Eve Valkyrie is at the vanguard of the virtual reality gaming charge, and it's testament to the belief Oculus has that more than half of its brand spanking new Oculus Rift DK2 dev kits were in Iceland last week at Eve FanFest to showcase a brand spanking new build of the game. It's head and shoulders above what we saw recently at GDC.
"It's four more months of work," lead game designer Chris Smith puts it bluntly, and of course it's now running on Unreal Engine 4, not Unity. The ship is new, the cockpit new, the HUD new, and space dazzles with beautiful new effects. "Visually it's a whole upgrade," he says, and it also lays solid foundations for years of support ahead.
The changes are more than skin deep, and introduce a layer of tactics beyond frantically loosing barrages of missiles before the three-minute battle timer is up. Take the way the cannon fires now: the bullets speed out then slow to a steady rhythm, the weapon overheating if you thunder for too long. Missiles require a choice, too, in how many you let fly, a circular motif filling with dots to indicate how many you've loaded for fire.
Ships have counter-measures to defend themselves with, such as laser-zappers that pop up to destroy incoming missiles. But they take time to reload, so it becomes a matter of holding your nerve until the last moment to have the greatest salvo-destroying effect. A decoy counters cannon fire, and while it's not implemented in the build I played, Smith tells me you'll be able to nudge and direct its course of flight, perhaps sending it one way while you bank the other.
And those are the specific tools of just one ship, the Fighter. There are different ships, such as the Heavy and Support (not in the build I played), and there are load-outs to alter them towards different styles of play. Want to be fast but fragile? You can be. Want to be tough, armed, but slow? Sure. And every time you customise, your ship's look does too - a nice visual touch. There are also Ground Crews that customise your ship further, but specific details about them are locked until later.
Those mechanics reveal the glue holding Valkyrie together between battles - the persistence, if you like. "The player will have a pilot which is theirs," Smith says. "You're a pirate in a larger story after all. You can die and come back via technology.
"I look at it as The Matrix: you can know Kung Fu. Because you're digital, possessions are a little bit worthless to you, but what you know, who you are and what you can master - that becomes the currency you deal in. Once you've fought enough and you've used the Fighter for long enough, you have the experience to handle the other modes, the other load-outs.
"Once you have the load-out that's a piece of digital information that's part of your character's DNA, and you can access that at any time."
I played the new Oculus Rift DK2 build of Valkyrie as well as the older Morpheus build of the game. Both involved two teams of four fighting each other. But in its office, CCP Newcastle fights in teams as big as 12. The limit for us was as much imposed by the scarcity of hardware as much as by design, and how it will be at launch Smith says the team doesn't yet know.
"The plan we have is not just for a one-year game; we have plans for year two, year three."Chris Smith, Eve Valkyrie lead designer
"[VR] is a new format so we don't know how many players we're going to have out of the gate," Smith explains. "What we don't want to do is have 4v4, 8v8, 10v10, 12v12 permutations split across game mode one two three four and map five six seven eight. You start combining all that, you have three people in servers.
"We have a lot of plans for modes, a lot of plans for maps, but what you'll find is that the selection will be deliberately focused to start with, then as the market grows we'll just unlock and give new experiences as we go."
The key thing to understand is that CCP intends Eve Valkyrie to be a game that lives online and expands over time, as Eve Online has, as Dust 514 has. "The plan we have is not just for a one-year game; we have plans for year two, year three." This will not be a series of sequels but an experience that evolves, he assures me. So while it may be tightly focused at launch, with player freedom being little more than moment-to-moment memories from battles - 'Hey Chuck! See that move I pulled last night? See that ship I was flying?' - over time that could expand into the sort of sandbox, player-propelled holy grail that CCP is, well, all about.
That goes for mechanical links to Eve Online as well - the bigger picture, so to speak. There won't be any mechanical link from Eve Valkyrie to Eve Online at launch, Smith says, beyond perhaps accounts straddling the two games, but further down the line... absolutely.
"Right now, connecting it to Eve would be too big a scope for us, and we don't need to do it," he says. "What we want to do is establish Valkyrie, get people excited about Valkyrie, then in two years, three years, four - whatever time period that is - when the right opportunity and the right way to connect it comes in, there's no way we wouldn't. It's always technology and the right moment and the right way, and rushing that would be the wrong way to do it."
The launch feature-set for Eve Valkyrie is decided internally, but the launch date is harder to pin down. "We don't know when the hardware is coming out, which is tricky," he shrugs, "so we stick to our feature-set and as far as the feature-set goes, we're on target. And I can't say what our initial target was because I would be in all kinds of hot water for that."
The goal is to have Eve Valkyrie ready for the launch of both headsets, he tells me, and at that point both versions should be the same - because at the moment there's a clear difference. But again, without knowing final specs, it's a hard prediction to make with any certainty. "We certainly don't want to be making two versions," he grins.
There's also the possibility that Microsoft will enter the fray with a VR headset of its own, which poses another question, one executive producer Owen O'Brien takes on. "Ultimately we're making a VR game, so wherever there's VR ultimately that's where we'd like to be," he says. "Any new headset coming to the space is good, because it's another validation of the space, in the same way that Facebook buying Oculus is a great validation of VR tech.
He adds: "In terms of what platforms we're going to go on or what exclusivity we're going to have of what periods, that's again something I'm not going to talk about yet." Remember, Oculus is co-publishing Valkyrie, and there's a kind of exclusivity deal in place.
The other big question is how we'll pay for Eve Valkyrie. Will it be free-to-play like Dust 514? Will it be a subscription service like Eve Online? Will it be bundled with the VR headset hardware? "That's not really something we want to talk about yet," O'Brien informs me. "That's something we'll talk about closer to launch. We have been exploring business models but I can't really talk about that yet.
"It's something we're holding back for the right time," he goes on. "And also, I wouldn't say it's in flux but this is a very new platform, so business models that work on other platforms might not work straight away on this one, so we certainly have a plan but we may adapt that plan as we get closer to launch.
"You just make a good game and the business model supports that. Everything's worth what people are willing to pay for it. If you make something that's good and compelling then people will pay."
And compelling Eve Valkyrie most certainly is. But it's also becoming more than the most convincing three-minute virtual reality gaming demo around. It's becoming a game, a nuanced game, with depth, vision and visual spectacle in excess of what other VR games can offer. It has a team of 25 people behind it - which other VR games can boast that?
It's not perfect - either the game or the tech - and as immersive as it is you're still very much aware that you're playing a game. Also, VR headsets - as a glasses-wearer - are uncomfortable to put over the top, and blurry if I don't, although I'm told Oculus Rift ships with different lenses to compensate for short-sighted people such as me. There's also a natural amount of blurriness to VR that you have to jig the headset around to try and negate - it's not quite the crystal clear experience the impressive videos of the game suggest.
Those things will improve, I'm sure, and Eve Valkyrie will come closer to being the game, the world, that CCP hopes you'll fight "thousands" of battles in, over the course of years. And again, it's a testament to what's been achieved so rapidly so far that the question for me is not if I'll want to go there, but when.