It is incredibly tempting to describe Vendetta Online (available from here on Windows, Mac and Linux) as an updated version of Elite, or as EVE-Online-lite. Never having played EVE Online (I'm saving up for an Intel Mac so I can have a look), I'm not sure if that is 100% fair - and many of the people who play Vendetta will swear if you mention such comparisons, but I do remember Elite and Vendetta Online certainly has elements that strongly remind me of that, although none of the developers have ever played Elite. Comparing this game to Elite is not a bad thing, and the graphics of the modern interface are truly amazing. One nice touch is if you return to a space station heavily damaged, you have smoke and sparks billowing from your craft on the distance shots, such as entering and leaving a wormhole (as in the picture above).
There are three races in Vendetta Online - it's not really clear that there are appreciable differences between them though, but access to weapons and ships is affected by race. You start, inevitably, as a rookie pilot, and there are a family of training missions, then a basic pilot's test which is well worth taking. Why? Well, if you pass the test (it's not hard, although there is one step where I suspect everyone will die, even if they are experienced players running out a new character) you get given sufficient experience to get access to better spaceships and equipment.
In Vendetta Online there aren't character stats directly. However, you obtain experience points in combat, light weapons, heavy weapons, trading and mining. These are described as 'licenses' and as your license levels increase you also increase the access to weapons and ships. Note, however, that it's not always the case that weapons, or ships, requiring higher license levels will actually give you a better weapon or ship, although that is largely the case, as you might expect.
Once you have completed the various training missions you are, more or less, on your own. However I would strongly recommend looking at some of the basic missions on offer. The first time I completed a simple trading mission, I also received a bonus to bring my trading license up a level - and thus gained access to a fairly nice general purpose ship. There are bot-hunting missions you undertake for the military, in which you practice light weapons (and probably other skills too as time goes by) but gain bonus training in combat and heavy weapons. This can be very important for access to bigger and better ships and weapons as heavy weapons and/or combat levels are often the limiting factor. The loot you gain also gets you experience in trading. It's a win-win situation, unless you want to be a miner. There are also mining missions out there which do similar things, although I must admit mining is not top of my priorities. That said, the biggest trader you can buy as an Itani requires mining-4 as well as trading-8, so some mining is almost certainly well worth it.
As you travel around you will find the missions on offer, and the commodities available change. If you want to save up huge amounts of money I suspect trading is the way to go, but, to be honest, killing bots is good practise and the loot you take will more than pay for the upgrades to ships, repairing them and the like that I've come across to date. The ships and the weapons change too as you move around.
Vendetta Online comes with a free eight hour trial. Eight hours was enough to make me hook out some money (there are a huge range of ways to pay, from credit cards to various internet cash transfer options, including PayPal) to continue to play it.
I've spent most of my eight hours blowing up bots - enough of them to get a medal in fact. Combat can be incredibly simple - just sneak up on your foe, open fire and blow it to bits before it can react. It's not always that easy though, and this will trigger other bots to attack you. There are also various types of bot, some are easy to kill, some are more of a challenge, but by the end of the trial time I was starting to feel pretty confident about tackling groups of low-end (collector) bots in a dog-fight. Guardian bots are still a real challenge however - they tend to be aggressive and well armed and although I have killed some, they are still on my learning curve. There a bots beyond this level too, right up to hive queens which are a significant challenge.
There are two modes of flying in Vendetta Online. There is a "basic flight" called Flight Assist, in which you fly much like a plane. You point your nose where you want to go and fly and shoot that way. This is excellent for approaching a space station, collecting debris and the like. In a fight though, it's a bit painful for me. There is a physical mode too, in which you can spin the ship and you need to apply thrust to change flight vectors. This, for example, lets you set course for the jump point blast off at maximum speed, then spin round and shoot the bot that is chasing you. This can be fraught if you are fighting (as you often are) in an asteroid belt, but it is really the only way I felt able to cope with the manoeuvering required for a decent dog fight. According to the website, however, when testing this system about half of the users found they preferred the Flight Assist mode for dog fights too.
Players can choose to become pirates. It's not clear to me why I should, but it happens, and the general chat channel contains chatter about pirates, from both pirates and victims. That said, I tend to avoid characters that get into PvP, but given two of the races are at war with each other, some level of combat is almost certainly inevitable. There are border patrol missions available, if you are at the border, which are set up for intense group combat and PvP combat. Perhaps unsurprisingly I died very quickly when I went over there, I obviously need to practise my combat skills more before heading back that way.
Guild Software, Inc, the manufacturers of Vendetta Online are a 4 person team, and they all maintain an in-world presence. Because they are a small team they tend to realise updates in small, frequent steps rather than the big expansion pack steps you see in some other games. However, they do have a plan for longer term upgrades in bigger steps too - they are expecting to change from 1.7 to 1.8 this month, and step up to 2.0 early next year. John Bergman, the CEO, in response to an email asking if I could use some of their screenshots, commented that these processes will also be introducing a lot more content, and more content for people at lower levels in the game too. I have to say I'm still finding this game compelling and I would say I'm at a beginner stage still, perhaps moving from low to intermediate levels in some areas.