The thrum of my ship’s engines subsides as it drops out of warp and my viewscreen is filled with asteroids silently floating in the void beneath the silvery disc of a distant moon. A quick glance at my instruments warns me of the presence of other ships. Compelled by my curiosity to explore every facet of this vast and bewildering spacescape, I guide my lowly vessel closer to investigate, wary of possible hostile action…
It’s a scenario which could describe my early days in EVE Online circa May 2003, or my more recent first steps in the modern re-imagining of the game that started the digital space race in 1984, Elite.
In both cases, the sense of being a tiny denizen of a vast and undiscovered universe tangibly permeates the game experience, injecting an austere sci-fi concept with possibility and wonder.
Of course, in EVE Online, that promise which was made by such a broad, open universe built around emergent gameplay concepts evolved into the peerless, player-driven experience which has seen it enjoy 11 years of success and counting.
On the other hand, Elite: Dangerous is still in beta for another few weeks and unsurprisingly has plenty of bugs and missing content. But despite that, I’ve had the opportunity to spend some hours playing what is already a polished and sometimes awe-inducing first-person spaceship piloting experience. The audioscape in particular is entrancing.
Rekindling a Love for the Unknown
|Hyperspace jumping through ‘witch space’ in Elite: Dangerous
As I took control of my light multi-role Sidewinder and participated in the variety of activities Elite: Dangerous already has to offer, I quickly found myself falling back in love with the game which defined my youth and arguably played as big a role as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and Asimov/Clarke in making me a lifelong science-fiction enthusiast.
After all, for me, the whole lure of EVE Online was its intention to provide an online game which delivered the Elite experience of an open universe filled with opportunity and discovery. CCP Games delivered this in spades over the last decade, adding depth and breadth to the early, feature-light gameplay which captured my heart.
|EVE Online’s skyboxes are stunning.
Witnessing the growth of EVE Online from within as a long-time player has been has been unique journey through online gaming. Well ahead of its time and undisputed master of the emergent gameplay niche, few can doubt that CCP stands atop the industry when it comes to delivering the massively component of massively multiplayer gaming.
Yet as I delve deeper into this brave new (yet wonderfully familiar) universe offered by Frontier Developments’ Elite: Dangerous, I already sense it offers something which has always eluded EVE Online. There is a connection, a feeling of being immersed directly into a future world of technology and spaceships, which I’ve always sought in EVE, but has always been supplanted by CCP’s insistence that New Eden’s best experiences are found in large crowds.
‘Join a player corp as soon as possible,’ players would be told, with the aim of projecting the rookie EVE capsuleer into the player-fuelled socio-political centrepiece of the EVE experience where the hook of social investment counterbalances its still problematic and bewildering new player experience.
The Needs of The Many
|When they say EVE is big, they mean it. Big spaceships (10km+), big battles (2000 players+), big stories.
EVE is unmatched in providing a platform for vast player organisations to compete and cooperate, but the individual player experiences at the fringes are lacklustre and showing their age. The universe of New Eden is mapped, endlessly documented and no longer a frontier, more a vast, battle-worn arena given texture only by its residents. CCPs man-hours are largely devoted to refining this combat dynamic as they well know it’s EVE’s strongest gameplay card. But the rest of the experience may be forever playing catch-up.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy the asymmetric PvP element EVE provides – the ever present risk is exhilarating and the adrenaline shakes EVE can stimulate has yet to be replicated in any other gaming experience I’ve had. But those moments are fleeting (haha!) and a lot of gristle has to be chewed to find those sweet morsels. Even then, the disconnected and uneven gameplay that permeates EVE remains unaddressed.
|The lost connection of EVE.
It’s a challenge CCP continually works to overcome, and have been slowly making ground, but their greatest opportunity was squandered with the poorly executed Incarna expansion of 2011. Incarna aimed to provide human avatars and related content, but succeeded only in fomenting unprecedented player backlash and set EVE’s development firmly on the remote spaceship path.
Admittedly, I am one of the pro-Incarna minority crowd, because EVE‘s abandoned ‘walking in stations’ gameplay promised to fulfil my hopes for the kind of immersion I had long hoped for from my EVE adventures. Indeed, my preferred spaceship experience is one far more insular, one which encourages me (and perhaps a small group of friends) to believe the surrounding environment, providing immersive escapism.
The Desires of the Few
|The surface of a Coriolis space station in Elite: Dangerous.
As perhaps a more selfish player, Elite: Dangerous has already convinced me that it will deliver the experience I’ve been waiting for. It is still far from feature complete and certainly doesn’t include any avatar gameplay, but as Frontier CEO David Braben has explained in recent interviews, they’ve built the foundations and the house, now they’ve got to move the furniture in.
And the empty house is already glorious.
|The empty co-pilot’s chair in a Cobra Mk. III
Even with sparse content and limited ability to interact with fellow players, I’ve enjoyed some great personal moments that have impressed upon me the potential that Elite: Dangerous offers; a hair-raising escape from a dogfight that saw me outmatched and praying for my hull to hold out as my Frame Shift Drive spooled up, the dawning realisation that each star system’s terrain is unique and in motion with gravity wells for slingshotting, surfing and providing navigational challenges, the satisfaction of using my eyes to spot the parallax effect leading to the discovery of new astronomical bodies. My ability to interact with and be a success in this universe isn’t defined by how many corpmates I have, but how I choose to interact with the world around me, alone or with a couple of wingmates (once the buggy instance matching is fixed).
That said, Elite will likely never be able to scratch the empire-building, strategic itch that is EVE‘s oeuvre. It offers a far more modest, but intimate and personal story. They are very different games, and I am thankful for that. The two titles can co-exist on my hard drive without much overlap; Elite provides sit-forward ‘moment-to-moment’ gameplay, while EVE is a more cerebral, calculated, sitting-back experience.
In fact, from my perspective, Frontier has probably done CCP a huge favour: I can now enjoy EVE for what it is rather than what I’d like it to be, and the two games can comfortably co-exist on my hard drive, ripe for comparison but rarely competing, and perhaps even learning a little from each other.
To be honest, I’m relieved.