EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone // Hands-On

 

EVE: Valkyrie is a truly unique phenomenon: past just being a gorgeous, online, arcade, first person dogfighter and a flagship VR game, it has a lot riding on its shoulders that goes outside the bounds of just the game itself.

As of 26th of September, with its Eve: Valkyrie – Warzone expansion, it’s also the first virtual-reality-based, triple-A-game that allows eschewing of the virtual reality headset altogether for the “flatscreen” of a computer monitor, as well as being CCP’s first PC-platform, hardware agnostic, EVE-universe based game aside from EVE Online itself. This PC and PS4 multiplatform title is something of a small wonder not only for EVE players, but to the entire gaming community at large, and for a good reason.

This is the story of EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone, and we will be guided through its exploration by the words of Andrew Willans, its Lead Game Designer.


Story of the Valkyrie

It’s May of 2013 and it’s Fanfest time. The Eve players that made the pilgrimage to the northern, volcanic island of Iceland are screaming of joy in the presentation hall as a video of a cockpit-based game named Eve VR gets played on the big screen. 

This is the first look the world would get at what a few months later in 2013 would be lavishly revelead as EVE: Valkyrie, and compounded later in next year’s Fanfest as an Oculus Rift based experience aimed for PC, featuring Battlestar Galactica alumni Katee Sackhoff leading the charge, roughly set for 2015. During refactoring to use the Unreal Engine and about the time things got serious on CCP’s side for the project, it had also started to spearheaded Oculus Rift’s lineup of ‘Games for VR’ given some flagship games flaking away like HAWKEN, which were previously holding up the virtual-reality-gaming banner. CCP also rekindled its partnership from the DUST 514 days with Sony and at that time’s hot Morpheus VR project, which set EVE: Valkyrie for a prime-row seat, aimed to launch alongside the major movers in the VR industry, HTC Vive included, even shipping for free with each preordered Oculus Rift headset.

And in the summer of 2016 launch it did. It was the VR game everyone wanted. It blended seamless and immersive gameplay and effortless game design around the restrictions of VR with beautiful graphics and effects, all shelled inside EVE Online’s futuristic setting. The most praised point of it was how amazing and intuitive the system was and how immersive the experience could be. The community formed and shaped itself into a hardened core playerbase, with tournaments featured as a result of players coalescing. Eve players that got a chance to try it at various Fanfests/booths reported liking it, but within the community there was still some bad blood relating to another platform-specific, Eve-based  title that had just closed their doors not long before, Dust 514. Even so the hopes for a PC-based title were kept alight with news of Project Legion/Nova.

But the hype of VR coming to the forefront came and went, and Valkyrie stuck around. A year has passed and a large number of patches and expansions have been developed and pushed out for Valkyrie as well as several internal shifts, all culminating with this week’s, 26th of September, re/launch of Eve: Valkyrie – Warzone, which prominently featured the removal of the requirement of having a VR headset on both PC and PS4 in order to be able to play Eve: Valkyrie. Thus being the first other PC-based title set in the Eve universe aside from Eve-Online itself, beating out Project Nova.

The news has been pretty huge given that while a lot of games became VR-ready while designed for a common 2D medium, having this flagship VR game decide to strip everything that made it a VR game and muck it around with the ‘classic’ flat medium would be a world first. To top it off, it’s also a cross-play title between VR and non-VR owners as well as various users of various platforms, if with a lot of caveats mostly coming out of Sony’s part of the deal.

So, did it all work out?


Fighter Pilot, Valkyrie

A haloed planet sits on my fighter’s right side as a large Venture roams around in the backdrop of the scene. I’m in a cluster of asteroids, a thin veil of dust covering everything and obscuring view.

My fighter flies dangerously close to the asteroids littered around the battlefield, almost skimming the surface, as i’m throwing shots of overheated plasma at the enemy drones around the control point. One down, two down, then I deploy my own drone to hack and capture it. An enemy Schism pilot catches on to my cunning plans and begins to rain upon me volleys of missiles as my ECM blares menacingly.

