Disclosure: CCP Games Provided travel and accommodations that made this feature possible.

EVE Valkyrie is an upcoming space flight combat game by CCP, makers of sprawling free market sci-fi sandbox EVE Online. It’s a first person virtual reality game that puts players into the cockpit of a space fighter for intense multiplayer dogfights. Now in full development for PS4 and PC, it started as a side project prototype before becoming something that fan demand made clear was a potential product. Known for space games, it seems like a natural fit for CCP’s developers after the FPS Dust 514 made clear that action was a genre they were interested in. Valkyrie will tell a side story in the EVE universe, one of outcast and pirate fighters jockeys scrabbling to make ends meet. It’ll star Katee Sackhoff as Ran Kavik, the ace pilot of the Valkyries. I had a chance to play the game, and the unexpected experience I had surprised me. Even unfinished, and after only an hour of play, Valkyrie has the kind of unique charm of a definitive game on a new platform. I’ve been a big VR skeptic in the past, but I’m ready to upgrade my gaming rig and take to the heavens for Valkyrie. Or maybe just buy a PS4. Or both.

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EVE, and to a lesser extent, Dust, are both specialized and hardcore games requiring dedication to understand. With its Virtual Reality hardware requirement and niche subject, I expected Valkyrie to be the same. What I realized as I settled in to play the pre-alpha build – and what became clear after meeting Lead Designer Andrew Willens – is that Valkyrie is going to be the most accessible, straightforward space combat game in some time. It plays almost like an arena shooter, pitting teams against each other in tests of skill and coordination. A big Battlefield player and fan of multiplayer shooters in general, Willens recently had his Battlefield clan buddies out to the CCP offices to try out the latest build. “We did three hours of matches, and for most of these guys it was their first time in VR, and they were just blown away,” he said. “I loved it, it made me more excited for the game than ever. I just wanted to play more and more.” (I guess he, unlike I, does not get a little blinky and nearsighted after a few hours of VR.) Willens is clearly very in love with VR, the game’s concept, and its genre. He used to work at Ubisoft, heading up titles like Grow Home, but jumped at the chance to innovate in Valkyrie. Innovate they have. The game is designed so that you immediately know what to do, with immersive visuals at the forefront of airtight basic gameplay design.

You fall right into it. You’re a pilot. You fly space fighters. This is your kingdom. Get to dogfighting.

And dogfighting it is. The heart of any flight combat game is how ships fly, how they handle. Valkyrie takes the Star Wars approach, and battles are like World War 2 fighters facing off. No worrying about conserving momentum, for example, or making sure you don’t go flying past your target and can’t correct in time. No ‘real spacecraft’ approach as in games like Elite: Dangerous, no Battlestar Galactica-esque 180 degree flips to shoot an opponent behind you (despite Katee Sackhoff’s presence as the game’s hero character.) The familiarity of plane-like controls is a decision that will do well for Valkyrie, keeping the game accessible to nearly anyone. (Anyone who can keep up with fast-paced shooter combat, at least.) The gamepad controls themselves (we used Xbox 360 controllers) are simple: Five buttons, two triggers, one stick. You’re always moving forward at top speed. You can slow and then stop by holding one button, or boost on a limited capacitor with another. You use a single stick to direct your ship, shoot with the triggers, and roll with the shoulder buttons. A third face button deploys countermeasures. No second stick, remember, since you’re looking around using VR and there’s no directional thrusting to speak of. Just forward, forward faster, slow down.

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I was a little trepidatious, though. I like space flight. I like the conceits of microgravity and zero gravity environments. I like directional and axial thrusting. I like moving to max speed, cutting my boosters, and facing my target guns blazing as I speed away. I frankly expected to dislike it – I find that the approach often either makes your spaceship handle like wet soap on ice or like a glorified floating tank. There’s a bit of that in Valkyrie, especially with the fastest craft, but the maps I played were definitely designed with the flight model in mind. Maps are thick with terrain: Asteroids, space wreckage, scaffolding, and bits of station are all mixed in – with the occasional terrifying stretch of completely exposed space.

