The last time I “logged out” of Elite: Dangerous, it was after docking at one of the hundreds of space stations scattered through the galaxy. Think of it as pulling into the local Holiday Inn for a night. At the end of my last play session, a mechanized elevator pulled my ship inside the superstructure of the small pirate space station where I docked (yes, it has skull flags and everything). That’s where I am now that I’ve returned to the game, sitting in the cockpit of my Sidewinder (the starter spaceship) staring out at the docking bay around me.
Ahead, on the wall, someone painted the name of the station. My cockpit glass wraps around the top of my ship, so I can look straight up and see the docking ring above me, opening onto space. I’m not ready to launch just yet, but it’s still neat to be able to look around freely in my cockpit. Virtual reality!
[ Best garage ever. ]
I glance left, inside my cockpit, and my Navigation screen pops up on its own – a rectangular holographic display that floats at my left side. The Oculus Rift tracks how my head is oriented and my ship displays screens based on where I’m looking. This system is designed for VR and works extremely well. I glance at the right side of my cockpit, and my Status HUD pops up. I lean close (to more easily read it) and use one of the hats (a button on my control stick) to tab over to my Cargo manifest. Am I carrying anything? No? Good. I don’t want to get fined for illegal cargo (again!) because I forgot to drop off the shipment I was delivering before leaving the station. Yes, that happened.
I look straight ahead, at my ship’s console. It displays several options while docked, including those to move my ship outside, launch right into space, or access the station’s internal bulletin board. I jump to the bulletin board, and a third screen pops up directly in front of me. I use my hat to tab to available jobs and find a cargo shipment bound for another system – four units of cargo, the maximum I can haul.
[ Your mission, should you choose to accept it. ]
I don’t accept the job. I’ve blindly accepted delivery runs before and been burned. Instead, I memorize the system name where my prospective (probably shady) employer wants their cargo delivered. Then, I look left to make my Navigation screen pop up. Through that, I load my interstellar map – it has star systems arranged in a 3D lattice. I can navigate freely, floating in a virtual projection of known systems. I find the system where the cargo needs to be delivered.
Using the joystick and hat, I select my current system, then my destination system, then link them with an orange line to plot my route. According to the estimates given on the interstellar map, I verify that yes, my Frame Shift Drive can get me to the system I need to get to, and I have the fuel to make the run while carrying four units of cargo. It will take two consecutive hops, passing through a midpoint system, but that’s not unusual. This won’t be like the time I accepted a simple one hop run to a new system that paid well, without checking my route, then found out the system was so far away, in light years, that my little Frame Shift Drive couldn’t even jump there. I abandoned that one without realizing the cargo was still in my ship’s hold. Naturally, at the next station, a Fed scanned me and fined me for “stealing” it. Oops.
Now that I know I’ve got a solid job available, I lock in my route, close the map, re-open the bulletin board, and accept the cargo delivery contract. The station loads my cargo and then I request a launch. By locking my route ahead of time, I’ll have plenty of guidance once I’m launched. Nothing more unnecessary than flying your ship at high speed with your eyes buried in an interstellar map projection. There’s a rumble/shake as the mechanized ship elevator kicks into motion, and the elevator platform rotates 180 degrees (pointing my ship in launch direction). The elevator then cranks upward, making my stomach lurch as it moves me into open space. Once I’m on the hull the docking clamps binding my ship to the station release. My little Sidewinder “pops” up just a bit, thanks to equal and opposite reactions.
[ Yes, I know you’re a pirate station. Do you really need the red skull? ]
I throttle forward with my left hand, in the real world. As I do this, my virtual left hand and virtual throttle move at the same time, as seen in the game world. Immersive! I click the button on my flight stick’s base to retract my landing gear and glance at the Compass on my ship’s console, finding the glowing dot. I pull back on my flight stick and my virtual right hand and arm do that as well. It makes it feel like I’m seeing my limbs, my body, in a spacesuit inside my ship. Gripping controls I can feel!
[ My arms and hands gripping physical controls, seen virtually. ]
My ship projects a circle in the direction of my first hop (a star system). I wait (a bit impatiently) to clear the space station’s mass so I can jump to hyperspace. Finally, I’m clear and I hit the button on my joystick base to power up my Frame Shift Drive. This will compress space around me, allowing me to travel interstellar distances without dying of old age. It’s a mode of travel called Supercruise.
[ Supercruise – just a bit more cool than Regularcruise. ]
My drive hums as it powers up and then my ship starts a vocal countdown. Space warps around me and everything goes dark, followed by a loud pop and then – hyperspace. The best way to describe it is being inside a tunnel of dark oil, or clouds. It surrounds my ship as lightning like flashes crackle around me. Impressions of objects (planets? Stars?) rush by, and soon space compresses again.
[ My god, it’s full of stars. ]
BOOM. I drop out of hyperspace facing the massive star at the center of the system where I jumped, but remain in Supercruise (traveling faster than light). Stars are the only objects large enough to target for hyperspace jumps. This star is brilliant, burning, and fills most of my cockpit glass. Also, I’m flying right toward it. It’s impressively cool every time.
[ Yeah, don’t fly into that. ]
I pull up and away (if I kept flying forward, the heat from my proximity to this sun would melt my ship). My ship displays my second hop as a holographic ring in open space, and again, I use my Compass to orient my ship facing (mostly) toward the ring. I pop back into hyperspace and I come out at my destination system. This sun is bigger, and a bit more red.