I can’t deal with him right now, the enemy carrier will be exposed soon thanks to the hack so with a methaphorical flip of a switch I activate my ship’s Ultra ability. My fighter rockets forward at breakneck speed, full burning towards the carrier alongside other team-mates, having closed the distance just as its shields drop.

I go for one of the closest exposed node on its hull that symbolise the Wyvern’s weak points, holding the trigger down as long as I can, before ducking inside its superstructure for a quick breather with the node exploding behind me. The relax is not to be, as missile explosions wrack my ship from the old nemesis that caught up to me. I fly out and take aim at another node while trying to ignore the enemy carrier’s turrets stripping off the last remnants of my armor. Spiraling and rolling my fighter, I trigger a final flurry of shots as the cockpit cracks around me and the sight goes dark.

“See you in the next life.”

At its core, even stripping aside its VR roots, Valkyrie is a thrilling fighter-jockeying, arcade, space-shooter with a surprisingly high skill ceiling that features simple non-newtonian flight mechanics controlled via either a controller, joystick or a mouse/keyboard interface. All of that in a period of the gaming industry that has seen very little in terms of space shooters of any kind, myself having the ability to count spaceship-game titles released in the last few years on at most two hands.

Valkyrie has been out for a good while before dashing on VR-less PC, and as such the servers are fantastically stable. As an extra, what’s spectacular is that due to the networking code, the game flows well enough that I almost never experienced any form of lag. This may be due to the need to have a non-jittery VR experience, and for that a lot of predictions and fake-hits may be going off in the backend, but what we get on-screen in the end is just a smooth-as-butter experience.

On top of it it helps a lot that I found matchmaking to be very quick and easy, with matches aplenty and rarely any real downtime between my dogfights, so player numbers are looking to be enough to avoid the feeling of an empty lobby. Andrew chimes in on this:

Andrew: “We launched less than 36 hours ago, so I hope to have better idea over this weekend (e.n.: on player numbers). Lots of the dev team are currently playing the live game, and anecdotally I can say (with a fist-pump of joy) that we’re encountering full battles at all hours of the day. It’s a pretty awesome feeling.”

Once in the game, the multiplayer action is tight, the fighters are fun to fly and shoot, with the time to kill being reasonably large enough to prevent you just ‘blipping’ out of existence when a few people want you dead, as well as making the chase after someone more fun than just headshotting him. I can see a high skill-ceiling and a depth to the gameplay in the ships and their possible combinations, with the tournament scene of Valkyrie standing testament to that. Given the subject matter and presentation, it may have more of a chance at an Esport than EVE Online proper.

Comparing EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone to its VR-version experience, with its freelook/headtracking and scene immersion, the “flatscreen” version of the game does tone down the ‘wow’ factor as well as seems slightly claustrophobic by comparison. However, on its own on our monitors, Valkyrie is still a fantastic way to spend a few  fun hours shooting spaceships with or without your friends while knocking a beer back after work, without losing too much when you’re tired of the VR headset sliding down your face from sweat or just not want to ‘deep-dive’ in the virtual world.

There are plenty of multiplayer modes, chosen at random (i assume to keep a good player count across modes), from carrier assault, a tug-of-war battle, to the classic capture the flag and control as well as featuring co-op vs AI, and there are also a fair number of cool maps to play them on too. All these modes can be engaged with friends in designated squads of maximum 5 people.

While I haven’t taken part in Wormholes yet since they are weekend-based events, they are another mode of play. Talking to veteran players, they mentioned them being a form of ‘mutation’ gameplay, gameplay dynamics changes that occur on a weekly basis that provide a different experience based on ‘mutators’ for those that want to spice up their game time. Wormholes also feature unique takes on maps and even a new gametype so there’s more to them than just a random fun shoot-em romp.