Other space games often get map design wrong, splashing bits of terrain around but not giving them detailed nooks and crannies, or unique overall layouts, that direct the flow of battle – like in a good first person shooter map. Though it’s true to life, too much empty space is just… boring. In Valkyrie you constantly have something to duck behind, roll past, or slide into. The game encourages you to use the cover, and if you hit something you’ll just slide off it with little damage taken. Willens said that was a very purposeful stylistic choice: “We didn’t want to punish people for being cool”. If Valkyrie‘s final maps have this level of quality, you won’t mind the simplified flying at all.

The three different classes of ship determine how you interact with those maps, and a planned ranking system will unlock variant ships and hybrids as you play a class more. You choose from up to four pre-chosen ships – depending on rank – each time you respawn. Yes, it’s a class-based, rank-based online arena shooter with leveling up and experience. I rolled my eyes when I found that out, too, but I did have to admire the restraint of only three classes – they really did fill distinct roles. Some ships, like nimble supports, exploit terrain by being more maneuverable and faster. Heavies use it by being bigger, tougher, and filling up the narrow spaces with explosive shells. Fighters ]either split the difference or subvert the design entirely, focusing on tricking enemies into the open where a top speed rules and there’s nothing to hide behind while they line up the shot and a fully locked barrage of homing missiles leaves the tubes.

Oh, the homing missiles. Valkyrie‘s most novel and interesting use of its virtual reality component is in using your weapons. You target missiles visually, holding down the trigger and tracking an opponent with your head. The longer you track, the more missiles are racked and locked, until you either break visual hold or get to your maximum firing complement. When you release, they run your target down, giving them a handful of seconds to deploy limited countermeasures or, more likely, suffer a crippling hit. It’s a system Willens calls “look to lock.”

Heavy ships’ primary armament uses VR too, letting you grit your teeth and stare enemies to death. It’s a set of gimballed cannons that point where you’re looking, giving you freedom to track your targets while simultaneously maneuvering your ship elsewhere. That’s good, since Heavies are terribly slow and turn like a brick – they trade maneuverability and weapon variety for armor. Heavies rely on their secondary power, a chargeable warp-speed boost, not a weapon, to escape or enter combat. Either escape or enter, though – the boost takes a while to charge up, then to recharge. When you get into the fight, you track targets with your head, and a leading indicator lets you know where to look so your shells impact near whomever you’re looking at.

I tried two variants of the Heavy, one a rapid-firing beast called the Maelstrom with slow shells that exploded on proximity to a target or at maximum range. They didn’t do much damage alone, but devastated light enemies who got caught in a full barrage. A Maelstrom-on-Maelstrom fight was boring, if hilarious – like two elephants going at it with blunt knives. The other was weird beast which had a very slow firing flak cannon. The flak projectile itself was fast, exploding into a starburst of eight or so smaller munitions that each then flew off and exploded under the same rules: At their max range or on proximity to enemies. They were shockingly powerful, but compared to the game’s other weapons incredibly slow, firing only every two or so seconds compared to the tens of times a second most others sported.

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It was a whole new skill for me, and it’s not often you find one of those if you’ve been a lifelong gamer. In a combat I only had one, maybe two, shots that would count before my nimbler opponents skipped out of sight. I had to track very precisely with my head, ensuring precision so that my lead was just right and one or more submunitions would get the target and deal a devastating blow. While doing that, I had to keep my ship on course to stay in the fight and get me those precious seconds. Then I’d have to take stock of the situation again, deciding if a shot placed to explode in the middle of combat was best, or if I should try to get another split-second chance at a direct hit. All the while, I was a sort of tank for my team, my larger ship and flashy fireworks attracting more enemies, who tried to get on my tail, which made it harder to stay the center of the swirling knot that most Valkyrie combats become.

