Saturday, 11 April 2015

EVE Re-evaluated: Hydrostatic Fluid is Thicker Than Water

At Fanfest 2013 - the last I attended - I idly speculated with CCP Guard at the press buffet about whether or not I would be attending the following year. I recall he laughed and said something along the lines of 'of course you will, we won't let you leave' (I'm still not sure whether he was referring to my membership of the EVE community or if he was threatening to kidnap me until the next Fanfest). However, it was a prescient conversation as events transpired which did indeed lead to my no-show in 2014 and 2015.

It's been a challenging year at Freebooted Towers. Life - and death - eroded my capacity and desire to participate in time-hungry computer games. Caring for my dying Mum, dealing with the loss, and then the birth of my second daughter a few months later all changed the paradigm of my existence completely. The animated pixels of EVE and other games which had held so much allure for so long seemed empty, pointless.

But my relationship with EVE didn't end there.

Despite my lack of presence and the virtual and psychological distance between me and my hangar full of spaceships, other aspects of my EVE experience persisted. I continued to be included in the occasional #tweetfleet Twitter conversation and I received the occasional email from folk checking for a pulse. To them, as well as those to whom I have other outstanding commitments, I apologise for my absence and my silence. I hope in the future my schedule relents to the point where I can once again make a contribution and fulfill those commitments.

It was telling, I think, that when I announced my Mum's passing last year via my other blog, the healthcare-focused Broken Paramedic, it was EVE community members who took the time to offer their condolences.

That I am still able to drop into a chat channel in-game or participate in social media conversations is not something I take for granted. It's genuinely heartwarming that folk with whom I've had only virtual contact or a few brief meetings on a cold, rocky island in the North Atlantic remain part of a welcoming community and that I might consider some of them friends.

Rebooted Freebooted?

Nonetheless, this blog has been silent. But I'm not writing in search of sympathy, instead I'm looking to reignite my enjoyment of writing.

Because of my enduring EVE community ties, my absenteeism has served to give me a fresh perspective from a high level, which may prove useful. In a coincidental twist, what time I have had to pursue my interests has seen me take a trip into EVE's genealogical past. I've been flirting with the new version of EVE's great-grandfather, Elite: Dangerous, and developed a mad obsession with Magic: The Gathering (none of that online nonsense - the real collectible card game). I suppose to complete the triumvirate of games that inspired EVE, I should also be playing the new Ultima Online, Richard 'Lord British' Garriott's Shroud of the Avatar (like I'll have the time!).

In any case, through EVE there's a clear gaming DNA link between them all and I'll likely blog about those things from time to time as well.

The Evolution of EVEkind

Throughout my absence, I have remained a curious spectator of EVE and it's been fascinating to watch the ebb and flow of the EVE meta-community and the various successes of its members; EVE Travel blogger Mark '726' Mazzone's EVE Vegas appearance cementing his role as one of the 'go to' lore experts on the big stage, Rixx Javix finally getting to a Fanfest (and pimping his art!), the defiant persistence of the blogging community and the Blog Banters (still ably led by Lord Moose-Beaver), Xander Phoena's march on e-fame and power (he shared his ambitions with me at Fanfest 2013 and he's looking good on his word with his growing Crossing Zebras empire and his CSM tenure), my former Aideron corpmates launching the successful Hydrostatic podcast, the positive influence on EVE of former high-profile players turned CCP employees such as Verone/Falcon, Raivi/Fozzie, Kil2/Rise, and many other good people doing good things. EVE's community remains a veritable breeding ground for talent.

CCP itself seems to have evolved and matured too, having become a more stable, yet evergreen studio with improved awareness and a more focused direction for EVE. I sense that this was made possible by the now departed Jon 'Unifex' Lander's steadying hand and has been cannily capitalised upon by current Executive Producer, Andie 'Seagull' Nordgren. The frantic new release schedule seems to be creating merry chaos of a good kind and I'm definitely loving the new Scope news video series, weaving player interactions into the broader fictional narrative of New Eden. What a great idea! ;)

From the outside looking in, CCP is looking confident and competent, the community appears as resilient as ever, and the EVE universe seems again full of mysteries, stories and opportunities. I've certainly got some catching up to do - so much doesn't make sense to me any more. But hey, making sense is overrated and has got no place on Freebooted anyway.

Thanks for reading this far and, more importantly, for proving that there is much more to EVE's community than some give it credit for.

'o7' to a fine collection of internet space nerds. I hope to see you around.

Friday, 24 October 2014

Moments in Elite: Dangerous

While I appreciate that Freebooted has historically been an EVE Online blog exclusively, my current love affair with Elite: Dangerous has left me considering expanding my content. After all, five years dedicated to a single game does seem a little... obsessive.

Of course, I'll continue to discuss EVE Online - I still feel like I've got plenty to say - but I don't think there's any harm in looking at new entrants to the increasingly busy sci-fi gaming niche from time to time.

