Periodically, Seismic Stan over at Freebooted does what he calls a "blog banter", which is a single topic which he encourages all of the EVE bloggers to weigh in on. It's something that I've only participated in a couple of times. That isn't because I'm uninterested in the topics or the concept. It's actually mostly because I have so many topics that I want to blog about that adding to my writing load by responding to banters in addition would be unacceptable. ;-)
Still, in his most recent blog banter, he challenged the EVE bloggers out there to "review EVE".
And that struck me as an interesting challenge. You see, before I started this blog, you might be surprised to learn that I wrote other things. And a lot of the "other things" that I used to write were video game reviews. I wrote and submitted a ton of them on gamefaqs.com, for instance, as well as game guides for both major video game releases and for the occasional Flash game I liked.(1)
As a writer, I was rather amused at the attempt to review EVE that Dualshockers published a few months ago. Looked at objectively, after all, that article wasn't a formal "review" so much as it was an overview of EVE's good and bad points. The article made little or no attempt to quantify particular aspects of the game, for instance. Much of the review focused on explaining in-game elements. As a result, it was a bit like reading a review of a car that made few comparative assessments of the car's acceleration, braking, or handling, but instead talked about the road feel of the car and then went into great detail on how to drive. ;-)
So... review EVE? It would be interesting. Could I remain unbiased enough about the game to review it objectively? Would the years I've spent in it cause me to be overly generous? Would my occasional bitter-vet syndrome cause me to be overly negative?
Let's find out. When I would review games on GameFAQs, I'd review six aspects of them: interface, game-play, graphics, sound, story, and multi-player. And just for fun, I'll write this review assuming the reader has no familiarity at all with EVE Online... just as I would have done on GameFAQs. Fair warning: the results are horrifically long. ;-)
Who hasn't dreamed of flying in space? Who hasn't dreamed of commanding their own starship?
This is the focus of EVE Online, an MMORPG set in a truly massive universe of thousands of solar systems, and tens of thousands of planets, moons, space stations, and anomalies. Launched in 2003, CCP -- EVE's developer -- has deftly managed to avoid irrelevance despite the game now being older than the cars that most of its players drive, and certainly far older than their computers! CCP has managed this through continuous updating of the game's client software and back-end databases and servers. EVE also requires that all players use the most-updated client software, which is available for Windows and Macintosh computers. As a result of these frequent updates, unlike virtually every other MMO of a similar age (WoW comes to mind), EVE manages to look surprisingly fresh and modern, though the game's interface suffers from its age.
Players take command of an entire fleet of star ships, though only one ship may be flown at a time. And virtually all of the action takes place on a single server... all of the approximately 400,000 EVE subscribers eventually log into this single server. Though EVE has many single-player "theme park" elements -- a result mostly of the game's age -- the focus of the game is strongly multi-player and those that attempt to play EVE as a theme park MMO will be severely disappointed. However, the game's multi-player elements stretch into every aspect of the game. Buy a ship, and you can be assured that you're buying it from another player, who built it with materials he or she either mined themselves, or bought from yet another player, who mined those materials from one of the game's hundreds of thousands of asteroid belts. Very few items in the game are bought or sold by NPCs, most are created by players, and the vast majority of the items have an in-game use that can confer advantage to the player using it.
Still, one essentially plays EVE in one of three ways: as a combatant, as a trader, or as an "industrialist". Combatants use their fleet of ships to engage in combat, either with other players or against the environment. Traders concentrate on buying and selling goods and services on EVE's vast marketplace. "Industrialists" are concerned with both the crafting of items, and the gathering of raw materials needed to do so. And in all three cases, the player is in competition with other players on the same career path.
EVE is updated approximately every six months, with major updates (something like 20 of them now) being free to all players. A subscription-based revenue system is CCP's main source of income, with a much more minor micro-transaction market providing additional revenue through the sale of both vanity items for the player's little-seen avatars and game time certificates that can be bought and sold within the game for ISK, the major in-game currency.
Players advance in level not through using skills, but by training those skills, which happens over time, both while the player is active and while the player is logged out. There are an outrageous number of skills, each of which can be trained to five levels. Each confers the ability to either use the game's ships, devices that can be fixed to those ships, or support skills used within the game's trading, corporation (guild), or planetary management interfaces. Low levels of skills take only minutes to train, with each level taking progressively longer. Lower-level skills then unlock higher level skills. For instance, one must be at least competent with a frigate to unlock the ability to fly a cruiser, then one trains that for a while to unlock battleships, and then capital ships, and then "super-capital" ships. An in-game "certificate" system guides newer players through the early stages of this progression.
