There’s a reason that Valkyrie is shipping for free with every version of the Rift Consumer Version 1 kit - it’s arguably the best VR experience currently available for the platform. It seems tailor made for the Rift’s strengths - designed for a seated experience, and perfectly usable with the Xbox one controller, it doesn’t need those extra features offered by the HTC Vive. And yet it’s also a prime example of how we’re still at the very first generation of VR games - take away the VR headset, and there’s actually a remarkably shallow experience here.
Oculus rates this as one of the more intense VR experiences around, which means it’s probably not the best game to fire up when you first bust out your HMD. It’s fast and frenetic, so unless you’ve already spent some quality time acclimatising to VR, there is a good chance you’ll be reaching for a bucket after 30 minutes of play. Having said that, the game does include a few empty levels that are perfect for slowly getting used to the controls and head mounted movements. It’s also easily one of the prettiest VR launch titles, which makes it hard not to turn to when you first get your HMD.
From the very first moment you sit in your virtual space fighter, it’s hard not to be impressed by just how real it feels to be sitting in these cockpits. I’m a flight simmer from way back, and even have a custom cockpit with HOTAS controls, but it’s not a patch on actually sitting in a 360 degree recreation of a pit, where I can lean forwards and sideways to look around me. Once you’re in the pit, a short countdown procedure activates, as the launch tube ahead of you energises, before flinging you out of your carrier and into deep space. It’s a thrilling and exciting moment that you just don’t get without that VR sense of presence.
The first time you do this is part of a very short tutorial, which teaches the basics of handling - and to be frank, they’re rather rudimentary. You have a short boost which has limited fuel, and then the usual aircraft based controls. Unlike other space sims, Valkyrie has gone for a very basic handling system that is not a true physics-based approach. Just two different weapons are available in the first ships - a cannon system that fires ahead, which can be tricky to use unless you lock on to your targets and thus get a nice little bead that leads where you should shoot. But by far the coolest weapon is the head-tracked missiles. By looking around the cockpit, you can lock onto other spacecraft that are well off centre. Trust me, after a few dogfights you’re going to get some rather bulky neck muscles, as learning to look all around is a huge part of the game.
Lock on to another fighter long enough and you can fire several missiles - which again take time to recharge. In defence your ship is equipped with auto-cannons; hear the missile lock warning, turn on the cannons and hopefully you won’t get blown out of the sky. It’s all very exciting at first, and the tutorial puts you right in the middle of a massive scene with gigantic spacecraft stretching kilometers in length.
And then you realise that’s about all of the single player content there is. A handful of other missions allow you to explore the maps and sometimes take on AI, but the amount to do on your own can only be described as threadbare. Nope, this game is currently firmly focused on multiplayer, with the predominant mode being team death match. One of the nicest VR touches is the lobby system - as you wait for the game to begin, you’re in a virtual room surrounded by your fellow pilots, all inhabiting special chambers waiting for the game to begin. It’s hard to explain, but by seeing them there, in full 3D, it actually feels like you’re about to storm out onto a playing field with people beside you.
Sadly the combat itself isn’t exactly amazing. Perhaps it’s because I’ve flown a lot of simulators, but I found it simple to beat other players who were piloting much higher level spacecraft (yep there’s an unlocking system here, but it’s relatively shallow). Gone are the epic carriers from the tutorial - it’s just you and a bunch of smaller fighters flying in endless circles around each other. There’s usually some kind of structure in the middle of the flying area, such as a space station or asteroid field, but I found it rare for other players to use these for avoidance. When they did, chasing them through these cluttered, 3D spaces was exhilarating, but most players stick to the open areas of the field. Adding to the issues is the fact that missiles rarely seem to do any damage - I generally relied on my cannons for kills, which is the least enjoyable weapon.
Don’t get me wrong, my first few hours in the game were wondrous - I was in Battlestar Galactica, zipping around in a real space ship rather than pretending to look at a screen. Yet the lack of depth in both content and handling leads to an ultimately repetitive experience. Thankfully CCP are introducing new modes as they learn what works in VR, with an upcoming carrier battle mode replicating the trench run from Star Wars, and I’m sure they’ll add deeper systems and handling to the combat. But until then it’s merely a nice Day 1 experience that is in dire need of more time and attention - the good news is that CCP is exactly the kind of company who provide that.