EVE Online Review

Tranquility. I’ve always puzzled at the name of EVE Online’s single server. It’s an ironic moniker to lend to a world where hundreds of thousands of players jockey for resources, scheme, spy, and blow each other up. On that one server, wars wage in perpetuity. Scammers ply their trade outside crowded space stations. Fortunes are made and lost amid the bustle of a full-fledged economy. None of it feels particularly tranquil.

And yet, Carl Sagan once noted that from space, Earth–for all its chaos–is nothing but a pale blue dot. So it goes with EVE: step far enough back from CCP’s sci-fi massively multiplayer online game, and a picture of tranquility begins to emerge. Ten years of steady growth. The recent release of a 20th free expansion, Rubicon. Throughout all, consistency of vision, commitment, and support. It’s no small achievement in the winter of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game, when young games are born, live, and die, all in World of Warcraft’s shadow. In the face of such competition, EVE’s languid pace would seem a detriment, and yet, like the universe, EVE is ever expanding outward.

EVE cultivates an appreciation for scales, vectors, and inertia, because it makes their mastery a matter of life and death. The game supports a healthy variety of pursuits, including nonviolent options like building, trading, or mining, but at some point almost all players must hazard a jaunt around EVE’s tangled network of interconnected solar systems. Each system is a room of sorts connected by stargates that act as metaphorical doorways. They’re spacious chambers, big enough to fit planets, asteroid belts, and space stations with a few trillion miles to spare, but danger always has a way of finding you in EVE. If you’re lucky, it’ll only come in the form of pirates or warring fleets that open fire on sight. If you’re unlucky, it’ll be a scammer, spy, or saboteur playing EVE’s tacitly sanctioned metagame against you.

Conflict runs tangential to even the most pacifistic careers in EVE. After all, it’s easier to maintain a lively spaceship market if players are always blowing each other up. But when things come to blows, it’s actually a tidy affair. Ships can be piloted by clicking about in space, but most actions in EVE hinge on more mechanical commands like “maintain distance” or “warp to”. It’s a math-oriented system that hinges on numbers like distance, radii, and acceleration. Once the enemy has been targeted and the keys for weapons have been pressed, battles ebb and flow according to who can dictate range as their ships circle. Large-scale battles are as chaotic and complex as any sci-fi war scene, and skirmishes are thrillingly staccato. Victory in either is less a product of reflex than of strategy. The prelude to war–proper equipment, communication, teammwork, and patience–is usually the deciding factor. As often as a good fight seems to find the unwilling in EVE, it can prove elusive for those seeking it out. For every minute of battle or plunder, there are hours spent as prey eludes capture, as fleets circle and dance to the reports of their forward scouts.

Almost every player is an annalist of some sort, contributing anecdotes on forums, reporting from battle lines, issuing propaganda, or mapping political boundaries.

It takes some acclimating, but EVE’s interface is packed with functionality.

Indeed, EVE’s pace is glacial indeed…right until it isn’t. A dominant alliance might hold a third of the world in an iron grip for ages, until a spot of corporate espionage dispels it into the digital ether overnight. An interstellar bank could compound every investment it’s entrusted with for years, until it suddenly absconds with billions. The universe’s first Titan-class ubership may be a world-beater, until it’s destroyed because the pilot chooses an inopportune moment to log off. They’re the kinds of stories that make headlines outside of gaming circles, the kind that EVE is uniquely equipped to tell. Whether you’re speaking to the allure of exploring EVE’s vast universe, the machinations of its political scene, or even the prospects of the game’s next expansion, that capacity for upheaval is a draw unto itself.

What’s refreshing about EVE is how much of that change is user-driven. Player characters in the game are canonically immortal, their consciousness tied to clones that are awakened whenever they find themselves on the wrong end of the metaphorical photon torpedo. So-called pod pilots are the movers and shakers of the EVE universe, and enjoy a privileged position as mercenary demigods (consider for a moment the level of desperation that would drive a non-player character to enlist under a commander who, by definition, never goes down with the ship, and you’ll begin to grasp the morbidity of EVE’s lore). What gets moved or shaken is a matter of taste. It might mean battle, as a soldier or pirate. It might mean cleaning up after said battles, and pawning the salvage. Or it might mean moving goods from one place to another, and shaking whenever outlaws start eyeing your loot. Each endeavor can be pursued in the name of EVE’s four hawkish NPC empires, a smattering of lesser powers, or the great host of player corporations.

Picking what banner to fly is always an important decision in an MMORPG, but in EVE, the decision can make or break the experience entirely. Should you have no allies, the vast reaches of space can be brutally lonely and unforgiving. Sure, there are hundreds of space stations to rest in, nominal communities strewn about the network of solar systems that dot EVE’s pointillistic map. But though the game now allows you to walk the interiors of these structures, there’s little humanity to be found inside. NPCs are still just portraits in the interface that proffer textual missions. Other players are just smaller portraits in your chat feed. The resultant sense of disembodiment impinges on every interaction in EVE, and it helps to explain the popularity of extra-game forums and meet-ups. Absent a few friendly faces, it’s just not that easy to make regions with names like The Bleak Lands or Stain feel like home. Go figure.

