EVE Online's Apocrypha expansion launched this week and implemented sweeping changes across the whole arc of the space MMO, from unexplored space and new technology to epic mission arcs, much of it detailed in Monday's interview with senior designer Noah Ward. Along with the expansion is a determined effort to open up the famously complex game to a new audience, with a new boxed copy in the shops and a revamped introduction.
Is now really the right time for those previously too scared to jump into the universe of New Eden? We examine that question in a two-part feature: first, veteran EVE player Jim Rossignol explains what's changed and puts it all in perspective; second, novice (and frankly, rather scared) space pilot Oli Welsh takes his first timid steps in EVE.
Starting out in EVE Online is daunting - even intimidating. It's down to the ever-evolving New Player Experience - a lengthy tutorial sequence which CCP has dedicated a small team to - to make that introduction smoother, easier, and less frightening.
EVE's rather beautiful character-creation remains one of the easiest in gaming, although it's fair to say that the mugshot character poser is starting to look its age. Fortunately things have long ago been jazzed up, and the actual explanation of race, faction, and specialisation takes you much closer to the reality of how your player performs. One of the odd things about EVE is that there are no character classes as such, but the boosts to the character-creation system - and accelerated skill progression - mean that you are much closer to your chosen archetype, much more quickly, than in previous years.
Crucially, EVE's early days allow you to train skills faster (EVE uses a time-based skill training, rather than levels) and provide you with a far better grasp on what it is you need to train as you progress. New players actually get a boost to training speed, making the entire process of placing one skill after the next much smoother.
But it's also much easier on time management: you won't be trying to log in from work to fix that awkwardly-timed skill, because the new skill-queue means that you can set up any order of skill training within a 24-hour period. Not great for the ancient characters training month-long skill plans, but brilliant for those gamers who are just starting out. Creating a structure of skills over 24 hours means that you can leave the game overnight and come back the next evening able to fly a new ship, and probably have better damage on your guns too.
As for the opening experience itself, it has changed little, despite being smoothed and honed. It's perhaps a little odd that the character-creation menu defaults to the station, when you need to start in space for the tutorial to kick off. Once you're outside however, things run rather more intelligibly. The missions are straightforward, and cover a number of issues - using the mission waypoints, getting about in space, looting wrecks, combat, learning skills, travelling - the basics are rapidly broken down and most players will soon grasp the fundamentals of moving between locations and carrying out the wishes of NPC agents.
These agent missions are better defined than ever before, with the passage into various industries - and the division between industrial and military careers - being far clearer than they had been previously. This is crucial, because specialisation is everything in the early days of playing EVE. The better you become in one area, the more of a money-machine you become. And money makes the galaxy go around.
Of course, you can rapidly change careers, and are almost certain to do so along the way. A new respec systems allows you to alter your stats (the attributes that dictate how fast you train certain skill types) - a system which can be gamed for extremely fast skill-buffing. It's worth mentioning right now that for absolutely optimal training speed - and likely optimal boredom - a week spent training the learning skills will pay off dividends long-term, so speccing for high memory and the start might well be a good idea. It's not exactly rewarding in the short term, but for anyone playing the game beyond three months, the reduced time really pays off.
Anyway, those agent missions now deliver you into larger and longer story mission arcs than ever before - the epic missions, as they are known. EVE's mission designers obviously now have a good grasp on what works and what doesn't, and the drama in the missions is better-timed than we've seen previously. Missions also push you into the arms of other players: getting people to help you out is becoming essential, rather than optional, which is crucial when you look at the big picture of EVE.
It really doesn't matter how good these missions are, they will amount to nought if you don't get involved with other players. This is a game about human interaction, and everything else is a sideshow. It still feels as if the player corporations aren't quite shoved in your face enough, and you have to take that brave leap into working with other players yourself. Despite plenty of systems to bring new players into the fold - and recruitment systems for player corps - it remains confusing, and a little bit scary. EVE never really explains itself to you.
Of course, real players offer the kind of knowledge that still isn't delivered to you by the game, like how to fit your ship properly. It seems odd that CCP would spend so much time creating a new ship-fitting system, while still giving you few clues as to how to fit a ship without looking like a complete numpty. Getting advice from forums and from other players is the only sure-fire way to know what actually works, and what actually fits and - ultimately - what skills you're going to need to train to fly your ships in a way that is really useful to your performance long-term. There are some clues in the new fitting screen, however, such as the inclusion of effective hit-points, or EHP, which is the true measure of how much punishment a ship can take, and a long-term oversight on the old fitting screen.
Ultimately, the new player experience reminds an old player - like me - what a huge journey EVE offers. But it also reminds me how tedious the early steps can be: there's not a great deal of excitement in those early missions, and until you're cracking open huge missions with half a dozen friends, the game definitely lacks pace. Perhaps what is all the more challenging is the leap into what is actually most satisfying about the game: hard competition with other players, either in industry, or in combat. If you are able to keep that goal in mind, then the tricky grind of the first few months will be far easier to digest.