For the solo-minded there are also a few singleplayer game modes. The tutorial/flight academy and the anemic ‘advanced’ training are some of them, as well as a wave-survival mode with leaderboards, but more interesting are the Scout and the Recall modes. Scout is basically a free-roam of the maps while collecting bits of voice-over spoken lore about the game and generic +1’s collectables. This is pretty neat and of null replayability, but I welcome the extra universe-building. Recall is sadly the most underwhelming feature. They’re basically story missions which can range from cutscenes a minute long to extensive battles across an entire map and are the things featured in most of the impressive trailers, that ones that showcased a lot of big Eve Online ships. As I played the four or five of them as they explore bits of the Valkyries, a group lead by Katee Sackhoff-voiced Ren and its namesis-group, the Schism, I really felt like I wanted a full-lenght SP campaign… it all seemed to fit so well. 

Overall I felt like a lot of the Tutorial/Advanced tutorial and the Recall could have been merged together in a seamless short campaign/tutorial instead of putting players against AI in a team deathmatch for a few rounds before unleashing them on the PvP mode.

Going into the longer-term meat of the game, I expected a pretty straight copy/paste from the standard World of Tanks bible of persistent progression but I was surprised to find a pretty leissez-faire approach to it. All ships are unlocked at start with with only mods, small upside/downside combo packages of adjusting a ship’s playstyle via stats, being unlocked via playing the ship and earning XP with it in battles. Even so, I found the requirements to maxing them out pretty accessible, in only a few hours time I had unlocked 40-50% of one ship and 20% of a few others.

When a ship is fully unlocked down a mods’s tree, the superfluous XP can be transferred over to another ship free of charge. Completely uncomparable to earning a T10 tank or equivallent in any WoT clone. In any case, these mods don’t make or break the ships, nor do they give them additional abilities or such, functioning as just small stat adjustments. All in all a pretty grindless experience mirroring the games of yore that were meant to be actually played for their entertainment value right now instead of playing-to-work for a boon or unlock in a prospective future. 

Andrew: “To make a successful free-to-play game you need to have built in certain mechanics and features from day one. In all honestly, we’ve just spent the past 16 months removing any mechanic or feature that could be even remotely perceived as free-to-play. I think our business model for the game right now is spot-on and compares favourably with other multiplayer focused games that offer their community additional ways to support the game without effecting what really matters – gameplay.”

Speaking of F2P shenanigans, while the game also comes with lootboxes, they’re purely a sort of in-game treat with the option of buying them via real life cash. They give cosmetic items for your pilot and ship, with a small chance of boosters, items that give bonus XP gain over a small period. The skins are more often than not palette swaps, with few unique models, and they comprise of ship paintjobs, decals as well as pilot suit and helmet customisation. I will note here that for some reason at the time of this writing in the post-game screen where you and other people can see your ship and pilot, right now everyone has the ‘default male’ skin, so i’m not sure what’s going on there but I figure it won’t be an outstanding issue for much longer.


The dark side of the moon

But let’s come back to the question of ‘did it work out?’.

On Steam the game currently carries a lot of bad reviews touching on the controls of the game. A lot of people seem to be having trouble with the controlling scheme, which the default features the mouse for moving the fixed viewpoint around in the yaw/pitch axis with A and D doing the rolling and W and S for ‘boosting’ and slowing down. The lack of a ‘strafe’ is probably the most damning aspect of it, a matter which given VR controls would make it a moot point, but given M/K and a general history of space-sim/arcade games it may come out as a shortfall for those just jumping in not knowing the VR remnant design pieces.

Andrew: “We were expecting some issues relating to turn speeds when using a mouse for movement. It’s a very difficult thing to nail because everyone has a different idea of how a spaceship should move. We are not a flight sim, we have always focused on a more arcade-style flight model that best compliments our blend of visceral dogfighting. We can’t strafe in our ships – this is a key cause of nausea in VR, and we wanted gameplay parity across all hardware (cross-platform, cross-reality). We share a lot of DNA with FPS-style shooters, but we are not an FPS – so players expecting to turn 180 degrees with the flick of a mouse will find they are restricted by the physics of our flight model (we are steering a vehicle, not turning the head/arms of an avatar).”