Starcraft was released in early 1998. While it was and remains a fantastic game, Starcraft had several weaknesses that are influencing game designers to this day, almost 15 years later. Two of those are the game's isometric projection display and its treatment of all models in the game as spherical and existing on what is essentially a two-dimensional plane. However, many of Starcraft's strengths have been copied by game designers over the years as well, and one of those are the large friendly push-buttons to get those models to perform actions, each of those actions also associated with a hot-key. Certainly, other games prior to Starcraft had some of these elements as well, but Starcraft combined them all into a single game.
And that game has been influencing interface designers across virtually every genre since that time.
Starcraft wasn't entirely two-dimensional, of course: there were ramps and stairways and cliffs that could be used to advantage. But it was often difficult to determine ranges or angles thanks to its isometric display. Only with experience did you develop a feel for the firing range of a Marine or a Hydralisk. And no matter what angle your Marine or Hydralisk was fired at from, they always took the same amount of damage. Homeworld, released late the same year, improved the Starcraft model with true 3D combat and models that took varying amounts of damage depending on what angle they took that damage from. But it retained Starcraft's essential isometric projection and click-to-go-here movement model.
Both Starcraft and Homeworld had other similarities as well: both were played from a somewhat distant perspective with a minimal focus on actual game-play graphics and sound and a stronger focus on "big picture" elements of what was occurring in-game. It gave the player a more distant, displaced -- almost dispassionate -- feel for what was going on.
Though EVE Online was released almost five years after Starcraft and Homeworld, it retains most of the strengths and weaknesses of the interfaces of those two games. The only added element is a spreadsheet-like display of ranges to all available targets to make it easier to determine if the player's actions will have an impact on their target. While there is a much more intuitive and useful spherical display available showing the ranges of the player's possible actions, this display is only rarely used.
This combination of isometric zoomed-out play-style, spreadsheet-like range display, and hotkey-or-buttons controls gives EVE's interface an extremely dated feel. Even Homeworld's relatively simplistic way-point movement system is unavailable to the EVE player, whose movement choices are limited to manual flight, flying toward an object, maintaining range from an object, or orbiting an object. Specialized combat options are handled either through clicking the tiniest possible buttons or right-clicking boosters kept in the ship's cargo hold, then selecting the option on a menu to consume them, potion-like.
Once one leaves space and docks, the spreadsheet and right-click-menu elements dominate. Everything in this part of the game is handled with eye-strainingly small text (only recently improved with the ability to enlarge it) and right-click context menus to perform virtually any action. Only a few elements of the game are truly drag-and-drop. Items that the player wishes to sell in market, for instance, can (must) be dragged from the cargo hold of the player's ship into the "hangar" of that station. Once there, the player right clicks those items and selects "Sell" rather than what would be a more simple expedient of dragging them directly into a market window. Items are purchased from the market in the same way. The ability to multitask is also not provided, so if the player wishes to sell 30 items, each of those 30 items must be sold individually, one by one.
More complicated actions quickly become a click-fest, an insane mix of left- and right-clicking. Take, for example, the case of a player that has ten items for sale on the market, and wishes to confirm that they are offering the lowest price for each item. In this case, the player is provided a list of those ten items. For each one, they must first view the market for that item and check to see if they have the lowest price, by right-clicking and selecting "View Market Details". If they do not, they must then return to the list (left click), then right click the same item again, select another option to adjust the price (right click), and then manually change the price with their keyboard to the desired new price. Even with as few as ten items for sale, this is a recipe for frustration. If the player has 60 or 70 items for sale, it can escalate into a case of repetitive strain injury.
CCP has been quite resistant to player attempts to improve the interface, providing few or no APIs to make the game's deficiencies in this area easier to manage. As it stands, the interface is one of EVE's major weaknesses: a dated, eye-straining, spreadsheet-dominated, inconsistent mess.
This is far and away the hardest element of EVE Online to score objectively.
It's easy to judge EVE based on its game-play content. And in that, EVE shines. The game has been around since 2003, after all, and in all of that time there's been a huge amount of content added. From missions to mining to trading to spying to exploration and diplomacy to contract scams and crafting, there are a hundred ways to lose yourself in EVE's content. Without intending to be a theme park MMO, EVE is a theme park MMO. And large swaths of this content can be played solo. There are quite literally websites devoted to nothing else but showing off everything that one can do with a few spare hours to play EVE Online. And one doesn't even need a spaceship to do a lot of it. One can have a very complex, challenging, engaging EVE Online career while almost never un-docking, as long as the station is the right one.
