Four Years Later: A Newbie’s Return to EVE Online

A few months ago, a couple of my kinmates on Lord of the Rings Online – one of them, our kin’s leader – mentioned that they played EVE Online and that should any of us want to try it out, they were available for tips and assistance and just general hijinx.

My response? “Meh.”

Don’t get me wrong — I enjoy doing stuff with the folks in my kinship — they’re a great group of people, regardless of the context. But I had tried EVE in 2007, attracted by the hard(ish) sci-fi experience that the game seemed to offer, and had found the experience somewhat… lacking.

Lacking what? Instructions, for one thing, or any kind of easily-located guide on how to do esoteric things like… I don’t know… fly around.

“This is a space-travel sci-fi game in which you cannot leave your ship,” I remember thinking, “and I can’t figure out how to make the bloody thing go. Judging from the other motionless ships around me, I’m not alone. That’s a problem.”

I eventually did figure out how to make my terribly fragile-looking shuttle move around at what felt like glacial rates of speed, but then what?

“Mine ore,” suggested the not terribly helpful ‘help’ channel (after a half-hour of silence following my query). “You can figure it out. It’s a sandbox! Do whatever you want!”

Then someone blew my ship up while I was reading a fan-written mining guide (translated via Babelfish from the original Hungarian), and I decided to log out.

I did not go back.

“Sandbox” is all very well and good, but when the sandbox is the size of an entire city and the only available toys are discarded VAX terminals, broken bottles, and shivs fashioned from rusty springs dug out of a discarded mattress, that sandbox may not provide the kind of fun that appeals to a broad playerbase. The new user experience for the EVE of 2007 was a bit like sitting down in a Beginner’s Linux course in which the instructor says “Just read the MAN pages,” then leaves. Given that history, I wasn’t keen to return to the game.

But the seed of the idea had been planted, so when I started to see news articles on EVE’s new Incursion expansion (as one does when one writes for MMO Reporter), I took the time to actually read them (as well as information on the last few updates like Tyrannis). What I saw intrigued me: revised character creation, updated player tutorials (implying that there now were player tutorials), and (most intiguing to me) the titular Incursion itself — raids and attacks throughout the EVE galaxy by an enemy that reads like a combination of the Borg, angry Cylons, and those guys from that Pitch Black sequel that I streamed on Netflix that one time.

And if you think that didn’t count as a plus, you don’t don’t know me.

Frankly, I was shocked: EVE was getting something dangerously close to a noob-friendly metaplot. I mulled it over for a bit, trying to decide if I should give the game another try.

What finally decided me was that original post from my kinmates. “This time,” I thought, “I’ll have someone to give me tips. Someone who can explain the more obscure stuff. Most importantly, someone I can blame.” On January 22nd (only a few days before my new son would be born), I downloaded the game client for the second time in four years and signed up for a 14-day free trial.

Here’s how it went.

I’m not going to make this into some kind of guide to the first 14 days on EVE — that’s been done, and well enough that I don’t feel it needs to be done again. Instead, this is simply going to be my impressions of EVE as it is today versus EVE as it was the last time I tried it, and what that means to me as a gamer.

Installation

I won’t say very much about this, except to note that Eve’s been around for 6+ years, and only recently announced that would stop supporting Pentium III processors as viable platforms for their client. That’s old school. It should also give you a pretty good idea of what kind of hardware is still (theoretically) capable of running the game. EVE space is pretty, but not terribly demanding, and the installation itself gave me no problems.

Chargen

Character generation can make or break a game for me. People say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but the sales numbers from inside the publishing industry show that that’s exactly what people do — after ‘word of mouth’, a book’s cover is the biggest draw to a potential reader — and I believe character generation fills that same niche in MMOs.

If you can’t build a character whose appearance appeals to you at some level, you’re simply not going to enjoy the game as much, and you may give up before you ever get going. I remember (vaguely) the chargen process for EVE from 2007, and based on that I wasn’t expecting much this time around either — after all, how much does your character’s appearance matter when you can’t actually leave your ship and pretty much interact with everyone via either comms or several banks of missile launchers?

