This is the first in a series of articles about combat in EVE Online. In this instalment we're going to look at the basic principles of killing people, which are rather unlike those of most other MMOs. Then we'll look at more advanced combat, faction warfare, and the philosophy and politics of conflict in EVE; and, finally, we'll examine the ambitions and tactics of EVE's huge military alliances. While the economic and industrial side of EVE is huge, player-versus-player war is the absolute core reason to play EVE, and understanding it will decide whether this game is for you.
First up, it's worth remembering that almost anyone in EVE can contribute to a fight. This is the main reason why I stubbornly defend EVE against any other MMO you might care to mention. The fact is that a character that is just a couple of weeks old might well help to defeat another character who is years old, and who has billions of isk worth of equipment. Unlike an MMO where a level 5 character will not even be able to scratch a level 64 character, the basic abilities of an EVE pilot mean that, as part of a team, they can always make a difference.
When my chums and I fly out to shoot our enemies we'll take with us the newest and most inexperienced players, as well as the oldest and wisest. Newer players can play a role that is unique to EVE - "tacklers", who quickly trap an enemy and stop their escape. They can also act as scouts, which are vital to any mission. The older players, meanwhile, will provide the damage.
At the most basic level, the ability of characters to see what is in a solar system is vital to keeping their wingmen alive. A character that is just one day old can do this. EVE's solar systems are all interconnected, like a series of rooms, and knowing that there aren't fifty people in the next room waiting to beat you up is essential to victory. In almost any situation in EVE it will be the person who has the best scouts, and therefore the most information, that will come away with his or her ship intact. Knowing that the person you are aiming to fight is simply bait for a larger gang means that you can organise your escape, or, if they're killable, it will allow your gang to adjust its tactics accordingly.
And there is no shame in running away, either. Escaping via another gate, or docking up, or using the bookmarking system to create a "safe spot" are all good ways of getting away from your enemy. (Don't sit at that safe spot too long, however, because EVE's best PVPers will be able to locate your position in under a minute using the game's probing equipment.) Sure, you'll get smack-talked by your frustrated enemies, but it's always best to live to fight another day. Space is a big place: you should use that room to manoeuvre.
The standard MMO combat groupings of damage, tank, crowd-control, healer and so on do have analogues in EVE, but it's far less defined. The fact that ships can all be fitted so differently means that they can take on quite different roles, depending on your skills. The skills that you learn over time will define what you can use, and how well you can use it. A new player might only be able to use a warp-disruptor and a "web" to stop an enemy simply flying away, but he'll soon be able to use it with the same effectiveness as a five-year old character. The five year old character meanwhile will be tougher, faster, but more importantly he'll have a wider range of ship-fitting options available to him. He might be able to fit his ship to be a damage dealer, or a tank, or a mix of both. He might forego defences for electronic counter-measures that will mess up the enemy capacity to deal damage, or he might fit purely for speed.
It's this level of complexity that has kept me hooked on EVE for so long. A fight can have any number of variables, and being able to deal with them is where the genius of combat lies. Figuring out the perfect tactic to take down a particularly tough group of enemies is quite sublime, while the hit-and-run potential of small-gang tactics is quite unlike PvP in any other game. (Of course, the vast, lag-tastic 200-man fleets you see in EVE are quite unlike any other game too, but I'd have a hard time recommending them to anyone who wasn't some kind of masochist.)
EVE's real skill lies in managing the energy levels of ships. Every ship depends on its "capacitor" to be able to do anything, and once the capacitor runs dry most systems will simply stop working. Knowing this allows some very complex combat tactics to emerge. If you're aiming to go for a "healer" setup, by using repair ships, then your enemy can quite easily cripple you by using energy-neutralising systems. You can counter this with energy-boosting capacitor injectors, but this will reduce your ability to fit other, vital modules. Like any MMO, knowing your build, and knowing how it fits with the build of your allies, is essential to victory.
Finally, let's come back to speed. Speed is the point at which EVE becomes quite unlike any other MMO combat you might think of. There are a few escape spells in WOW, for example, that allow you move quickly, or sprint away from trouble, but it's nothing compared to the far-reaching ramifications of speed in EVE.
At its most basic level it allows you to get away from your enemies: being able to zoom back to a jumpgate and leave the system, or get out of range of warp disruptors, means that you can avoid horrendous death. But that also means that everyone fits their ships to go as fast as possible. Either to escape the horrendous death, or to stop people from escaping the horrendous death: the answer is almost always speed.
What's more, if your enemies are unable to slow you down, it's possible for you to orbit them at high speed, slowly wearing them down, while outrunning their weapon systems entirely. The fastest builds in EVE, available to the richest and most experienced characters, are practically unstoppable. If you want an MMO in which real time factors such as the raw velocity of your character really do count, then EVE is still your best bet.
But - and this is one of those world-defining buts - speed as a game mechanic is also one of the biggest problems that EVE faces. Speed is EVE's great stumbling block, and the area most ripe both for a potential nerf, and for vehement defence by those who exploit it. It is an area of EVE's game that remains highly controversial: should speed really be the "I Win Button" that decides how battles go? Can EVE ever actually recover from its obsession with high-speed ships? We'll be putting that question to EVE's senior producer, Nathan Richardsson, in an upcoming interview.
Meanwhile, stay tuned for our next article, which will examine politics and piracy in PVP.