Oh, and remember, if you’re watching your opponents you’re not watching your health, shields, boost capacitor, or anti-missile countermeasures timer. Most ships’ primary weapons aren’t visually controlled though, just their secondaries. For example, the Fighter ships’ main arsenal is fixed prow gatling guns with an always-visible reticle. The missile reticle only appears when you try to target them.

Valkyrie‘s biggest skill is probably remembering not to develop tunnel vision. You’d think that the red blinking lights, sirens, and flashing missile outlines would be enough to help you know when there’s incoming ordnance… but when you’re in the thick of things, you tune out every distraction. Some players won’t like that. They’ll find it frustrating, finding themselves constantly wondering why they died or what killed them, and how they could have improved, only to respawn and have the same thing happen again. I certainly saw others having that problem, and had it myself when trying out weaker ships. The final version of the game would do well to try and solve that problem – information will be key to learning in such a fast paced environment.

In the end, though Heavies were fun, they didn’t suit me. The extreme durability felt like cheating compared to the fragility of other ships, and the rapid-firing heavy variants were more spray-and-pray than the precision-based combat I enjoy.

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No, where I had the most fun was in the Support class ships, and in a hybrid Support-Fighter ship. They were oddly shaped, tall and narrow, with the cockpit at the top. I could idle in a chasm or corridor with just the barest bit of my ship exposed. That let me look around easily in VR, only a little of my ship obscuring the stars, exposing opponents coming from most angles. Enemies are highlighted with a little red box, but that doesn’t give any indication of how far away they are. Since only a bit of my ship was exposed, I looked like a bit of the terrain, or that my ship was on the other side of the terrain camping a checkpoint. When enemies close and blasted past I’d lock on, dart out, and be on their tail in no time.

See, supports and support hybrids use a visually aimed and locked beam laser. After a few seconds of holding the trigger on the target you’re looking at it starts up, rapidly draining their shields with a flashy twisting beam – or refilling their shields if it’s a friendly ship. Supports were also the fastest and nimblest of the ship classes, if the most fragile, and in contrast to most games also seemed to fulfill the role of quick, sneaky scout. They have to be. Their beam laser was the most finicky weapon in the game. Beyond requiring visual lock followed by a charge up time, they had limited range and a very limited arc of fire – a frontal cone. If you lost sight of your target, you lost both the lock and the effects of your gun.

Some supports also carried spider bots, which threw out a stationary web of laser lights very bright to allies and dim to foes. If an enemy ship flies through it, the spider bots land all over their cockpit screen (in a terrifying and disconcerting visual effect for a VR game), then explode in an EMP which cripples their systems briefly. If an ally flies in, the bots land on them to supercharge their shields.

Despite Supports’ cool shape and clever tricks, I eventually settled on a hybrid Fighter-class, which was lightweight, fast, and used a mix of styles. On one hand it had the support’s secondary weapon, the healing beam, but used the fighter craft’s standard primary double gatling gun weapons. I loved zipping around the battlefield, targeting the allied ships my UI flagged as having damaged shields for healing, then scoring kill assists with my main guns. When not playing medic, I could use my superior speed and support-like maneuverability to dart in behind enemies and suck their shields right off. Even if they managed to shake my tail, they were left shieldless, an easy kill for myself or a teammate.

That big, flashy beam laser sure does make you a target though.

