Friday, June 01, 2012

EVE Online

There's something to be said for EVE's unusually slow-paced approach to the online role-playing genre, but a strong recommendation isn't it. This is an old review when EVE came out, before all those patches came out.
Review By Greg Kasavin
Like many other massively multiplayer online role-playing games, EVE Online: The Second Genesis has a lot of ambitious intentions. It offers you the chance to create a unique persona in its vast science-fiction universe and then seek out power, riches, allies, fame, or notoriety as you become increasingly proficient as a starship captain, a bounty hunter, a miner of rare minerals, an interstellar trader, or an officer in an influential corporation, among other things. EVE features some of the best graphics to date in an online RPG, and it is the best-looking outer space game in years. The game also offers some interesting variations on the conventions of the genre, most notably in how it's not at all focused on your character having to constantly kill things in order to level up. Unfortunately, many of EVE's ambitions remain unfulfilled weeks after the game's release. The lack of clear-cut incentives, risks, and rewards leaves the world of EVE seeming empty. The game can have its moments, since like many online games, it can be entertaining if you happen to find a good group of people to play and chat with. But at this point, EVE is suitable only for very patient science-fiction fans with lots of time to spare.

For better or worse, creating a character is one of the most enjoyable things you can do in EVE. You initially choose from a variety of different races and factions, and you then customize a fully 3D character portrait for yourself, defining everything from skin tone and clothing to the exact shape of your character's face. The graphics and artwork here are exceptionally good, suggesting that the world of EVE has a distinct style and original flair to it. Unfortunately, this turns out to not be the case. You soon realize that the character-creation process--outside of the fact that it lets you determine your starting skills--is really just window dressing. That first amazingly detailed close-up of your character shrinks down to a much smaller, static image that appears only on your character sheet. What's worse is that it's for your eyes only - other players only get to see an even smaller, postage-stamp-sized portrait of your character.

Your "character" in the game is really just whichever ship you happen to be piloting at the time. You can customize your ship's appearance to a certain extent by outfitting it with different weapons, but ultimately this doesn't matter much, since you'll rarely get a close look at other player-flown spacecraft anyway. One of the appealing qualities of massively multiplayer games is being able to have a unique character that looks noticeably different from everyone else, but EVE disappointingly foregoes that opportunity.

EVE also fails to engage you early on. There's a text-based tutorial that kicks off when you first begin playing, but the pages of vague text often don't adequately explain the game's complicated interface. You'll just have to get a feel for it, which will probably take an entire day's worth of playing or more. Eventually, once you get a grasp of it, the interface becomes quite handy. The various semitransparent windows containing things like chat dialogue with other players, an inventory of your ship's cargo, your navigation "bookmarks," and more can be opened and closed, minimized, and resized as necessary, and they can even be merged for your convenience. You can also readily search a bewilderingly huge map of the galaxy for various solar systems or even individual planets and stations, plot a waypoint to your desired destination, hit the autopilot button, and be on your merry way. So, if a player tells you about an asteroid belt halfway across the galaxy that's filled with rare minerals, it's not difficult to plot a course and head over there.

Mining is actually one of the most common activities in EVE. The modestly sized player community (to date, about 3,000 to 5,000 people can be found playing on the game's single server at any given time), recognizing that the game's interface is convoluted, and that the game gives new players little direction, are generally friendly and quick to offer advice when asked, "So what am I supposed to be doing?" No matter which part of the galaxy you're in, the answer is the same: "Mine."

Mining is the only viable way to make money early on in EVE, and it's really one of the only viable ways of making money in the game at all. You mine by warping to an asteroid belt, maneuvering very close to an asteroid, targeting it, toggling on your mining laser, and waiting for many minutes as your cargo hold gradually fills with ore. Don't worry about running into an asteroid, as you can't sustain damage in collisions in EVE, and you'll usually just clip right through other objects, including things like space stations and planets. So mining is simply boring. Eventually, you can further develop your mining skills and get better mining lasers, improving your efficiency somewhat--but you'll probably have a bigger ship with a bigger cargo hold by that time, so the effects of the new equipment and skills will likely be negated. After you've filled up with ore, you fly them back to a space station for reprocessing (just a menu button that you click), sell the minerals, and head on back to the asteroid belt for another go.

In your search for better minerals, you'll eventually start mining in dangerous regions populated by space pirates or other hostile computer-controlled ships. This at least adds some tension or risk to an otherwise completely monotonous activity. The combat in EVE isn't very tactical--the stronger ship usually wins, and the only real strategy is to keep your foe in the effective range of your weapons. Some weapons are good at depleting energy shields, while others can punch through armor effectively, so eventually there's some sense in trying to have a well-balanced arsenal equipped on your craft. Furthermore, with enough money and the proper skills, you can equip your ship with various devices that improve its speed, armor, rate of fire, and so on. Nevertheless, the combat itself is just a slugfest, where you'll merely watch as your enemy's hit points are depleted faster or slower than yours. At least the combat looks and sounds good.