I was very, very pleasantly surprised, though; the Incursion update brought a MAJOR overhaul to the character creation options, to the point where I would now say it’s one of the best interfaces for character appearance customization I’ve seen in an MMO. Nearly a hundred morphable areas on your character’s body, plus clothing choices, hair style and color… yeah, I spent at least two or three hours just making up guys, and I then created another trial account to play around some more, later.

And the effort is not entirely pointless; it turns out that the next ‘named’ update for the game will allow players to exit their ships and interact on the thousands of space stations that until now have functioned as little more than galactic U-Stor-Its, repair shops, and interstellar Ebay kiosks. I predict a near-seismic uptick in the amount of roleplaying going on in-game.

Also, there’s no real way to screw your character up in character generation by picking ‘bad stats’ or a race that you like visually, but which is entirely slanted toward a type of play you have no interest in. It used to be possible to do this, but for all intents and purposes the various racial and faction choices in EVE are – from a stats point of view – cosmetic. I consider that a plus, because it lets you select based entirely on your impressions of the various cultures, the nice little videos that explain their backstory, and (of course) their ship designs. Even this is a bit of a balancing act: the rough-and-tough Minmatar fly ships that look like they’re made from dragonfly wings held in place with pixie sputum, which the most “classic sci-fi” ship designs are flown by the Amarr, the only slave-holding nation in the game. On the other hand, if you want go with the democracy and free-will loving Gallente, you get ships that look like avante garde designs from the most recent Good Vibrations catalog.

(It’s worth noting that your choice of home nation also determines where you’ll start in the game. Not a huge deal unless your buddies are already playing in Minmatar space when you go with a Gallente and need to haul your rookie ship halfway across the galaxy. Not that this happened to me. Much.)

Tutorial

I believe I mentioned how my first ‘tutorial’ experience in EVE went, back in 2007. After I got done playing around in the new character creation screens, I started the actual game with a little bit of dread that turned out to be entirely misplaced. Almost.

EVE is a very complex game. However, CCP has clearly gotten some good tips from the hundreds of thousands of gamers willing to give them feedback, and their current tutorial is definitely one of the strongest I’ve seen in an MMO. Don’t get me wrong; there are tutorial areas in (many) other games that are smoother, easier, simpler, and just generally less likely to make you feel like a complete noob, but when you consider how much stuff there is in EVE that needs to be taught to a new player, the fact that the tutorial missions are navigable at all is a triumph of design — the fact that they’re actually pretty fun and interesting is astonishing.

And there are a lot of tutorials — the starting area has five or six mission contacts, each of which will run you through a ten-mission arc focused on some aspect of gameplay, such as basic combat, mining/crafting, exploration, or business. In the course of each of those mission arcs, you will get at least two ship upgrades and any number of skills opened up for training. I did every one of the tutorials, and I actually felt like I had too many ships to choose from — I sold several, and reprocessed several others into their component elements (which was a handy way to complete a couple of the mining missions without actually going out and mining).

The last time I tried the game, there was also a pretty marked lack of help from the so-called help channel, and that too turned out to be a thing of the past. I went to the Rookie channel for answers early and often, trying to see how EVE’s in-game “human google” would stand up to actual use, and I was pleasantly surprised: I was expecting Barrens Chat and I instead I got something quite close to the quality and dedication I’ve grown used to from LotRO’s Advice channel. Kudos to EVE’s playerbase (or least those blue-named characters and ‘amateur’ helpers hanging out in Rookie to lend advice); on no less than three occasions I was actually invited into private channels by experienced players after asking a complex question in Rookie and getting a simple answer, just so that they could make sure that I’d truly gotten the answer I needed, and that I’d understood it. To say I was impressed would be a criminal understatement.

To be honest, I wish I’d asked MORE questions — it would have saved me from wasting money ‘upgrading’ my ship with weaponry I could barely use instead of picking out stuff I was already quite competently trained with, for example.

So How Hard is It?

