In my last article on the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (DK2) I took a look at the new hardware and debated whether virtual reality (VR) was the next big thing for PC gamers. The next major question is, what about the games? For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying out a few titles to see whether the VR can enhance the experience. These are my findings.
Frontier’s Elite: Dangerous has been coming along rather nicely in the past few months, with updates continuing to flow into regular beta versions. Frontier has obviously thought hard about how VR can enhance the space-faring experience, and the reason you see plenty of Oculus Rift videos featuring Elite: Dangerous is because it’s probably the most impressive looking title to currently support VR.
Frontier has added native Oculus Rift support but that doesn’t mean it’s a doddle to actually get Elite: Dangerous working with VR. I spent a good two hours attempting to make the game play nicely with the Rift. That’s quite a bit of jiggery pokery to get it working, though I don’t think it really helped having a set up with two monitors already connected to the PC. Most guides assume you only have one and connecting the Rift would make it the second monitor.
After messing about in the video display options, and moving monitor alignments so as not to lose the mouse pointer with the extended desktop mode enabled, I hit the Internet again to see if there was an easier solution. Thankfully, there was. It’s called VR Game Manager. This application comes with some pre-defined settings for Elite: Dangerous, and once you browse to the game’s executable you can add it to the manger and launch the game from there. That neatly solved the monitor problem, meaning I could actually get in the game with no problem, get into the video settings, and set the Rift as active.
If there’s one genre that seems as if it can really benefit from VR, it’s space sims. It works so well because both player and player avatar are sitting down. The real life player is (most likely) sat at a desk, while the avatar of the player is sitting down inside the ship. Unlike so many games that require the player to be wandering around, there’s a one-to-one spatial transition. With a decent Hands-on Throttle-and-Stick (HOTAS) setup and the use of voice commands with a tool such as Voice Attack, the experience only gets better.
I can safely say that Elite: Dangerous is the only VR experience where I have actually been amazed at how it brings you into the game as the pilot. The cockpit interiors actually look 3D, all the objects feel solid and tangible. This is in part due to the game’s excellent HUD.
Elite: Dangerous is also the only game where I felt VR might actually give the player an advantage in a fight. The addition of head tracking allows the player to look all around them, which doesn’t just make the whole experience feel more real, it also provides a dogfighting edge.
When you’re playing the game on a monitor and a ship comes at you head on, it leaves the player’s field of view and you have to resort to the radar to track further movements. In VR, anything which flies past you can be tracked by looking at it with the head movements. If it flies by on the right, then track it by looking right and at the same time move the stick in the appropriate direction to follow. It sounds really simple, but it’s a lot easier than having to constantly monitor the radar.
Docking in Elite has always been a bit of a laugh. Space stations rotate, and it’s by no means clear at first glance where the entrance is. With VR, you can fly around the station looking out the left or right of the cockpit while moving the ship alongside. It makes it so much easier to find exactly where you need to go.
Text in VR is difficult to read due to the lower resolution, but Frontier is making the best use of the DK2’s new positional head tracking by allowing the pilot to lean in and get a closer look at the HUD. Without this the HUD would stay at a constant distance making the text rather hard to read. I actually forgot to plug in my little DK2 camera thingy (necessary for the head tracking) when I first started playing and it was a right pain. When I realised I what I had done and powered it up, it made a massive difference.
There’s also no need to bring up any of the HUD panels, simply looking left or right will make them automatically pop up into view. The sensitivity with which these open up when looking in their direction could probably do with a tweak but the idea works brilliantly.
With everything almost everything in place, the whole experience was getting better with every tweak.
I had got the stage where I could actually play the whole game without taking the headset off. This was only possible thanks to the HOTAS Saitek X52 setup, which has great predefined buttons in Elite: Dangerous. This makes everything from navigating menus to flight possible without any key presses.
Elite: Dangerous has a lot of key binds to remember, and although the X52 is great there were a few functions like setting the ship to jump that are used a lot. Instead of trying to find a spare button on the X52 I installed Voice Attack; an easy to use voice recognition tool for gamers. To start with, I kept it simple by just assigning the Jump functionality to be voice activated. It worked every single time. From that point on, I added more commands like landing gear retraction. Effectively, I was now talking to my ship, which was very cool.
This all sounds great right? It is great. Almost. The galaxy map in the Rift is really not usable and I hope that in the future there’s going to be an easy way to navigate this without losing the VR immersion.
Frontier has done a fantastic job with their Rift support in Elite: Dangerous, which is unlikely to have been easy considering how rough the DK2 actually is. It’s not perfect, but with the use of some other peripherals and tools it does make for a great VR experience. Probably the best around at the moment.
I know, you’re probably thinking about Star Citizen too at this point, but I have to say it’s been a disappointing VR ride. Remember that animated gif of Chris Roberts playing Star Citizen with “pew pew” effects? Well it’s not really very impressive so far, so Chris should get an Oscar for making it look that much fun on the DK1.
Star Citizen doesn’t actually include native Rift support just yet, so I had to mess about with VorpX to get it to work. After a lot of expletives being hurled at the screen, I eventually got it running. Sadly, the head tracking is not really working all that well with the DK2, and even though Star Citizen looks great on a monitor it’s quality is completely lost in the headset.
I did attempt a few dogfights but the experience is nowhere near as good as Elite: Dangerous right now because the head tracking is not that responsive.
As any Star Citizen backer knows, though, the game is still a long way off from release. Cloud Imperium will have to work on VR support, but they have plenty of time to do that. The DK2 support is supposedly being added after the v1.0 update. If they’ve been following Elite: Dangerous closely (which they probably have,) the team can learn a thing or two on how to make Star Citizen look great in VR.
I’ll be back again with a look at a few more games that are making fine use of the Rift DK2 in the days ahead, so check back for more.