This month, I'm going to tackle one of the standard-bearers for hard SF among MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games—
Beware, readers of the future! Moreso than most electronic games, MMOs change over time. In EVE's case, the game today is fundamentally different than the game was back in 2003 when the trade press reviewed it. And if you're reading this after, say, mid-2010, EVE Online will undoubtedly be different than what I'm about to describe. Furthermore, game designers plan on a typical MMO delivering 400 hours of gameplay, give or take. I wish I had that kind of time to devote to each game before reviewing it, but the tyranny of math prevents it. That's a second aspect of this review to beware: I have only secondhand knowledge (that of my fellow players) for what the game experience is like after you've invested hundreds of hours into it.
In EVE Online, you are a "capsuleer"—
Depending on your natural inclinations, you can be a space pirate, a corporate trader, a ship-of-the-line commander, an asteroid miner, or an inventor of cutting-edge technology. The one thing you can't do? Leave your ship. You never walk around the planets you visit. The game takes place entirely on the bridge of your ship, which is either in space or docked at a space station. You communicate with everyone in EVE's universe—
As you get drawn into the game's social apparatus, you'll befriend some players and declare war on others. All the while, you're making more money, getting better at a capsuleer's various skills, and flying bigger and better starships. Like any MMO, you can go deep, deep down the rabbit hole; EVE's most committed players devote more than 40 hours a week to the game. Fortunately, you can also approach the game more casually. When you start, you don't have the connections, the skills, or the money to engage in the high-level corporate machinations that EVE is famous for.
So what do you actually do? You fly around in your ship and hunt pirates (for the bounties and to salvage their wrecks), perform mercenary missions for computer-controlled characters, mine asteroids for profit (avoiding or fighting pirates as you do so), buy low and sell high with a big industrial cargo ship, or become a pirate yourself. All of this makes you money that you'll use to improve your ship so you'll be even better at all of the above. As you get deeper into the game, you'll spend more time talking to other players, coordinating your efforts, brokering deals, and just chatting. EVE can be enjoyed as a solo game to a point, but the really interesting stuff requires a degree of social interaction.
Space Opera Tech, Run by Corporations
EVE's backstory gets fed to you bit by bit as you play the game, but here's a quick overview: Space explorers from Earth discovered a natural wormhole that led to a far-off star system they named New Eden—
Many colonies perished without support from home, but others survived and eventually thrived. Five empires coalesced out of those colonies. Today, those five empires have an uneasy peace, but the real movers and shakers are the player-controlled corporations that control hundreds of systems and continually war and scheme against each other. And Earth? No one in the game knows what's happening back home.
But the backstory is just prologue—
Speaking of tropes, EVE Online has traditional space-opera technology. Starships have a warp drive that lets them get across a solar system in a matter of seconds, and they can fly through stargates that connect one solar system to another. And some high-tech ships can function as their own stargates—
One of the nice things about EVE is that it pays lip service to proper astronomy. Your star map is a three-dimensional beast, and each system has plenty of gas giants, asteroid fields, moons, and uninhabitable planets. In fact, because you never go planetside, after a while you start to care more about space stations and asteroid fields than anything else—
And the eye candy in this game is tremendous. It seems like you are always flying past alien-looking stargates, gorgeous gas clouds, and spinning asteroids. If there are two space stations that look alike, I haven't seen them yet.
Confounding, But In a Good Way
EVE Online is unapologetically a "sandbox" game (as opposed to World of Warcraft, which offers a more guided "theme park" experience). Since the game's release in 2003, players have carved out empires for themselves among the game's 7,500 star systems. For example, longtime EVE players can tell you about the huge war between the Band of Brothers and the Goonswarm—
Perhaps because EVE has been doing its sandbox thing for six years now, it's something of an outlier among MMORPGs. Most other games split up their players among dozens of servers, each running an identical version of the game for thousands of players. EVE Online has a single universe that typically has 30,000 to 40,000 people online at once. So when you're playing, you're truly playing with everyone.
EVE has no player levels (a common conceit in MMORPGs). Your ability to blast the other guy into space particles depends on three things:
- Your skills. Skills automatically improve over time, whether you're playing the game or not. You choose which skill you're currently working from a list of hundreds.
