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EvE Online Apocrypha PC Review - -

Gameplay 8.5
Graphics 9.0
Sound 7.5
Value 8.7
Developer: CCP
Review Date:
May 2009
Mark Arnold


EvE Online

“Space is big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist's, but that's just peanuts to space.” – Douglas Adams, The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

If nothing else is said about EvE, and there is a lot that can be said about it, it makes the above quote a realisation.  EvE’s world dwarfs all other MMOs for sheer size – how could it not when it measures distances in astronomical units? – but we all know that space, as well as being stupendously big, is mostly made up of nothing.  Does that mean EvE is mostly about cruising through vast nothingness trapped in a tin can threatening to boil your eyeballs at the merest crack in the hull?  No.  EvE is large, complex, and deep – but it’s also not for everyone.

Writing this review is somewhat like leaping into the game itself – where to start?  There is much to talk about, and there is much to do and in many ways a lot of the activities aren’t really interconnected.  Do I start with the character creation process and levelling up? The expansive player economy? The vast exploration opportunities?  The truly ridiculous number of tools and options for corporations (read: guilds)?  Or perhaps the cut-throat community that has risen up around this game, and the amazing stories that come from it?  I think that perhaps I will actually start with the game’s history, for to understand EvE, you need to know where it comes from.

EvE is an established MMO – it’s been around for 6 years now, after all.  It actually comes from a different generation of MMO.  It was a time when MMO philosophies weren’t about raids and quests and character-driven PvP but were focused heavily on “the grind.”  MMOs stood at a cross-roads and the path was unclear – do they go towards a more ‘gamey’ streamlined approach, or a more immersive, sand-box approach?  Each MMO had its own take and their paths carved a spidery web through time until in late 2004/early 2005 the monster WoW was released and its path obscured all others.  It lumbered through ranks of MMOs, crushing them heedlessly underfoot, swatting them left and right. “Puny competitors!”, it boomed as it gobbled subscribers up like a shark on its last meal.  EvE, however, is from pre-WoW and had taken an entirely different path: the path of the sand-box.

EvE could be accused of having a steep learning curve and to a fresh-faced noob this is extended to getting overwhelmed from the moment you logged in.  This problem has been largely tidied up in later years with extended tutorials and welcome pages for all the different interfaces, but even once you get that all sorted, learning the vast array of ships, skills, equipment, and activities (not to even mention the player politics) will keep your eyeballs bleeding for many weeks. 

The interface, and the game itself, have been built up for over six years, so every facet is extremely powerful, but also highly complex.  This is great once you work it out, but at first it is intimidating.  The amount of customization you can achieve is unparalleled in my experience, and the amount of data you can access is mind-boggling.  It’s all hidden away, at your option, but you can find histories, combat logs, descriptions for every ship, planet and player, and even an in-game browser, just to scratch the surface.  As an example, your main tool for tracking money is your “wallet.”  This is no brown leather strip to hold shreds of paper, oh no, this is a full-blown accounting ledger, tracking every purchase and every detail.  It tells you where the money came from, how much was squandered, when it occurred, and double-click for more information.  You can even export it into text so you can properly track your profits and losses in a spreadsheet.

EvE’s sand-boxy nature and number of activities available to you compounds the learning curve problem.  It’s common knowledge, within EvE, that the best way to get the most out of your character is to aim for a goal, and go straight for it – but how do you choose?  Do you want to do small scale PvP? Pirating? NPC ‘ratting’? Mission running? Hidden “Complex” exploration? Fleet-wide PvP? Player-owned station raiding?  Corporation wars? Mining? Trading? Crafting? Or, as added in the latest major update (termed Apocrypha) – mysterious wormhole exploration?  The options are nearly endless, but getting good enough to do them can be a bit of a trick.

Due to its large number of activities, EvE seems like an even bigger “box ‘o’ sand.”  It has always been about player-driven content.  Especially in the early days this was a big turn-off – “what exactly am I supposed to do?”  EvE was, and still is, all about finding your OWN thing to do.  This can’t be demonstrated more clearly than with the often viciously cut-throat attitudes of the player base that has become the modus operandi for EvE.  Take the examples of Ubiqua Seraph and BoB.

Ubiqua Seraph was a giant corporation which, in 2005 was completely dissolved by a few infiltrators who, over the course of one full year, worked their ways up through the ranks.  Then in one coordinated operation stole everything of value out of their hangers and vaults and made off with goods that was estimated to be worth $16,500 real US dollars.  CCP, the game’s developers, took a steadfastly neutral stance – no game code was abused and there was no cheating.  Some players let their guard down and some unscrupulous people took advantage of it, and there was nothing they could do to intervene.  Player reaction was split between “wow, amazing job, well done” and “don’t you think you’ve taken things a bit too far.”

