Phil Hartup on videogames

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The EVE battle logs: Fighting to capture Fountain

Phil Hartup continues his series of reports from the world of EVE: Online, the largest virtual war the world has ever seen.

Serpentis Prime in The Fountain region. Photograph: CCP

Yesterday Phil Hartup, our embedded reporter in EVE: Online, gained the trust of the game's corporations. In this, his second report from the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen, he heads to the frontline.

Having joined the Goonwaffe somewhere near the edge of Empire space things were suddenly not quite as simple as anticipated. There I was, sitting in my five year old space cruiser, a Thorax class, with an obsolete complement of weapons and equipment that I’d more or less forgotten how to use, and for good measure I’d just slapped a set of unpopular clan tags over my head, like wearing a red sombrero to the running of the bulls. I didn’t know what I was meant to be doing or where I was meant to be doing it, and worst of all there was a war starting, somewhere, that I was meant to be fighting in and obviously if I didn’t get to the staging area before kick-off to take my place in battle there was a very good chance that the CFC fleet would lose.

First port of call, open the help channel for Goonwaffe members and see about getting all of the help. In online gaming new players are usually looked down upon but inexperienced or rusty returning players in EVE are seen by the smarter player groups as a resource to ensure the future. In some ways it is the Goons that forced this way of thinking into orthodoxy - in the early days alliances used to pride themselves on being elite, on having minimum requirements of skill points and experience and turning away those who didn’t measure up. The folly of such policies is evidenced by the fact that the CFC now runs things in nullsec.

Thus help is at hand, lots of help. Everything from setting up the user interface to what video settings to go for and where the fire button is. Although the assorted friendly folks in the help channel don’t rate my chances of making it to the staging area alive, they are pretty supportive about it. Forget about all your old gear, they tell me, just get to the staging area and you’ll be taken care of. Sounds fair enough, and I can’t be bothered trying to track down nine years-worth of old ships and fittings on my antiquated character anyway, so with nothing but a ship I set off to war.

The journey is easy, just hit the autopilot and off it goes. There’s something off about the trip though, even going through first lowsec and into null, everything is quiet. Even sporting the most eminently killable corporation tags in the game very little happens. At one jump gate there is an alert, something trying to lock weapons on me, but it’s a feeble effort, my lone cruiser on autopilot without any real combat fittings is as soft a target as you could find, but somehow they fail to catch me, whoever they are. The other gates are quiet, the route is clear. People, even pirates, are getting the out of the way.

At the staging area I see more names in local chat than I have ever seen in this game. Well over a thousand players logged in, no knowing how many more logged out in the system waiting for the signal over Pidgin to begin. There’s a sense that there will be violence soon, proper violence, hardcore spaceship on spaceship action, the kind of thing that EVE is famous for, I can hardly wait.

The battle in question is part of a CFC land grab in a region of EVE space called Fountain. CFC with some assorted allies are fighting to take this region from a group called TEST, and some of their allies who have joined them in an effort to kill CFC ships and thwart the Goons on general principle.

The perception is that TEST is weak and that Fountain contains a lot of resources, so other alliances are propping them up as a kind of proxy. They hold the territory while others fight on it. Seems simple, but it complicates logistics for the defenders, plus it leaves their own territory open to attack. The stakes are high, if CFC succeeds in capturing Fountain they will have all the money they need for months into the future and will become effectively unassailable.

When the signal comes to stand to for battle it’s already late in the evening. I log into the game and am directed to a chat channel to ask for ships to use in the fight. A friendly member of the logistics group passes me a small pile of full outfitted frigates. They are tacklers, in this case Atron class, ships designed to stop other ships getting away by disrupting their ability to move or warp away from a fight. Fast and lightly armed the tacklers are reliant upon speed rather than armour or shields to remain alive in battle, also the fact that they are such insignificant targets hopefully nobody would pick on one.

Getting into a fleet, getting into the comms channel, all is well. Mustering with the rest of the group is a test of my long rusted ship handling skills, but I manage to keep up. The CFC forces consist of several fleets each of around a hundred and fifty ships, mostly battleships or heavy cruisers firing missiles with support ships, electronic warfare ships and others to hand. Everybody knows what they are about, except me it seems, as my tiny Atron floats amid this shoal of mighty vessels like a piece of plankton.

The armada, now well over a thousand ships, jumps into the next system. The enemy are there, more than a thousand of them too. We make some moves around the system, they do likewise, like two belligerent swarms of hornets, not entirely sure where the other is, searching for an advantage. The game starts to slow down, entering what is called Time Dilation, everything happening extra slow, to stop the game going out of sync and crashing the server, it is a vaguely surreal experience, but not so bad at first. After a while it appears the enemy are stronger than they seemed at first and we retreat at speed back to our starting system. Already a couple of hours have elapsed since the call to arms was first made and I worry that, in the face of superior enemy firepower, maybe we’re going to stand down.

The enemy don’t give us that option.

My fleet are still at the gate as a rear guard of the formation when the enemy start to come through after us. A few ships appear, we lock weapons and destroy them, but they keep coming, and they keep getting bigger. The trickle of small ships suddenly becomes blocks of heavy warships. The floodgates are open and battle is joined at close enough range that I’m not sure if I should fire my turrets or fix bayonets to them. Such thoughts don’t last long though, because this is when Time Dilation really kicks in.

When the Time Dilation in EVE hits maximum the game becomes less about what you do and more about waiting to do it. You lock onto ships that have already been destroyed, you take evasive action against the shots that have already killed you and you float around, hoping you’ll actually do something useful and that the enemy doesn’t see you do it. Or maybe that is just me. The more experienced pilots in both fleets seemed much more comfortable, going through the motions, calling targets, directing their fire, calling for help if needed, repairing friends, systematically pounding the foes with coordinated waves of missiles and gunfire. Half an hour of fighting stretched painfully over four hours as both sides very gradually knocked the stuffing out of each other.

By the end of it all, I’ve been destroyed three times and the CFC fleet has been pushed back to our station, elements of it still fighting, while groups sallied out to try to clear the station in case anybody tried to retreat to it. The capacity to replace our lost ships faster than the enemy could replace theirs saw the enemy withdraw, both sides battered, both later claiming victory.

The battle felt like a defeat, the enemy had held their ground and pushed our attack back to the staging area, but a look at the casualties told a different story. Our cheap ships had inflicted many casualties on the more expensive ships of the enemy, and we hadn’t lost too many more. Like a Corsa crashing into a Porsche, we couldn’t call it a win, but we wouldn’t feel half as bad about the bill at the garage.

For me thought the experience was largely disappointing. I had expected a battle, what I got was a slideshow. For such a key part of warfare in nullsec the epic battles are not an EVE strongpoint, although as an economic sink they work very well. Billions of ISK in ship value, hundreds of man hours in ship construction, and an evening in the lives of about three thousand players, all burned up on the gate that night.

What would ultimately decide the conflict is who had the most to burn.

The third and final part of Phil's EVE battle logs will be on newstatesman.com/killing-time tomorrow.