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.

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 tomorrow.

Serpentis Prime in The Fountain region. Photograph: CCP

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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The conflict in Yemen is a Civil War by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood