The EVE battle logs: Running With The Wolves

Phil Hartup concludes 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, took part in his first major battle. In this, his third and final report from the biggest virtual war the world has ever seen, he explores the conspiracy theories that breed inside the game.

Although the experience of fighting in a massive battle had left me somewhat nonplussed, I was hopeful that I’d find a more engaging fight at some point, something smaller. Luck was seldom with me on this front however. Meanwhile, I kept an ear to the ground, listening to the reports of smaller battles and station attacks occurring outside of my time zone. The traffic was mostly one way and it was clear one side was feeling the pain more. CFC came into the war with a bulging war chest and the systems in place to turn those resources into ships as needed. Even if TEST had been able to turn those results around early on in the war the logistical structure of CFC could withstand the hits. But TEST wasn’t winning those fights and the disparity only grew.

The moment for a faster-paced battle came during the last action I fought before my subscription ran out, tackling as a part of a Wolf fleet. Our role was to pursue and destroy fleeing enemies. We hunted the remnants of an enemy fleet, chased down the stragglers, cut off their escape routes and hounded them back to their own space, killing several along the way. Well I say we, even in one of the fastest ships in the group it was a struggle to keep up with the pace of the orders. This was the game being played well above my level.

The fleet were having a whale of a time, and there was an urgency and pace to the operation I had not yet seen, but after a while I wasn’t feeling it.

The reasons for the disenchantment came down to two realisations about the game and about how wars work in online games.

The first realisation came after a battle fought between CFC and TEST forces that day. A small battle broke out between a few hundred ships from each side in the innocuously sounding system of Z9PP, with more being brought in as the fight progressed. Before too long this skirmish had grown into what looked to be the decisive battle of the war. TEST had gone all-in, deploying their fleet of capital ships alongside those of their allies from another alliance called Pandemic Legion. While TEST and PL might have thought that they would turn the tide of the battle by bringing out their big guns all this extra firepower served only to provide a juicier target for CFCs pilots and commanders, and they brought even more forces to the battle.

As the battle wore on it became apparent that there would only be one winner. CFC was bringing more firepower and was grinding through the enemy forces inexorably, the TEST and PL capital fleets had been committed hastily, and things were looking bleak. PL, thanks to some deft flying, managed to extricate their capital ships from the battle, saving them from destruction, but there was now no saving the TEST fleet, whose hopes of escape had faded and their only chance for survival now rested on hunkering down and staying alive until the scheduled server downtime.

Or so it seemed until an employee of CCP, while supposedly attempting to increase the performance on the server node running this system of space, pressed the wrong button and at a stroke ended the battle. Nearly the entire TEST capital fleet was saved, but my faith in the game and the way it is administered didn’t. Such a spectacular mistake from a company with ten years of experience running the game really puts into perspective just how silly the whole thing is. There is a schism between how seriously the players take the game in terms of how committed many of them are to it, and how seriously the game takes the players, at least those in nullsec. It becomes difficult to see the rationale to a game when events of such import can be determined remotely.

Conspiracy theories abounded, mostly because of the timing, it was a literal miracle for the TEST fleet, but it was clear enough now from how the battle had been going before the plug was pulled how the war was going to end. Both sides had shown their hand and it was clear which one had the four aces and which one had Mrs Bun the Baker, a Top Trumps card about triceratops and the reference for the rules of bridge.

It was perhaps this second realisation; that the war was now over bar the considerable administrative effort required to obliterate the many thousands of remaining enemy ships, which also led me to lose interest in the game. Going into this war it felt like I was going to see something exciting, a feat of strategy and skill at arms, albeit with oddly shaped spaceships in a video game. Instead what I saw was the cold, grim, reality of how EVE works on the grand scale. It’s not so much about being good with yours ships, nor is it about being clever with combat strategy. It’s about logistics. It’s about organisation. It’s about getting your players to turn up and put in a shift and getting your opponents to find a new hobby.

