Elite: Dangerous hands-on: exhilarating dogfights and amazing VR

If you've ever watched a Star Wars space battle and thought, man, I want to be there, playing Elite: Dangerous with the Oculus Rift is as close as you can currently get. Elite has always been prized as a freeform, open-world RPG, so I really wasn't expecting this Kickstarted update to be one of the most tactile, kinetic and convincing sims I've yet played. I've never flown a real spaceship, but playing this with a flight stick feels exactly how I imagined being in the cockpit of an X-Wing would be.

The alpha build I've been playing contains a series of disjointed combat scenarios. They teach you the basics of flying your ship, power management, stealth and targeting enemies. The sensation of being strapped to a chair in a chunk of metal floating in space is spot on. There's a palpable weight to your movement – especially when playing with a stick – and the sound design is superb, from the kerchunk of your weapon hardpoints activating, to the mechanised whir of your engines spinning up as you accelerate. Take damage, and your cockpit spits sparks and spews smoke; break your glass canopy, and all sound is sucked from the world except the wheeze of you breathing in your spacesuit.

And this is just when you're playing normally. Elite: Dangerous has full Oculus Rift support, and strapping on the VR headset elevates it to a whole new level. I've played a lot of Rift games, but this is easily the best in terms of feeling like you're actually in the game.

The cockpit is a fully realised 3D space. Functional holographic HUDs project from your dashboard, you can see your body if you look down and, beyond the top and side windows, the blackness of space. It's a remarkable sensation. The feeling of pushing on the stick and your heavy ship lurching forward as its thrusters fire is totally convincing, which makes weaving through an asteroid field and watching the huge rocks hurtle past an exhilarating experience.

Then you run into an enemy ship. After a long, hard dogfight, I feel exhausted. I take the Rift off, slump back in my chair and announce to the office: “That... was amazing.” As the music blares, your lasers sizzle and enemy ships whizz over your head, it evokes that same feeling you get while watching the Death Star assault in A New Hope, except you're there.

Suddenly the sparks and smoke in your cockpit as you take damage feel genuinely dangerous. The Rift actually helps with combat too. If an enemy craft whizzes over the top of your ship, you can follow them – by turning your actual head and looking out of the window – to see which direction they sped off in, and then realign yourself accordingly.

When I had the Rift, Elite and a flight stick set up in the office, everyone on the magazine wanted to have a go, and the reactions were all the same: a mixture of oooohs , aaaaahs and amazed swearing. “Well, I never want to play anything else ever again,” said Chris after his first attempt. Anyone with even a passing interest in science fiction will find the prospect of slipping into the pilot seat of a spaceship irresistible.

While the likes of Half-Life 2 and Skyrim are impressive using the Rift, they feel exactly like what they are: retrofit hacks of an existing game. Elite, however, feels handcrafted for the headset. The cockpit is the perfect shape to give you a genuine sense of depth and space. You're really in there.

The combat is reminiscent of a lot of space sims in that power management is a big feature – shields, engines and weapons can be allocated more or less juice The cockpit is one of the most convincing Rift experiences yet. The various weapons feel nicely distinct from one another. Follow engine trails to keep track of a fast-moving enemy ship. Take a beating and the cockpit sparks and smokes. depending on the situation. If you want to make a quick getaway, reroute all your power to the engines and hit the afterburner. If you're firing on an enemy with thick shields, reroute it to your lasers so they can fire for longer without overheating. It's that familiar 'space jousting' you're used to from space sims such as Wing Commander and X, but it feels so much more exciting and engaging when you're plugged into the Rift.

So the developers have nailed the ship controls and the combat, even at this early alpha stage, but we haven't seen the real meat of Elite: the open universe, the trading and the RPG elements. If they can marry this simulation with a deep, rich, explorable universe, this could be a Kickstarter comeback that's worth all the nostalgic fanfare.

Even without a Rift it's a fun, chunkily satisfying space combat sim, with that feeling of weight and responsiveness working just as well with a mouse and keyboard and your regular old eyeballs. But if there was ever a game to sell the concept of the Rift and why VR is going to be massive, this is it.

Andy Kelly

If it’s set in space, Andy will probably write about it. He loves sci-fi, adventure games, taking screenshots, Twin Peaks, weird sims, Alien: Isolation, and anything with a good story.