The CCP booth at E3 was a very busy place. Located upstairs off the main hall, it was in one of the side-offices usually set up for invite-only appointments. While we did get to go to a presentation that went over Eve Online’s past, the integration of Dust 514, and a few details on upcoming goodies for both games, the star of the show was Eve VR.
Eve VR is a 3-on-3 arcade action space dogfighting game. It’s very different from CCP’s usual output, seeing as the game is stripped down to fly, shoot lasers, fire missiles, and accelerate away when an opponent has dumped missiles on your tail. There are probably good strategies involving teamwork and a working knowledge of the battlefield layout and the positioning of its asteroids and giant spaceships, but that would take more time to learn than the two games I got in allowed. Instead I flew, shot, and survived by the skin of my teeth, except for those times I got blown away and reincorporated in the cockpit of another fighter, ready to launch back into the midst of the action. Simple as the experience was, it was also my first gaming experience with the Oculus Rift, and it felt like touching the future.
To be clear, CCP have created an amazing universe with Eve Online and Dust 514. The scope of the universe and player effect on it is unmatched. CCP and the players have built a truly impressive, expansive world filled with freedom, opportunity, politics, business deals, and even the occasional romance spilling out into the real world. It would take something major to steal the spotlight from this, and a 3-on-3 arcade game seems an unlikely candidate. For me and the many people in the line extending outside CCP’s room, however, the Oculus Rift is that rarest of things in gaming- something that’s not just new, but honestly revolutionary.
The promise of VR back in the 90s got a lot of attention, and to get a sense of why you should probably go watch Lawnmower Man. Laughably silly as that movie is, its portrayal of VR gaming is what everyone was expecting. Then we went to the arcade, paid $5 (or so, it’s been a long time), and got one of the most underwhelming experiences possible. The headsets were bulky, the field of view pathetically small, and the speed of response to head movements lagged enough that there was no possibility of a suspension of disbelief. You were looking at low-poly 3D on tv screens that just happened to be sitting on your face. The novelty lasted all of a few minutes and then it was time to play anything else. VR was gimmicky junk, and rapidly forgotten. Then the Oculus Rift happened.
Or rather, started to happen. Right now the Rift is a wisp of smoke from the volcano’s crater, and everyone knows something is about to happen. Development kits are out in the wild, people are creating interesting things, and the press has been all over every bit of news. Despite all this not a lot of people have gotten much time with the Rift, because spending $300 on a low-resolution developer unit created primarily to get something into people’s hands while the much nicer retail model is being worked on doesn’t make a lot of financial sense. So, like almost everyone else there, my curiosity about the Oculus Rift was through the roof.
Sitting in a comfy chair, one in a row of six, I was handed an Oculus Rift and spent a few seconds sorting out the straps. Attaching it to my face took only a few seconds, and I don’t wear glasses for close-up viewing so didn’t have to sort out the lenses. Before the game proper begins, your viewpoint is that of sitting in the cockpit of a fighter craft nestled securely in the launch tube of a carrier. It was early in the day and there was no line yet when I got to play, so I had a few seconds to look around and really get a feel for the immersion. Looking down, I could see the pilot’s body, arms on armrests, legs on the ground. The very first thing I did was lift my real-world leg, and after laughing with the CCP guys I had to admit that I had no idea what I expected that to do. The screen is low-res, I’m a little unsure as to what some of the cockpit readouts were supposed to be telling me, but the sense of immersion, of being there, is still nearly instantaneous. Then the other five players were set up and it was time to launch.
It doesn’t take long to get used to the idea that this is you, sitting in a cockpit, and the limitations of a screen simply don’t exist any more. In a standard fly & shoot you can only change your view by changing direction, but in Eve VR the cockpit canopy is clear all around, and you rapidly start looking everywhere for incoming enemies. Lasers only fire straight ahead, but the missiles are controlled by your viewpoint. Holding the left trigger on the standard Xbox 360 controller brings up a targeting reticle in the center of the screen, and you keep it centered on an enemy for a couple seconds by moving your head to track it, earning a lock-on. Then you release the left trigger and a barrage of missiles streaks away, at which point they’ll hear a lock-on warning and hit the afterburner for high-speed evasion.
I managed to get two games in, and there was definitely a learning experience in using the Rift. In the first game I mostly looked ahead, or to the left and right a bit, but in game two it sunk in that the available viewing area was just about anywhere. Down didn’t work, of course, seeing as that’s instrumentation and the pilot’s body, but turning around and looking back over my shoulder? Bring up target, lock on, fire! If I wanted to see what was beneath my feet then a half barrel roll turned down to up, with anything in that section of the sky now a viable target. The sense of freedom was, to be clear, utterly amazing.
Then the match was over, the score popped up on screen, and it was time to turn the Rift over to the next person in line. Eve VR was amazingly fun, but the experience of using the Oculus Rift finally managed to set expectations to proper levels. While I remain excited (and deeply impatient for the retail version) it’s clear that the Rift has a few things to keep in mind. It’s an exclusionary device, in that when you put it on your head you’re locking out the outside world. If you game with friends in the same room, it’s probably not going to work that well unless everyone’s set up with some type of voice chat. Your eyes are completely covered by the screen, and headphones are highly recommended. Another potential thing to remember is that, in most FPS viewpoint games, looking is nearly instantaneous if you use a mouse/keyboard, and you can view at any angle no matter how sore that might leave your real-world neck. These are changes that can be dealt with, however, and the kind of trade-off any new technology brings with it.
There’s a long way to go before the Oculus Rift gets a final model and retail version start hitting the shelf, but the potential for disruption in the gaming industry is huge. The planned target price of $300 is more than fair for a monitor, and seeing as it’s actually a monitor rather than a proprietary piece of hardware means you should be able to hook it up to anything with an HDMI output that offers driver support. PC/Mac/Linux are no-brainers, of course, but PS4? Maybe, and I’d have a hard time believing the Xbox One would be far behind. (It wouldn’t make any sense on Wii U because how would you see the gamepad screen?) Eve VR showed off the Oculus Rift in the best possible light, and it’s easy to believe that, if there had been a bigger showing, the Rift could have stolen the spotlight from the PS4 and Xbox One. A new way of gaming that’s instantly accessible to almost everyone, versus the been-there done-that of new consoles? It would have been interesting, but we’ll just have to wait until E3 2014 to see what kind of impact the Oculus Rift will make.