I’m ready to go.
My cargo bay is filled with medical supplies and rare materials. I’m fueled up and systems are green. I adjust my headset, take a second to appreciate this new ship’s gleaming interior, and, after a final go-ahead by the station’s administrator, pull up on the controller, press forward on my thruster to engage the engines and leave the landing pad.
As my ship glides through the station, I look through my cockpit windows—the scene is brilliant: green spaces with trees and vegetable fields, buildings curve along the station’s interior, and a few ships fly past. Just another afternoon at Fairbairn Station!
Welcome to Elite Dangerous—the popular spaceship-simulation-meets-MMORPG by Frontier Development. I had first played the game a few years ago at PAXEast. Their booth featured PCs hooked up to VR rigs with cool H.O.T.A.S. (“hands on throttle-and-stick”) controllers and it was a truly immersive VR game. After a thrilling dog fight set in an asteroid belt, think Empire Strikes Back, I spent the rest of the show telling anyone who would listen, “you must check this out!” It was one of those experiences that singed itself into my memory, and while I was super inspired and excited by the experience, I never thought for a second that I would ever do it again.
I’ve been using the Oculus Quest for awhile now, mostly for fitness apps and a few games. Once Oculus released its Link patch, however, I realized that I could start playing “real” VR games on my gaming PC, like Half Life:Alyx (which continues to be amazing). But then I realized, “hey…Elite Dangerous…space ship battles, asteroid belts… I can actually play that!” It was on!
There are quite a few variables to manage when doing the full-bore Elite Dangerous experience. You don’t just plug in everything and go (this is Windows after all). Here were all the steps I had to go through:
- PC+Steam+Elite Dangerous — not a problem
- HOTAS controls. I have a Thrustmaster HOTAS X, a pretty affordable, highly regarded controller and a popular choice with many players. Plugging it in was easy…but when I booted Elite Dangerous, nothing worked! Turns out that you have to click a specific preference within Steam, but only in the “Big Screen” mode. Then you have to make sure you select the controller in Elite Dangerous—it doesn’t automatically sense and activate it.
- VR. You need to install both the Oculus VR software (to connect Oculus Link) and the SteamVR application within Steam. Then you have to connect the headset, click “enable” inside the VR system to connect to the PC, then it launches the Oculus VR environment, then you need to launch the Steam VR app, which takes you to their VR environment, then you launch Elite Dangerous…and then…finally, you are in. That is, if the Oculus Quest doesn’t randomly disconnect at the beginning of this step (I have found that restarting the Quest right before you start addresses that issue).
Then, once you are in, you need to learn all of the various Elite Dangerous commands mapped to the HOTAS controller—at least 13 buttons (which can be doubled by using a modifier key) and the mini flight direction controller, the twisty part of the flight stick… it’s a lot.
The game does it’s best to help—control panels appear when you look in a specific direction and then disappear when you look away, which is great, but if you move your head too much while you are reading, the screen disappears (I still need to figure out how to “lock” a display)!
Once you figure all that out…you can play the game! Which is not simple! This is a full on starship simulator in a “1:1 scale simulation of the Milky Way galaxy based on real scientific principles, current scientific data and theories. It includes around 400 billion star systems. The galaxy is modeled on current galactic charts. Planets and moons rotate and orbit with 1:1 scale in real-time thus constantly changing a system’s environment. There are 42 Galactic Regions.” (More about that here.)
This game is incredible to play. It’s not even a game, really. It’s an adventure and part time job, with a massive passionate fan base which ranges from antagonistic pirates to the Fuel Rats squadron that run to your rescue should you run out of fuel during a mission. Many a night ends with me reading manuals, “how-to” guides, Reddit posts and other documentation on how best to experience this thing.
And while the initial setup is a pain, the actual game play experience is truly transcendent. You really do get this feeling of space: floating by a ringed planet while scanning for materials, with other space ships flashing in and out warp on their way to the space station far in the distance… you just feel like you are there.
For sure, it is an overwhelming feeling at times, trying to figure out what to do first. There are simple missions in the beginning system (which does not allow allow more experienced players to come in and potentially mess with you) and the game does a good job of slowly expanding the different adventures, but still: it is a lot. From mining asteroids for minerals to scavenging wrecked starships for encrypted data modules to hunting space pirates—there is always something to do.
My first two weeks were full of mistakes. Once, I forgot my thruster was on full while engaging the auto-undocking procedure–I went to get a drink and then came back with all the alarms on because my ship had wedged itself into a building inside the station, I messed up a transport mission (I did not know you couldn’t split shipments over two trips), I failed to hunt down a wanted criminal, and when I tried to land on a starbase situated on a moon’s surface, I must have not had the right gear because I ran out of oxygen and died.
But is the game fun you ask? Honestly, it is fun—in the same way a flight simulator is fun. It’s hard — the combat is tough, but I am slowly getting better using the different thruster and flight stick to track the enemy ship. But then I have to take a step back—I am using a flight stick, thrust controls, weaving around, using lasers to break down this guy’s shields so I can follow up with actual bullets, craning my next up and behind me to figure out how to intercept his fast-moving ship. Honestly, it’s like flying an X-Wing going after a TIE Fighter and that feels awesome. So yeah, it’s fun!
For what it’s worth, I haven’t had any problems with nausea or dizziness, most likely because I am sitting in a chair, just like my character.
There is a lot more to this game beyond the missions. You can get new ships, specialize them for specific tasks, customize your avatar, and coming soon, leave your ship and explore worlds as an actual walking character, a la No Man’s Sky, which obviously opens up a whole new dimension to the game. It is also worth pointing out that this game is plenty fun without the VR and controller—it better be!—it’s just far more immersive with the extra kit…and more convenient, to be honest.
But all in all, if you are looking for something else to do with your VR headset, this is kind of a must-buy, if you are into space simulations or just want to try something different…this game is a ton of fun and the community is awesome. Well worth checking out!