by Jeff "Ethec" Woleslagle
December 7, 2007 - I admit it: I was skeptical about Trinity, EVE Online's latest expansion released by CCP in typical short-notice fashion on December 5th, 2007. I never denied that the preview images of EVE Online's latest expansion looked good, and I wouldn't want to look a free expansion in the mouth. But would Trinity really live up to the hype we've been hearing since early summer? New content and gameplay features are always nice, but I wasn't the only one not quite sold on the visual revamp.
But first, Trinity's features. For a complete rundown, I recommend this entertaining presentation by Nathan "Oveur" Richardsson at EVE Fan Fest 2007. I'll glance over the content and gameplay features to get to the core of the update: the complete graphical revamp that reportedly took 50 man-years for CCP's artists and programmers to create.
The new, highly specialized ships are cool, of course, as are the new agent missions, booster manufacturing and exploration options, revised heat handling, the return of mining missions, and other combat nifties like reactive ARM Scripts and the new capability for in-motion stealth bombing runs. But unless you're big into the hardcore game - high-stakes PvP combat, mining, manufacturing, POS refueling, etc. – perhaps the only things for you in Trinity's sweeping features list are the new missions, the revamped tutorial, and, of course, the new "premium" visuals. For a free expansion (coming from a developer that doesn't seem to believe in retail expansions), that's already more than most developers would offer.
Yet CCP had stated all along that the real focus of Trinity was a complete next-gen graphical revamp of the game. No one was disputing the beauty of EVE Online even before the visual mulligan for Shader Model 3-enabled graphics cards (anything this side of the nVidia 6800 running in Windows, we're told), and I wasn't the only one wondering why CCP should fix up something that wasn't broken or, for that matter, gently worn. EVE simply was and is the most beautiful space game we've ever seen, and I doubt anyone ever brought that into question even before the Trinity revamp was announced. I, like many, couldn't quite see the sense in it.
That was before I logged in for the first time this week. While the "Classic" screens aren't bad looking, the "Premium" screens are, to me at least, a cut above. I'll let some rough but unofficial comparison pictures do the writing for a moment. On the left you'll see the classic models, on the left, the premium models of the same ship.
And screenshots can only capture part of the effect, since you'll only realize things like the new environment reflection when your ship is moving around in the environment… er, reflecting things. While CCP explained Trinity's new graphics with lots of fancy words like "emissive glow" and "ambient occlusion" in this video, it really boils down to a better visual experience in-game. It feels like the game has grown up a little; my Megathron battleship looks less like a starched pair of bellbottoms and more like a truly threatening instrument of warfare. The devil is truly in the details.
Natually you'd expect a performance hit, but surprisingly we didn't see one when you account for the fact that most eyes can't distinguish even the slightest frame flicker past 60 FPS. With settings maxed in Classic outside a busy station, I was steadily seeing Fraps framerates in excess of 100 FPS dipping about 30 FPS in a pitched deadspace battle (not a PvP fleet action, mind you, though I'm willing to bet that you'd see server-side latency before frame rates dip below the benchmark 30. This is nothing new for EVE, though. Same scenario in Premium – settings entirely maxed out – I experienced entirely acceptable framerates from 65-90 FPS on my fairly high-end system (WES of 5.2, for those of you keeping score at home). CCP promised a better look without losing performance through the increasing power of GPU rendering, and it looks like they've hit the mark.
Other objects, like stations and stargates, also got a new look.
While the two-tier delivery of Trinity's Classic patch (24 mb) and Premium patch (~650 mb) went as smooth as silk per the outline in this session at EVE Fan Fest 2007, the only rain on the Trinity launch day parade was an unfortunate side effect of installing the Premium upgrade with a version of pre-6.0 (pre-Vista: XP, 2000) Windows installed on a secondary partition. Doing so before a fixed version of the upgrade was released would delete the boot.ini file, rendering the OS unbootable. CCP immediately spammed "DO NOT REBOOT" in large type on the login screen and for ships docked in stations with links to a fix. While hopefully users of this more complex boot setup are of a sufficient skill level to apply the fix from another OS on the same system, the damage was likely done before the call went out to avoid a re-boot. This might, however, be the first time that running a game on Vista actually prevented - rather than caused- problems.
All in all, despite the initial problems, this is a content-rich and visually stunning update that ultimately seems to have proven itself worthy of the hype. CCP is continuing the 2007 theme of breathing new life into venerable MMOG titles via comprehensive visual revamps, a pattern started by EA Mythic with their decade-old title Ultima Online: Kingdom Reborn last March and continued in small doses by the developers of EverQuest. Hats off to these developers for their solid efforts to support these games and their avid communities.
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