Elite: Dangerous shows the true potential of VR gaming

Frontier has built it with Oculus Rift in mind - and it shows

As ambitious as it is enormous, David Braben’s space trading sim is aptly named, because if the game that first bore its name is anything to go by, Elite: Dangerous is likely to become hazardously habit-forming. Following a successful crowdfunding campaign, it’s since entered the alpha stage, with players paying up to £200 for an early opportunity to play one of the most exciting games of the year. In turn, Frontier gets more money to make its game even better. It’s a costly solution for those who simply can’t wait, but when you play Elite: Dangerous the investment seems justified. And even more so when you play it with Oculus Rift.

Even without the extra immersion the VR headset offers, it’s an easy game to fall for. As in the original, released way back in 1984 on the BBC Micro, it’s the freedom that makes it so intoxicating – and at first, slightly overwhelming. The game features around 400 billion star systems, each with planets and moons to explore and asteroid fields to negotiate. The alpha version only has five systems, spread across an area of 200 cubic light years within the game’s version of the Milky Way galaxy, and already it feels incredibly vast.

It’s a place that you can simply exist in, charting systems and exploring planets, or you can adopt a variety of roles, from pirate to bounty hunter, scavenger to trader. You begin with just 100 credits and it’s entirely up to you whether you use legal or illegal means to swell your coffers. If you prefer a more guided experience, it’s here, too – currently, the alpha features a storyline which centres on the dumping of toxic material, leading to a series of relatively straightforward combat-based missions for players to tackle.

As Douglas Adams pointed out, space is big

These missions are essentially a tutorial in controlling your craft, as well as managing its power, the game allowing you to divide it between weapons, shields and engines depending on your preferred combat style. If you’re in a fight you don’t think you can win, you can boost the engines for a quick escape so you can live to fight another day, or go for an all-out assault by putting every last drop of juice into your weapons. If an enemy has a powerful laser, perhaps, you can make sure your shields have enough to withstand the barrage until your rival has overheated and you’re ready to return fire.

Frontier has expertly captured what it feels like – or rather, what we imagine it feels like – to be a space pilot. Your craft is at once satisfyingly responsive, yet with a tangible heft to it: it rumbles gently as you take off, dock with space stations and land, and shakes wildly when you’re hit by enemy fire. The smoke billowing from your ship after being struck is a terrifying sight, as are the electric sparks that fly from your cockpit’s control consoles. The metallic, bassy clunks and clicks you’ll hear, along with the gentle hum of your engines, rising to a high-pitched whine as you reach top speed, only add to what is a sensational audiovisual experience.

"Elite: Dangerous is likely to become hazardously habit-forming"

All of that is heightened further when you slip on the Oculus Rift headset. It’s one thing to look down and see your pilot’s body, quite another to twist your head and see the rest of the cockpit – and beyond. You’ll gawp out of the glass at incoming planets and nearby nebulae, craning your neck for a better view, while electronic displays hover in front of your eyes. For anyone who’s fantasised about being Han Solo, James T Kirk or Malcolm Reynolds, this is astonishingly close to living the dream.

It makes combat even more bracing, too, as you look up and back to watch enemy ships fly by, while weaving between bits of wreckage or attempting to pass through asteroid fields is even more unnerving. You’ll instinctively duck as a chunk of space rock hurtles toward you, and wince as another glances off your wing. It’s one of the first games to be built with the Rift in mind, and it absolutely shows, demonstrating an understanding of the tech that older games re-purposed for VR simply can’t compete with.

Probably don't fly into that

Something else that’s interesting about playing Elite: Dangerous with Oculus Rift is that it highlights how the tech might work best in games that deliberately limit its use. Other games that support the hardware might give you a greater degree of freedom in terms of movement, but the inherent restrictions of being permanently seated within a cockpit mean that wearing the Rift feels more natural. Because you’re not moving an avatar but guiding a craft, there’s none of the obvious disconnect between your character’s vision being guided by your own movements, and their body’s motion being handled by keys or an analogue stick. Because there’s rarely any great need to move your head too much, it heightens the sensation of actually being there when you do. It’s also less tiring as a result – although you may feel differently after an especially intense space battle.

"Elite: Dangerous is one of the first games to be built with Oculus Rift in mind, and it absolutely shows"

It remains to be seen whether the headset can hold the same appeal over extended sessions of play - for instance, Oculus Rift is undoubtedly better-suited to the thrills of galactic combat than the rather more mundane business of securing profitable trades. But the signs are hugely promising, and Elite: Dangerous is already looking like the early high watermark for Rift functionality, setting the standard to which others must strive to follow.

On a simpler level, it’s the kind of game that sparks your imagination and makes you feel like a kid again (and to wonder why we never had anything quite this good when we were young). With a good-quality flight stick to complete the illusion, Elite: Dangerous and Oculus Rift are as strong a partnership as Han and Chewie.

Make no mistake, come winter, plenty of players’ minds will be well and truly blown.