I'm seldom at a loss for words, but there are some things that are almost impossible to describe, because as human beings, we just have no frame of reference. Space is one of these things. Men like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking have spent their whole lives trying to describe space with numbers, but when it comes to the English language, everyone seems to come up short. Fortunately, nothing is as succinct and user-friendly as the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
"Space," it says, "Is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. You may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
Now I'm having the same problem with Eve Online. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) are the biggest games out there, offering more depth and scope and the longest shelf life imaginable. And Eve has managed to up the ante on all of these... exponentially. Eve is big. Really big.
That amazing mind-boggling hugeness comes at a price, but first let's look at the universe.
When the natural wormhole was discovered, it seemed to be a miracle. It was a gateway to a distant galaxy so far away, it was impossible to even tell where it was. Always intrepid, humans moved through, founded new civilizations, and named the system New Eden.
Then the wormhole blew up in a galactic catastrophe. Most of New Eden was destroyed, leaving only scattered outposts of humanity to rebuild civilization, cut off from Earth forever. The new universe became divided between five warring factions.
When you begin Eve Online, you choose one of these factions. Further, you can choose a bloodline and the schools you attended. This lays the foundation for your basic attributes, such as intelligence, perception, memory and willpower. As a spaceship pilot, you will have little use for the strength to swing a battleaxe. Your schooling also determines the basic skills that you begin with - combat skills, science, manufacturing, etc.
You can also choose your appearance, and this deserves mention because it's the most impressive character generator I've ever seen. You can design your avatar right down to the angle of their nose, the set of their jaw, their eyebrows, the color of their lipstick, and even the lighting and the background behind you. It's simply phenomenal.
But unfortunately, the effect is mostly lost because this is the only time you will see it. Once you are done, you've basically created a single mugshot of your character, a smaller version of which can be seen by the other characters in the game. It seems like a lot of effort for little result.
However, you won't notice that for a while because now you're in the game and looking at the stunning graphics. You can't customize the design of your ship like you can with your character, which is a shame, but the ships still look amazing. The details and the lighting are fantastic, and once you get a feel for flying, the scale will boggle your mind as you fly through the remains of a destroyed starbase try to tackle another player's monster battleship.
The only thing that looks better than the ships is the space behind them. Planets, gas clouds, asteroid belts, nebulae - it's all just beautiful, and the whole thing has a dark, classical Blade Runner flair, right down to the (admittedly small) fonts. If you don't need reading glasses, Eve has more eye candy than a busload of supermodels exploring the Louvre.
The sound is almost as good, with great engine and warp sound effects, though some of the weapons sound a little weak. The musical score is perfect, again with a haunting futuristic Blade Runner style, a la Vangelis. Once you get tired of it, the game also comes with a fully functional jukebox built right into your controls. My spaceship, I'm the DJ.
Once you move beyond the impressive delivery, you'll find that Eve's gameplay is essentially based on the Windows OS. Point your mouse at something and click for a primary action, or right-click to get a handy list of drop down options. Everything in the game floats in separate windows that can be manipulated just like on your desktop. It's a more disassociated way to fly a spaceship than Skywalker's classic yoke and throttle, but when you think about the actual speeds and calculations in space, it's probably more realistic.
And realism, at least as much as you can have in a science fiction game, is the hallmark of Eve. There are no magical bank vaults that move items across time and space (except for the electronic cash "ISK" which can be transferred at the speed of light). There are no transporters, so if you want to trade in space, you have to jettison cargo for someone to pick up or go to a starbase to trade properly. The warp drive might be the game's only concession to playability over the laws of physics.
This means you can do nearly anything. There are no Magical Peace Zones where players can't fight, but that doesn't mean you can't get yourself killed by firing lasers at people in a well-patrolled zone full of cops. I myself was blown up by a more experienced, more powerful player who was stalking the space lanes as a pirate. I was on my way home after buying my very first new ship, and I lost it almost immediately. Like the real world, this is one rough universe.
