EVE is no stranger to upheaval. It is a constantly evolving beast, and has been since its release back in 2003. Rather than consolidating all of their updates into a single release every year or so, CCP releases two major expansions for free each year, but it would be wrong to say that just because they appear more frequently and cost nothing that they are lacking somewhat. Each one is substantial enough to bring about a new age for the game, requiring players to adjust their strategies accordingly, and Quantum Rise was no different. It was also not short on controversy, with some players heralding that the speed changes it was bringing would ruin EVE; that this was it, the apocalypse was on its way, and it had a November release date. Well, shockingly enough, November has come and gone, and EVE is still here; stronger than ever, perhaps, having recently reached a new Peak Concurrent User (PCU) record of 45,186 at the beginning of 2009. Anyway, is the latest expansion for EVE Online any good? Yes. That's the simple answer; it's a good expansion, but not for the reasons you might expect. There isn't a swarm of fancy new ships to look at, no new weapons to blast each other with; not much new stuff at all, oh no. What makes Quantum Rise deserving of the score below and has caused such an impact to the game has much more to do with the balances and upgrades to what was already there. Let's pop the hood and take a look.
Much thought and tinkering has gone into a new wave of performance tweaks for the game, but the jewel in the crown is clearly StacklessIO. In development for the past two years, this vastly improved network technology was built to deal with the large scale fleet fights and market hubs that were pushing the current technology to breaking point. Is it working, though? Well, yes; for battles out in 0.0 space, things appear to have gotten smoother, and for those of us not involved in 100+ ship battles the improvements to market and missions hubs, particularly Jita, are a welcome addition. Lag is not dead, though, obviously, and because StacklessIO is geared towards the events that cause high amounts of stress to the servers, those players who are only involved in small scale warfare, or prefer to stay away from the busier hubs aren't going to see a dramatic increase in performance.
Jita, home to the infamous "lag monster", is a fiercely busy market hub system in Caldari space, where the population can easily reach more than a thousand players on most nights. In an effort to try and cut down on players that are just passing through, new routes around the system have been opened up, including those for systems that were previously unreachable without going through the busiest system in New Eden. It's also now possible to "blacklist" certain systems, forcing your autopilot to avoid places you really don't want to go. The ability to turn off drone and turret models is another large step toward a smoother game. We aren't living in the age of Dominixes that are able to launch fifteen drones at once anymore, but when almost every ship in the game can field a certain amount of drones this is a very nice option indeed.
Right, this is the big one. If Quantum Rise is remembered for anything it will be the speed changes, unceremoniously dubbed the "Nano-Nerf", which effectively brought an end to the "Nano" age. The kings of this era were undoubtedly the Nano-HACs (Heavy Assault Cruisers). By cramming speed enhancing modules and rigs on to these ships players were capable of reaching insane speeds, but no longer. All speed modules, rigs, and implants have had their stats or effects changed to have less of an effect on the top speed of a ship. Top speeds across the board have been cut, and this has redressed the balance between the various classes. Frigates are now the fastest ships in the game, as they should be, and a reduction to the power of Stasis Webifiers has also given them much more survivability in close range fights. This is good news, especially for Assault Frigates (AF); a class that has been enjoying a big revival since the expansion. Surviving inside web range was very difficult for any frigate, even for a ship with the shield/armour resists of an AF; but now they can easily slip under the guns of larger craft. This is what drove a good chunk of the controversy surrounding the changes, as Battleship pilots complained that with smaller craft being able to evade their guns more effectively now that soloing was a much more difficult option. This is true; soloing in the bigger ship classes has become more troublesome, but it only seems wrong if EVE has some kind of natural progression up through the various classes, as in other MMOs, where Capital Ships are your "end game pwnmobiles". EVE has never been a game about soloing, and these changes only serve to highlight the fact.
Of course, I can't forget the lone new ship, the Orca. Designed as a command ship for mining operations, this sub-capital vessel can provide bonuses to miners in its gang, as well as assisting in the hauling of harvested materials. Of course, the EVE player base being what it is, it was quickly used for other means. The Orca's Ship Maintenance bay allows it to carry a number of fitted ships inside its hold, making it an ideal hauler for pilots that don't want to have to disassemble their fleet before shipping it to a new location. Bizarrely enough, it was also used for more nefarious uses. Pirates that would normally have their ships destroyed by Concord, EVE's no-nonsense police service, upon entering a high security system were using the Orca as a safe base to jump into ships and attack other players. This is suicide, though, as Concord ships will turn up to eradicate them as soon as they open fire, but sometimes an industrialist's precious cargo can be worth the risk.
