The latest update to the EVE universe has arrived in a blaze of in-game fiction and an ensuing bout of carnage that put the player-versus-player realms of other games to shame. The big change for this expansion is the faction warfare, which creates zones of conflicts between the four main non-player races, and allows players to fight across the border regions via new "militia" missions.
This is a patch for the framework of the game world, as much as anything else, and lacks the big New Stuff content additions of previous patches. There are only a couple of new ships, lots of fixes, and not much in the way of new toys. This is, however, one of the biggest alterations to how we play EVE that's been seen since Day One, and it's a great time for habitual players to change their habits, or lapsed players to return. Before we get to that, however, I want to do a little recap of EVE's PVP play, and talk about why the Empyrean age is an important step in rounding out that impossibly challenging aspect of the game.
It took me the best part of a year to get into EVE's combat, but I now struggle to find the same kick in any other game. For complexity it's on par with any other MMO, but for speed and action only FPS games really have any equivalence. I enjoy it almost because it is so demanding, so frustrating to lose and so satisfying to win. However, knowing how inaccessible EVE can be, I'm also acutely aware of just how daunting the journey is for new and inexperienced players
PVP is an aspect of EVE that really emphasizes how much this is a multiplayer game: you can't hope to learn the ins and outs of combat on your own, and figuring out how best to fly with a gang of other players is where some of the greatest pleasures in EVE lie. Many players, especially ex-players, tell tales of being killed without even an idea of how they might have escaped, and the game does little to explain this to its denizens. It has fallen to the player corporations, and organisations such as Eve Ivy, to try and teach new players what they're up against. What the Empyrean Age is supposed to do is provide another way in to PVP play, giving players who want to indulge in the safety of Empire play most of the time some way to explore the PVP side of the game.
At the very far end of the PVP scale from Empyrean age's tentative steps there are the vast fleet battles involving hundreds, even thousands, of pilots. These have been taking place since the early months of the game, and have now entered a mature phase in which only the major players can expect to compete. Worse, this spectacular endgame of territorial alliance warfare is both tricky to access and laborious, even for hardened players. Getting involved means making a big commitment to the player-run corporations, and demands on time and patience that many players simply can't afford. CCP realises this, and knows that the only way many gamers are going to feel comfortable with player-versus- player combat - which they regard as the spirit of their game - is if it's mediated in some way through the game architecture. That architecture is the missions provided by agents.
Previously, the missions dispensed by agents were "player versus environment" type stuff, fighting AI drones, or shipping stuff around the galaxy. Now, however, the militia agents in two hot-spot parts of the galaxy are providing tasks which will lead to players coming into conflict with each other, without the penalties normally associated with combat in these low security regions of space. The two regions (between Caldari and Gallente space, and between Minmatar and Amarr space) have solar systems that are "up for grabs", and the actions of the players in these regions will see the NPC sovereignty shift from one nation to another. If players are able to do enough to open up a system's "final mission", and the defenders fail to keep it from being overrun, the system changes hands at the next downtime - and the winning Empire gets a little bigger.
As in the normal agent missions, the objectives are in closed "deadspace" arenas, which only certain ships may enter. There are four mission tiers, and at each tier different classes of ship are able to enter the objective. This means that the people running the missions have a rough idea of the kind of ships they might need to fight off. And fight they will have to, because these new objectives need to be completed without interference from enemy pilots. The problem is that everyone can see your mission beacon as it begins, and once you're in there, you'll have to expect a rumble. (Normal mission difficulty has been reduced of course, as have the rewards.)
In addition to the missions there are also "combat sites", which aren't spawned in the same way as missions, and can be discovered via the ship's scanner. These allow similar kinds of ships to enter, as in the missions, but are permanent, so they can be fought over across a long period of time - a little like the capture points in a permanent game of Battlefield. These sites, combined with the fact that the mission sites move all over the region, are intended to make the war as dynamic as possible, and so far it seems to be working.
Some of the battle reports that have found their way onto forums (and killboards) seem surprisingly positive for the generally moan-prone EVE population. Unexpected fights - such as a certain Russian alliance losing capital ships to the Caldari Militia players - mean there have been some excellent war stories to tell, even from the first week after the patch.
There have been a few teething problems of course, and the largest of those comes with the sheer number of people who have run missions for - and therefore had faction standings with - the Caldari. It's a bit like everyone joining the Alliance side on World Of Warcraft servers; the poor old Gallente on the other side of the conflict really don't have much to offer. It also means that the players who have joined the Caldari militia are going to be a little hungry for kills: there simply aren't enough Gallente players to make it worthwhile. The conflict between the Amarr and Minmatar meanwhile has always looked a little more evenly matched, albeit smaller, and it's fun to see the role-playing alliances, CVA and Ushra Khan, taking things even further than the faction warfare, and duking it out in the contested areas of space.
Overall, The Empyrean Age, and its first steps into faction warfare, look like a mixed bag. It's certainly providing some entertainment for people who wanted something other than the tried-and-exhausted low sec fighting or piracy options, but it's always going to be dominated by the players with more experience, deeper pockets, and larger range of highly trained skills. It does, however, add another much-needed facet to EVE and makes the experience of the game deeper still. Being able to feel like you're leaving your mark on the fiction of the game is an interesting experience, and if CCP is able to mesh this with real changes to the EVE universe over time, then this will be a fascinating ongoing project.
Best of all, this the first time that we've really seen the fiction of EVE properly tied into the larger game mechanics (aside from the various archetypes and characteristics of the ships), and it delivers the game back to the players, rather than relying on news that has no real in-game impact, or dev-run role-playing events which sound fun but have no real consequence. That's pleasing because CCP's efforts in creating a game universe always seemed to be blotted out by the crazy antics of their players. Perhaps, if enough people decide to take up faction warfare, the full depth of the fiction that CCP conjured up can be exploited, one day.