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According to Willens, settling into one playstyle is an option, but you’re intended to do more. “You play more, you get more launch tubes. You take a wider variety of ships into combat,” he said. That mostly bore out in play, for better or worse. We had most of the game’s options unlocked for us, so we could go into combat with four ships to choose from. With small, five person teams, composition is pretty important. Stubbornly sticking to one ship type, even if your opponents counter it, will get your team killed. If nobody on your team wants to play support, you’ll lose by attrition in an equal-skill match. A team wholly composed of heavies might be fun, but your opponents will always choose where the fight starts and you’d have a lot of trouble aiding allies. A lone wolf can and will devastate one or two uncoordinated enemies, but if you fly solo for too long you’ll get caught out and scrapped in seconds. In the end, a diverse lineup of weapon combinations available will be what keeps Valkyrie alive post-release. There was a lot in the build of the game we had access to, and at least ten ships that I counted weren’t available to us, but I couldn’t get a good sense of how different every ship variant was from the other. Some Supports, for example, seemed nearly identical after a round out. The heavies I tried all had big, obvious differences.

From the menu on, EVE Valkyrie plays like a game designed for the VR environment. “There’s a few immutable laws of development,” said Willens, “and one of them is that in VR you need a reticle. A point of focus so that the user knows what they’re looking at. We broke that law. Of course people know what they’re looking at. They’re looking at it.” It’s something I noticed right off the bat. When you load into the game you’re seated facing a projection overlaid on a starry dome, an open view of space. In an odd moment of meta-irony, overlaid on the dome are holographic virtual reality icons. A flock of ships lets you customize your spacecraft. A carrier orbiting a world lets you jump into combat. Looking down, there’s symbols for changing game settings, or your user login – right where you think they’d be, on your throne’s control panels. When you look at something it reacts dynamically, and a button press activates it. It’s a visually impressive trick because it’s unlike other games. Willens likened it to a planetarium. “We wanted it to be something special,” he said, “because menus are part of the real world. This is supposed to be an immersive experience. You don’t want to start this up and see a bunch of logos, then some names, then some basic buttons you scroll through with a stick to select.”

It’s when you look behind yourself, or to the sides, that the real cleverness of the menu breaks in. You’re sitting in the grungy pilots’ ready room of your carrier. Behind you is a bar, makeshift neon sign glowing, littered with half-finished drinks. To either side an armored glass viewport shows glimpses of the fleet beyond. A few crates of equipment and storage lockers must belong to your wingmates. Airlocks lead to other ship sections. They’re grungy, human touches.

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The build I played was a multiplayer environment, five-on-five skirmishes of games and tech writers running on a LAN setup.[1] The developers put us through four rounds of gameplay, each about 10 to 15 minutes long. We played two standard team deathmatches, focusing on killing through enemies’ allotment of cloned respawns before they killed through ours. The other two games we played were control point based capture maps, which while they weren’t finalized, gave every ship the ability to drop drones near capture points. The dropped drones converted the points to your side and caused opponents’ tickets to drop, and you could destroy enemy drones to stop their conversion and capture of points. I got a lot of enjoyment out of that, spending most of my time healing allies and sniping enemy drones to prevent their progress – even if that meant my score sucked. It was a fairly standard twist on the format, but fun nonetheless.

Valkyrie promises to ship with those PvP modes and a few others, alongside a set of PvE environments. Swarm will be a wave-based defense where players fight increasingly large waves of artificial intelligence opponents. Convoy will be a mission-like environment where players undertake fixed objectives against AI fighters. “We don’t call it a campaign because campaign has connotations – people think this grand thing like Call of Duty – they’re more a less competitive, fun way to test your ship builds and learn the game.” If you just want to fly, a mode called Scout will be available to just explore the maps and find little points of lore. It’s a decent lineup, but if too few maps make it into the game there could the lack of content variety that has plagued recent titles like Titanfall and Evolve. It’s too early to tell. Launch is some time out and CCP isn’t nearly ready to discuss final specifics.

I do not often unironically use the phrase “get hype,” but, perhaps just this once, I’ll go ahead and board the hype train at an early station. Aside from my prior comments, I see little that could happen in the next months of development to make Valkyrie go wrong – but we’ll keep checking in nonetheless. EVE Valkyrie will launch in 2016 on PC and PS4 using Oculus Rift and PS VR respectively.

[1] And one, poor, bewildered Business writer. We tried to take it easy on him.

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