Take a Bird's-Eye View of Paris in 'Eagle Flight' for Oculus Rift

Eagle Flight for Oculus Rift
Live the dream of flying over a deserted Paris with Ubisoft's "Eagle Flight." Ubisoft

A few years ago, just shy of finishing of a game in Ubisoft's now sprawling Assassin's Creed franchise, I discovered a peculiar joy in bouldering my way up to high points of the painstakingly re-created Italian Renaissance cathedrals, enjoying the vista for a long moment and leaping off like a 15th-century BASE jumper safely into wheelbarrows of hay below. These thoughtful detours eschewed the main storyline, but I found it unexpectedly satisfying and couldn't stop.

All in preamble, it would seem. Later this year, we'll be able to fly through the streets of Paris as an eagle, with all its feathers, in Eagle Flight. This gift comes to us courtesy of the virtual reality device known as the Oculus Rift.

Developer Olivier Palmieri was visibly excited to show the game. For him, it's like fulfilling a childhood dream—he's always wanted to make a game about flying. We've experienced flying before, but usually through joysticks or mice. And usually through combat simulations. And usually on flat screens. Until now, sailing through the air as a bird by tipping your head and neck was tantalizingly out of reach. Even now, some voice concern that the sharp turns and high speeds would be ill-eagle fun (sorry).

But Olivier and his team went back to school, researching means of alleviating simulation sickness. And to their surprise, vignetting the screen to reduce field of view during tense moments was not only effective but thematic: An eagle's vision is inherently narrow. After a few minutes of playing, the conceit seems successful; I had comfortably forgotten that it was even happening.

And what a sensation it provides, less like what I remember of flying planes in video games and closer to the gravitational thrill of bungee jumping. The experience is alternatingly tense and relaxing, paradoxically intuitive.

Although there was a game pad in my hands, out of my sight, interaction there mostly amounted to pulling a right trigger to go faster or a left trigger to brake and turn more sharply. Stark was this minimal interaction against the backdrop of other games demoed at the conference, many of which attained their immersion by handing you batons or rings to simulate your hands catching footballs, swinging swords or painting. There was no need here to flap your arms to experience avian Valhalla, and it would have only felt ridiculous if you did.

There is a game here too. The "capture the prey" and "fly through rings" mechanics will not be unfamiliar to the seasoned gamer, but the way that you interact, torquing your head and body around to either pursue or escape, very much will be. Players will be separated by their mastery of tactics and positioning, of collaboration, and by their snappy reactions. At the speed of an eagle's flight, there's not much room for forgiveness as you dodge the flying buttresses of Notre Dame. A mistake snaps your vision into an abruptly unsettling darkness. Is this how it ends?

At the inception of one such team match, Olivier encouraged us to look out from our perch to spot our teammates before the match began. I looked left, saw nothing. Looked behind, saw a nest of hungry chicks waiting for rabbit. I looked right, saw a bald eagle backlit by a tremendous Parisian sunset. And then I saw that eagle bob a gentleman's head nod. Instinctively, I mirrored the action myself, chuckling guiltily. Do bald eagles bob? Do they chuckle? Do they even exist in Paris?

And then suddenly we were off, snapping through the peripheral branches of the trees to hunt our meal.

Eagle Flight is due out later this year. The cost hasn't been announced.