Honestly? Pretty challenging. Not the game itself — once you get the core mechanics, things are pretty easy to understand (though I still find myself getting tripped up by the sheer volume of choices I have and buying the wrong ship equipment, even though I objectively ‘know’ what I need). What I’m talking about is the level of challenge in the game itself. You can definitely get your ship blasted into its component parts even during the tutorial missions (I very nearly did during a rendezvous mission-turned-ambush that was downright MEAN), and things do not get any easier once you’re out in the thick of things. When you’re done with the tutorials, you get pointed in the general direction of a new contact who starts you on an “Epic Storyline” series of missions. I suppose that should be THE epic storyline, at this point — as near as I can tell, it’s the only one — and while the missions start out fairly easy, they quickly ramp up to some serious levels of challenge — one player I know was blasted out of his destroyer so many times during the epic arc he ran entirely out of money and had to get help from his corporation mates just to get back into a reasonably capable ship. I had more than a few teeth-clenched, seat-of-the-pants wins (and several more narrow-and-frantic WARP AWAY! escapes) before I got to the end of the fifty (fifty!) mission-long storyline.

I came out of it proud of my accomplishment (I only got ‘forcibly ejected’ from my ship once) and – given my level of experience – quite wealthy; I celebrated by buying a brand new Vexon cruiser and fitting it out with a pile of gear that cost three times more than the ship itself. … and then I waltzed into a ‘regular’ storyline mission and very nearly got blown to smithereens on the maiden voyage.

This is a slight exaggeration. Very slight.

So how hard is it? The golden rule in EVE is, I think, “Never fly any ship you can’t afford to lose.” I’d say there’s a very good reason for that. I love the challenge, but it’s not for everyone.

The fact that the entire galaxy is, to a greater or lesser degree, open for PvP also keeps you on your toes, but honestly it’s not as bad as it sounds — yes, you could theoretically be attacked in one of the many, many high(er)-security systems, but anyone who does so is pretty much assured of losing their ship in the process, so unless they know that you’re carrying something worth more than the ship they’re about to lose, they won’t bother. Given my experience on this trial run, it’s entirely possible to play the game as a 98% PvE experince, should that be your desire, and still really enjoy yourself. That said, much of the ‘meta’ play in the game surrounds PvP, and if there is only one thing to say about an MMO that has successfully integrated PvP into every aspect of the experience for the last 6+ years, it’s this: no one else has (yet) managed it to this degree, successfully.

Leveling Up

As most MMO players know (or have heard), there are no levels in EVE; it’s an entirely skill-based progression, with the relative experience of your character roughly indicated by the number of skill points you’ve accrued and invested in your skill advancement. Training takes time, with the first rank of basic skills taking about 8 minutes to learn, and the highest ranks of the most complicated skills taking two months or more. Combined with the fact that you can only train one skill at a time, this could be a deal-breaker, but EVE lets you queue up a number of skills at a time — as many as you like, actually, one after that other, as long as the very last one starts sometime in the next 24 hours — and your character will learn them even if you aren’t logged in.

That’s one of the kind of awesome things about EVE — there are quite a few things that go one even if you aren’t around, provided you did the prep work beforehand — during my trial period, I was logged out for several days (at the hospital with my wife, having a baby), and still learned several dozen skills, built two-dozen light frigates, and reaped the benefits of an automated planetside ‘mining’ operation that greeted my return to the game with a pile of valuable resources.

The bad news: there are hundreds if not thousands of skills, which can be more than a little overwhelming. The good news: the game has a fun little ‘certificate’ system that gives you hints as to the skills you might want to focus on. You can, for example, look up the certificate qualifications for something like “Salvaging”, and learn that you’ll earn the certificate only if you learn Skill X to level 3, Skill Y to level 2, and Skill Z to level 4. What does the certificate actually DO? Nothing, but by following its guidelines, you now have a number of skills at levels that will let you successfully perform salvage operations — and isn’t that what you wanted?

Yeah yeah, what about the ships?

Your ship (and how to fit it) is equally as complex and interconnected as your own character and skills, with the added twist that as you level, the work you put into building your ideal frigate will be swept away in the newfound desire for a shiny new cruiser… or battle cruiser… or mining hulk… or… you get the point.

(And actually, that “swept away” thing isn’t entirely true: even a relatively new player in a tiny little frigate can contribute to ‘end-game’ battles, if they’re fitted for the roles a small, fast frigate is meant to play in such encounters.)