Once you add the multi-player content, the diversity jumps even more. In the last two years, CCP has almost completely revamped its multi-player PvE content, adding 2500 new "wormhole" solar systems to explore beyond its standard stargate system and adding RIFT-like "incursions" that spew baddies that must be destroyed into otherwise relatively safe space. Both of these options are -- for the most part -- multi-player PvE options only where being sociable will be rewarding. Similarly, CCP has also been revamping its PvP content, attempting to streamline the often esoteric and overly-difficult mechanics for how PvP takes place in-game.
The net result is that there is quite literally years and years of game-play available for both the solo and social EVE player.
EVE Online has been famous for years because of its murderously difficult learning curve. Little or no documentation exists for the game, resulting in virtually everything known about the game's mechanics being developed and written by the players themselves. CCP delights in throwing new features into the mix with virtually no warning to players about what they can expect those new features to involve. And since there are so many of them, you end up with highly specialized websites explaining what you're likely to encounter in an incursion or an "epic arc" mission or "pirate arc" missions.
That learning curve extends to the construction and "fitting" of the ships themselves. There are quite literally hundreds of potential spaceships to fly, and an almost infinite number of ways to prepare those ships for space. Each ship has a varying number of weapon, defensive, and utility slots available that can be filled with the modules built by players. This results in widely varying ideas of what the "best" way to fit this or that type of ship might be and more websites whose only purpose is to help with this part of the game. Since ship fitting is critically important to success in any EVE endeavor, often the work done before the ship even enters space is just as important or more important than the in-space game-play itself.
That alone would be bad enough. But when a player's ship is killed -- something that can happen quite frequently -- the death of that ship is permanent, and that ship and everything associated with it is lost. While a limited insurance mechanic can help defray a few of the costs of such a loss, there's no question that losing a ship is an expensive proposition that can set the player back days, weeks, or even months of play time, depending on the investment made in that ship. The penalty for dying is high... and so is the likelihood. PvP in EVE is non-consensual, and though there are limited "high security" areas where newer players are supposedly "protected", the "protection" is mostly in the form of in-game NPCs destroying potential suicide bombers... maybe before they can kill you... but maybe not.
Overall, this results in a game that is almost ridiculously, laughably hard to learn and to play, which can be off-putting -- to say the least -- to the new player.
Still, if one persists, the player will find a tremendously deep play experience. The wide range of options, both in PvE and in PvP, means that no matter how you enjoy playing a game, the option to play EVE in just that way probably exists. Even better, a community of EVE players that is already playing the game in that way and can guide newer players through their early growing pains also exists. EVE players are rewarded for being sociable.
EVE Online's back-story, and written history of the galaxy wherein the game takes place -- New Eden -- are impressively rich. Literally hundreds of pages of such back-story exists, all of it well-detailed and nearly all of it internally consistent despite a large number of writers tasked to its production over the course of several years.
New Eden contains five major off-shoots of the human race in varying degrees of competition and cooperation with each other. Linked to the five major races are several sub-races of pirates, terrorists, exiles, and gypsies. The game apparently lacks any non-human alien race, but one portion of the galaxy is supposedly infested by "rogue drones", a non-sentient form of artificial life. Many of these rogue drones were, in turn, created by two additional off-shots of humanity -- now extinct -- that have left archaeological relics behind that can be salvaged and put to use. The in-game story differences between the various off-shoots of humanity are distinct, and it is easy to recognize and understand the motivations of each.
EVE contains a small but extremely loyal role-playing community devoted to exploring some of these differences. CCP encourages this by staging occasional "live events" aimed at the role-playing community, and sponsoring the authorship of books, short stories, and player-produced fan fiction. Two elements of major game-play content are aimed firmly at enhancing EVE's in-game story and many others are peripherally involved. Occasional CCP-produced trailers also emphasize in-game story elements, including one that was used for external television advertising.
The net result is a gaming atmosphere where even the most anti-role-playing EVE player cannot help but be affected by the story elements. Even these players take a certain fierce pride in their "rusting", "broken down" Minmatar ships "held together by duct tape", for instance. The ships in question are of course no more fragile or problem-prone than any other ship in the game... These anti-role-playing players are simply reflecting the common knowledge among EVE players of the Minmatar race's back story.
That the game's story elements permeate the player base to this extreme reflects the strength of those elements. Occasional inconsistencies or missteps only mar this mix very slightly and are made mandatory by the game's structure as an MMO.(2)
This is where the money goes.
