Exclusive: Hands on with Outer Empires, iPhone's answer to EVE Online

Deep, deep space

Exclusive: Hands on with Outer Empires, iPhone's answer to EVE Online
| Outer Empires

A great philosopher once wrote that space is big. Really big.

A few minutes playing the forthcoming iPhone sci-fi MMO Outer Empires, and I really appreciate that statement.

Iron Will is no stranger to building MMOs, but Outer Empires is something of a unique entity on the iPhone. Pocket Gamer has been give a tour of this brand new virtual universe, which exists within a perpetual world accessible through both the iPhone and an internet browser.

Right away the scope of the game becomes evident. The fact that you can play the game on the bus as you travel to work, then open up your web browser once you’re squirreled away inside your cubicle and pick up the exact same game without having to install anything on your work’s computer, should appeal massively to anyone who’s ever found themselves addicted to an MMO.

Although we prefer to avoid direct comparisons, it seems only practical to string together the games Elite, Sins of a Solar Empire and EVE Online to best describe what to expect in Outer Empires.

It all begins quite innocently. You’re given a small shuttle to flit between star systems allowing you to run odd jobs. Scanning systems and delivering the results to a space station, transporting goods, buying and selling ore as you travel - there are lots of ways to find your space legs and bring in enough credits to buy fuel and supplies.

You can search the current station, system or sector for the parts you need to upgrade your ship accordingly, increasing your ability to trade, travel and fight. As your bank account swells, you can fly further afield and begin colonising planets - establishing mining facilities, or bases, or whatever type of fixed location best serves your needs.

The Outer Empires MMO features a complex galactic economy to achieve all this, but it goes beyond a space-based trading game. The developer tells me of a strong desire to encourage the growth of communities within the game’s universe.

Mainly this is achieved through factions, which allows for an in-group chat system (alongside the wider server-based chat and local communications between ships in the same system), private faction forums, a banking system and a host of other features designed to build genuine communities working toward a common goal.

Members of the faction can put their money into a community pot, to be spent as per the faction’s remit by the relevant member. Each member is allocated certain privileges, such as ‘bank’, and ‘quartermaster’, which grants them the ability to administer the faction's wealth and supplies.

Structuring your collective properly, and working together toward an objective (colonisation, social growth, insurgency, inter-galactic piracy - whatever it may be) is clearly the key to expansion throughout this fertile universe.

Naturally, it wouldn’t be outer space without galactic battles, and Outer Empires packs those in, too. What’s even more interesting is the way in which politics are also coming into play quite organically.

Recently, during the game’s testing phase, a ship was attacked, prompting a response from the ship’s faction. Rather than launch a war, however, reparations for the attack were agreed upon between the two factions, which speaks volumes about the kind of sociopolitical exchanges expected within this sprawling universe - especially as the number of inhabitants grows.

The game works entirely via the touchscreen, mostly through a menu driven system. Checking your active jobs, looking in on the rest of the faction, allocating navigation points within the system (and jumping between systems), your current fuel and energy supplies, the in-game chat system and a host of other functions are at your fingertips every bit as much as they’re at your mouse pointer in the browser version.

Indeed, the iPhone version feels somehow slicker - more compact and accessible. Not to say the browser version isn’t, but Outer Empires undeniably fits the iPhone like a magnetic confinement stream around an antimatter injector (everything I know, I learned from Star Trek. And Douglas Adams).

One reasonable concern would be over population, which brings us back to our opening Douglas Adams quote. There’s no danger of players running out of worlds to populate or colonies to build.

This map, updated hourly, shows the current realm of expansion within Outer Empires (the green blob). Only a fraction of this small corner of the game universe has actually been populated, with another 20,000 or so systems waiting to be discovered.

The sheer scale is at once mesmerising and intimidating. The time, effort and fuel it takes to jump between two systems brings home the awe-inspiring grandeur of this virtual universe - not unlike the feeling of insignificance that washes over you when staring up at the night stars.

Therefore, this expansive realm should hold massive appeal for the online gamer, and an alluring gateway for newcomers to the MMO arena. The scope of trade, community, war and growth are as immense as the Outer Empires universe itself.

So it seems our opening slice of sci-fi wisdom needs updating for Outer Empires’s release next month.

Cyberspace is big. Really big.