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Eyes-on with Oculus Rift's 'Crystal Cove' VR prototype and first launch game

D.I.C.E. SUMMIT, LAS VEGAS—I've seen the future. Again. In a two-floor, marble-and-glass Vegas suite, an unassuming headset perches near a tiny computer tower. They look almost comically understated within such ostentatious surroundings. 

But that headset is actually the latest Oculus Rift virtual reality prototype, codenamed Crystal Cove, and this suite was rented out by CCP Games, creators of EVE Online. We're here to take yet another look at EVE: Valkyrie, the studio's built-for-VR space dogfighting game.

This will be the third iteration of EVE: Valkyrie we've seen, and that, in and of itself, is interesting. The game has "grown up" alongside Oculus Rift. Each time we've seen EVE: Valkyrie—first at the E3 gaming convention last year on the original low-res developer kit, then on the 1080p HD model, and now on Crystal Cove—we've seen the state of consumer VR. It came as no surprise when Oculus and CCP announced EVE: Valkyrie as an exclusive Rift launch title (though when that launch will be, Oculus still won't say).

A glimpse into the future

So what does Crystal Cove mean for consumer VR? The latest Rift is notable for its rudimentary position tracking, implemented by way of an external camera and some fancy dots on the headset itself.

The camera is small—a few inches across at most. It's sized more like a webcam than Microsoft's enormous motion-tracking Kinect. The current model has us sitting approximately six feet away from the camera, for optimal performance.

I immediately see a problem—not so much with EVE: Valkyrie, but with Crystal Cove in general. "Are you looking to improve the camera so we can be closer to it? In particular for mouse and keyboard games, six feet is a bit far."

"This is not the final consumer version of the camera," says the Oculus representative in attendance. Not much to go on, but that's the Oculus way.

oculus rift crystal cove Oculus VR

Now it's time to play.

The set-up is basically the same as the first time I played Valkyrie. I sit in a chair, strap on the Rift, put on headphones, and am handed an Xbox 360 controller attached to the nearby PC. Only this time, the chair is carefully placed in the view-path of the all-seeing camera.

The increase in screen resolution is immediately apparent if you're used to the original dev-kit Rift. I've used the HD Rift intermittently over the last nine months, but always to see relatively minimalist games—ones like Dumpy: Going Elephants that are visually engaging in a cartoonish way, but not attempting realism. Crystal Cove's screen is also AMOLED instead of LCD, which helps reduce judder and blur.

Red Leader standing by

The art assets and the Rift itself have upgraded since the last time I saw the game, making Valkyrie even more impressive. It provides an experience that's closer than I'd ever imagined to my longtime dream of spaceflight.

With position tracking engaged, Valkyrie takes full advantage of its newfound visual fidelity. The game opens as it did back at E3: I'm strapped in the cockpit of a small and nimble fighter craft, awaiting launch. Last time, my Valkyrie "Oh wow!" moment came when the CCP representative told me to look down: I saw my digitally-represented body sitting in the chair, hands tight around the controls.

This time, "Look down" is replaced by "Lean forward." The cockpit has a dashboard, including some small, operations-related text. From my reclined position the text is miniscule—way too small for even my 20/20 vision to read. Yet leaning forward now brings the text into sharp relief.

It's a small change. In fact, the motion feels so natural that it's hard even to recall that the original Rift dev kit does not have this feature.

But this is just what Oculus needs: The Rift needs to react to users' inclinations as naturally as possible, both to increase player immersion and (more pragmatically) to minimize the possibility of motion-sickness. Crystal Cove is a major step forward, provided the camera's focal length can be reined in.

All-hallowed EVE

As for EVE: Valkyrie, it plays much the same as it did when I saw it at E3—that is to say, like an excellent arcade dog fighter.

Press right trigger for rapid laser-fire, or look at an enemy and pull the left trigger to lock on and release missiles. It's intuitive. Even more intuitive, now, since Crystal Cove allows me to lean around the cockpit as that enemy fighter flies past, giving me just a bit more time to lock on missiles or track its movements.

CCP is reticent about its plans for EVE: Valkyrie as far as its ties to the larger world of EVE Online is concerned. "We're really just focused on the core game mode, the aspiration of being a jet fighter pilot in a futuristic space setting. We learned from the DUST experience, leading with it makes it too much the focus and it's easy to act on later," said CCP's CEO Hilmar Pétursson.

"We'd rather be inspired by what people want to see happen rather than focus on it too much now," he continued. "We bite on to something and then it goes on forever, as per EVE. It's definitely going to be something that expands over time. It's going to go in some unforeseen ways, just as EVE has done."

I can't wait to see what the future of EVE: Valkyrie and Oculus Rift holds. Or should I say I can't wait to live it?

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