EVE Online review: Invasion celebrates 16 years of New Eden

16 years later, EVE Online is still one of the most captivating and unique online gaming experiences around.

When space adventure MMORPG EVE Online released in 2003, it truly launched into uncharted territory. Coming out more than a year before World Of Warcraft, EVE Online, along with older MMOs like Ultima Online and EverQuest, helped spark a modern age of online gaming that would see the genre reach new heights of popularity.

EVE Online tells the story of four galactic civilisations vying for control of the huge galaxy they inhabit. Originally descending from human colonists who traveled from Earth through a portal to a galaxy light years away, these societies have a lot in common but also couldn’t be more different. And how do they settle these differences? Through all-out war.

At the start of the game, you’ll be asked to join one of these factions and help it win the many wars yet to be fought, but there’s much more to the EVE Online experience than that, and you’ll soon find that the lines between friend and foe are much grayer than they first appeared. With a complex in-game economy, booming industries to control, space pirates and alien invaders attacking all sides, and player-created alliances playing a constant tug-of-war for territory, there’s so much you can do in this MMO that things may seem a little overwhelming.

If you’re new to New Eden or wondering whether now is the right time to jump into this 16-year-old MMO, there’s a lot you need to catch up on. Since Den Of Geek wasn’t around in 2003, we’re reviewing the game for the first time to see what’s great, what could be better, and what’s changed about EVE Online:

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Choose Your Own Adventure

EVE Online is an open-ended sandbox-style MMORPG. Rather than providing a well manicured, somewhat linear path for its players, EVE expects you to dig in, make your own way, and probably get a little bit dirty while doing it. The game operates on a single shard server, which means there is only one version of New Eden, the game’s massive galaxy of 7,806 star systems, available for the entire player base to connect to. In theory, every single EVE player can interact with every other under this setup.

Putting hundreds of thousands of players in an enormous sandbox has resulted in EVE becoming the world’s largest work of collaborative science fiction. This collected work includes tales of empires being built from nothing, rising to control entire sectors of New Eden, as well as stories about vicious and rowdy rebellions toppling such empires.

The game is also home to the largest battles ever waged in a virtual world. Thousands of players converge into single star systems for in enormous power struggles. 

How you interact with the galaxy and its inhabitants is up to you, of course. You can build powerful alliances with other players or explore the galaxy as a lone wolf. EVE Online caters to different playstyles.

Players interested in peaceful cohabitation can stick to the central areas of EVE. High-security space, or Hisec, is patrolled by an unstoppable NPC armada which punishes players for committing unwarranted acts of aggression. For some, Hisec space is a safe haven since everything you do in the game is a calculated risk with potentially harsh consequences. If the ship you are piloting is destroyed in combat, it is gone forever and there is no way to recover it. The modules installed on the vessel, equivalent to weapons and armor in more traditional games, have a 50 percent chance of dropping as loot, which can be recovered by anyone in the vicinity.

In the relative safety of Hisec, players are free to explore the game’s mission system, hunting AI pirates or hauling cargo for rewards from the NPC quest givers. Mission runners make up a large portion of the Hisec population, players with ships built to meet the challenges presented in NPC missions and complete them with very little risk. Unfortunately, the mission system is one of the places where EVE most shows its age. Many of the missions haven’t changed in years and there is very little dynamic content involved in completing them. You can find a walkthrough on how to do virtually any mission in the game, so if your ship meets certain requirements and you follow instructions, these quests should be easy to complete.

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Players who are less interested in questing in space and instead want to embrace their inner spreadsheet nerd can utilise EVE’s in-depth crafting systems to participate in one of the most complex simulated economies in gaming. Almost every single ship, weapon platform, armor module, or piece of ammunition in EVE Online is crafted by a player, using resources harvested from the game world.

Because of the single shard design, EVE Online battles that happen on the other side of the galaxy can alter the market for the entire game. If a fleet of difficult-to-make ships is destroyed, then the materials used to make those ships suddenly become more valuable, and if a savvy investor has cornered the market on those materials beforehand, that investor can become rich and powerful by liquidating his investment. That same investor could also choose to starve the market out, refusing to release any of their holdings to weaken one side of a conflict and help the other, all from the comfort of their home station.

Not every scam is designed to envelop the entire galaxy, though. You can also scam players on a more intimate level. CCP has had a long-standing policy to not intervene in deals made between players, allowing players to acquire others’ assets through any means they see fit. Scamming and stealing are perfectly valid methods of wealth acquisition in the EVE universe.

Unsurprisingly, EVE Online is a game best-known for its conflicts. Players looking for a fight will feel most at home in EVE‘s traditional PvP mode. Some players find it most enjoyable to fight singular opponents with specialized ships to prove their mastery over the combat system, while others prefer to gather a few thousand of their closest space friends and wage total war on another group of players, in campaigns lasting months, even years. Regardless of the scale of the combat, it’s all driven by the real threat of losing your ship forever.

For the most part, EVE Online‘s core gameplay has aged well, but your mileage may vary depending on whether you want to run the aging NPC missions or participate in the almost-constant wars and power struggles between New Eden’s big alliances. Going solo may also mean starting a corporation and running a business within EVE‘s economy or exploring uncharted parts of the galaxy like a pioneer. Maybe you live to swindle newbies or ambush lone ships like a pirate. Or you dream of rising through the ranks of your alliance to become a powerful fleet commander, leading armies to a hard-earned victory. The sheer amount of gameplay variety in EVE Online is an impressive feat.

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She’s Got It Where It Counts

Equally impressive are the over 200 ships you can fly through New Eden. The ship you choose to pilot comes down to how you want to play the game. They range from small fighter-jet-like ships, called frigates, which are built for speed and responsiveness, to the city-sized behemoths known as Titans, which are capable of laying waste to entire fleets of lesser ships with a single shot from their incredible “Doomsday” weapons.

Each ship comes with an inherent bonus or penalty to certain playstyles, such as increased durability for extended fights, a cloaking device for stealth missions, or the ability to remotely repair other vessels in space. Once a player chooses their ship, equipment modules must be added to fully prepare it to undock and engage in the universe. This is where things get very complicated.

When fitting ships with weapons and armor, each module requires a certain amount of the ship’s reactor power and cpu time to operate. You can spend hours trying to find the “perfect” fit for a ship. This fitting process is not the most intuitive activity, and many players struggle with the concept in the beginning and end up flying underpowered ships and dying because of it. You eventually will get the hang of it, though.

Each ship has a small subset of skins that can be purchased off the in-game market to change the ship’s colors, and in some cases, alter the particle effects around the vessel. The skin system is relatively new to EVE, having only been introduced in the last few years, and it’s still one of the most exciting additions to the game, allowing players to add a bit of flair to their ships.

A Glitch in the System

EVE is a beautiful game. The designers and artists at CCP have spent years making New Eden as well as the many ships that inhabit it look as visually arresting as possible. We’re still constantly awe-struck by the sight of massive fleets of ships engaging in fights under the shadow of a planet, or the tranquility of asteroids floating through space while industrious players harvest their resources. Unfortunately, overlaid on top of these beautiful sights, is EVE’s user interface, which remains one of the most unintuitive aspects of the game. 

The section of the UI responsible for displaying information about your location and nearby ships is called the Overview, and it is not dissimilar to looking at a spreadsheet. Data is displayed in flat rows and columns, with different tabs offering specific bits of data. These rows, columns, and tabs are all highly configurable, but doing so requires a deep understanding of the game and is not something that most players are comfortable with.

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One of the first lessons that new players are taught, assuming they have a mentor, is how to rearrange their overview, how to add essential data that is left off the default view, or how to completely replace it with a shared configuration. After four years, I’ve never made more than minor configuration changes to the overview myself, instead relying on other players to customise and share their configurations. The UI is also why some players give up on the game completely, writing it off as a “spreadsheets in space” experience.

You also control your spaceship through Overview and contextual menus that are triggered when you right-click on an object in space. You can command your ship to orbit, approach, or warp, and once in range, you can choose to attack the target or interact with it. The gameplay feels slow at first, with most twitch elements found in other MMORPGs removed, making the game feel more akin to a turn-based title. Once you have a few hours of gameplay experience under your belt, the depth of EVE’s combat system begins to reveal itself, though.

While the basic controls and menus can be fun to navigate once you get the hang of them, the level of investment required to get to that point could chase more impatient players away. As it stands, the UI and controls remain EVE’s most dated aspects.

Invasion

Every sandbox needs new toys once in a while. CCP has released 25 expansions for the game since 2003, and the latest expansion, released on 28 May, is called Invasion.

Invasion builds from a storyline and gameplay elements that first appeared in last year’s Into the Abyss expansion, which introduced pockets of space known as Abyssal Deadspace lurking all over New Eden. Players were able to delve into these pockets, the closest thing to an instanced dungeon ever implemented in EVE, to fight a newly discovered and mysterious race, the Triglavians.

In the new expansion, the Triglavians have left the Abyssal Deadspace and invaded Hisec space. Now, players daring to travel through a Triglavian-controlled area risk roaming gangs of enemy ships ready to seek and destroy them. The initial invasions seem to be building towards a more powerful and potentially permanent incursion. Fortunately, since the first invasion force spawned in Hisec, player-run fleets have been attacking as many Triglavian invaders as possible in the hopes of gathering the resources required to create the three new ships introduced in the expansion: the Negral, Draugur, and Ikitursa, all modified versions of Triglavian ships.

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So far, the Triglavian invasions are fun. They add a bit of chaos and unpredictability to areas of space that were once considered safe and are encouraging players to interact with one another. 

My biggest frustration with the expansion is that the loot recovered from the invading Triglavians is not easy to divide between the players actively participating in the event. In fact, some players have been following active fleets around, hijacking valuable materials from NPC wrecks, and hiding behind the protection of CONCORD, the game’s NPC police. This process, known as “Ninja Salvaging,” has been around for a very long time, and it’s something CCP has yet to fix despite countless complaints.

In the interest of… let’s call it science…I logged into an alternate character that has little to no association with any of my main pilots to “join” a player fleet fighting off an invasion. I outfitted a ship special, fully loaded with cargo bay expanders, special lasers that reduce ship wrecks to useable salvage, and a slew of tractor beams. In the 45 minutes that my fleet mates slaved away killing as many of the Triglavian ships as possible, my contribution was to “selflessly” clear the debris left in space by the dying NPCs. The task was boring, but also a bit nerve-racking as the other players caught on to my scheme. In the end, I made it back to a market hub, loaded up with materials used to make the new ships.

The expansion’s other big feature is the introduction of a 64-bit option for the EVE game client. It’s a major improvement on its 32-bit predecessor, which suffered from a fatal flaw during big battles. Because it was a 32-bit application, if the allocated memory exceeded 4GB, the game client would immediately crash. During fights with ships numbering in the thousands, players would often be disconnected from the game, leaving their valuable ships to float lost in space, still fully vulnerable, until enough time had passed for it to despawn. These crashes would then lead to the login server being overwhelmed by requests from players trying to jump back into the game.

The 64-bit client upgrade seems to have resolved this issue. Only four days after the release of Invasion, two warring factions clashed over a handful of the game’s conquerable systems, and reports from players using the 64-bit client suggest that the game is much more stable than ever before. Players reported that they were able to run the game with all of the graphical options turned to maximum instead of what’s lovingly known as ‘Potato Mode’ – the lower graphics settings of choice normally reserved for massive battles.

In testing the new client myself, it definitely increases the amount of resources EVE requires from my PC, but there has been no negative impact on performance. Many EVE players, myself included, maintain multiple accounts subscribed at the same time, enabling multiple logins to the game world and the ability to fly multiple ships at the same time across different instances of the game client. Even with the increased resources required from the 64-bit client, I was able to use three different game clients in the same fleet, at the same time, and maintain 60 FPS across all three.

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While the client works on a smaller scale, it remains to be seen how it will perform during a massive battle numbering in thousands of ships and raging for hours. These type of fights don’t happen all the time though, so it may be months before the 64-bit client is put to this final test.

The third major feature of the Invasion expansion is The Agency 3.0, which provides players with an organised list of content available to them when they log in. Through The Agency, players are able to find quests, areas where PvP combat is likely, ancient ruins to explore, resources to harvest, or revisit the game’s tutorial system for a refresher on how to get around in space. As a tie-in to Invasion, you can even scan for any Triglavian forces in your vicinity. The Agency is also home to periodic special events around the EVE galaxy and serves as a hub to keep players informed of what’s going on in the game.

The Agency is easily the most important feature for newcomers. With an overwhelming number of choices and paths at your fingertips almost as soon as you first jump into the game, it’s nice to have a guiding hand.

Not everyone is impressed with the Agency, though. Veteran players are worried it will “water down” gameplay, turning EVE into a more linear MMO. So far, CCP has managed to avoid this, focusing the Agency on helping new players navigate New Eden, and experienced players can simply opt-out of the feature.

The importance of The Agency cannot be understated, and it’s a major incentive for newcomers to jump into the game. Activities in EVE Online have never been this easy to navigate before, and Invasion may be the perfect jumping on point because of it. After all, without an influx of new players joining EVE, and more importantly, sticking with it, the game will slowly become a ghost town, a death sentence for any MMORPG. 

Fortunately, the game is still thriving. The support that CCP pours into the game, combined with the dedicated fanbase, suggests that EVE has many more years of life ahead of it, as long as the studio continues to modernise the game and make it more accessible.

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EVE Online remains a very rich and complex experience, a game that demands a lot of your time if you want to succeed in its brutal galaxy. The game has its flaws, including an outright hostile UI at times, but it more than makes up for it with the incredible depth of gameplay that few other titles can deliver. In spite of its age, very few games have ever held my attention as long or as deeply as EVE Online.

4/5

EVE Online is out now on PC