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A Sceptics First Experience of VR Technology: Elite Dangerous

Before EGX this year, I will admit that I didn’t really see the whole point of the new-fangled VR headset technology that is set to be the “next big thing” in gaming. I guessed it might be a step towards the next big thing, but not yet being the next big thing…

It’s tough to explain, but for me, at least, gaming is what we do either on PS4/PS3/360/XB1/PC (Nintendo purposefully left out, which I’ll explain later). I want to sit, relax and play my games. While the Nintendo Wii was a fantastic bit of kit, one of the bestselling consoles of all time and indeed the console that brought gaming to a lot of new people, I fundamentally didn’t agree with the whole Wii-Mote idea. A lot of the Nintendo first party titles used the new controller hardware perfectly, while third party games struggled to use it, but even then when I’m playing a Legend of Zelda game, I want to be relaxing, enjoying the puzzles and the game, not swinging my arms around wildly, getting annoyed that the controller isn’t calibrated properly and all that jazz. Just stick a regular controller in my hands and let me enjoy my games. (I will say that party games can be an exclusion to the rule =p)

So looking at the whole VR thing, I think to myself, is it the same as the Wii-Mote, what is it going to bring to the table? I’ve seen Sword Art Online, and I do think that the technology used in that could well be the future of gaming; you can get more immersive than putting on a VR headset that communicates directly to your brain. (Though those of us who watched SAO know how that went…)

So I wasn’t in a huge rush to experience VR technology at EGX this year, which was possibly a slight downfall for writing this, as most of the VR stands booked up on the first day. But after some of the guys from Xtreme Gaming in Colchester pointed out how good it was, I thought I’d try it – and could thus write this, a sceptic’s view.

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We got to the final day of EGX, and sweet talked some of the door staff to blag slightly earlier entry with our press passes, shout outs to Clive! And we were still about 15-20th in line to book in a slot at the HTC VIVE stand. We were given a choice of standing or sitting experiences, I was intrigued by the standing one (as it happens that was the Portal experience that we’d been told about) but that was nearly fully booked for the day already, and the only time slot clashed with the Street Fighter tournament I’d already made plans to watch, So Lefranzine and I booked into the Seated demo, which would turn out to be playing Elite Dangerous.

When our time slot was up we were already eagerly waiting our turn, we were taken into a darkened room, when a PC rig to rival my own, a set of Saitek X52 Pro flight sim peripherals and a fancy VR headset awaited us.

I had had some experience with both Elite Dangerous, and the Saitek X52 Pro peripherals before, where I had done an absolutely terrible job at trying to land a spaceship at a space port on the setup Xtreme Gaming had for a while. The rep went through the controls, and told us we’d be doing the first space combat tutorial mission from the games intro. I took note of all the buttons and controls he showed me, thought I’d be fine and then had a moment of panic when the headset got put on my head and over my eyes – how was I going to see the controls to remember what to press and where the buttons were?

The rep quickly calibrated the headset and then said to look down, low and behold there the flight controls were in front of my eyes, complete with space suit fitted arms. I was blown away instantly. Not only were they the exact same controls as what I was holding, but the hands I could see did whatever control inputs I made in real life, throttle movements, button presses the lot. Obviously they weren’t tracking MY movement, and just animating whatever button presses I made, but still, I was coloured impressed!

Not being very familiar with the controls, or the game genre in general (as I said I did terribly in my one previous experience), it did take me a little while to get used to flying my little space ship around, or more importantly on how to get the enemy ship in front of me – no matter which way I turned, rolled or flipped my ship, somehow he was always behind me…

But what next blew me away was when I did get the enemy ship in my sights, I’d unload a barrage of laser blaster fire and as he flew past and above me, I could simply turn my head and follow him past, just like I was in a real spaceship or fighter jet etc – that made keeping on him far easier (once I had “mastered” the controls that is)

It was that, combined with the initial looking down to see the controls themselves that did really start to sway me on the whole VR thing.

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The graphics themselves were pretty impressive, each eye has its own screen running at 1080×1200 at 90 frames per second. Looking visually much like you’d expect Elite Dangerous to look like, one small issue I had was the mission text seemed out of focus, much like when you’ve not quite got a Nintendo 3DS quite calibrated correctly. I’m not sure if this was a simple focusing dial with the headset itself, or perhaps a sign that old age is getting to me and my eyes are starting to go… But seeing as I’m not sure the headset would work with glasses on – it would make sense to be able to focus each of the screens separately I’d have thought. Will be something to ask next time!

It is safe to say at this point that I was more impressed with my first taste of VR. As I said at the start, I was sceptical of the whole thing, I didn’t expect much, but I got a whole lot more than I expected. However, am I sold? That is a trickier question to answer in my humble opinion. This kit is definitely going to be the way to go for simulation games, be it space sim, flight sim or driving sim, and I was most definitely impressed with the nVidia 3D art video that was floating around Facebook. As much as I had a blast playing Elite Dangerous, and would definitely love to play more, I’m not that much into the genre to go out and drop £160 on the Mad Catz Saitek X52 Pro control peripherals, £400-600 on the HTC VIVE (estimated launch price), however much on the game and who knows how much upgrading my aging PC to a spec to put all the aforementioned kit to justice. But I was impressed enough that were I already a fan of the sim genre, already had the PC, Games and Saitek controls that I potentially would consider taking the next step to VR.

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What I’m still far from sold on is VR’s use in casual gaming, much like the Wii-Motes of old. VR is all about immersion, and using the Saitek X52 was all a part of that immersion, I really don’t see how using a PS4/XB1 controller with the VR will work. If I’m playing a FPS, I’d feel like I want to be running around and what not myself. It may well be down to lack of experience in other genres of game with the VR headset, but at this point I’m not sold on the idea of chucking my favourite games onto my console/PC and using the VR headset instead of my TV/Monitor. At least until we get a, safe *ahem*, Sword Art Online style setup at least.

For me the important thing is that the conversion process has begun, at the start of EGX2015 I had no interest in VR, but now, after trying it, it is safe to say that my interest is piqued! I will now happily jump at the chance to be proven wrong – to be shown that VR will work with, perhaps not all, but at least other genres of games. And most importantly – will VR work with more casual gaming – as in my teenage years of chilling out on my bed, aimlessly playing Tony Hawks Pro Skater 2, just playing because it was fun, I was bored and needed something lazy to do – something I found the Wii-Mote wasn’t suited for – will I say the same for VR?

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