EVE's frequent updates means that in-game graphics are being almost continuously upgraded. As I write this, a major upgrade is currently happening to the look of the ships belonging to two of the game's four major races. Upgrades to the other two are planned for later in 2012. Late in 2011, the feel of space itself was given a major upgrade through the redesign of the game's strongly-prevalent nebulae. Prior graphical upgrades updated the look of planets, moons, star fields, and asteroid belts. When weapons are fired, they are shown to be fired from moving turrets, attached to the ships in logical places, which swivel to face their targets and fire in the color and style of the ammunition selected by the player. A moving ship leaves an engine trail behind it, engines which flare when the pilot activates in-game propulsion-enhancing afterburner or "micro warp drive" modules. Badly-damaged ships trail smoke and fire.
This gives EVE's spaceships a surprisingly dynamic feel when they are examined closely, and the space they fly in is breath-taking to behold... almost too colorful for those that will be expecting the deep black of open space. Still, the visuals are gorgeous, far ahead of almost all competing products. They certainly belie the game's 2003 origins; logging in, you would think the game was only recently developed.
A grand sense of scale is provided by the varying sizes of ships. The smallest ships are frigates; the largest are "super capital" ships. Fly a frigate-class Interceptor alongside a "super capital" class Titan and this scale is conveyed quite well. It will take the Interceptor a few minutes to fly along the Titan's hull, and not only do the Titan's guns dwarf the tiny frigate, you get the impression that the mere ammunition those guns fire does too. In a large, mixed fleet, the varying sizes of ships provides a sense of wonder... and when that fleet enters warp together, that sense of wonder is multiplied manifold. It's hard not to feel like you're a member of the Rebel fleet jumping to light-speed in Return of the Jedi.
Other graphical effects are similarly impressive. Planets, asteroid fields, and moons are surprisingly life-like, and the aforementioned nebulae are Hubble Telescope quality. In-game effects are displayed quite well, with missiles generating explosions, most forms of electronic warfare or support shown as on-screen effects and turret-based weapon fire hitting or missing their targets rather spectacularly, and being shown doing so. Each race's ships, both player and NPC, are logically and consistently designed, and it's quick and easy to determine just from looking at a ship what race it belongs to and from there what its probable strengths and weaknesses will be.
In 2011, CCP delved into much more detailed in-game avatars. Though at this writing, this dalliance appears to have been a failed experiment, the resulting character models are some of the best in gaming, with a fantastic, intuitive character creator and lots of interesting options for shaping multiple facial and body styles to suit the player's interest. Clothing, hair, and other decorative options are somewhat limited, but it was clearly the intention to expand these within the game, both with free items and more stylish items sold via the micro-transaction model. However, as of this time, the avatars are shown in single-player "Captain's Quarters" that are of extremely limited use or utility. Time will tell if CCP chooses to expand the game further in this direction. Players that choose to eschew the Captain's Quarters are instead presented with either a static or dynamic hangar view displaying the player's current active ship.
The graphics have one major weakness, and that is EVE's isometric interface. You'll spend much of your time playing EVE Online zoomed quite far out, which will render virtually all of the game's graphics invisible to you. While zooming in closer is indeed possible, few EVE players play the game in this way since doing so is not advantageous. As noted above, the game definitely rewards maintaining a "big picture" view of the proceedings with the result that you'll spend much of your time looking at a small box surrounded by other small boxes... how the game chooses to depict the ships in this zoomed-out state. In addition, the graphics surrounding the rest of the user interface are simply adequate. Once you learn what all the push-buttons do and mean, you won't have any problems with them. Still, the game quickly comes off looking graphically cluttered thanks to the interface, though thankfully not to the extent that Perpetuum Online does, for instance.
EVE's sounds are for the most part merely adequate.
The game's music is probably its strongest audio point. Musical pieces available are diverse and atmospheric, though suffering from the occasional lapse into European-style electronica. Still, if you choose to listen to them, you'll find them an excellent match for the game's in-game mix of high-tech and low-tech elements. Unfortunately, a lot of EVE players choose to turn off the game's music, considering it a distraction, which is a shame.
Other in-game sound effects are suitable to their uses, with sounds for warp drive, weapons, electronic warfare, and the like. In each case, the sound is acceptable, but not particularly spectacular. Projectile guns rattle, lasers make appropriate sounds, and if you pay attention, it isn't difficult to determine what is happening around your ship from the sounds that the game provides you. Overall, the game's sound effects are probably too subtle and since they usually convey little to no in-game advantage, again many EVE players choose to turn them off.
