It's a lot smaller, but EVE Online's mobile spin-off is so good I almost prefer it

(Image credit: CCP Games)

I didn't think EVE Online could translate into a good mobile game. It's the most complicated and dense MMO I've ever played, and its user interface can get so unruly that at some point any dedicated player has probably spent an hour just configuring it. EVE Online is a bafflingly complex game, which is why it ends up creating some of the coolest stories in PC gaming. It's hard to imagine that experience squished to fit on a phone.

But that's exactly what EVE Echoes does. It's an entirely separate game from the PC MMO—accounts and progress aren't shared—co-developed by NetEase. Released back in August, EVE Echoes is a smaller and simpler version of its big brother, but it's also much more accessible. I don't have much time these days to personally invest in EVE Online's sprawling ecosystem of player-driven wars, political scandals, and skullduggery, but playing EVE Echoes is a surprisingly fun substitute.

EVE's little brother 

I can't understate how incredible it feels to play this on my phone.

In a way, EVE Echoes reminds me of what EVE Online looked like when I first started playing nearly a decade ago. A lot of different features and activities are missing right now, but the spirit of EVE is still alive and well. You create a character that exists with hundreds of thousands of others in a big, sandbox universe where you can pretty much do whatever you want. You can mine ore, build ships, or carve out a career as a space trucker—or as one of the pirates who ambush them.

Glancing at Echoes it's hard to spot the differences aside from a new UI designed for touchscreens. The core of EVE is largely untouched. You still maneuver your ship by feeding it directions like "warp here" or "orbit this thing at 26km," and if you're a dumbass and recklessly fly into low-security systems you'll get your ship permanently obliterated by other players. When I first visited Jita, the central trade hub of EVE Online, my local chat window quickly swelled with scammers offering suspiciously good deals on rare items. Yup, this is EVE alright.

I can't understate how incredible it feels to play this on my phone. While some high-end graphical touches are missing, this is EVE Online pretty much as it looks on my computer. It looks gorgeous. NetEase has also done a remarkable job of reimagining the UI and controls to work on my 6.2 inch Samsung Galaxy S20 screen. It took a while to acclimate, but now I'm deftly jumping between menus, adding new skills to my training queue while my ship warps from one destination to the next.

Combat works particularly well thanks to some really clever touches. If I want to orbit an enemy ship at a particular distance, I just tap the ship in my overview window and hold the orbit command. If I drag my thumb out, that menu switches to a radial distance meter, letting me select the exact distance I want to maintain from my target.

In EVE Online, the overview, a window that lists nearby objects so you can easily select them instead of finding them in 3D space, is a nightmarishly complicated tool that players spend forever fiddling with. It's so much easier to use in Echoes. There are some basic filters to choose from, like showing everything in nearby space or just enemy ships, and I can make my own custom filters, too. I don't have access to hyper-granular options like making a special column just to track enemy ships' transversal velocity, but I don't really miss it.

These kinds of simplifications are everywhere in EVE Echoes. It's a much leaner game than its big brother, which makes it easier to play and much less daunting. Guns don't use ammo, for example, which is a blessing because I hate having to memorize the dozens of ammo variants in EVE Online and which type of combat scenario each one is ideal for. Echoes is also missing a lot of the more specialized ship and module variants but compensates with some new types so those combat roles are still viable.

I won't be flying one of EVE Online's heavy-interdiction cruisers anytime soon (if ever), but I can still train towards flying a covert-ops stealth bomber. I doubt the phone version will win scores of active EVE Online players over, but I like that Echoes caters to a more casual audience. It's still a hardcore sandbox MMO, just a much leaner one.

It's a much leaner game than its big brother, which makes it easier to play and much less daunting.

I'm a little ashamed of how quickly Echoes has wormed its way into my daily life. There's some jankiness to fix, like chat history disappearing if you tab out of the game, but EVE feels perfect for a phone. In the PC version, I'm frequently doing something else on my second monitor while my character is traveling around. There's a lot of downtime in EVE, and it's frustrating that I'm anchored to my desk for the moments when the game does need my input.

On my phone, though, I can autopilot to a destination and just put my phone away and do something else because I'll get a notification when I've arrived. I'm in the checkout aisle at a grocery store and people think I'm looking at text messages like a normal person, but joke's on them: I'm actually being a huge fucking nerd playing internet spaceships.

Hear you scream 

On the whole, I enjoy how slimmed down Echoes is, but plenty of features are missing from EVE Online that I'd consider absolutely essential for the full experience. It's frustrating having to make due without them.

The player market is a pain in the ass. In EVE Online, I once had an entire separate account dedicated to playing the market—buying low, selling high, and tracking it all on spreadsheets (don't judge me). It's a very cerebral and popular way of playing EVE, one that's supported by EVE Online's amazingly granular market window that shows everything from recent sale prices to average daily volume. Echoes has none of this. I can sort goods by highest price or lowest price and that's it. It sucks.

It's also frustrating how few features the star map currently has. When venturing into dangerous territory, veterans will know how to use the map to glean vital bits of intel to stay alive. In EVE Online proper, I can see how many player ships were destroyed over a certain period or how many players entered and exited that system. No such feature exists in Echoes, leaving me to fly blind in dangerous territory.

Plenty of features are missing from EVE Online that I'd consider absolutely essential for the full experience.

Echoes is also missing a lot of the most exciting activities of EVE Online. There's no wormhole space, for example, and you can't scan down hidden exploration sites to discover lucrative ancient technology. Their absence makes New Eden feel much emptier. NetEase hasn't released a roadmap of what's to come, but I hope it does soon because right now there's not a whole lot to do outside of the basics.

Of course, all of these PvE activities have always played a secondary role to the real appeal of EVE Online. What keeps New Eden turning is being able to participate in a living, breathing metaverse of players warring, stealing, helping, and avenging one another. Because Echoes is a separate game, it's a bit like pushing the reset button on that 17-year player-driven history, and I'm a little worried that Echoes might not have the fuel to sustain a virtual civilization of that same magnitude.

A big part of what makes EVE fun to play is the communities that have gone to such great lengths to create resources, guides, and events for players to participate in. I imagine it'll take some time before I see EVE University training fleets on the prowl.

Already the Echoes community is worried about the overwhelming number of bots that have seemingly infested the game, and what they might do to the economy. It's alarming to go to a backwater star system in EVE Online and find it buzzing with 100 other players. NetEase has said it's already banned 150,000 accounts, but after flying around for a bit, I wouldn't be surprised if that's a small fraction of the total bot count. But I'm willing to give NetEase the benefit of the doubt for now, because it's been active in updating the game and responding to feedback and bugs. EVE Online wasn't built in a day, and, like most MMOs, it'll take some time before I'll know for sure whether Echoes is capable of recapturing that same magic.

These big-picture concerns aside, though, I'm having a lot of fun. Echoes is an excellent alternative for people who love the idea of EVE Online but can never get into it—either because it requires too much time or is too daunting. That NetEase managed to distill the soul of such an unwieldy, complicated game into something that works on mobile is awesome, even if some of the fundamental elements are currently missing.

Steven Messner

With over 7 years of experience with in-depth feature reporting, Steven's mission is to chronicle the fascinating ways that games intersect our lives. Whether it's colossal in-game wars in an MMO, or long-haul truckers who turn to games to protect them from the loneliness of the open road, Steven tries to unearth PC gaming's greatest untold stories. His love of PC gaming started extremely early. Without money to spend, he spent an entire day watching the progress bar on a 25mb download of the Heroes of Might and Magic 2 demo that he then played for at least a hundred hours. It was a good demo.