In which Commander Bulk Paint gets access to an HTC Vive and rekindles his love affair with spaceships.
Sure, it's been a while. It's not as if I haven't been dipping in every now and then. I guess the big push came after the Engineers update when suddenly loot drops appeared. They've also done cool stuff like improve the missions and little touches like radio chatter with the space stations. It's not quite Freelancer levels of immersion, but it's getting better. They've also added more customisation options - at least for the Sidewinder, Cobra MKIII and Eagle.
I've also bought Horizons, but that only works on PC - my poor Mac just isn't going to cut it. Additionally, the gamepad has been binned off in favour of a proper HOTAS system - a Thrustmaster T-Flight X, to be precise. Sure, it's not the flashiest and some compromises have to be made regarding power management and thruster control in combat, but it gets the job done and feels fantastic - all on a budget too.
I say my Mac isn't going to cut it and it's not. A series of interesting events have lead to me having a PC on loan. Not just any PC, but one that is specifically kitted out to be VR ready - we're talking GTX 1080 levels of awesome here. To prove said point, I've also got an HTC Vive to play with in the name of 'research'. Setting up the Vive was relatively simple and, barring one small error that was easily rectified with a single Facebook message, we were up and running.
In The Hot Seat
Next, it was a case of getting the controls setup properly. Top Tip: Bind Reset HMD somewhere accessible - you'll be needing that at the start of each session and it's not the sort of thing that you can take the headset off to do.
Okay, so all set up and good to go. Now since we last spoke, I've managed to get myself a weeny bit upgraded. There was a lot of grinding - not least of which because I was also trying to get up the ladder in Aisling Duval's power play faction. That seems to revolve around lugging cargo to nearby systems for precious little financial reward. Hopefully, that'll all work out now I'm the correct level and when I'll be able to afford Prismatic Shields...
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I'm now the proud owner of an Asp Explorer. I dabbled with a few ships on the way - loitering for a while on the trusty Cobra MKIII (which I actually preferred to the lumbering MKIV). But the Asp is a great machine. It's larger size means you can fit considerably stronger components, even if it occasionally means docking at outposts can be a bit of a pain. I've even spooged some real money on the White Apollo skin for it. Classy.
The other thing that strikes you about the Asp is the view from the cockpit. I'm not sure there's a ship in the game that has a less obstructed view than the Asp. As such, if you're going the VR route, make sure you pick one of these up because it's amazing. The detail in the cockpit itself is fantastic, from the avatar of the pilot to the various controls. The lighting, too, deserves special mention - you don't really notice the glow of the HUD until you see it in 3D and you can move your head around.
It's not just like a pitch and pan thing - you can move your head wherever you can move your head. That means you can lean over and peer over the side of the chair or look behind it. Did you know there was a door back there? I didn't until now. I tell you what's weird though - the distance between the throttle and joystick on my actual HOTAS isn't quite as wide as they are in the cockpit. That leads to a weird, tingly feeling in your arms as, if you reach for the controls that you can 'see', they're not quite where you think they are. There's nothing for it - I'm going to have to get me one of these...
Everything set up and we're good to go. First we need to launch, which is... woah - look at the station! It's so much bigger than it feels on a regular monitor. I mean, proper sense of vertigo bigger. Okay, focus. Time to thrust up... hey - why are my thrusters not working? Never mind - I'll sort that when we get out into space. Just pull back on the stick and throttle up and... urp, vertigo hitting pretty bad now. Line up with the exit and a little roll... yup, tummy's doing all manner of funny things. Push through it! Let's get this bad boy into space. Alignment is good, landing gear is up, thread the needle and... space!
So I feel I should qualify something. I'm actually pretty good in VR - I'm not really a motion sickness kinda guy. I'm actually going to chalk this one up to the sheer scale of things and the fact that it's probably the same feeling that astronauts have the first time they experience weightlessness. Yeah, that's right - I'm a frickin' astronaut.
