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Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift – Hands-On from PAX South 2015

by Kyle Hanson

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Elite: Dangerous is out now, you can certainly buy it and play it at any time, and feel free to check out our review to see how well the game turned out. However, what you probably can’t do, unless you are a developer or said you were one just for kicks, is play the game with an Oculus Rift. That was what the developer, Frontier Developments, was allowing players to experience at their booth on the PAX South 2015 show floor. They had everything set up perfectly for the optimum Elite: Dangerous experience, so how does it impact the feeling of the game? Quite a lot actually.

Elite: Dangerous, for those of you that didn’t read our review, is a space exploration game that features a near on-to-one replica of our entire galaxy. As a spaceship pilot you can pretty much do whatever you want, explore the galaxy, attack other ships, or just fly around looking at all of the pretty environments. The galaxy is there for you to explore and do with what you will, and the developer has big plans for the future as far as adding more activities.

How does the Oculus Rift alter this exactly? By totally immersing you in the world of Elite: Dangerous. As you fly your ship you are situated in the cockpit, as you would be in real life. This feeling of realism was even further enhanced by the fact that I was using a similar joystick/throttle setup to that found in the game. One of the first things I did once I put on the Oculus Rift headset was look down at my own hands. Everything was perfectly aligned, creating some pretty intense immersion, but it only got better when I started to move.

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Your pilot’s hands and arms are all synced with your real life movement. If I pulled back on the throttle, my in-game avatar did too. When I twisted the joystick in a frantic bid to locate an enemy pilot, my actions were mirrors in the game. This sort of setup is what takes the Oculus Rift, and Elite: Dangerous out of the realm of simulation and into true Virtual Reality territory.

Of course, not everything impressive in the game is found by looking down at the cockpit, looking up offers an amazing view of the stars and all of the beatifule objects floating in space. The demo I tried out was focused on combat, featuring a single enemy ship that would fly around me trying to evade my fire. It took a few flips and turns before I remembered that I could simply move my head to track the enemy, rather than facing forward and turning the ship to keep him in front.

Using the game’s surprisingly useful radar system, along with my actual head movement, keeping the enemy in my sight-line became fairly easy. It took me breaking a few habits that had formed over the last two decades of playing video games, but once they were taken care of my gaming experience was unlike any other.

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Flying through an asteroid field, watching a far-away enemy bob and weave between the gigantic rocks, I truly began feeling like a spaceship pilot. Many times during the demo I would charge at the enemy ship, only to have him flip around and fly straight over my head. Whipping my eyes around to keep track of him was both fun, and offered an incredible feeling of authenticity in this unreal environment.

Controlling the ship was certainly complicated, especially with the intense joystick and throttle setup on the PAX South 2015 show floor. However, it felt extremely natural, as though I had been flying a ship this way all of my life. Twisting the joystick to turn left and right, while pulling back on the throttle and angling my turn to flip upside down would be difficult in almost any game, yet I did it multiple times after only a few minutes of practice.

As we already said in our review, Elite: Dangerous is a fun and unique game. Adding in the Oculus Rift only enhances this, and does so to great effect. While the Oculus Rift is still in development, thus making it tough to come by for the average gamer, the team behind Elite: Dangerous has already put in the work to make sure that it will work from day one. That work has certainly paid off as it has created one of the most intense gaming experiences that you can find today.

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