This realism extends to the skill system. There are no experience points or levels in Eve; instead, increased skill is dependent on your knowledge, abilities and equipment. Training new skills takes place in real time, whether you're playing or not. Last night while I slept, my online avatar was hitting the books learning missile-launcher operation. Some of the simplest skills might only take about 30 minutes to train, while more advanced learning might take three weeks to complete.
I really like this system of advancement because it makes sense instead of just suddenly becoming a better thief because you killed 20 orcs. It also makes you feel like your character is always progressing, which brings the frustration factor way down. Finally, it makes "twinking" more difficult, because it doesn't matter how rich your friends are - three weeks is still three weeks and there's no way around it. Don't worry about running out of stuff to study, as learning all the skills in the game would take years - actual years - in real time. I'm not sure if my college offered this many courses.
Even the economy is real, since it's almost entirely user-driven. The whole thing functions as a sort of combination of Priceline and Ebay. Buy a new railgun on the market and you can find the best price, but you might have to fly eight solar systems over to pick it up. You sell all your items - from raw ore to looted ship electronics - in the same way through this dynamic market.
While eight solar systems seems like a daunting journey in-game, it's a tiny trip when you consider that Eve consists of about 5,000 star systems and about 50,000 planets. So far, at it's most crowded, I've seen nearly 6,000 people playing in this galactic sandbox at the same time. This is not a typo, this is simply the largest game area ever put together. Nothing else even comes close.
To really take advantage of this huge space and huge economy, you will probably want to become part of a Corporation or you can start your own. In fact, players create most of the Corporations in the game. They have CEOs, officers, employees, and even stock that can be traded. Gain a manufacturing monopoly in a certain sector of the galaxy, and just watch the ISK pour in.
Of course it takes money to make money, and like other MMORPGs, there is a monthly fee. It's $12.95 a month to explore this particular universe, which is about average for a massively multiplayer game these days.
So what could be wrong with the biggest, most ambitious game I've ever played? A few things, unfortunately.
First, it's still a little buggy. MMORPG's are notoriously difficult to launch, so I tend to give them a bit more leeway than other games. You just can't ever be completely prepared for when the actual rampaging hordes of players are released on your software. Eve is far better than the launch disaster of Anarchy Online, and far less buggy than the original release of Ultima Online, but bugs are noticeable and the game would have benefited from a little more development time.
Second, this is not a game for the impatient. Things happen slowly in Eve. Most of the time I've been writing this review, I've also been mining for my Corporation. There are several of us stationed in an asteroid field while another member with a huge cargo ship is hauling the ore back to the starbase where it will be refined. It does not require my full attention. Delivering something a few systems away? Set the autopilot and go make a cup of coffee. This game was made for multi-taskers.
Even combat is a little slow: lock on target, raise shields and activate your weapons. Then just sit back and watch the fireworks until you win, lose or decide to run. It's dogfighting like Captain Kirk rather than Captain Solo. Clearly, some people will like this slow-paced affair and others won't.
But it's the sheer size and complexity of Eve that's going to intimidate many players. This is the most complicated game I've ever played and the hardest to begin playing. The game has its own in-game e-mail system and functional web browser, putting, among other things, the entire Internet inside Eve. The short tutorial and the brief manual barely get you started, so even the most experienced gamers will find themselves lost and confused at first, and for a long time thereafter. Fortunately many of the other players online are willing to help...or at least willing to be lost alongside you. Consider yourself warned.
I realize I've said a lot for someone who claimed to be at a loss for words, and that's because I still feel a little guilty writing this review. I've spent a solid week dedicated to spacefaring, and I've seen only a tiny, tiny portion of Eve Online in terms of ships, abilities, items, people, gameplay, missions and just plain old space. You could play this game for years before you really started to feel like you might have seen everything it had to offer. If you can just get past the rough beginning, the difficulty, and the steep learning curve, Eve Online is the biggest game you could possibly hope to play.