PAX South 2015: Hangin' with Frontier, playin' Elite on the Oculus Rift

Elite: Dangerous

Readers of the Choose My Adventure column may remember that I spent the month of September smuggling beer, shooting NPCs, and dodging space rocks in Frontier Developments' Elite: Dangerous. Though the game was in early beta, I found lots to do and lots to love about the space simulator that isn't that other space simulator. Realistic physics, challenging flight controls, and beautiful design work made the game stand out to me as unique and promising (other Massively staffers seem to agree), and I've revisited it since and enjoyed it every time.

Thus, I jumped at the chance to check Elite out again at PAX South 2015, this time with the experience enhanced by a rad HOTAS setup and the ever-so-popular Oculus Rift. Guided by producer Eddie Symons, I bluffed my way through a combat demo and discovered that when it comes to shooting things in space, being able to look and fly separately is a great thing indeed.

Turn your head

The first thing Symons tells me during my play session is that I should remember to turn my head. Gamers using the Rift for the first time are often stuck in traditional eyes-forward mode and don't intuitively realize that the device supports an insanely huge range of view. If you haven't used a Rift and are curious about how much you can move, the easiest way to explain it is saying you can turn your head up, down, left, and right more than far enough to feel absolutely embarrassed you're playing a game so enthusiastically. It's awesome.

The real moment of clarity with Elite and the Rift comes the first time you look down at your hands. If you're using a HOTAS with a throttle and joystick, the digital hands you see in the cockpit perfectly mirror your real-life hands as they move. I actually said "HOLY SHIT" sitting in Frontier's booth; as we all know I am nothing if not a commensurate professional. Symons explained that Elite was built from the ground up to work with VR, explaining, "The whole game is about you inside your ship, so the way that felt had to be spot on." So much of the Rift integration is about intuitive responses in the cockpit. For example, simply glance to the side and the menu appears like magic.

I've always liked Elite: Dangerous, but my PAX play session left me with two new takeaways. Number one, a HOTAS is really the only way anyone should be playing Elite. I played it with an Xbox controller during CMA, and while that was serviceable, it wasn't nearly as immersive or fun. Number two, Oculus Rift is much cooler than I expected. I still don't think gamers want to hang out all day with a thing on their head, and I won't be purchasing a Rift based on this one experience, but I certainly wouldn't turn down an opportunity to try it again.

If you're on the fence about the Rift, I highly suggest you find a chance to test one out. And if you already have a Rift and you're not playing Elite, now's a great time to start the download.

Elite: Past and present

Elite: Dangerous officially launched in December of 2014, but that doesn't mean Frontier is done adding to the game. With 400 billion star systems in play, there's plenty of room for expansion. Exploration, economy, combat, and all the other Elite systems are continuing to grow and evolve -- sometimes to the point of surprising the people in charge of the game. Says Symons of exploration, for instance, "[Players] are finding stuff in the game that I've never seen before." According to Frontier, human-occupied space takes up about one percent of Elite's current universe. The more players branch out in search of adventure, fame, and fortune, the larger that percentage will get. That's the studio's answer to one of the core questions about Elite: How do you keep a 400 billion system world busy, interactive, engaging?

It hasn't been all smooth sailing for the game. Frontier has suffered a couple of high-profile stumbles in the weeks before and after the Elite's official launch. Perhaps the most notable controversy arose in November, when Frontier cut the game's long-planned single player mode and refused to offer refunds to a large swath of Elite's players. The decision was later reversed, and PR lead Michael Gapper explained to me that players who were upset about the change are being contacted personally rather than in bulk. "From the very beginning Frontier has been very close to the community. It seemed disingenuous to send out a blanket email saying, 'Hey you're getting a refund.'" Symons added that the Elite team is dedicated to listening to the community, considering its ideas, and observing how it interacts with the game.

Minor blips

New challenges are coming for those folks who spend their days and nights flying digital spaceships. Community missions, which are large events in which multiple pilots participate, are set for launch in the immediate future. Frontier hopes this will better link the political/power struggles of systems with those players who perhaps have overlooked this aspect of the game's persistent universe. I couldn't pry any other big announcements out of Symons or Gapper, but I get the feeling there's other cool stuff coming as well.

In short, Elite: Dangerous is a finished game that's still a work in progress. It offers a lot to do with more on the way, and its focus on VR integration and high-end computer setups ensures its fans will be playing it for some time to come. It's a place where you can make your own experience (as long as that experience can occur from a cockpit), and I think it will continue to grow. As Symons explained, "It's a very open game where you can go out and do your own thing and play how you want to play."

Seriously, though -- try that Rift thing. When do MJ and I ever agree on anything?

Massively's on the ground in San Antonio during the weekend of January 23rd to January 25th for PAX South 2015. Whether you're dying to know more about Guild Wars 2's Heart of Thorns, hoping to glimpse Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift, or angling for rumors from the SWTOR cantina crawl, we'll have it covered!