My previous two chances were the looks I received at EVR at Fanfest last year, and then the work in progress build at EVE: Vegas last October. The first was revolutionary of course and I've written a few times about it. The second was a quantum leap over the first and my post about it was one of my most read pieces last year. As I said then...
...this is the game that Wing Commander and Descent and X-Wing and TIE Fighter players have been waiting their whole lives for. I've hinted once that I think this game is the [Oculus Rift's] killer app. That impression is reinforced after seeing this much improved version.And:
And the fantastic thing about it is it all feels very natural. Instead of using the right thumb stick to control the way you're looking, you just turn your head. To find a target for your missiles, you look at the target... that's it. Hold down the left trigger, look at the target, wait for target lock, release the left trigger, missiles fly. The controls quickly become completely intuitive. Instead of playing a console game, you are playing a game that seems to happen naturally inside your own head.Let's start with the basics: nothing about any of this has changed. Sometimes as games go from concept to beta to product, they lose that spark of genius that made them great... if they ever were. Aliens: Colonial Marines and Duke Nuke'Em Forever are two recent examples. So no worries on that score!
The two iterations of Valkyrie that I got to try this week were:
- a hybrid version of the EVE: Vegas build and the modern build for the PS4 Project Morpheus platform; and,
- the "official" Fanfest build on the Oculus Rift DK2.
So this post is about two things: the differences between the Morpheus and DK2 headsets, and then my thoughts on the development of the game itself.
There are two ways to "win" in product development: be first, or be better. But one of the corollaries to that rule is that those who are first often are better because they have more time to iterate on and develop their products. This isn't always true -- Motorola and Palm are lovely examples of companies that squandered long leads to more feisty innovative competitors. But Intel has stayed firmly ahead of AMD in micro-processors, for instance. So grabbing and then holding a lead is no bad thing for a technology company.
And so far Oculus has taken a long lead over the Sony product. The Sony headset is behind Oculus's previous generation product and is in no way comparable to the Oculus current generation product. Most notably, the Morpheus headset is not as good in terms of ergonomics. I wasn't able to weigh the two products but the Morpheus feels heavier and the placement on one's head is not as good. After only a few minutes wearing it, I could feel the back strap cutting slightly into the back of my skull above my neck and the eyepieces never achieved the effortless fit of the Oculus. In my case, they dug into my nose a bit. At EVE: Vegas, I completely forgot I was wearing the OR headset I wore then. That never happened with the Morpheus headset.
And I wasn't aware until that moment how crucial that is for immersion in an VR game. The hardware has to -- as much as is possible -- disappear. The DK2 manages this bit of magic, the Morpheus does not.
Similarly, I have no idea of the exact specs to measure them objectively, but subjectively the current OR headset visuals felt far superior to the current Morpheus headset. In particular on the Sony product, there seemed to be some color banding issues resulting in a display that seemed noisy and pixelated, particularly during high-speed motion.(1) And Valkyrie is of course all about high speed motion. So short version? Sony has some work to do. I have no doubts that they realize it. Onward to the game itself.
You'll no doubt be pleased to hear that Valkyrie continues to be the space combat dog-fighter that fans of the genre like myself have been waiting for our whole lives. The entire experience feels more polished and a lot of thought has been put and continues to be put into UI and player cues. The cockpit visuals are fantastic, the external visuals are more and more polished, and the map that the demo played on featured a lot of subtle hints to guide game play. As an example, the light of a nearby planet changed from blue to red over the course of the game as the local star set behind it. So the team working on visuals in particular has done their jobs very well and are clearly thinking about their craft. Bravo!
If I have a complaint on this score, it would be that the elements within the map felt very static which gave the game's visuals a bit of a chessboard feel. More developed space combat games found ways to add more dynamic elements to their maps. But this is something that the team can develop as they work up new maps and I later learned that they are indeed aware of this and are thinking about it.
The UI is nearing perfection. Some elements of the UI are placed "forward" in the cockpit, and a few others at Fanfest complained that they had to keep "looking straight ahead" to pick up those elements. I myself found myself immersed to the point that this didn't bother me at all. I was moving my head around so naturally and frequently that allowing my subconscious to pick up on the very obvious shield and hull displays as my vision swept past them was all I needed. I myself wanted to focus on my situational awareness and the UI guys clearly understand this and were staying out of my way and letting me do so. Good stuff!
Sound and sound cues are much improved, but this team should continue their work. For instance, a missile lock warning was sounded when another player launched missiles at me but the game should give increasingly urgent warnings as the missiles close. The rattle of auto-cannons was hugely satisfying but a whine or growl as they overheat should be added. As my craft took damage, sound cues made that clear but those cues should be further enhanced and emphasized. Yes, I know there's no sound in space. You get the idea.
The wrapper of the game is clearly still being built and there's still clearly a long way yet to go to build a context around the experience. I have no doubts whatsoever that this is going to be a big focus of the Valkyrie team all summer. They've clearly got some ideas on this score but they were equally clearly being a little coy about what those were. Star Citizen is obviously very much on their minds and they weren't interested in giving ideas to the enemy. I was able to confirm that most or all of the voice-over work being done by Katee Sackhoff is in support of a multi-player experience and the initial release almost certainly will not include much if any single player action.
Finally, each successive build tilts the experience further in the direction to benefit more experienced, aggressive pilots. The missiles in the EVE: Vegas and Morpheus versions were quite over-powered. In the Fanfest build, much more emphasis is put on auto-cannons and real flying skill. The FF experience was very unfortunately 3v4.(2) Still, at one point out-numbered and defensively flying 1v3, I was able to use skill and previous experience to kill one of my attackers solidly with cannons and avoid being killed by the other two through more than a full minute of defensive flying. Exciting stuff!
Rewarding pilot skill is obviously no bad thing and flight sim veterans are going to be very happy with what they find in Valkyrie.
So to summarize: more work on dynamic maps, more work from the sound team, and the full team should really focus on the wrapper and the context for the experience. But things are proceeding very well! I continue to wait impatiently to spend money on this product. Godspeed, Valkyrie team!
(1) Follow-up: after completing this piece and during editing, I discovered this comparison which probably explains some of the effects I was feeling.
(2) It was clear afterward that people retrying Valkyrie were arranging things so they could place themselves on the 4-person team rather than the 3-person one. I myself was also hobbled by sub-par team-mates. ;-) That said, I myself appreciated a target-rich environment...