While following up on some comments in response to my post on multiplayer games, I checked out Eve Online. They offer a free trial. I mean free as in: Totally free. You download the client for free. You create an account for free. You don’t even need to give them a credit card #. I give them major points for that last one. I know there is tremendous money to be made in getting people to sign up for a free trial that will auto-bill them in 14 days unless they cancel, and then waiting for them to forget. Everyone else does this, but not the folks running Eve Online. Nicely done. Below are my thoughts after a little more than a day with the game.
Doing a “first impressions” post on an online game is a little unfair. These games are large, and it often takes days just to get a feel for what works and what you like. Often there will be rewarding aspects of the game that won’t be available until you’ve been at it for weeks. You should read everything I say here with the same attitude you would have for an article titled, “The first twelve minutes of Starcraft”.
The good and the bad, in no particular order:
The character creation process is a mixed bag. I love the visual aspect of it. You generate a face (lots of fun) and pick some clothes (you only see the character from the shoulders up) and a hairstyle. The editor is 3d, but what you’re really doing is posing for your character portrait, which will be the static picture shown to other players. It gets interesting once you position the avatar in relation to the camera, assign a background, and adjust the lighting. Want to seem evil or imposing? Just have your character glowering down at the camera, lit from below, in front of a dark industrial background. Want something more friendly? Simply place your character in a white utopian scene and give them a little grin. Make their head cock to the side to give them an inquisitive look. It really is amazing just how expressive you can be with just a little body language. The avatars in this game do more to convey personality and attitude than any other RPG I’ve played, and they don’t even have bodies. (There is a valuable little lesson here, which I’m filing away for another time: Body language is far more important than body shape when it comes to truly defining a character.)
On the downside, I never felt like I had enough information to really choose the rest of my character attributes. I knew I wanted to be a miner, but I couldn’t figure out which attributes would be important or what the various tradeoffs were. After a couple hours of play, I dumped my original character and made another, hoping that I could take what I’d learned so far and apply it. It didn’t seem to help. I still don’t know if I made wise choices, or if my choices really mattered. The tutorial admonished me to “plan ahead” when creating a character, but this was pointless since a) By the time you get to the tutorial you’re already done creating your character and b) it’s impossible to plan ahead when you don’t know the effects of the choices you make.
The intro movie is pretty interesting. It fills in the backstory and explains that the game takes place thousands of years in the future. The different “races” in the game are humans who have become very estranged from their Earth ancestors, and who have developed a number of distinct cultures. The movie set the stage and looked pretty, which is about all you can ask of an intro in a game like this.
The graphics are fantastic, although I guess all space games look fantastic. You can go back and load up classics like Homeworld or Freespace and say, “Dang. That still looks good.” It’s pretty hard to make stars and nebulae look dull or ugly. The game is over four years old, but someone had to tell me that in-game. I never saw anything that made me say, “That looks dated.”
The load times are outstanding. The game starts fast, and area transitions are no more than a few seconds. The game itself launches quickly, works well in a window, and plays nice with other applications. That last item is important if you want to keep the game going in the background while you do other stuff. (Which is what I’m doing right now.) Other developers take note: Load times are part of the user experience. This stuff matters.
|My Probe-class ship. It looks exactly like every other ship of the same class.|
This game is very complicated. I would classify this as both complaint and praise. I’m still pretty clueless.
The music is perfect. It’s mostly gentle, atmospheric loops that suit the setting, establish a mood, and otherwise stay out of the way.
The tutorial was very gentle. It took a long time, but it made extra sure I never got lost. When it came time for fighting, the game was sure to warn me, “This is dangerous! Be careful!” And then it let me fight a couple of ships that were more or less incapable of bestowing harm on me. This was nice, and let me ease into the game.
But that ease only made it all the more shocking when the tutorial ended and my very next assignment was to go out to a given location and blow up some pirates. When I got there, I found six ships, any one of which would have been my equal. My ship was blown up and I lost a lot of the assets I’d accumulated in my first three hours of play. The game never gave the slightest indication that I might be in for a real challenge, much less certain death. Now I’ve lost some standing with my employer because I never did the job they gave me. I’m not sure what went wrong with this quest, but this was pretty appaling and nearly ended my game for good. I’m still pretty much stuck. Even after stepping up to the next class of ship and investing in some better defenses, I can’t even kill one of them before I have to run for my life. I don’t know who to go to for quests now, since I can’t trust NPCs not to send me off to my death.
Most MMORPG games will tell the player, “Nice work, kid. Now go get a few levels under your belt. Come back and see me when you hit level six.” This game seems to accomplish this by killing you and letting you figure it out for yourself. There is no obvious way to judge the relative strength of a foe other than to let them shoot at you, which tends to be deadly. This is flat-out wrongheaded game design and it’s pretty much a deal-breaker for me.
When you enter a space station, the button says dock. When you leave, it says… undock? What’s wrong with good old-fashioned “launch”? (And then we can replace “dock” with “unlaunch”.)
The community is about par for the course. The chat channels aren’t a wasteland of l33t-speaking juveniles, but in the newbie areas the ambient level of idiocy is a bit high. Here is a pretty typical example of how newbies are welcomed into the game. I’m sure this is a result of having the free trial, and not reflective of regular paying players. I can see things get a lot better once you make it out of newbieland.
The interface is nice. There is a lot going on here, and for the most part the game manages to give me the info I need without things becoming too onerous. The Marketplace interface can get kind of crazy, but I can’t think of how it could be simplified without removing features.
Your character levels up certain skills over time. This happens realtime, even if you aren’t logged in. You can have three characters at once, but only one of them can be learning a skill at a time. This stikes me as strange. I’m still trying to figure out why things work this way.
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