“We included full key binding functionality for mouse & keyboard, and for controllers. We also allow players to further tune the mouse sensitivity and acceleration via the Options menu. My best advice to anyone who is having issues is to load up a map in Scout mode (where they will not be under fire from enemies), open the Tactical menu (Pause Screen) and try one of the 3 pre-set configs, then further customise the inputs and sensitivity to their liking. This is the best way to make changes and instantly check them in-game to find the sweet spot.”

“We are also looking to patch in additional features which may help mouse & keyboard players further e.g. an Escalator key to continually move in the direction of the mouse until released.”

I will note on Andrew’s mentioned preset controller settings that they’re neat to get a quick grasp on what’s your favorite mode. More still, there is a specific control model, I think one for M/K and one for controller, which allows the view-port/camera to be unhinged from the fixed mode and be freely rotated around the cockpit. Mostly of limited use, but it’s a testament to how a free-viewport/escalator way of interacting with the cockpit would work a lot better to emulate its VR experience rather than just fixing it forward, and probably be more intuitive. It’d be great to see the game support TrackIR in the future, but at this moment, at best it’s slightly annoying and at worst it can be a deficit to gameplay as the limited viewport (and locked FOV) in a game with this amount of twitch-gameplay involved, with this object speed and with this cornucopia of effects going off on all the screen, being locked ‘forward’ can be outright disorientating sometimes.

In any case, while I was proficient with the default controls enough to hold my own in matches I won’t dwell too much on them. For me the greater outstanding sin of the game was its interface and user experience.

It seems the entire front-end is still very much tied to its VR mode and as such you have a very unpleasent user experience navigating through them with a M/K and i’d imagine with a controller as well. The menus are nested in a very granular way, some things can be clicked, others can’t, some can be activated by clicking on their 3D representations, some need a click  on an actual text item. Mix in how you have some loading screens between sessions/modes and how some menus work in a ‘nextnext’ sort of way, and the option of modifying a ship’s mods only in the ‘lobby’, and I haven’t seen a larger mess of UI/UX work since I played Final Fantasy XV. It doesn’t help that mostly everything is based on ‘carousel’ style of scrollable options that don’t even tick from option to option while moving around, but you mostly glide them around and they softlock into an option. Using the keys to jump from one to another doesn’t jump it with any sort of reactivity but more of a gentle slow animation.

There are also a few non-VR related UI issues, like how mod descriptions can be entirely too vague. I’d have similar shield mods saying “-5% Overshield Cooldown” and another one saying “-10% cooldown” and then another one “7% recharge rate”. If I really strained myself I could make sense of them, but oftentimes I was just trying to figure out whether “-10% cooldown” was a good thing or a bad thing. Even after picking said mods, I didn’t realise I had to activate them for them to work, nor did I realise until late that I can only have one of each type of mod activated. 

Valkyrie seems to be too keen to take on the obtuse data interface from EVE Online and from talking to veteran Valkyrie players this has apparently been a recurring theme throughout its lifetime. Either way, it seems CCP Newcastle knows about and has wrestled with these UI/UX issues as part of development:

Andrew: “… our top challenges I’d have to say were the UI & Menus, and the entire revision of our fleet of ships for the Warzone expansion. We knew from early testing that our core gameplay of arcade style dogfighting was solid and incredibly good fun on flatscreen. So, many of the challenges we faced regarding the ships were related to signs and feedback. We didn’t do a particularly good job of tutorialising the abilities and weapons available to our players in the original Valkyrie cockpits, and that was something we were very keen to address for the Warzone expansion.”

“It’s now far more obvious when weapons and abilities are online/offline, and by moving and removing some assets within the cockpit we were able to give both VR and non-VR players a better view of the action around them. We also paid very close attention to the soft snap on certain weapons to ensure that our non-VR player were not at a disadvantage because they couldn’t access look-to-lock missiles, or similar head tracked weapons.”

