean."
But for all the hype, Valkyrie might not be the first in a flood of mainstream VR games – at least, not without a little more development of the tech. There's a reason why the titles that have been officially demo'd by Oculus at their expo stands have been largely ones in which you're either seated (Hawken, War Thunder) or standing-but-stationary (Surgeon Simulator) – and that's because, according to O'Brien, first-person games which revolve around running about still haven't quite cracked the disconnect between what players are seeing and what their eyes are telling them is happening.
"People have hacked it together, but it doesn't really work," he says. "The basic problem is Simulator Sickness. In Valkyrie or any cockpit game or driving game, what you're doing in the real world, assuming you're sitting down, more or less mimics what your brain is telling you you're doing in the game. So you don't get that disconnect, and it's that disconnect that causes sickness. So, the problem with first-person shooters is that you're running or crouching or jumping in the game but not in the real world, and because it's so realistic it can make some people (not everybody) feel nauseated if they start doing it for extended periods of time.
"The other problem with first-person shooters is that you're used to the controller controlling both the direction your head is looking and the direction you're shooting in. People are kind of hard-wired to do that now. None of this is unsolvable – these are just the challenges [of VR]. And it's not just FPSs: it's anywhere where you're doing something in the game that deviates dramatically from what your body is telling you you're doing."
What does this mean for the future of non-cockpit VR games? One possible solution is simply to keep adding peripherals until the gap between in-game experience and the real world shrinks – companies like Virtuix have already developed the Omni Treadmill, which lets players walk, run and crouch in games being played in VR. And CCP itself is looking into sensor gloves that would let Valkyrie pilots' hands in-game mimic the movements they players are making in their living rooms. But adding systems raises the barrier to entry – how much are you really willing to spend on treadmills and body-sensors in pursuit of total immersion?
"I think adding peripherals would help, but obviously that would add to the complexity as well," says O'Brien. "I'm sure there is an interesting solution that nobody's thought of yet. If I knew the answer, I'd be a rich man."