Far more recently, in fact only a few short months ago, EvE was dominated by the largest of alliances called “Band of Brothers (BoB).”  They owned vast tracks of space and had many enemies – perhaps most notably “Goon Swarm.”  The story goes that a low-level Gooner was “scamming noobs” – a common and generally accepted practice – when one of his marks turned out to be a high-ranking BoBer masquerading as a noob hoping to infiltrate BoB’s enemies.  Both the Gooner and the BoBer thought their plans were going swimmingly when the Gooner had a change of heart.  He came clean to his mark who then revealed that he also had had a change of heart and quite liked it in Goon Swarm.  He revealed that his ‘alt’ was in fact a high-level BoBer who had unlimited powers in the alliance.  Mind swirling with the possibilities the Gooner passed the new member up to his higher-ups who hatched a plan, and in less than 72 hours the BoB alliance was disbanded from within by the ‘alt’, and along with it all assets and space claimed under their name.

If the thought of huge guilds being destroyed from within doesn’t boggle your mind, you need to turn your sedative down, man.  The two main points here, I think, is that first; this sort of behaviour takes place at all – in fact entire corporations are built around the idea that that is their main focus – and the second point is that scams to make quick cash are extremely common.  They vary from the simplistic strategy of placing a cheap item up on the market with a bunch of extra zeros in the price tag hoping that someone accidently buys it, to the far more complex operations.  Extortion and robbery are common.  It’s a whole new world in there.

The implications are fascinating, scary, and exciting all at once.  Not for everyone, that much is clear, but as EvE has matured, so has its player-base.  No other MMO has had the continuous growth that EvE has, bar WoW’s gobble-tastic shark behaviour.  Most MMOs have a massive spike of subscriptions at release, which then plummets, stabilises for a while, before petering out.  By contrast EvE appears to have stumbled onto the scene, hair dishevelled but talented none-the-less, and slowly acquired the spit and shine to make it a serious competitor.  It’s gone through several graphic overhauls (the latest of which looks quite stunning,) the developers are talking about “long-term plans” and it really doesn’t appear to be slowing down any time soon.

So what is it like to play EvE?  Well, especially compared to the clone-ridden MMO market at the moment, EvE is about as a different an MMO as you can get.  For one thing, the character creation step means very little.  This isn’t something you’ll be aware of straight away, but the rest of the game design means that at the end of the day it has little impact, and you can change direction and do anything you want regardless of race or background.  No, you will spend all of your time with spaceships anyway, and never see your avatar (although there is talk of fleshy bipeds coming later this year.) 

The first huge departure from modern MMO philosophy that you’ll notice is the experience system.  In an attempt to remove level grind, EvE is a purely time-based system.  You earn “skill points” which feed into whichever skill you are currently learning and once you have enough, the skill is yours.  This means that you continue to level up while doing nothing – while not even logged in.  That might take you a moment to wrap your head around.  I’ll wait.  It does have a lot of implications.  It does mean you don’t have to grind.  It does mean that the more “time-challenged” among you can level up as fast as any fanatic – you just have to switch over your skills once they finish training.  It also means that you can never catch up.  If you’re late to the game you will run into people that have been playing the game for six years, and have an ungodly amount of skill points.  Cleverly, this is off-set by the fact that you can only get so good in a particular area, so more skill points just means more versatility.  So long as you are focused in one area, you can fight on equal terms with someone who has 10 times your skill points – but probably only in your area of expertise.  It also means that no matter how keen you are, or how much spare time you have, you can’t speed up the process.  The best you can do is to plan carefully to minimize the time it takes to reach your goals.  The free expansion, Apocrypha, has a big new feature that lets you plan 24 hours in advance too, so you don’t even have to get up in the middle of the night to switch skills.  All this does NOT mean there is no grind.  EvE doesn’t fall too far from the MMO tree in that regard – but the grind has been moved from experience to money – ISK, as it is called.  Anything and everything costs ISK.  Oodles and oodles of ISK in most cases.  There is a huge number of ways to make this ISK, but as you can imagine, most of them involve repetition.

The second main departure – although this is duplicated in a number of games over the years – is the skill-based character system, rather than class-based.  What that means is that you are bombarded with all the skills in the game (some 370-odd) which you can pick and choose from to make any sort of character you wish.  However, by design, learning all skills is just not possible so the idea is to choose a route and stick with it.  After a while, if you want to try something new you can learn up a different path.

