Although we are veritably surrounded by fantasy MMORPGs, relatively few games give you a chance to build an empire in space and rise to the pinnacle of galactic domination. Eve Online gives you just such an opportunity. Almost 2 years old, the game continues to grow. The recent free Exodus expansion added a long list of new features, and shortly after its release Eve set records with over 12,000 concurrent players in a single online world.
Eve has only one shard, which means everyone plays in the same world; the population is not spread out over separate "servers" as is the norm for MMOGs. Despite this, the Eve universe is incredibly huge, with over 5000 explored star systems. The 3D map of this world is quite amazing in itself.
If you've heard anything about Eve, you've heard that the graphics are terrific. Even before improvements that came with Exodus, the game undeniably looked superb. The detail in the ships and space stations is spectacular. The planets, solar systems, and starscapes are extremely convincing and beautifully lit. It's no surprise that Eve has won several awards in this department.
The interface is a little clumsy at first, but once you get used to it you find that most operations are easily accomplished through a drop-down menu system.
Understandably, the physics seem to have gone missing; you don't appear to be affected by the gravitational pull of planets, and you also warp right through them when they're in your way. It's also unfortunate that there aren't really any strategically significant obstacles in Eve space. The battlefield is so uniform that Star Gates naturally become the focal point of a lot of the action.
Your Ship is Your Castle
One prominent difference between Eve and most other MMORPGs is that your ship is really more important than your character. You do have a customizable portrait and some stats, but what counts are the ships under your command. While you can have more than one ship, only one may be active at a time. There are an impressive variety of ships in the game, and each can be decked out with an equally impressive variety of weapons and equipment.
The Exodus expansion has made it possible for players to build their own space stations and win control over parts of the galaxy. Deadspace Complexes have also been added, giving players a place to engage in large scale battles with NPCs.
One unusual thing about Eve is that it uses a time-based skill system. Unlike most RPGs, where you gain experience by performing various tasks, Eve skills are trained in real time. Training continues even when you're not logged on. As you would expect, early skills can be trained quickly, but more advanced skills can take weeks to train.
The upside of this system is that people progress through the game at a similar rate that doesn't rely strictly on how much time they spend playing. On the other hand, if you do decide to put in a lot of game time, you may well find yourself with all the money you need for a better ship long before you have the requisite skill points to fly it. It also means that you can't catch up to players who have been in the game longer than yourself simply by playing more.
A Big Universe
Solar systems in Eve are connected with a lattice of Star Gates. Traveling between Star Gates is more or less instant, while warping around solar systems takes a little longer. The good news is that you don't have to navigate manually, you can select a destination many Gates away and put your ship on autopilot. The bad news is that if you have 30 or 40 jumps to make, it'll take the better part an hour and it can get pretty dull.
Each solar system has a security rating which gives you some idea how risky it is to travel through them. It ranges from 1.0 space at the safe end of the spectrum to 0.0 space, which has no NPC protection. Low security space can certainly add excitement (and sometimes frustration) to otherwise mundane trade missions.
On top of the missions handed out by NPCs, players can create missions for each other, which is a great feature. These missions can involve anything from transporting goods to bounty hunting.
Death is not without weighty consequences in Eve, but buying insurance will go a long way toward protecting your investment. When your ship is destroyed you end up chugging through space in an escape pod. If your pod gets destroyed, you are cloned at a base. As long as you keep your clone up to date you can avoid large skill penalties.
Of course, the biggest, baddest ships don't come cheap, so commerce plays a central role in Eve. Almost everything in the game is player-made, and there is an elaborate free market system driven by supply and demand in the many regions of the universe. The economy relies on minerals mined from asteroids, which are ultimately crafted by players into items and ships. One could easily spend hours pouring over the market window alone, researching profitable trade routes and making deals.There are a number of ways to make money, including trade, crafting, mining, hunting pirates, or being a pirate. Players typically start out mining, hunting hostile NPCs, and doing missions to get the capital needed for bigger ventures. These activities can be tedious at first, but when you start to coordinate your efforts with other players, everything becomes more efficient and profitable. This is one of many benefits to be had from joining a Corporation, Eve's equivalent of a guild.
The sheer size of the Eve universe factors into the economy of the game, since items in remote regions often bring a higher price than the same item in densely populated areas.
All Out War
Combat follows RPG conventions pretty closely. You lock onto a target and activate your weapons; there is no FPS style aiming involved. Naturally, different ships and weapons have different strengths and weaknesses, creating a fairly solid group dynamic.
The end-game is all about player versus player (PvP) combat between Corporations in low security space, though this certainly isn't your only option. Since the release of Exodus, territorial conquest has been possible, and it's given players entirely new causes to fight for. Large PvP conflicts can involve armadas of dozens of ships in spectacular displays of firepower.
Big Corporations are in the best position to finance a fleet of warships, and they can also afford to recover their losses with coordinated mining and trade operations. Unlike most guilds, Corporations in Eve operate in a democratic fashion. Leaders are elected and members vote on declarations of war, which gives the game a robust political element.
It almost goes without saying that there are ongoing balance issues, because the same could be said about virtually every MMORPG on the market. Odds are that quite a few more adjustments will be needed.
A Different Kind of Fun
I can easily image someone playing a trial of Eve for a week or two and thinking, "Bleh, mining game = boring." Okay, mining in secure space isn't exactly exciting, but going after rare minerals in a low security area, perhaps with an escort to protect you from pirates and hostile Corporations, can turn into quite an adventure. Although mining is a good way to get a little money when you're starting out, there are other ways to earn your keep.
Eve offers an unusually open play style. If you want to play a lone wolf pirate or trader rather than get involved in Corporate politics, there's really nothing stopping you. Anyone with the entreprenuerial spirit will appreciate the complexity of Eve's player-driven economy, which is remarkable in itself.
This game is not a quick fix; beginners have a considerable learning curve to overcome. The appeal is in longer term goals like contributing to the prosperity of your Corporation, aligning yourself with a political cause, or being part of an empire with a lethal fleet of ships.
Eve isn't a game for everyone. Those who want an action game, or a steady stream of creatures to bash until they reach the level cap, probably won't take to it. Many will find the pace intolerably slow, especially in the beginning, but the longer you play, the more likely you are to enjoy it. If you have some patience and a willingness to get involved in the game's economic and political structure, there is depth to Eve Online that few MMORPGs can match.