That's the big stuff out of the way; now here's a run down of some of the smaller tweaks and additions to the game. While we're on the subject of industrialists, Blockade Runners and Transport Ships got quite an overhaul. Blockade Runners can now fit Covert Ops cloaks that allow them to warp while cloaked, making it very easy for them to evade capture and hide from enemies. They also join the rare group of ships that can make use of a Black Ops Jump Portal, giving them the option to discreetly enter systems along with other covert ships. Transport Ships, on the other hand, have been made much hardier, with bonuses to their hit points, as well as Armour Repair modules.
In CCP's continuing quest to update the entire game to the standard of their Trinity engine, we now have some fancy new star gates, but some of them have received more than just aesthetic changes. Star gates that join the various constellations and regions in EVE now use bigger gate models (medium and large size, respectively). These gates are also more difficult to camp, with pilots that jump through them appearing even farther from anyone hugging the gate.
The UI also got a bit of love, with the addition of weapon linking and duration timers. Weapon linking allows you to group all of your weapons together into one. The link mode for doing this is a bit cumbersome, and feels superfluous since you can just bypass it by unloading your weapons, shift-dragging them together, and reloading. The, now optional, duration timers are a wonderful feature, and I've found that the ability to see when each module cycle is going to end is ridiculously handy when you are overheating modules.
The skills system in EVE has always been very nebulous and the new Certificates system helps to solidify it into something a bit more tangible, without resorting to set classes. A Certificate is a cluster of associated skills that improve your abilities in a certain area; Pulse Lasers or Armour tanking, for example. Unlike a lot of new players, I was lucky enough to have a friend to advise me on what skills to train when I first started out, and Certificates definitely look like a great way for the mentor-less to be guided down certain paths. As an addition to the bloodlines and career paths in the character creation screen there are a set of certificates for new players called starter professions. These are sets of certificates that give a player all of the basic skills to be competent in their chosen path. The military professions, for example, end with the player being able to pilot a Cruiser and point the way to level two missions. They haven't made specialized ship certificates, which is a good thing considering the many different ways a ship can be setup, and instead provide a core set of skills for a particular race or pathway. You won't find a Thorax Cruiser certificate, but you will find certificates for the various skills that it requires; armour tanking, hybrid turrets, etc. It's a purely aesthetic addition; they have no real effect in the game world and are entirely optional, but it's a visible progression, more waypoints that say "you have achieved something", and they also act as a casual tutorial by including subtle little tips, like Micro Auxiliary Power Cores (MAPC) being the best way to increase the amount of power grid on a frigate.
The thirty Day Pilot's License Extension (PLEX) is a new commodity in EVE, and allows players to turn a sixty day game time code (GTC) into two thirty day PLEX items for sale in-game, where they can be sold for ISK, just like ordinary items. PLEXs are now another way for players to purchase game time with in-game currency. However, there is a little bit of a problem, in the fact that, as they are part of the in-game market, they are subject price fluctuations, depending on the supply and demand.
Finally, we have Alchemy. In the same way that Invention let players compete in the blueprint dominated Tech Two market by allowing them to create their own limited blueprints; Alchemy is an attempt to help players that don't own certain rare moons to produce their own, inefficient, source of high-end materials using common components. However, it's hard to tell the effect this has had on the game, since it was out for about five minutes before a truly massive exploit involving Player Owned Stations (POS) was revealed to have been creating free materials for a number of players. CCP quickly put a stop to this and banned players that could be linked to the exploit and removed the created material, as well as the associated stations. Of course, this disrupted the entire Tech Two market, to the point that it was, and still is, in upheaval, as what was a stable and cheaper market than ever before, thanks to invention, had a fairly epic hiccup. Sadly, this means higher Tech Two prices for players until things settle down.
There were discontented individuals who felt that the sum of Quantum Rise did not qualify as an expansion, as it had what they considered to be very little actual content in the form of new things to do, new ships to fly, etc. Regardless of how you define an expansion, the changes to speed and performance, as well as StacklessIO really do add up to a better EVE. If you look at where the game is headed it's easy to see why CCP chose to focus more on performance enhancements and balancing; the next expansion, Apocrypha, is rapidly approaching its March release date, as is a brand new retail release of the game, and the influx of new players may have been a serious problem for the already strained server technology. Quantum rise is paving the way for EVE in 2009; maybe it's not what everyone wanted, but it's what the game needed.