Need to look into the thruster thing before I land though. Into the options, get them assigned to the coolie hat, where they should be... but that appears to clear the power redirection stuff. Unless I didn't have that set up properly. Go back in and set up the power redirection stuff... which clears the thrusters. I set them back to thrusters so I can dock. Come out of the options menu to discover that a Federal Agent has made it all the way to Cubeo, stripped my shields and taken my hull to 70% while I was faffing with the options. That's not on. Mild panic as I'm still not used to flying in VR, the controls aren't exactly what I want them to be and I don't have enough in my bank account to cover the insurance if this ship gets blown up. First problem is requesting docking clearance.
Normally, that's just muscle memory - hold the combination of buttons that brings up the left panel, tab over twice, select the station and down one to request docking. In VR it's simpler and more complicated at the same time. You just have to look to your left and slightly down and the panel appears. Then you can select the options you need as normal. That's okay, but if you move your head again, the panel goes away so it's important that you remain calm and focussed. Not an easy task when you've just got ganked by a Federation Assault Ship.
Somehow, I make it to safety despite everything being on fire. Time to leave space and engage in some Google-fu to find out what's up with the controls. Turns out, there's a bug that applies to digital controls. It's only an interface issue, so I solve it by manually finding and editing the keybinding file. Has it really been such a long time since I've used a Windows machine? Wow.
Okay, everything is now working as intended. Time to grab a mission and get some proper gaming in. Nothing too drastic to start - let's grab a cargo delivery one or something. Load up, launch - a bit gingerly, if I'm honest - and power away out of Mass Lock. FSD charging... 4, 3, 2, 1, engage!*
Hyperspace is very nice indeed. Again, it just gives you time to look around the cockpit as the lights flash by. Then up comes the target system and its main star. Holy crap, there's that sense of scale again. All Leanne ever really sees when I'm playing Elite: Dangerous is a screen filled with a big orange ball of flame. Now, part of that might just be down to timing, but it's fair to say you do spend a bit of time next to these nuclear bastards. Especially when all you really want to do is skim the thing for fuel and to take in the details and majesty of it in VR...
Cargo delivered and it's time to get some serious stuff going. Let's get us some combat going. Conflict Zone (Low Intensity) locked in and jump. Well, this is exciting. There are ships everywhere, all shooting each other. Again, a single, forward view doesn't do it justice - there's just so much going on all around you. Anyway - time to pick a side and... what's this? A wing invite from another player? Cool.
Turns out there's a Fer-de-Lance and Vulture here and they want to team up with me. Excellent. Why not? I sign up and we go a-hunting. It's a proper furball too - lasers, multicannons, plasma all over the shop. Partly because I'm simply playing it at a much higher graphics setting, the ships look amazing. Incredible detail from the engines, thrusters and heat sinks. But it's the sense of... well, space... offered by the VR that really makes it. It feels like I'm actually there. Like frickin' Han Solo or something.
The Asp isn't the most manoeuvrable beast out there and taking on an Imperial Eagle or Courier can be quite challenging. But being able to track them with your head gives you a hell of an advantage and, again, just makes it all feel so real. Like you're really in a titanic space battle and your very life depends on it. Especially when you start taking damage, sparks are flying out of your console and the whole cockpit is filling with smoke and flashing lights.
It's almost as if I've been playing it in a bubble all this time. Even things like the engine noises somehow sound better - Vipers have this gutteral growl; Eagles scream**.
Does it sound like I'm gushing a bit? It sounds like I'm gushing a bit, doesn't it? Well, that's how good it is. I've never played anything like it. Nothing makes you feel like you're in the cockpit of a spaceship as much as this does.
Seriously - the whole experience was so intense, I had to go and lie down afterwards.
* Does it bug anyone else that the jump actually kicks in at what would be -1 in the countdown?
** That might just be down to the fact that I'm playing with headphones on this time.