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.