Arguably, the last major difference between EvE and most other MMOs out there is the ship out-fitting system.  Just getting the skills to jump into one of the 300 available hulks is only the first step – there then are literally thousands of components that can be strapped to the sucker.  The art of picking the right chassis and then balancing the ships resources so that you can squeeze the most out of it for whatever role you desire is one that keeps the player base constantly in flux.  A single character can have as many ships as they like and the number of possible builds is endless.  Players might have a small, fast, and cheap PvP ship, a giant tanking PvE ship, a massive fleet-battle DPS ship, a cloaking scout ship, or perhaps a “force multiplier” ship - designed to scramble the enemies systems, or protect your allies.  For every build there is any number of tweaks for a specific situation.  Getting your head around it all takes quite some time, but like any good skill it is endlessly complex but also rewarding.  This system is a bit of a step up from calculating DPS stats to determine the best sword.

Once we start talking about combat, we start to stray back into familiar territory.  In fact, one could say we stray into it, and keep on straying until we reach yesteryear.  Many paragraphs ago I talked about MMOs and the cross-roads they stood at.  One of the decisions that needed to be made was how to handle combat.  The reward of watching slightly larger numbers grow slowly was much too simple for the modern audience and so most designers took the logical step of making it move involving.  There isn’t a (western) game made today that doesn’t have you pressing a skill every heartbeat to generate DPS.  Some even went as far as “combos” and no auto-attack whatsoever.  The problem they still face, however, is that the system is ultimately limited.  The number of hours a typical player sinks into their favourite MMO turns these button-pressing battles into a grind long before they reach all of the content they desire.  Any player will work out which combination works best, have a couple back up plans prepared, and then repeat the process over and over until all bad guys are dead as far as the digital eye can see.  EvE is computerised, and it says “no.”  There are a few buttons to press, sure, but it’s a one-time deal.  After that, you watch the lasers, guns and missiles do their job until your foes are dead.  Besides switching targets, there’s not much to do in typical combat.  There is plenty of planning to do before combat, however, as the combat system is suitably subtle for example Range, transversal velocity, shield recharge rates, armour repairing drones, ship size, and many other factors all influence your effectiveness.  At the end of the day though, “AFK missioning” is a term that can be bandied about, and it’s no exaggeration.

It’s almost as though CCP have decided that rather than trying to spruce up the repetitive combat sequences, they’ve made them as simple as possible.  Do your planning beforehand and then the rest flies itself.  When you consider the massive distances than need to be navigated (which can all be done on auto-pilot,) and the PvE (which can be done AFK,) and the levelling up (which is can be done while logged off,) it’s almost as though EvE was designed to be a game you can play while doing something else.  Grind up some ISK while at work?  Fold laundry while you travel through 20 star systems?  Convince your girlfriend that “no, this isn’t one of those life-stealing MMOs... hahaha... of course not”?  You’ll never feel so productive, but at the same time, can you really argue you’re playing a game?  To some people, it has great appeal, but to others it’s a turn-off.

Well, I should stress this is PvE I’m talking about – as you might imagine PvP is a tad more furious (and a lot more short-lived.)  Not that PvP is perfect or horribly flawed.  It’s not terribly different to many other open-world PvP systems.  It largely consists of hunting down unwary foes, and then there is a cat and mouse game where your fast guys try to catch and pin them down with tackling abilities while heavy hitters wipe them out as fast as possible.  Ganking, in other words.  However, the number of variables and possibilities makes it an experience that can be endlessly repeated and besides, ganking isn’t all there is to PvP.  There are attacks on player-owned stations, which require suitably ridiculous ships which in turn tend to force the defenders to bring out their own mammoths resulting in massive fleet-sized battles as well as the unique small-fleet encounters possible in Apocrypha’s wormhole space.  It’s all very free-form so PvP is what you make of it – solo pirating, or gang killing, or wars... it’s up to you, really.

So where does that leave you and EvE?  Here’s the thing: it’s not for everybody.  Every major game design decision is a double-edged sword – cleaving a path for novelty and free-form fun on one side, and slashing down potential subscribers with the other.  If the sounds of corporate intrigue interest you, then EvE might be for you.  If the thought of endless PvP opportunities sounds like fun, then EvE might be for you.  If exploration and carving your own name into a real living and breathing galaxy sounds like something you could work for (and you’ll have to work hard for it), then EvE might be for you.  BUT, if undocking and getting ganked by someone who declared war on your corporation sounds annoying, then perhaps EvE is not.  If the harsh reality that you just lost your multi-million ISK ship and you could not possibly replace it any time soon sounds too vicious, then perhaps EvE is not for you.  If you then get podded to find you haven’t updated your clone and you’ve just lost who-knows-how-many skill points and are likely to rage, then EvE might be for you, but for the love of God, stay on your toes!



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