Welcome back to Free-to-Play Finder, and the launch of the free-to-play Ascension expansion for EVE Online! The quintessential sandbox has had its gates up between the playerbase and the rest of the online gaming world for years now, but they’ve finally “softened the F up” and decided to throw wide this legendary sandbox.
As a returning player of sorts, this reunion felt like destiny to me. It was only right that I strap on my boots, slip on my favorite vest and climb into the Capsuleer’s pod once more to see how EVE Online’s free-to-play experience shakes down.
EVE Online and I have a weird relationship. The last time I played was during Apocrypha in 2009. It’s simultaneously the game that got me disgusted and leery of sandbox MMOs, while also being the subject of a fascinating con panel. To say that this game has a reputation is putting it mildly, so rejoining my beloved Minmatar Republic came with a lot of assumption.
I’m pleased to report that EVE Online has changed a whole lot in these past seven-odd years.
What EVE Online is now, at least for the new free-to-play arrival, is a game that very clearly understands what it’s doing and wants you to understand as well. The tutorial experience is well-written and guided gracefully, reminding me of all of the old buttons I used to press back when I first took flight. Everything is explained here for the new arrival, from fitting to travel to combat. Even joining up with your chosen profession in-game has been cleanly laid out.
Even though my tutorial felt like it was in its own personal bubble, I still got the sense that EVE Online is more alive than it’s ever been. Docking at a station for the first time, I watched in awe as animated advertisements for player-run channels, Corps and other groups played on a large holovid screen. Better yet, many of these advertisements were excited to welcome Alpha Clones, like myself, to their ranks. It was a small step, but for new free-to-play arrivals who probably carry certain ideas about EVE, this is an incredibly welcoming sight.
Gameplay has not changed in the years since I’ve been away, and if you’ve ever played before then there will be no surprises here for you. You click buttons to automate your ship’s orbit to the maximum effective weapon range, engage your turrets and countermeasures and open fire. It’s less Top Gun and more Star Trek out there, and players have to be ready for that. The tutorial shows this hand early, so new arrivals will likely make up their mind in short order if EVE Online’s style of combat is a fit.
My return to EVE didn’t exactly recharge me, but it absolutely alleviated most of my personal concerns. This game doesn’t feel any gentler – nor should it – but it at least feels a little kinder than my initial arrival those many years ago. With so many players buzzing about, an engaged and overall eager established playerbase, and the sense of freedom that only a sandbox can provide, it’s a good time to give EVE Online a shot.
Like always, EVE Online’s free-to-play experience will be graded by four different criteria: Account Limitations, Store Interruption, Store Offerings and Store Reliance. Each point will be rated on three different scales: Minimal, Acceptable, and Oppressive. I’ll also further explain why I came to each rating for each criteria and finally, offer my overall feelings. Just remember, this wrap-up isn’t an aggregate score, just an overall assessment of the game as a free-to-play title.
How much of this immense sandbox is available to the new Capsuleer? A fair bit more than the restrictions on Alpha Clones would suggest, actually.
Account Limitations: Acceptable
What are Account Limitations? Anything that locks content away from you, from character or class choices to hotbars to access to dungeons or endgame. These are things that flag you as one of the “freeloaders” and restricts your play
While a great many skills are locked off to Alpha Clones, the skills available at creation are still more than sufficient to get players up and running. Tech I Frigates, Destroyers and Cruisers are available to the new Capsuleer, and the ships your character has access to are limited to your chosen faction.
This sounds like a lot of walls in the way, but the abilities open to Alphas are enough to give new players a taste of how things play out. You can still craft a competent and worthwhile pilot in the EVE machine, whether your aspirations are military or economic. Alphas get a maximum of 5 million skill points if every available skill is trained, meaning you can still offer something worthwhile to Fleets and Corps without feeling like you’re worthless.
Better yet, Omega State is as simple as either buying a subscription or purchasing a Pilot License Extension, or PLEX. PLEX can be gained either through cash or in-game currency and offers 30 days of premium access. The PLEX market right now is understandably high, but the option is there if players want to have it. By the time you’re hitting the Alpha Clone limits, you’ll likely have made up your mind whether you want to take it to the next level.
Store Interruption: Acceptable
Store Interruption is based on how frequently you’re reminded of the in-game store during play. This either occurs through pop-up reminders that dominate your screen or buttons that redirect you to items offered in the store.
Looking at your Character Sheet, you’re faced with lines of yellow dots denoting what you can’t train as an Alpha. Still, the reminder of my clone state didn’t feel like I was having a billboard swung at my head. In fact, the pop-up window displayed above had to be sought out and is understated enough to feel like an offer rather than a demand. I found it easy enough to ignore the limitations and just play.
Better yet, actual space flight doesn’t constantly nod to the game’s store or to PLEX at all. While you’re out in the void doing your thing, you are absolutely left alone to follow whatever aspirations you have. The nods to the store in EVE Online are there, but they’re also not neon-bright and intrusive. This lends itself to a sense of feeling welcomed that many probably don’t expect out of a game like this.
Store Offerings: Acceptable
The Store Offerings section is a quick look at what the store has to offer. From selection to variety of items, this is your at-a-glance idea of whether the store is interesting and if prices seem to be fair.
I’m not sure “Acceptable” is the right word here. The New Eden Store’s offerings are genuinely awesome.
Practically everything on offer at the in-game store is pure cosmetic, with a variety of skins for ships and avatar clothing options. There’s even a face sculptor option if you want to moosh your character’s facial structure a second time.
About the only thing that directly affects gameplay are bundles of Skill Extractors, which remove Skill Points from your character to be applied as an Injection to whatever training you currently have queued up. Injectors are a great way to speed through the long wait of learning how to pilot certain ship types, and they can also be sold in-game for ISK.
Overall the game’s store offerings make me very happy indeed; they’re good-looking and they’re priced fairly. High marks here.
Store Reliance: Minimal
This is an overall score of whether a game enters the “pay-to-win” realm with its offerings. Does the in-game store have an abundance of boosts? Does the leveling curve feel like you need to buy pots in order to progress? That’s what Store Reliance measures.
With only one item in the store that has any affect on gameplay, the New Eden Store absolutely gets it right. You earn your way in EVE Online by playing and you get out what you put in. That formula is vital to the game, and the store does not muck about with the sandbox’s carefully crafted soup.
This Skill Extractor item not only doesn’t have any weight on gameplay advancement, it also feels like a reasonably fair “reset button” for those who perhaps made a mistake in their training queue. Extraction is something that is a wholly personal matter and is a great way for the individual player to help themselves. I couldn’t be happier to report that, so far, the store is not dictating gameplay.
CCP Games has very clearly thought this free-to-play thing through. They know they have a pretty good thing going on with EVE Online and they don’t want things to be disrupted. At the same time, they don’t approach their new arrivals with an upturned lip of disdain. In fact, the game does a great job of giving it to you straight without being overbearing.
It’s been a long time since I’ve played this game. I’m still not sure it’s the game for me, but it has definitely come through the years wiser, and EVE Online definitely is a worthy addition to anyone’s free-to-play rotation. It really is a perfect time to see what all the stories you’ve read are all about.
Do you have a title you want to see put under the Free-to-Play Finder lens? Be sure to let me know. I want to make this column part of your consideration in how to spend your leisure time. Until then, remember: you’re not cheap, you’re thrifty.Related: CCP Games, Column, EVE Online, Free-to-Play Finder, MMO, Sandbox