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.