Besides, as I discussed in my previous post, Elite: Dangerous seems capable of ticking boxes that EVE has always neglected as a game which can deliver content and stories on a more personal level. Certainly, the broader slate for fiction E:D offers has already spawned a number of novels. The game design also lends itself more readily to some narrative structure than EVE, which is something I hope to see.

For me, the real hook in Elite: Dangerous is what Frontier Developments CEO David Braben describes as the 'moment-to-moment' gameplay. There's an immediacy and a connectivity to E:D's world which really breathes life into the game experience, creating unexpected events with exciting, satisfying and/or hilarious outcomes.

Already, I've had several 'moments' which have given me stories to tell. I'm not proud of all of them, but the game environment certainly seems like a fertile bed for all manner of unscripted occurrences and those arising from seeds planted by the designers.

For clarity, I've mostly been playing in 'private group' mode, so all of my interactions thus far have been with NPCs (friends currently seem to be invisible/in a different instance), but to my rookie eyes, I wouldn't be able to tell player from AI anyway.

Here's a few of my more memorable (or shameful) moments:

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Cobra Money Pit

Oh, Cobra Mk. III, icon of my childhood and versatile chariot of the stars, why do you hate me so?

An early goal I'd set myself was to get into the signature ship of the original Elite. In Elite: Dangerous terms, it offers a solid platform to experiment with a variety of playstyles: bounty hunting, trading, exploration - it can do it all. But ever since I bought one, I've had nothing but bad luck, leading me further and further into debt.

Admittedly, it started with a degree of over-exuberance on my part. After making my purchase and spending far too much of my remaining credit balance on pimping it out, I was eager to get out on its maiden voyage and test out my shiny new Cobra Mk. III.

With a complacency undeserved by my pitiful piloting skills, I performed my usual high-speed launch from within a space station: a quick vertical blast to clear the launch-pad, engines gunned to max, landing gear up and the turbo hit to shoot through the letterbox-shaped exit like a rocket. But wait a moment? That exit looks awfully black. I still don't know what kind of ship I had the head-on collision with, but judging by my almost instant explosion, it was far bigger than me.

Sharp-eyed observers will notice this isn't a Cobra cockpit, but you get the idea.
Having had to take out a loan to avoid finding myself back in a lowly Sidewinder, my second Cobra outing started off well. After flying to the nearest planetary belt and finding a busy extraction point filled with miners, police ships and the occasional troublemaker, I started to really get the hang of combat (or so I thought). Sidewinder after sidewinder fell to my pulse lasers, while my inability to hit the side of barn with my fancy new cannon perhaps gave me a hint that I wasn't quite the killing machine I'd begun to think I was. It was a hint I chose to ignore. The first Cobra pilot with a price on his head soon educated me otherwise. Scratch another Cobra (and thousands in uncollected bounty rewards).

A new Cobra required new prey. After swapping out the cumbersome cannon for a pair of gimbled multicannons, I returned to the asteroid belt and warmed up on a few Sidewinders, much happier with my ship's ordnance.

Then, I stumbled across a pair of gigantic Anacondas whose misdemeanors had already drawn the attention of the local enforcement patrol. As the bulky vessels lumbered through the belt, smaller ships nippling at them like piranhas, I decided to get in on the action. Tearing toward them with all guns blazing, I watched as their shields just shrugged.

I did manage to get a couple of good salvoes into my target before my screen suddenly filled with a criss-cross of laser fire, all coming straight at me! How many guns on those things? Enough to rip my shields away in seconds, it seemed. Nose bloodied, I did a quick about-turn and managed to get out of range to lick my wounds.

Also not an actual shot of the action described, but mashing the screenshot button just wasn't a priority. Sorry.
At this point, the sensible thing would have been to find somewhere to dock and repair and that was initially my intention, until my ship's computer announced 'target shields depleted'. How could I resist a siren call like that?

I dived back into the fray and unleashed the full fury of all my pop guns. The combined damage of my attack and several others slowly whittled away at the Anaconda's hull. The giant vessel changed course, heading deeper into the asteroid field in an attempt to escape. With its hull integrity down to nearly 50% I suddenly found myself the focus of its fire again.

At that point I suspected things were about to end badly for me when the Anaconda suddenly ploughed straight into an asteroid whilst under my fire. The sight of the glorious explosion and the blackened Anaconda hull fragmenting into pieces and spiralling away was made all the sweeter by the announcement that the kill had earned me 58,000 credits, over twenty times the kind of bounty I was used to (and far more than I had in my account).

This was the one time I didn't allow my hubris to get the better of me (I briefly considered taking on the second Anaconda) and immediately returned to a station to capitalise on my good fortune.

My good luck didn't last.