I point my ship away from burning, fiery death and glance left, still in Supercruise. I pop up my Navigation screen and use the hat to navigate through local destinations, locking in my destination station. A new dot appears on my Compass and I bring my ship around to face it. As I move in Supercruise, my ship estimates my arrival time. I cruise by planets and orbit lines projected by my ship.
[ This is the part where epic music plays. ]
I’m almost there when my ship beeps a warning. Someone has locked onto my thermal signature and is trying to interdict me, which can be very bad. This means they’re targeting me with a device that can force me out of Supercruise, making me vulnerable to attack in normal space. This has happened to me once before. It was right after I made the mistake of swapping the shield generator on my Sidewinder for a second cargo hold, thinking I could just outrun pirates. That pirate had a great time blowing me up. Fortunately, I was insured, so I got most everything back when I woke up at the nearest space station (presumably, after some rescue service fished my life pod out of the wreckage).
Navigation rings display, fast and narrow, ahead of me. I must fly through these rings while in Supercruise to avoid interdiction. I don’t make it, and there’s a jolt as my ship is forcibly dragged back into normal space. Annoyed, I divide my ship’s power evenly between shields, engines, and systems (I usually fly with my power shunted into engines) and get ready for a dogfight. I find the bandit on the Scanner in my center hud (he’s a square dot “behind” me) and throttle up into the blue zone (or sweet spot) while simultaneously flying “down” to make a quick 180. I click my joystick trigger to deploy my hardpoints, and two pulse lasers pop out of my Sidewinder with satisfying clicks.
I lock onto my target, but he doesn’t fire, so neither do I. He doesn’t look like a pirate, and I hold my fire for the five to ten heart-pounding seconds it takes for my ship to scan my opponent. That’s when I learn who this jerk is. It’s a Fed. He blindly pulled me out of Supercruise, probably to scan me for stolen cargo, the interstellar equivalent of a random traffic stop. Never mind that being dragged out of Supercruise damages my hull and I’ll have to pay for repairs at my next destination. Jerk. The Fed doesn’t fine me or fire at me, since I’m carrying legit cargo and don’t have any sort of bounty on me from blowing people up. Since I don’t want to change that, I don’t blow him up, either, even if he is still a jerk.
I roll back to face my destination and jump back into Supercruise. I drop out in sight of a blue planet facing a massive space station. I look left to pop my Navigation screen, open communications, and request docking clearance. Since I’m playing Single Player and there’s no other players competing for berths, it is granted quickly. If I tried flying in without docking clearance, the station’s internal lasers would blow me out of the sky. That’s a bad time.
[ My, what a big station you have. And lasers. ]
I fly along the station parallel to its lines, roll my ship so the top of it faces the station, and look up (out my cockpit glass) because that’s what you can do while wearing a VR headset. I cruise to the front of the station and then loop down until I spot the “mail slot” – a narrow, rectangular opening that leads inside. The advertisements for ship parts floating in front of it help call it out. I can slide my ship in all directions with thrusters, not just forward or back, so I slide down/forward in a half-C to line my ship’s nose up with the slot. It’s always claustrophobic sliding through mail slots, especially since the station never stops rotating and I have to roll my ship to match its rotation as I approach. Still fun, though!
[ Time to deliver the mail. Me. I’m the mail. Get it? ]
Once through the slot, I’m in the massive hollow space inside the station’s hull. Comm buildings, landing pads, and other structures are built on the inside of that hull, facing toward the hollow center of the station (gravity is generated by its rotation, “out” toward the hull). Or at least, I assume that’s how it works. I can’t actually get out of my ship (that’s something Elite doesn’t let you do… yet).
I see a large projected “tower” directing me to my designated landing pad. I extend my landing gear (to artificially slow my ship) and cruise toward it, rolling my ship as I do so the “bottom” of my ship is lined up with the inner hull of the station. I’m careful not to bump into the raised communication tower like I did that one time. That was embarrassing (it also scratched my paint).
[ Here’s me not scratching my paint ]
Once I’m safely in the projected yellow tower, I use my hat to thrust downward, staying inside the tower. As I approach the landing pad, the Scanner in my console instead displays a projection of a yellow square and a projection of my ship, indicating facing and rotation. The projected pads contain circles directing me to its center, where the docking clamps can grab me. I don’t have to get it exactly right.
[ You’re doing it wrong. ]
I slide down, then, as the circle goes red. I’m misaligned, so I throttle back a bit. My ship beeps helpfully, faster if I’m not on the right vector and slower if I am. Finally, I’m lined up and I descend until the docking clamps grab my ship, jostling me slightly and then lining me up with the pad. Locked in.
[ So I guess I’ll just sit here in my ship, then. ]
I bring up the bulletin board at the new station, deliver my cargo, and get my payment. Then I take another look around the inside of the station. Another ship cruises by above me, heading out, and the entire inside of the hull is wrapped around me above. Very cool, but nothing I haven’t seen before. I’ve spent enough time enjoying the view. Time to find my next cargo run.
I’ve tried to describe my experience in virtual reality to give you an idea of what playing a game like Elite: Dangerous in VR is like… at least, as a space trucker. You can also hunt down pirates or Feds, and even be a pirate yourself by targeting people like me in multiplayer … which I will do, one day, when I have a better ship. This experience is one of the most immersive gaming experiences I’ve ever had. Space truckin’ is one of many experiences we can all look forward to when consumer VR headsets ship later this year. This doesn’t even take into consideration what it’ll be like when we add virtual treadmills, gloves, and entire motion capture suits. As gamers, we all have a great deal to look forward too.