EVE Aether Wars was a great tech demo (and a terrible game)

EVE Aether Wars was announced a little less than two weeks ago. As a 2-year veteran of the world’s finest spreadsheet simulator EVE Online, I absolutely had to sign up to check out the spectacle. The resulting tech demo was nothing short of a glorious mess, simultaneously managing to impress me and disappoint me.

I immediately signed up for the EVE Aether Wars tech demo right after it was announced. The days and weeks passed with nary a peep from the developers and I had feared that I wouldn’t be getting in. Thankfully, I got an e-mail telling me that I had been accepted less than 24 hours before the tech demo was scheduled to begin. I downloaded it, checked that it loaded to the menu, and happily went to bed while visions of starfighters danced in my head.

The next morning, I awoke ready and raring to go. Unfortunately, I had been up for but a few minutes when I had found myself rather ill and off to the hospital in an ambulance. My morning was shot, but I was thankful to discover that my issue was relatively minor. I had made it back home just in time for the EVE Aether Wars tech demo. (Also, I wasn’t dying.)

EVE Aether Wars | The first minutes

EVE Aether Wars

I had everything set to go a minute before the launch. The developers announced a delay minutes before the official start time and I ended up sitting on my butt with nothing to do for another half-hour. The 30-minute delay felt like forever, but the fine folks at Hadean Games managed to get the launch right on the second time around.

I attempted to log in with the provided credentials and got in after a few tries. The first images I saw were nothing short of chaos. Massive ships from EVE Online decorated the background of the conflict while hundreds of fighters flew around, shooting torpedos at anything that moved. This spectacle, impressive as it was, was only a fraction of the players the tech demo would ultimately bring to bear. I quickly kicked my engines up to maximum burn and began searching for a target.

I found someone to shoot in short order. At first, I fired missiles manually in the hopes of properly predicting flight paths and impacting the enemy. I quickly learned that a lock-on system was present and I immediately took advantage of it, firing a dozen missiles at a slow-moving target just a few hundred meters in front of me. The missiles edged ever closer to my prey, creeping up on the unsuspecting fighter pilot. Finally, they collided — and nothing else happened.

EVE Aether Wars | Hit and miss (but mostly miss)

EVE Aether Wars

I had discovered then and there that the hit detection in the Aether Engine was absolutely abysmal, at least in the scope of this particular stress test. Sometimes I would hit an enemy fighter with three missiles and it would explode. Other times, I would dump fifty missiles into a target and land no visible hits whatsoever. Sometimes my missiles disappeared and sometimes the enemy fighter disappeared. It was, quite frankly, a mess.

The same went for players targeting me. I once tabbed-out to check the Aether Engine discord while leaving my ship flying in a straight line at the slowest speed. I did get killed once, but I survived a much longer time than I would have expected. One wonders if the person(s) firing at me experienced the same issue that I did.

Landing an attack was a complete roll of the dice. I actually found myself quite bored after a few minutes, racking up a total of 13 kills and 4 deaths. I could have easily kept pumping missiles into enemies and scored many more points, but it was such an unstable slog that I didn’t feel it was worth the effort. It didn’t help that the game used the mouse for flying and didn’t permit true 3D flight, making for what I felt was an inferior space combat experience.

The lack of any objectives other than “shoot literally anyone else” was a bit of a downer but totally understandable. This was a tech demo, a stress test for the capabilities of this engine. Keeping things simple was probably the way to go on this one.

EVE Aether Wars | An impressively large battle

EVE Aether Wars

While the on-the-ground aspects of the battle were bad, there are many things that I will happily concede as good or even great. Let’s begin with the sheer scale of the event: almost 4,000 players were connected in the first few minutes of the battle. My client crashed a single time, but the server kept right on chugging along. Eventually, the devs introduced A.I. bots into the fray and brought the number of active players up to a much higher level. At the very end, the game indicated that there were 14,269 A.I. and human players connected simultaneously (3,852 of those being real humans, according to a post-event e-mail). And the server didn’t crash.

Yes, the accuracy and stability left much to be desired. However, the simple achievement of having that many things on screen—many of which were controlled by real people — was just downright impressive. Bear in mind that the only weapon players had available was a torpedo launcher, meaning that each player ship was spawning 5 or 10 additional entities at a time. There were even random space rocks scattered about. I locked on to one or two and blew them to pieces just because I could.

Unfortunately, much of the EVE Aether Wars tech demo was smoke and mirrors in many respects. I often would find the scenery changing entirely as I hit some kind of invisible border, almost as if I were hopping servers. At one point, I tried to fly towards the large capital ships in the background, only to find that they would shrink back into the distance after I had flown for a few seconds. I had no sense of the scale of the arena, but I wouldn’t have noticed this trickery if I hadn’t been looking for it.

EVE Aether Wars | A shaky first step to something greater

EVE Aether Wars

So, did EVE Aether Wars succeed? As a tech demo, absolutely. Hadean Games proved right then and there that they could have nearly 15,000 players simultaneously connected and not crash the server. Anyone who has messed around with game development has, at some point, crashed their own game because they loaded up with too much junk or made it too inefficient. (I certainly have!) That is no small feat.

While it made for a great tech demo, EVE Aether Wars failed terribly as a game. Players (and projectiles) vanished into thin air, shots never landed consistently, and the world was awash with rubber-banding. The “game” part of this tech demo showed that a lot of work needed to be done.

However, one must consider the utility of an engine. Trying to make a first-person shooter in RPG Maker would be sheer insanity — it’s just not built for that. EVE Aether Wars went for a space combat simulation and it ended up being a pretty poor experience, but the sheer number of simultaneously connected clients could be used to the advantage of another style of game. Any kind of game slightly less reliant on millisecond-perfect hits (like, say, EVE Online) could probably be tuned to run fairly well.

The key takeaway is this: the Aether Engine misses the mark as a high-precision engine for a space combat game, but it absolutely can work for something slower-paced like EVE Online. If they do decide to go forward with this project, I can certainly see it changing the future of EVE Online and any other game that thinks to implement it.