- Your ship. This is largely a function of how much money you've made in the game (although skills matter a bit; you need to get the Battleship Operation skill before you fly a battleship), but it's also an exercise in risk management. If you lose your ship, all that wealth is gone, so many EVE players live by the maxim: "Don't fly what you can't afford to lose."
- Your knowledge of the game. Space combat in EVE is much more Honor Harrington than it is Luke Skywalker. You spend your time scanning your target, deploying electronic countermeasures, and trying to reach the optimal range for your weapons. You don't have to have a fast trigger finger or a deft hand on the mouse so much as you need to know things like, "he just launched drone x, which means he'll probably do y next, and I'll respond with z." If you're looking for space dogfights and Star Wars-style trench runs, EVE isn't the game for you. It's much more like modern naval combat or something David Weber would write; while it's happening in real time, space combat is much more demanding of your brain than it is your fingers.
How Hardcore Is It?
EVE Online has a reputation among MMOs for being "hardcore." There's no doubt, it's an unforgiving game: There's very little you obtain that another player can't take away from you. In most MMOs, when you get a magic sword, it's yours to keep and is often "soulbound" to you so you couldn't give it away if you wanted to. If you spend millions to get yourself a high-tech battleship in EVE Online, however, you're putting that asset at risk every time you undock from a space station. EVE is fundamentally about risk management. You can't just try things that are obviously too difficult—
like attacking a battleship with your lone mining frigate— just to see what happens. EVE exacts a toll for intentional stupidity, unlike in most MMOs where that "let's see what happens" experimentation is part of the fun.
The main reason EVE has a hardcore reputation, however, is because it used to be very difficult to learn. The game had no tutorial or basic introduction for the first few years. The EVE interface is complex enough—
usefully complex— that you need someone holding your hand for the first few hours. Fortunately for newomers, times have changed. It now takes two or three hours to play through the "Crash Course" tutorial, and when you're done, you know how to perform all of the game's basic functions. Further tutorials pop up the first time you use a space station's factories to build something for yourself, the first time you mine from an asteroid, the first time you trade on EVE's stock market, and other key "firsts." Especially if you've played other MMOs, there's nothing unreasonably challenging in EVE as long as you pay attention during the tutorial and don't get blasť about the risks you're taking.
MMOs with a strong PvP element rarely have strong immersion. When you play Counterstrike, for example, the tenor of the chat alone would make it obvious that you're playing with (and against) a bunch of teenagers, not a bunch of actual commandoes.
But because of its science-fiction setting, EVE Online is one of the most immersive games—
of any genre— I've ever played. When you're sitting at your computer playing EVE, you're looking at a central viewscreen that has various tactical overlays (like the name and affiliation of each ship, for example). On one side you've got a list of nearby ships and objects that you can click on to target or maneuver nearby. Your shields and weapon status is listed along the bottom, and you can pull up a star map or communicate with another player by invoking it from a menu.
…And that's exactly what my character would be doing—
looking at a viewscreen and manipulating the shipboard computer. If you play EVE Online in a dark room, you are experiencing the game world almost exactly as your character would experience it. Contrast that with the typical fantasy MMO, where you somehow are able to look over your own shoulder, there's always a map in your peripheral vision, and everyone you meet has a name, guild affiliation, and health bar floating over his or her head.
EVE achieves superior immersion because the very idea of a user interface is natural in the SF setting, but there's no fantasy analogue. And in a sandbox game that you can't "win" in the traditional sense, invoking superior immersion might be a victory condition of its own.
You can download the client (PC or Mac) at eveonline.com and get 14 days to try it for free. If you like it, it costs $15 a month to keep going. And if EVE Online can't convince you that it's worth $15 after two weeks, then the game doesn't deserve you.
Scope of the Review
I played this for 40 days (so far)—
probably about 60 hours total— on a middle-of-the-line Mac laptop. The first half of my experience was spent solo and in small groups, but then I joined a midsize corporation and participated in a number of moneymaking schemes and two corporate wars.