The only real, clear-cut goal in EVE is to make money. Money buys you better ships, better equipment, and even new skills. Other than that, your character has a faction standing with various non-player groups in the game, such as the space police, so you can keep your eye on those numbers to see whether these groups are going to attack you on sight or not. Yet other than the amount of money in your character's wallet, the only truly meaningful measure of his or her overall power is quite literally the amount of time that's elapsed since you started playing EVE.

You may train only one of your character's skills at a time, and training happens automatically, whether you're actually logged in and playing EVE or not. Training is simply a matter of the hours, minutes, and seconds remaining till your current training session is automatically completed. So, for instance, training a skill to level two might take a couple of hours. Training a skill to level five might take eight days. Your character begins with various skills depending on the choices you make when creating him or her. Some of the skills in the game, such as mining, are essential. Others are worthless or nearly so. You'll probably end up having to create a new character once you learn the ropes enough to figure out that the choices you made when first creating that character were just incorrect guesses.

The training system itself is unusual, to say the least. There are some good intentions behind it. For instance, this system theoretically levels the playing field somewhat, preventing players willing to play the game for hours and hours on end from leaving players with more-demanding schedules in the dust. Yet that's not really the case in practice, since you don't make money in EVE when you're not logged in, and money is at least as important as your character's skill levels. There's an interesting bit of strategy in the EVE skill system, insofar as you'll find yourself planning your schedule around your skill levels--you could train a skill to a low level before you leave for school or work, a mid-level skill just before you go to bed at night, and a higher-level one just before going away for the weekend. Basically, to have a powerful character as quickly as possible, you simply want to make sure you're always training a skill.

The problem is there's no real gameplay involved in the skill system, and in practice, that makes most activities in EVE seem rather pointless. In other role-playing games, when you're tediously killing one monster after another, tediously making one leather jerkin after another, or what have you, generally the act of doing so is rewarded by a gradual increase in your ability to perform that type of act. In EVE, the skill system and the actual gameplay are completely isolated from each other. You can go off looking for space pirates to blow up, but blowing them up yields just a little bit of money and maybe a decent item every now and then--the reward of seeing your actions directly affect your character's abilities is missing. So arguably the single most crucial trait of a role-playing game is completely absent from EVE.

Travel in EVE can also be very tedious. You can warp from one point of interest to another, but you leave warp just on the outskirts of where you're trying to get, so you'll then slowly, slowly fly close enough to your destination, whether it's a space station, an asteroid belt, or a jumpgate to another system. The game has a great-looking special effect for when your ship goes into warp speed, as the whole screen starts shuddering and everything zooms by at relativistic speeds, but you'll grow weary of this effect fairly quickly, since you'll be seeing it an awful lot. In the event you need to travel to a distant location in EVE, such as to join with other members of your corporation (EVE's version of other online RPGs' guilds), you'll set your waypoint, hit the autopilot, and probably leave your computer running while you go do other things. Travel is automatic and can take an extremely long time.

The game has some interesting features that aren't fully fleshed out yet, such as its player-driven economy. You can send out a buy order if you're looking for a particular item at a particular price, and someone looking to sell that good can sell it to you. Someone else can theoretically courier it over to you, or you could pick it up. Sometimes the player-driven market seems to break, though, and factories for making items have a limited number of openings and are constantly in use by the game's hard-core players. And the interface for the game's market system is so slow that simple things like buying a bunch of ammo for your ship's guns are needlessly time-consuming.

EVE also has a bounty hunter system: If a player in the game slights you, you can put a bounty on his or her head. The higher the bounty, the more desirable it will be for someone to take that player out for you. Death in EVE is pretty interesting, too. You can insure your ship so you'll be compensated if it's blown up. You automatically eject when that happens, so you don't necessarily die - but your lifepod may be destroyed, in which case you're "cloned" and respawn at a space station with a basic ship. If you're cloned, you stand a chance of losing skill levels, so you might lose literally weeks of training time due to an unfortunate encounter. Purchasing higher-level clones can mitigate the chances of this. But again, EVE is much less focused on combat and dangerous encounters than other online RPGs. In fact, unlike in most games of this type, death isn't an inevitability in EVE, which will seem like a refreshing change of pace for most online RPG veterans.

As mentioned, EVE looks terrific and sounds good. Space according to EVE is filled with swirling, multicolored gases, gigantic planetoids, and unusual-looking spacecraft. Space stations are appropriately large and lined with flashing beacons, and you can pretty much always see some sort of star shining brightly in the distance. The weapon effects, particularly explosions and missiles, look really good as well. The game's sound is minimal but well done, and EVE features a lengthy soundtrack of appropriately ambient, new age music.

Yet all these good qualities don't change the fact that EVE doesn't have the sort of gameplay that most players would find engaging. EVE offers little in the way of instant gratification, and progress in the game is slow and often unnoticeable. If you manage to join a player corporation--the game at least makes it easy to find one seeking new members--things can be better, and you and your corporate colleagues can find new ways to make money and entertain yourselves. However, it would take a dedicated player with a lot of free time to get to this point. In the end, there's something to be said for EVE's unusually slow-paced approach to this genre, but a strong recommendation isn't it.



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