Every battle CFC was burning enemy materiel, but more than this, CFC was stretching the enemy’s will to fight to breaking point too. Fleets would be formed to offer battle and then stood down to frustrate the enemy, who would have to commit maybe two or more hours to every no-show. Constant, niggling asymmetrical attacks demanded the time and attention of the enemy players at all hours to deal with, and the superior numbers of active CFC players forced the enemy to work harder just to hold what they had. When a game becomes work it becomes less fun to play, and sure enough the enemy numbers began to shrink. Battles and fleet actions remained fairly common, but weight of numbers and superior organisation saw CFC bleed the enemy without losing anything it couldn’t afford to in the process.

To outsiders it looked like CFC had been contained, that their invasion was being stalled. In truth it was simply that CFC was happier to keep killing them by inches and after around two months of fighting TEST and its remaining allies were a shadow of the force that had fought us to a standstill at B-DBYQ.

When the stakes are high in a video game, and you start to lose, and you start to see what you had in the game evaporating in front of you, then you have two choices. You can dig deep into your soul and summon up the will of a champion, try your best to rally your friends to your side and fight over and over against impossible odds. Or you could play something else and come back later; that’s the player’s privilege, and a lot of players avail themselves of it when the chips are down.

This conquest was scary to see in action, especially from the logistical side, CFC is a war fighting machine. But something felt wrong. There’s this vast, unstoppable space-battle-winning machine, without any equal in EVE, and it fights to win with a ruthless efficiency, even against enemies it vastly overmatches.

It is hard to argue with results, and it is not like CFC was always on top. They learned strategy under the harshest circumstances, but it is not a plucky underdog any more. Maybe they paid TEST a compliment by treating them as such a serious threat, but part of me laments that the CFC forces didn’t simply smash straight into the target and keep smashing into them until everything was blown up on both sides. If you’re going to play the weight of numbers game, in terms of experienced and motivated combat pilots if not necessarily raw player count, it’s only polite to be bad at everything else. But that’s the commitment to game these guys have.

The concern for EVE has to be now where the next big fight comes from in nullsec, because assuming CFC goes on to lock down the valuable Fountain system that’s about that. The developers like to throw in the odd curveball to shake the game up and promote conflict in nullsec, but there’s an elephant in the room, and that elephant is dressed as a bee and it is very good at stamping on threats. After a decade of conflict in EVE it really doesn’t look like anybody will be challenging that elephant in a meaningful way, perhaps ever again.

*

A few days after this article was written on the 29 July the Fountain War saw what will probably be its final large scale fighting, in the 6VDT system. This was the largest battle in EVE history and it has even been reported on in mainstream media outlets. It is interesting to see how it is reported however because watching the fight happening and listening to the information coming through from CFC it looked about as one sided an affair as could be imagined.

The actual fight lasted barely two hours before the TEST forces broke. This sounds like a long time, and it is when you’re sitting there in agonising slow motion trying to make a ship fight, but in the heavily time dilated battle space meant this only about ten minutes of actual shooting took place. So two fleets, each approximately two thousand strong, met in combat, and with about ten minutes of fighting one of them was in full retreat with massive casualties. That is not a battle; that is a massacre.

The reality that the stories seldom mention is that this war was done and dusted months ago, and there was little doubt of the eventual winner even when the announcement to invade was first made. When the 6VDT battle began, TEST were late, and they turned up in the best ships they could reasonably afford to lose, they were not expecting a victory or committed to gaining one. The TEST capital ships for example that escaped at Z9PP, for the most part they remain escaped. This was not an all-in last ditch defence of a system; rather it was an end-of-war party, with TEST offering up their own lame duck fleet as the buffet.

Lose an affordable ship in return for getting to say, "I was there at 6VDT, the biggest battle in gaming history." Congratulations to TEST for their contribution, because if they hadn’t bravely stepped up to be the EVE equivalent of those little metal ducks in a shooting gallery history would not have been made that day.

A fight underway in EVE: Online.

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

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle