Every so often, Eve does a major patch, introduces new goodies, and calls it an expansion. Normally I’d mock such marketing tactics, but since Eve doesn’t charge for these expansions, I will instead laud them. The last patch, Trinity, finally updated the ancient Eve graphics engine, setting the bar high for any future add-ons. Empyrean Age focuses around in-game content, specifically “faction warfare.” Faction warfare is one of those things that developers talk about for a long time but nothing ever comes of, sort of like World of Warcraft’s “Hero Classes,” which took two expansions (and the second isn’t out yet) for an underwhelming single class. Accordingly, the Eve community was skeptical of this mythical “faction warfare.”
Fortunately, the Empyrean Age brings one of the more seamless and thoroughly entertaining integrations of player vs. environment (PvE for you n00bs) and player vs. player (PvP, you’re still a n00b) content. In Empyrean Age, the plotline is that the four major empires have basically gone balls out war against each other, aligned in a 2v2 fashion. Players or their corporations (but not the mega-alliances which are made up of multiple corporations) can join any Empire’s “militia” which effectively throws them into perpetual war not only against the players in opposing militias, but also limits their mobility into the opposing faction’s empire space, due to the fact the NPC empires do not like enemy militias and chase them around mercilessly.
Now this sets the stage for mass chaos, but Empyrean age, like your mother in bed, prefers to have its chaos confined to certain regions. One of Eve’s core money making options is the mission system. The many NPC corporations in Eve have “agents” of varying levels and qualities (which translates into difficulties) who send you off to kill NPCs, shuttle stuff around, mine asteroids, and so forth. Largely bland, this provides money and item rewards for much of the Eve population. For militia missions, things are a little different. You’re sent into hostile territory to kill some NPCs–but when you start the mission, your location is permanently broadcast to everyone in the system. Enemies–or allies–can come and join your party (with certain ship size restrictions). There are also mission rooms which are “Free floating” and can be found in enemy territory for completion–which also broadcast their location upon discovery.
The result is a deliciously organized chaos of war. Packs of missioners roam around space, attempting to complete missions for rewards. Other packs of missioners may run into them, or some people eschew the mission system and just actively hunt enemy militia. But the warfare isn’t limited to those who participate in the militia system. Faction Warfare missions occur in a space known as “Low-Sec,” where there are minor defenses to provide an illusion of safety and plenty of player pirates to shatter that illusion. These player pirates, already the scourge of Low-Sec, have stayed true to their nation and roam about shooting everyone. Industrialists will most likely find that there is increased demand for the weapons and ships they manufacture, as combat, and thus ship loss, is raging.
The strongest point of Empyrean Age is that you are always capable of advancing your objectives: either by completing PvE sites to gain cash and rewards, or by heading to where the enemy is operating to seek out PvP . An in-game interface also provides the nearest conflicted systems and the deadliest systems so you can go where things are hottest.
Personally, I’ve had an absolute blast. The militia my corporation has joined is numerically smaller than our opponent, at nearly a two to one ratio. This gives us a target rich environment, which we leverage through fast and stealthy ships. We’ve been using roaming guerrilla warfare-style raids, picking off enemies who are stray, lost, or stupid. This is necessary because our enemy often roams in eighty-man strong groups. So we strike quickly, and disappear before we can be devoured by “the blob.”
The expansion is not perfect, however. One of the biggest problems that the developers either ignored or sorely underestimated was the ass-hattery that Eve players are known for. Eve is a sandbox game with plenty of freedom to behave as you please. When you combine sandbox gameplay with internet anonymity, you get “shitcock” to paraphrase Penny Arcade. Accordingly, players will do whatever they can to cheat the system. Although there is a significant penalty against “griefing” your own militia by blowing them up, there are no penalties for looting ships that were blown up by other militia members. Accordingly, there are some opportunistic players who run around looting the spoils of their comrades’ bloody labor. These little mini-Haliburtons are then protected from your by the same system that protects you from being griefed by your own militia (I feel an Iraq war/George Bush/Dick Cheney joke coming on but don’t want the FBI to arrest me). There are also neutral players who take advantage of similar mechanics, serving as the unwelcome pseudo-exploiters.
Another intended but yet to be fulfilled goal (although not overtly stated) is the spreading out of player populations in Hi-Sec space, which is where 70% of Eve players reside. Currently, one system serves as the primary commerce node of the entire game–a universe with hundreds of thousands of players and tens of thousands online at a given time. The net result is brutal lag, not to mention concentrated suicide attacks on high value traders’ ships–you can undock with cargo and be dead before you know it if you’re not careful.
Having the NPC forces attack players of opposing militias makes residing in enemy space impractical. With any luck, this will force players to resettle other systems as their homes and trading hubs. Since almost every player in Eve has a second account, or a second character, players may choose to simply use an “alt” as their trade procurer, confining traffic to the usual places. To solve this ongoing problem, Eve may have to implement a solution similar to what World of Warcraft did: establish multiple trade hubs that link to a single system, thus spreading out the physical location of players and reducing server load.
My primary concerns lie mainly around what the future will bring. First, will players make enough money to continue to battle? Every time you go boom, you need a new spaceship, which costs money. What if one side faces devastating losses and decides to simply stop fighting? The system will only work if players participate. Current participation is high, but could drop off sharply as players run out of money. Second, what happens when notorious groups such as the Goons decide to enter the fray? The system is designed to exclude alliances, but nothing could stop the Goons from breaking out their corporations and joining a militia en masse. Will this deter other players from participating?
Finally, this was an expansion for current players, which makes sense, given the last expansion was focused on attracting a wave of new players. Despite marketing to the contrary Eve is still about serious PvP. Newer or less skilled players can still “blob up” for protection, but the slightest error results in their being picked apart by brutal hunters (such as my corporation). This could end up being not fun, I imagine, for a victim. Fortunately, this is a dynamic MMO: both a blessing and a curse. The developers hold the power to tweak the system in a way that will encourage players to keep playing if the initial adrenaline of mass online murder is not enough. But really, if watching spaceships explode doesn’t do it for you, what else possibly could?