EVE Valkyrie is a great example of how a traditional game genre can be made much better when it’s designed to be played in virtual reality. And I’m not just talking about immersion. I’m talking about being able to turn your head to track an enemy ship as it zips overhead and aim a weapon with your face. It’s a whole new level of dogfighting, and it makes Valkyrie’s grindy progression worth sitting through.
When you join the multiplayer queue you’ll cycle through standard team-deathmatch furballs and two point-capture modes. They’re all good – eight-on-eight space battles are usually thrilling, look great, and the mechanics are simple enough to pick up and enjoy very quickly. But the most exciting one is Carrier Assault, where you knock down the enemy flagship’s shields by capturing points and then attack it directly. This two-phase objective created some of the best battle moments I’ve had, between dodging enemy fire as I strafe their capital ship’s weak points and picking off attackers who’re too focused on attacking my carrier to notice I’m right behind them and have them in my sights.
This is a team-based game, but less because of needing to strike a balance between fighter, heavy fighter, and support-class ships on a team and more because getting caught without a wingman by two or more enemies means almost certain death. Plus, the arcadey physics won’t let you pull Battlestar Galactica-style maneuvers that use Newtonian inertia, so one-on-one dogfights tend to devolve into a dull dance of circling each other endlessly, using a combination of engine boosts and brakes to try to line up a shot. Valkyrie is at its best when you spot a teammate in trouble and swoop in to pick off the bogey on his tail, or vice versa, and giving the obligatory Han Solo “Wahoo!”
"Valkyrie is at its best when you spot a teammate in trouble and swoop in."
Given that, it’s a little strange that you have to manually group up into a squadron before Valkyrie will let you do any voice communication with your allies, and that can only be done between matches. Since everybody playing Valkyrie has a mic and headphones, you’d think they’d be more open with the coms.
Flying heavy fighters and support ships is dramatically different from the standard fighter – it’s much more than simple armor and speed redistribution. I’ll require a lot more practice before I learn how to handle them as well as the straightforward fighter, which shreds targets with machine gun-style forward-facing guns and weak homing missiles that lock onto targets independently based on what you’re looking at.
By contrast, the heavy fighters I’ve unlocked have an eye-targeted flak cannon as their main weapon, allowing you to spray fast-moving, lightly armored enemies with a steady stream of minor damage as long as you can keep them in view. (I’m still having problems crashing into things on the busier space station maps because I’m not watching where I’m going while I’m chasing a target.) And instead of a secondary weapon it has a short-range warp drive that can be used to quickly reach a capture point or escape danger when your thick shields and armor have absorbed as much punishment as they can take. Early support ships have a weak but auto-hit lock-on beam that drains shields, and some can drop extremely helpful robot mines that latch onto any ship that passes nearby to heal allies or damage enemies. (I’m not much of a support pilot at this point, but if you’re dropping repair bots I’ll cover you at every opportunity.)
"Progression through the unlocks is frustratingly slow."
There are a lot of ship varieties to unlock, each with different stats and different weapon loadouts, so there’s lots of interesting combat potential. The problem is that progression through the unlocks is frustratingly slow. That’s even using “implants” that boost your XP gain temporarily, which can be purchased with earned in-game currency or with real money. The whole process feels like something out of a grindy free-to-play game, presumably trying to squeeze some microtransaction cash out of all the Oculus Rift pre-order customers who got Valkyrie for free with their headsets, which made up the majority of players until the PlayStation VR came along. It’s annoying, because even though most unlockable ships seem to be simply redistributing the same number of points through their stat values, I find increased firepower to be a huge advantage. The ability to knock out an opponent quickly by taking them by surprise before they can evade racks up kills faster than anything else. So when someone has a hard-hitting ship unlocked you really see it in the after-action numbers. For a $60 game with microtransactions, feeling outgunned by people who pay more to progress faster doesn’t sit very well.
There is some single-player content (on top of playing regular matches against AI bots), but other than the challenging wave-based survival mode, which is a great way to learn the abilities and limitations of a newly unlocked ship, the appeal wears off quickly. What passes for campaign missions are so quick and easy they’re barely there at all, and the enemy ships are so weak they might be made of tinfoil. There’s also a “scout” mode where you search uninhabited maps for hidden items to reveal extra bits of lore, which couldn’t be less exciting. Not knowing anything about EVE Online’s lore the story of cloned pilots signing up as mercenaries didn’t do much for me, though the voice acting isn’t bad.
Progression and microtransaction problems aside, after a VR stint in EVE Valkyrie I don’t think I’ll ever be able to go back to playing a dogfighting game on a regular screen. It’s just too good at showing me what I’ve been missing by not being able to look around freely as I pursue or evade targets. The intense and movie-like moments of strafing an enemy carrier while dodging incoming fire are a thrill.