The combination of these two factors causes many EVE players to joke that "EVE has sound?" but this is a little bit unfair.
Still, the subtlety of the game's sounds is a drawback. The game's internal mechanic for sound causes the game to emphasize sounds from effects that are happening closer to your ship and de-emphasize ones that are farther away. While this makes logical sense, how the game handles this is quirky at best, badly buggy at worst. Often, you cannot hear your own ship's modules at all, or they will be downplayed by the sounds of modules of nearby ships. Sound effects that should be loud, enveloping, and immersive, such as getting into warp drive or using a long-range "cynosural field" to jump across many light-years, are instead de-emphasized and overly damped down.
Voice acting is nearly non-existent within game, with only one in-game voice being heard, that of "Aura", the AI that provides help and guidance to every player. Still, Aura's voice is only rarely heard, and then mostly during the tutorial phase of the game. Far and away, the most frequent phrase you will hear from Aura is "warp drive active" as you get your ship propelled into long-range space flight.
The multi-player aspects of EVE Online are -- far and away -- the game's strongest element.
Though literally years of game-play content exists within the game's structure thanks to its long life and diversity of choices, CCP has shown true genius in the openness of its game world to player-generated content. It is this player-generated content that is the true strength of the game. It's likely no exaggeration to believe that a solid majority of EVE players were originally drawn into the game thanks to some story of woe inflicted on one EVE player by another. And EVE's structure makes inflicting such woe, in a variety of ways, quite easy.
In this way, EVE Online reflects a true Fibonacci sequence. The death penalty inflicted by the loss of a single ship is mirrored in larger and larger context as one moves up the ladder of experience and responsibility within the game's structure. At one level up, bad decisions made by an in-game player fleet commander can result in the loss of entire fleets: hundreds of dollars in equivalent real-life assets can be lost in only a few minutes time if dozens of players lose their ships in quick succession. Taken another step up, poor decision-making by player corporation CEOs (guild leaders) can result in hundreds or thousands of ships being either lost on the battlefield, or trapped behind enemy lines in stations to which those players lose access. Taken a step still farther, alliance scammers or thieves can cause the loss of literally tens of thousands of dollars in equivalent real-life assets through theft or financial malfeasance.
Each of these stories is then reflected both in EVE Online's vibrant blogging and forum community, and many of these stories then leak out to the gaming press at large. Each such story results in a wave of new players, eager to inflict such losses on other people themselves.
Needless to say, EVE Online attracts a certain type of player.
Whether competing for mineral resources, planetary resources, wormhole sites, incursions, the best markets, or on the direct pilot against pilot battlefield of PvP, nearly every single EVE player ultimately finds themselves playing a true multi-player MMO.
Nowhere does this multi-player content become more prevalent then the "null-sec" space which comprises about one-third of the solar systems in the game. In much of this space, the solar systems and structures within those systems themselves can be captured, profited from, and fought over. "Claiming sovereignty", as it is known, is often regarded by EVE players to be the "end-game" of EVE Online, the province of those most skilled and most experienced in the game. Still, even at this level, new players can be welcomed and can excel in lesser roles as they learn the ropes.
EVE Online is therefore a true sandbox: a game that can be played in any way in which the player desires. However, since the game takes place on a single, massive server, all players and all of their actions in some way influence that sandbox. Every play-style in EVE ultimately reflects that, with even the most risk averse "carebear" knowing that his wares, at some time and some point, will ultimately be used in the "global war" that makes up New Eden. No other major MMO today can match that level of multi-player integration.
Overall, EVE Online is a high-quality entry in the MMO marketplace. Its sandbox, multi-player aspects are its strongest points. As a "theme park", content-focused MMO, it is both much weaker and somewhat repetitive. At its heart, most of its theme park gameplay ultimately boils down to slowly wearing down the shields, armor, and eventually structure of enemy ships. The permanent loss of ships in combat means that the player cannot become too emotionally invested in any of his creations. EVE therefore rewards a more RTS-focused player able to look at and appreciate the bigger picture and accept tactical losses. It is also quite similar to RTSs in its relatively weak interface and the requirement of patience to build up the skills and bankroll needed to use the more advanced in-game options.
As a result, it is not a game that will appeal to everyone, and it is a game that is likely to remain a niche player in the MMO market.
Still, those that can accept EVE's limitations will find one of the best, if not the best, true multi-player MMOs out there, and its deep gameplay and rich environment will keep them immersed for months or years at a time.
(1) I was quite active on Kongregate for a while.
(2) One wonders how many hundreds of thousands of times the "Damsel in Distress" has been rescued, for instance.