I've been subjected to so much evangelism and scaremongering - sometimes in the same breath - from players of EVE Online that when I finally approached the game itself this week, I did so with a mixture of awe and fear. Colleagues, friends, and the players and developers I met at last year's fascinating FanFest event, had lectured me at length on the depth, breadth, economics, politics, and sheer life-sucking involvement of this most massive of massively multiplayer games; had told me that it makes World of Warcraft look like a pick-up-and-play arcade game.
I almost wrote a will and said tearful goodbyes before booting up. I felt sure I was going to be either baffled and put off, or never seen again, obsessed with plumbing its Byzantine depths. In the end, neither happened.
Before getting stuck into the game itself, it's worth noting that, of all the MMOs I've played, EVE was by far the easiest to install and set up. I obtained it via a relatively modest and quick download from the CCP website, patched it simply and swiftly during the server downtime on launch day, and jumped straight into the stable, smooth-running, good-looking game client on a PC of only middling power without having to tweak a single setting. Anyone who plays a lot of MMOs will tell you that this never happens. Not even WOW works this well. In pure technical terms, it turns out that EVE is actually the friendliest MMO out there.
I have to disagree with Jim; character creation was certainly simple and involving, but didn't quite give me the information I wanted. The racial and factional back-stories were compelling - I certainly got a clear sense of EVE's fiction that had eluded me up to that point - but I didn't really have any idea what effect, if any, the choices I was making would have on my character. I only found out later that the different races have different philosophies of ship design that would affect how I played. Rolling my avatar's eyeballs up in his skull for his portrait was fun, though.
I logged in with my heart in my mouth. Imagine my surprise when I was plunged into... an absolutely straight down-the-line, by-the numbers MMORPG introduction.
Well, almost. There's an awkward 10 minutes to get through first, as the game talks you through the all-important skill training system Jim detailed above. It's frankly not that long, it mostly makes sense, and the UI - while it looks overwhelming, a barrage of opaque blue windows and tiny fonts - is completely logical and clear. The little tutorial windows that pop up and talk you through whatever new aspect of the game you've stumbled across during your first days are as comprehensive and helpful a hint system as you'll find in any MMO (which is not to say that they all shouldn't be better).
There then follows a two-part basic tutorial mission, followed by three 10-part mission arcs that guide you through combat, mining and trading respectively. The story's a bit more perfunctory than usual, but the mission flow was logical, the difficulty progression was noticeable but smooth, the mission rewards satisfyingly tasty (I soon had two whole new ships, something I never expected, even if I wasn't skilled up enough to use one). The number-crunching mechanics are a surprisingly familiar matter of buffs, debuffs and damage over time once you get your head around the radically different lexicon, setting, and interface.
If there is a shock in EVE Online, it's the interface, and not because it's hard to use. Quite the opposite. Despite incredible detail and functionality, it is staggeringly, eye-openingly easy. There's no direct control as such, and everything including movement is done through clicking on icons or - more surprisingly, and more often - right-clicking to bring up a cascading contextual menu. Basically, playing EVE is exactly like using Windows - except instead of selecting Cut, Copy and Open With, you're selecting Target Lock, Orbit, and Activate Acceleration Gate.
It all has an austere beauty and, since you can lose your ship and fittings in combat (this is the only game I've encountered which offers in-game insurance), the tension certainly can build up. But it does so with all the momentum and urgency of an ocean liner. EVE is a glacially slow game in the early levels, and the level of automation in the interface - while absolutely necessary for dealing with its depth and its yawnsome length - hardly makes things more exciting.
Want to dock at a space station? Right-click on it and select dock. Mission in a different star system? Set the autopilot and make a cup of tea. Set a long training queue and level up in your sleep. I can't decide if every other MMO would be saved or ruined by a right-click contextual menu, but my heart is against it. Sometimes you can have too much utility, and when the skill and inventory management of being in a station feels less like downtime than actual combat, something is surely off.
Of course, these are impressions of EVE at an insultingly early stage, but the job of an MMO introduction isn't just to smoothly lay out the basic principles of these complex games - something CCP has, it must be said, managed with ease. It also needs to give you a taste of what you're in for. Warhammer Online throws you into a Public Quest, World of Warcraft lures you into a miniature dungeon, Lord of the Rings Online begins a lore-heavy storytelling scene, all in their first hours.
But the only hair-raising thrill I got from my first days in EVE Online - the only taste of the unique draw of this game - came before I'd even logged in, on the game's startup page, on the first night of Apocrypha. "Server status: 43,225 players" is an electrifying statement that no other game can make. In its early stages, however, the game feels like you're playing it in a bubble, and although I was absorbed, I know I haven't encountered the real EVE Online. Its universe is still out there, somewhere.