I have since lost at least three Cobras, variously to:

  •  A security vessel flying straight through my line of fire as I bore down on a kill, quickly seeing me eviscerated by the irate copper and his colleagues. That's entrapment!
  •  A panicked attempt to dock while being scanned with illegal cargo on board (why is it 'stolen' if I found it laying around in space? What about salvage rights?), resulting in me bouncing around inside the docking bay before getting hosed by the sprinkler system of doom.
  •  An anti-climactic end to an epic (read: hilariously inept slow-boat circling) engagement between me and another Cobra pilot which was going to the wire until he decided to commit seppuku on my windscreen, sending us both into oblivion.

I still love my Cobra though, even if it's propelling me to bankruptcy.

Put some clothes on love! (Still not a relevant screenshot, aside from the fact that on one disastrous launch attempt this was where I ended up.)
[Back to Moments in Elite Dangerous]

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - Hidden Stars

Something that has continued to impress me is Elite: Dangerous' astroscape (I'm not sure that's a word, but if it isn't, I'm coining it). From the 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque station approaches to the vast, undiscovered planetary systems which all move and orbits in real-time, the entire gameworld is captivatingly real. It still feels spartan, but then it is space, which to be fair is not known for its dense flora and fauna. But there is an ever-present suggestion that there is always more to discover, just hidden beyond sight.

As I cruised around in the star-spattered blackness, jumping from system to system in a Sidewinder collecting data on various astronomical bodies to sell, I found the experience to be cathartic. The slow-paced, solitary occupation of the interstellar cartographer is a far cry from the adrenaline highs of the bounty hunter or the number-crunching role of the trader.

This was freedom.

Clearly it's not a playstyle that would suit everyone. Some might call it dull. Indeed, I'm sure I would tire of it if I pursued it exclusively, but from time to time it's nice to just head out into uncharted territory just because it's there.

But I became hooked when I entered a system whose star had an elliptical orbit path according to my HUD overlay. Curious. I'm no astrophysicist, but I was pretty sure that meant there must be another mass for it to orbit, yet no second star was apparent. Checking the system map confirmed the presence of a second, unknown star.

Not a binary system, just an example.
After some head-scratching, I engaged my supercruise and sped away from the visible star until I could see the entirety of its orbit path, then did a hard right. As a drifted at superluminal speeds across the periphery of the system, I scoured the backdrop, hoping my theory would prove true.

Then I spotted it. Among the hundreds of distant points of light, one crept across the darkened sky, belying its appearance as just another far-off system. By using a bit of lateral thinking and nothing more than my own eyes, I'd discovered something my instruments couldn't – the second, far smaller and less visible twin star.

Using the parallax effect to spot pixels may seem like a trivial achievement, but for me it was very satisfying and, perhaps oddly, gave me hope for Elite: Dangerous' future. It suggested to me that this won't be a game which spoonfeeds its audience with pop-ups, tooltips and walkthroughs, but one which revels in its own depth and mystery.

I'll be even happier when system maps actually look like this rather than the current beta placeholder.

[NEXT PAGE] - [Back to Moments in Elite Dangerous]

Moments in Elite: Dangerous - The Dodgy Hauler

After cutting my teeth on the spry but limited Sidewinder, I wanted to try out other ships but lacked the capital to do it. The quick solution seemed to be to use what little I had earned to upgrade to a hauler, facilitating more lucrative cargo runs and courier missions. This would be my stepping stone to something more glamorous.

Sadly, the bargain basement hauler, the Zorgon Peterson, is a comical embarrassment to self-respecting spaceships everywhere. It's a testament to Frontier's craftsmanship that they can make the various ship hulls feel so different just by tweaking handling parameters and changing some audio and visual material. The Zorgon Peterson experience was certainly a far cry from the Sidewinder starter ship.

The moment I laid eyes on the cheap plastic interior, I knew I'd never bond with this ship. The dashboard and air-vents look like they're taken straight from a 1990s Japanese minivan. On launching, my heart sank further as the feeble engine noise became audible. Was this thing powered by an elastic band?

Having made my purchase and accepted a charter, I had little choice but to launch and drift forlornly into space, a hold full of cargo that someone wanted moved somewhere pronto. the little crapheap wheezed its way out of mass lock range and I engaged hyperspace.

Nothing happened.

I was informed by my HUD that something was deployed, preventing the jump. I checked and double checked: I'd definitely withdrawn the landing gear, I hadn't accidentally activated to cargo scoop, nor had I done anything involving hardpoints or discovery scanners (causing a known bug). I repeatedly pressed several buttons, but to no avail. I had no choice but to turn around and dock up. Maybe I could demand my money back.

The only problem was, despite my landing showing as deployed, I couldn't touch down. Clearly this hauler was a duffer. Zorgon Peterson are apparently the Skodas of the Elite universe.

Eventually I resolved the issue by shutting down the client and restarting, but by this time I was up against the clock with regard to my delivery. Despite my best efforts thereafter, I missed the deadline and got a hefty fine for my troubles.

So much for hauling being a moneyspinner, but part of me hopes they keep this bug in as long as it's specific to the Zorgon Peterson. It adds character.

[NEXT PAGE] - [Back to Moments in Elite: Dangerous]