A final note here is regarding the pricing and monetisation. While i’m happy for no gameplay-affecting microtransactions and in general the low-key use of them at this time, as Andrew mentioned, a continuous battle, I feel that the 30 USD/EUR price-point for it is a tad offputting. It’s not to say that the game isn’t worth it, it is, but the current marketplace puts a lot of pressure with a lot of great games beeing free to play and monetising themselves freely with cosmetics/comfort microtransactions. I feel like taking a page from EVE Online’s hardball ‘last MMO with a subscription standing’ is not the right play in the current marketplace but I can respect standing up for a strong product and attaching a no-bullshit pricetag to it while offering free ongoing expansions, akin to an ’embedded’ season pass.


Under the hood

Stretching our legs into the gritty bits, the minimum requirements for the game are pretty low at an i5, 4GB of RAM and a 460GTX, and a beefier i7/12GB/970GTX setup for ultra-settings. So it’s relatively easy to get it to play fantastically well and also look pretty good with a few options, though it is rather to be expected given it’s a VR title. For those not in the know, a VR game has some strict limits on maintaining a consistently high 60FPS minimum, otherwise the brain can catch on that it’s being fooled and cause nausea or worse. Also given that the Oculus Rift is formed of two 1080×1200 displays per eye, so 2160×1200 rendered resolution, at which the game needs to keep 60 FPS, when playing in a standard ‘flat’ mode of standard HD 1920×1080, the requirements are lessened. 

However it’s not all butterflies. The graphics options menu lists very few actual options, no advanced antialiasing settings (i’ll get back to this in a second), no FOV options and more importantly, no VSYNC option, though I think it can be forced through the Nvidia Control Panel. Beyond “Antialiasing” on/off, there is a hidden antialiasing setting in “Resolution Percentage”. For PC gamers this is expected to be just a sub/super sampling technique with no effects on antialiasing mode, however on the “flatscreen” version cranking it up to 200% activates MSGAA (Multi-Sample G-Buffer Anti-Aliasing). To note, the VR version does have other antialising options as well as VSYNC options so I think it’s just a matter of time before they get implemented on the “flatscreen” version, but their absence can’t be ignored. It also features Nvidia Volumetric Lighing which on a medium-range rig shouldn’t tank your FPS and add a bit of gravitas to the environment. 

The game was tested on a i7 2700k OCd to 4.3GHz with a 980GTX running at 1080p display. With MSGAA I had dips every once in while under 60FPS, down to @45-50, but there were times I had 60 solid FPS with it on. Without that luxury, i ran the game with everything on max at 100% resolution scaling without any sort of problem, minus tearing due to VSYNC.

Regarding higher resolution screens, I am uncertain of how it may behave on 4K UHD displays or ultra-wides. I suggest keeping an eye out on the PCGW wiki entry relating to Valkyrie as it gets updated for that info.

I will make a final point here on the benefits of having VR technology methodologies flow back into “flatscreen” tech design. We have a game that looks fantastic and plays superbly at a standard of 60FPS with room to spare and no ‘spikes’  because someone designed a too-fancy shader or some advanced shadow technology that players don’t even notice if they aren’t drawn and shown to it. I’m talking about good looking games through art and cheap-to-render video pipelines that don’t require selling out a kidney for a video card to get good performance.

In VR, those ‘spikes’ and performance drops turn into desynchronisations between your perception and what your brain thinks its seeing and you end up with nausea or outright barfing. That’s bad for selling your game and for the gamer, but thankfully Valkyrie is a jewel in that regard, with good performance on “flatscreen” PC as a tacked-on bonus.


Valkyrie seen through a capsuleer’s eyes

So where does Valkyrie stand, now that it’s an ‘Eve game’ that EVE Online players can engage with at will on its home platform of the personal computer? A threshold that neither Dust 514 nor a prospective Project Legion/Nova never crossed. 

Some capsuleers will engage with it purely on the notice that it’s ‘an Eve game’ and that it’s a fun playable experience that can be also played with a squad of your friends between CTAs and various OPS in EVE Online. A good load of people have been waiting literal decades for something else on their plaform that’s EVE to sink their teeth in, and this is it. Those players will be the ones that will form the new PC core of Valkyrie pilots. However, the price point strikes again for less hardcore Eve enthusiasts, as it’s a hard sell to steal them and their friends away from an already established collective F2P or ultra-popular game that they now play during downtimes. Talking with various people it has been suggested that Valkyrie access be tied to the EVE Online Omega subscription, to sweeten the deal, but it seems it’s very much in the air at this moment.

Andrew: “We’re always discussing ways in which our communities can benefit from other CCP games in our expanding catalogue, but I don’t have any information I can share at this time. “

What’s a tad saddening is that for all its Eve roots, Valkyrie has relatively little ‘extra’ for the EVE Online player in terms of anything that defines the EVE Online experience currently. Take away the Eve-themed maps and you would strain yourself trying to find the hints that the universe is the same one as our New Eden, let alone any kind of cross-play that the now-buried Dust 514 offered. It may be harsh to ask that of it, but there was something cathartic between similarities in gameplay concepts as well as ties between Dust and EVE, enough to create the ‘Dusties’ subculture of Dust 514 players within the larger EVE Online playerbase. For me, the connection to the universe that we know and love seems distant, but Andrew seems to be more optimistic on the ties, current and planned, between Valkyrie and EVE:

Andrew: “Narratively – yes. We’re always looking for opportunities to capitalise on the amazing stories and events from New Eden. The success of EVE: Valkyrie – Warzone with the EVE Online community is likely to be a key consideration for any further cross-over events we consider for the future.”

When all said and done, I am still glad for our new Valkyrie pilots that will experience the Eve universe for the first time, as it may just function as a gateway to the parent EVE Online for those that never really considered it, but which can be drawn in by the shooty-flighty-ships of Valkyrie and the prospect of flying the huge monolithic ships that they now gawk at in the maps.


Future perfect

Eve: Valkyrie’s future is beset in a nebulous haze; for all its firsts, it will also be the first one to age. The development team for now seems not to dwell on it, and has its feet set in the present and working on the title:

Andrew: “We’re not publishing the roadmap (e.n. for the next year) just yet. I’ll discuss this in a bit more detail at EVE Vegas next weekend, but right now we are focused on the release of Warzone and ensuring everything is solid before we start adding more features.”

However it can’t be denied that the world, especially 2017’s world, moves on at a rapid pace. VR is moving on as VR titles become ‘old’ VR titles, multiplayer games struggle by the dozen before dropping to F2P, trying to keep up a functional playerbase barely a year after launch and even good multiplayer games suffer from playerbase atrophy and normal churn. Valkyrie is subject to all of these…

But between the hardcore decade-old EVE Online community and the VR players that swear by the game, between the release of the title on a non-discontinuable platform and the game’s multi-platform presence, it may just be that we’ll be playing and seeing Valkyrie live on for more years in the future than we may think.

And in the end, that’s not really grim at all is it? We will have a cool Eve-based, shooty spaceship game that’s pretty kickass to play!

It’s not EVE Online’s little sister, but a grown-up Valkyrie of her own.

 

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Tags: Cosmo, EVE Valkyrie, valkyrie

About the author

Cosmo

Cosmo has been playing Eve Online for the better part of a decade, on and off as most Eve 'careers' go, over the span of a dozen trials and over multiple accounts. He's your average every-man player, with no hats thrown in any rings and with enough perspective to not get bogged down in endless threadnaughts on how every new feature will 'ruin' the game.

He loves the concept of Eve and the potential of what it could be more than the actual grimy bits that currently define the experience. "An Eve Online beyond Eve Online" as he likes to put it.


  • DustVet

    Very well written, Cosmo. Excellent article!

    • Cosmo

      Thanks.