The best bit of Eve: Valkyrie remains the opening of each match. When, after taking stock of arms and legs that aren’t yours, you watch yourself magnetically catapulted out into space: the velocity tipping your cockpit back with a lurch, the launch strip lights beginning to blur, your brain filling in the physical details - your back pressed flat against the seat. Then you smack against the black void, as if plunging into water.
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The launch of Eve: Valkyrie itself has been nothing like that. The perfect showcase for Oculus VR’s miraculous hardware, the space dogfighter was finished in time to be packaged with consumer Rift pre-orders. But component shortages have seen Oculus struggle to fulfil those orders; while the headset officially released on March 28, a Rift ordered today has an estimated ship date in August.
Valkyrie players have consequently arrived in waves. Journalists had their headsets first, becoming target practice for CCP Newcastle’s developers, and then buyers started to strap themselves into the catapult - coming in dribs and drabs.
When I talk to lead game designer Andrew Willans at Eve Fanfest, it’s the third week of April. He says it’s “really hard to judge” the figures.
“When we’re sat watching the numbers and there’s a spike it’s like, ‘Ah, get in there,’ and we'll all hop in after work,” he laughs. “The player numbers increase every day as more and more headsets arrive and the number of hours people are spending in there gets higher and higher.”
Of course, everyone wishes it was faster.
“That’s why cross-platform play is very important for the success of VR,” reckons Willans. “That as many players on the market can combine their communities as effectively as possible. I’m also a big Rocket League player and I love that when I’m on my PS4 I can play [against] PC.”
Valkyrie players will at some point be able to dogfight alongside and against Vive and PlayStation VR pilots. That news elicited cheers during the Fanfest keynote, but CCP Newcastle are pooling their limited playerbase in quieter ways too. At present, all Valkyrie pilots are plopping into the same player list - rather than picking favoured modes and splitting the community further.
“It’s got to be [that way] at this stage,” Willans explains. “When we’ve got low player numbers, you need that matchmaking.”
When Rift ownership increases, as the CCP team expect it will, they’ll pick the right moment to shift into more standard mode selection. Perhaps that moment will come with the launch of Carrier Assault - a new mode that plays on the sense of scale Valkyrie brings to the Eve universe.
The carriers are barracudas in a fishbowl, and players can only bring them down by disabling their shields and toppling their turrets, before winding through claustrophobic ship interiors to reach their cores.
In short, Carrier Assault is a transparent love letter to the Death Star trench run.
“Of course it is,” says Willans. “We’ve always had that Battlestar Galactica vibe - visceral dogfighting, cannons instead of lasers. That was the thing that was missing, [and] now we have it.”
Valkyrie’s other flirtation with the big ships of Eve to date has been its single-player training mission. An introduction to the game’s resurrectionist plot, the tutorial tells the story of how you died. It culminates in a breathtaking encounter with an Amarr Titan, the screen-filling Eve Online TV satellite dish of nightmares, and ends with the sound of your tiny Wraith’s windshield cracking - plus the sight of your own arms freezing in the ether.
It’s an unshakeable image. CCP call these missions Chronicles, fragments of recovered DNA that hold the memory of a pilot, and clearly have the appetite to expand on them. They now have a full-time narrative designer, in the shape of former artist Andrew Robinson.
“We’re 38 people in a small studio - you’ve got to pick your battles wisely,” Willans points out. “But yeah, there’s lots of stories we’d like to tell. The intention with Chronicles is they would either tutorialise or reinforce some of the core mechanics of multiplayer, so you know, I'd be a liar if I said I wouldn’t want to reuse Carrier Assaults as part of a single-player experience.”
And a full campaign?
We’re always having that discussion,” Willans admits, “but it’s not the core focus. We have to see how this year goes - how the community reacts and how big it grows.”
At Reykjavik’s Fanfest, where the Valkyrie team are now familiar faces, CCP Newcastle hosted a roundtable in a room that felt barely larger than a Wraith’s cockpit. Developers were packed in next to players, and Valkyrie’s public roadmap was projected on one wall. Everyone laughed a lot, and a community manager took notes on ideas for glass-domed spectator ships.
As slow as Valkyrie’s launch has been, CCP now have something developers are rarely allowed - time.
“I'm really proud that we were a launch title, really proud of the game we got finished,” says Willans. “‘VR’s first blockbuster’ - loving the headlines. But you never ever feel content, you always have a list. The luxury of having a live game like Valkyrie is that it gives that opportunity to address the things that you wanted to do but didn’t have time for. That’s what we're doing now.”