Forgot to bring any guns to this fight. Guess how that went.The ability to step outside your ship is a welcome addition, if a bit aimless.

Actually, Stain seems like Shangri-la compared to 0FZ-2H. That’s the naming convention of zero-security systems, which fall outside the protection of NPC guards, and where EVE’s player alliances battle for control of the game’s open territories. Zero security also sees CCP’s most brilliant and nefarious contribution to player-versus-player gameplay: regions, and the distribution of resources therein, are asymmetrical. Zero-sec space tempts with its more lucrative opportunities, but making the trip means leaving the safety of the empires. Inequalities exist among the lawless regions, too. The imbalance creates further incentives for players to band together, if only for the express purpose of evicting those ahead of them at the table.

Asymmetry must be in CCP’s mission statement somewhere. It’s certainly visible in the designs of EVE’s spaceships: intricate, inventive crafts that range in scale from small yacht to small state. Asymmetry colors the use of those ships as weapons, too. At first blush, the more expensive, upper-echelon crafts seem overpowered. That perception holds true, until you develop an appreciation for asymmetrical warfare. There are no restrictions–mechanical or moral–on the size of fleets corporations can bring to the field, and with enough cheap frigates and cruisers, most foes can be felled. Barring that, there’s always sabotage, as legitimate a tactic in EVE as any.

Big, expensive ships are also big, expensive targets, either for rival corporations or pirates that operate on the fringes of high-security space. Being blown up might not mean as much if you just wake up in a distant clone vat, but it can take a serious toll on your supply of ISK, EVE’s currency. Ships that get destroyed are gone for good, along with all the expensive and rare equipment they’ve been kitted out with. That can include PLEX, an in-game item that represents real playing time in EVE (and a viable alternative to the game’s $9.99 a month cost for dedicated players), meaning some losses can hurt a player’s real wallet, too. Like most aspects of EVE, death is harsh and unforgiving, but the risks magnify the highs and lows in kind. A venture into the borderlands is a tense, calculated gamble, where every jump to a new system might expose you to predation.

Day traders, rejoice.

Truth be told, it ought to be even riskier. To get a feel for what dangers lie in wait in the system you occupy, you need only glance at your local chat channel. Every present player is listed therein, from the most genteel miner to the scurviest pirate. After a decade of patches and fixes, it’s strange that local chat has managed to avoid the axe. It has always felt like a temporary solution that has taken root, an anachronism so entangled in the rest of EVE’s systems that it has become difficult to excise. The illusion that you’re an interstellar explorer, or that there are unknown dangers around every corner, breaks a bit when every lowlife in the solar system is your Facebook friend.

Perhaps that’s just CCP’s vision of the future, some kind of acerbic commentary on our subservience to the computer. Considering the rest of EVE’s interface, though, that’s unlikely. The game, oft-labeled “spreadsheets in space,” is still as impenetrable as ever, a technophile’s fever dream of 3D overlays, extension lines, charts, and impossibly tiny fonts. It’s clean and eminently customizable, and it leaves a lot of room for breathtaking views of nebulae and stars, but even 10 years in, I’m still unsure about some of its more esoteric functions. Yet with some practice, it’s undeniably useful, even more so now that CCP has made improvements to wayfinding and interaction.

Player characters in the game are canonically immortal, their consciousness tied to clones that are awakened whenever they find themselves on the wrong end of the metaphorical photon torpedo.

All that considered, it’s probably unsurprising that EVE seems to attract a, let’s say, bookish sort of clientele. Almost every player is an annalist of some sort, contributing anecdotes on forums, reporting from battle lines, issuing propaganda, or mapping political boundaries. It all contributes to one of the most exhaustive and fascinating repositories of lore to be found in gaming, one that’s created by developer and player alike. Heck, the game’s most anarchic alliance–the aptly named Goonswarm–is also home to its most ardent archivists, members who log the minutiae of nearly every battle and political play. Even the most disengaged players sign their marks in EVE’s ledgers, with purchase histories and entries on the “killed by” reports automatically generated when they die.

I’ve been on the wrong end of a fair number of those reports over the years. I remember the first time I quit EVE, so many expansions ago, before the arrival of opt-in high-security warfare that helped to fill the gaps between pirate raids and alliance battles. I was bored: in the wrong corporation, in the wrong part of space, and growing frustrated and restless. Unable to rouse a raiding party, I took my best ship and went looking for trouble alone. I found it in the form of two vigilantes. They locked me down and laid siege to my ship, whittling away my defenses while my guns struggled to track their speedier crafts. I pulled out every trick in my bag. I feinted, scrapped, and stalled desperately, but I was doomed.

It took a full hour and a half, but my vessel eventually succumbed. As klaxons blared and the hull of my prized ship rocked with the impact of missiles, I scrolled my mousewheel and zoomed out–zoomed out until it was just a pale dot, and tried not to think about all the ISK I’d just lost.

I was back within the month.

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