In short, it’s a very deep system, one in which you can easily spend as much or more time tweaking the kit for your ship as you might your armor and weapons in another MMO. Fans of FASA’s Battletech system will find the ship fitting system akin to returning home to warm hugs and enthusiastic cheers. Will you like it? I don’t know — only you can really answer that. Speaking for myself, I’m quite happy to be flying around with no less than four separate fitting ‘builds’ for my current ship, any one of which I can swap into in a few seconds time at the nearest station drydock. You need an intrepid wormhole explorer? I’m your huckleberry. A ‘healer’ for a group mission? Sure! Or maybe I just want to steamroll solo missions, murmuring “I am a GOLDEN GOD” in a deep baritone, my face underlit by the actinic light of laser batteries firing in unison and blasting the unworthy back to atoms.

Ahem. Where was I?

Right. I thought ship fitting was fun.

Corporations

With all the PvP (and, even ignoring that, a vast galaxy to explore and exploit), it would seem that finding a corporation (EVE’s version of a kinship or guild) would be a necessity. I don’t think it is. For 98% of my trial period, I wasn’t in a player-run corp of any kind, and I had a really good time. With that said… for 2% of my trial period, I was in a corp, we did some stuff together, and I had a really great time. MMOs are, after all, meant to be a multiplayer experience — it says so right on the tin — so I was pleased to see that EVE (like most any other MMO I’ve played) can be vastly improved by a high-quality group of folks to share the experience with.

So How’d the Trial Period turn out?

Let’s compare: in my first try at EVE online, I made it about three days, got my ship blown up a couple times, and never really got more than a few hundred thousand kilometers from the starting space station.

This time around, I was able to acquire no less than a dozen frigates, a couple freight haulers, three destroyers, and a cruiser class ship with a pile of combat drones lurking in the bay, waiting to mug anything that pointed a railgun my direction. I ran over fifty ‘training’ missions, the fifty-mission long Epic storyline, accrued enough ISK to buy the destroyers and the cruiser and fit them out, started a planetside mining operation, joined a small but friendly corp, and went with that corp to kill bad guys (for some value of ‘bad’, entirely relative to our point of view 🙂 and take their stuff.

And who doesn't like killing bad guys and taking their stuff?

Even better, I discovered a very enthusiastic, helpful, and generally very intelligent playerbase, seeded here and there with some really superior folks willing to help out near-strangers simply for the love of the game and the hope that they might help someone else ‘get it’.

And I don’t think any of this happened because I’ve become a better or smarter player in the last four years — it happened because EVE is a better game than it used to be — I think it’s fair to say that it is now the game I’d always hoped it would be.

Are You Sticking Around?

Oh hell yes; to be compeletely honest, I paid for a subscription about five days into the trial period, but I did keep track of how many days I’d been playing, so I’d have a real sense of what one could actually accomplish in the that amount of time with the game. I did that for anyone who might read this, so you know what you might expect from two week’s worth of play, but it didn’t take me that long to realize that I’d found another MMO that I wanted to spend time playing. (Like I needed one. :P)

Would I like it?

Again, I don’t know. Do you like Star Wars, but more for the ships than the Jedi? Then maybe. Do you like Star Trek the best when the Borg is kicking everyone’s ass? Then maybe. Firefly or Farscape or Babylon 5 or that big, ugly, beautiful namesake ship in Battlestar Galactica? Then yes. Probably… yes. I think you would. I don’t know.

What I do know is that you can find out for free, and if any of this sounded even remotely interesting and fun, then you should check it out. You may love it, you may hate it, but I guarantee that given fourteen days, you’ll know for sure which it’s going to be.

I did.

(Postscript: I’d like to sincerely thank the player community on EVE for all the help they gave me and the thousands of other rookie players who log in every day with the same simple questions; my LotRO kinmates (Council of the Secret Fire!) who first encouraged me to check the game out; and finally to Ahd Dib and the rest of the folks in [B3ISH] for their advice, help, and continued not-blowing-me-up-when-I-took-their-stuff.)


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