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This is how Oculus will sell VR to the masses

Every Rift pre-order comes with a copy of 'Eve: Valkyrie.'

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By Nathan Ingraham and Aaron Souppouris

A big question has followed Oculus around since its Rift unveil back in June: How will it persuade the public that virtual reality is ready for primetime? Today we have the answer: Oculus VR has announced that Eve: Valkyrie, CCP's multiplayer dogfighting shooter, will be a pack-in with every pre-order of its upcoming VR headset when it launches in early 2016.

Aaron Souppouris, Senior Editor

"We want to be the Halo or Mario for the [PlayStation VR] and Oculus." That's what Valkyrie executive producer Owen O'Brien told me back when I previewed the game in April. Today's news made his wish come true. While more recent platforms have launched without them, traditionally pack-in games were common. And they've been especially important for establishing new concepts or accessories, with many going on to become iconic titles. Nintendo used this trick often: think Game Boy and Tetris, SNES and Super Mario World, or the Wii and Wii Sports. Oculus clearly believes Valkyrie is the right title to imbue the qualities of VR to the masses.

CCP, the game's developer, made its fortune from the Eve:Online space MMO, but in recent years subscriber numbers haven't been moving in the right direction, and it's laid off a lot of staff. As well as trying to spark interest in its MMO through frequent updates, it's poured money into virtual reality development, hoping to get into the field early to make the money it needs to survive. We probably should've seen the pack-in coming -- Oculus is publishing Valkyrie, after all -- but the fact that everyone with a Rift on launch day will get the game is still huge news for CCP.

The jury's still out on whether Valkyrie is the best game to showcase VR for first-timers.

While CCP's gamble has been vindicated, the jury's still out on whether Valkyrie is the best game to showcase VR for first-timers. Here's the problem: I'm not the best person to judge its success. I've played a healthy amount of VR over the past three years, during which I've played Valkyrie in its alpha and beta stages. My thoughts on the game are not going to be a great analog for a "first timer." My colleague Nathan Ingraham, however, approached the game with fresh eyes.

Eve: Valkyrie

Nathan Ingraham, Senior Editor

As Aaron hinted, I'm a newbie to Valkyrie and VR gaming in general. Until last week, most of my VR experience came in the early days of the Oculus Rift's development; I've played around with a few VR headsets at various events, but I haven't had an experience that has felt like anything more than a tech demo or proof of concept.

Valkyrie feels like a polished, relatively complete experience. Even something as simple as the menu screen felt familiar. Like the kind of thing I might find playing a regular game. We don't play games for their menus, though. This preview threw me right into a five-on-five space dogfighting deathmatch, and the game uses VR well right off the bat. The feeling of your ship taking off and blasting out of the launch tube into the vast expanse of space is a pretty wonderful intro, and then you have a few blissful seconds to look around the level before you run into your competitors and must start fighting to stay alive.

The biggest challenge was getting used to the fact that I actually could use my head to look around the world. I'm so used to using the right stick to move the "camera" that I kept hitting it to look around before remembering that I could just, well, look. Head-tracking is used in other ways beyond the obvious -- one class of spaceship requires you to stare at an enemy ship to lock on before deploying targeted missiles, a convention that felt pretty natural. Another ship had a different head-tracked weapon that felt less precise. Moving your head in that instance only affected the aiming reticle for your machine gun, with no lock on. That was a bit trickier -- enemy ships can move so fast and erratically that using head-tracked aiming felt very imprecise. This could definitely become more natural with more time and practice, but as a first-timer it wasn't very intuitive.

EVE: Valkyrie Gameplay and Customization Options

In Valkyrie, there are three classes of ships -- a well-balanced fighter, a heavy "tank" option and a ship focused on healing -- and you can use the experience points you gain to upgrade both their capabilities and visual appearance. For example, you can add healing capabilities to the standard fighter, or add more tank-like armor to balance out the different classes. Beyond the standard deathmatch, there are a few different objective-based matches you can play. I tried a capture the flag-style match -- there were three points to control and defend from attack. The developers say there will be more game modes, a good sign that Valkyrie will try to offer players more depth.

As someone who's interested in VR gaming but doesn't have much time to game, a multiplayer-only launch title isn't exactly ideal.

Those alternate gameplay modes are going to be doubly important as there aren't many single-player experiences to be found here. There are some standalone missions that serve as training exercises while fleshing out the story behind the world, and you can also check out levels in a combat-free exploration mode, but the majority of the game's appeal is in multiplayer. For most people buying an Oculus Rift at launch, that probably won't be a problem. If you're investing in one of the first consumer-ready VR products, you're likely a pretty serious gamer.

As someone who's interested in VR gaming but doesn't have as much time to game as he'd like, though, a multiplayer-only launch title isn't exactly ideal. I was, to put it bluntly, not good at EVE: Valkyrie, and I got the feeling there's a reasonably steep learning curve. While I'd certainly improve with time, I could easily see a situation in which I was nearly always outclassed by other players who simply have more time to master the game's nuances. But that's why I don't play a lot of multiplayer games in general, and Valkyrie is no different.

Valkyrie

Aaron Souppouris, Senior Editor

Nathan's experience mirrors mine -- there's a definite learning curve to using your head to aim -- but after 20 minutes or so the game felt so much richer because of it. I've been sold on Valkyrie for a long time now. It's definitely not going to enthrall everyone, but it's still a great showcase for the Rift. Why? Because it's so familiar.

Some of the most compelling experiences are those that can track the motion of your full body, which only Valve and HTC can offer (for now) with the Vive. But as impressive as these demos are, the vast majority of gamers aren't going to throw down hundreds of dollars for unproven concepts. They want games. And although it looks more like a space sim, Valkyrie really takes all the hooks that make huge game series like Call of Duty so popular and transposes them to VR.

As it's a multiplayer title, Valkyrie has the potential to stick around for months and months, provided the community takes to it. And although you can play for hours, a typical Valkyrie match is over in minutes. That gives players plenty of opportunity to put their Rifts down -- I still find more than half an hour in a headset overwhelming.

I've been sold on Valkyrie for a long time now. It's definitely not going to enthrall everyone, but it's still a great showcase for the Rift.

Talking about today's announcement, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey said Valkyrie "perfectly captures to the promise of immersive gaming," adding that "multiplayer space dogfights is the ultimate VR thrill." That's mildly hyperbolic, but the game is definitely pretty, and it's a lot of fun.

A single game isn't enough, though. Oculus needs a broad range of equally high quality titles if it wants to persuade millions to buy Rifts. It'll also need to cater to more diverse tastes. Case in point: My favorite VR game so far has been Ustwo's Land's End, a gentle puzzle game that's available on Samsung's Gear VR.

Palmer Luckey and the Oculus Rift

Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey modeling the consumer Rift.

To that end, Oculus was quick to assert that there will be "many titles" that launch alongside the Rift -- Valkyrie is just the one that comes with the headset. Although Oculus says "the Eve: Valkyrie bundle is coming exclusively to Rift in Q1," Valkyrie itself is not an exclusive. It's coming to PlayStation VR, and CCP confirms it's a launch title for Sony's headset, which is scheduled to arrive at some point next year.

We don't know how much the Rift will cost. We don't know exactly when it'll launch. We don't know if every early VR adopter will take to Valkyrie. But we do know that, come day one, it'll be their first entry point into the next phase of gaming.

Image credits: CCP (Eve:Valkyrie screenshots); Bloomberg / Getty (Palmer Luckey portrait)

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