It's just like raiding!
Before I tackle the question of whether incursions are the great group PvE experience we've all been waiting for, I'd best get the obvious question out of the way. Yes, the incursion sites are kind of like short dungeons or raids in other MMOs. CONCORD only promises to reward groups of a certain size for the successful completion of all mission objectives. This introduces limitations on the number of people you can feasibly bring to a site, a restriction that mirrors raid limits in other MMOs. Players can tackle small Scout sites in groups of 3-5, 5-10-player Vanguard encounters, Assault sites aimed at between 10 and 20 players, or massive Headquarter encounters designed for 20-40 combatants.
Each incursion site even has its own mission objectives and tactical elements. My personal favourite encounter so far has been the vanguard mining colony, in which players must mine some unstable ore and use it to destroy a nearby battle-station. The defending Sansha ships must be killed to decloak a refinery, into which 300 units of the ore must be placed to start the explosive chain reaction. Another particularly awesome mechanic involves Sansha's forces activating powerful remote repair platforms, which a fleet member must hack into and shut down to prevent the enemy fleet from rapidly repairing.
... But with an EVE twist
While superficially the incursion sites share many similarities with traditional MMO raids, CCP has pulled it off with a definite touch of EVE flair. The encounter areas are public, non-instanced, and unlimited when it comes to the number of players who can physically enter. Multiple capsuleer fleets frequently turn up to attempt the same encounter, and usually neither side is willing to back down. In lowsec, this makes incursions an excellent flashpoint for spontaneous PvP, providing opportunities for piracy and escalating war campaigns. In high-security space, competition for sites is high and multiple groups will often be found attempting to clear the same site simultaneously.
If this happens, the fleet that completes the most mission objectives and kills the most ships will win the encounter and receive all of the rewards. I experienced this first-hand when a fleet with much higher damage-dealing potential than ours took over our Vanguard mining colony encounter. The fleet began mining the unstable ore from afar using mining drones, while we had a specialised mining cruiser with a microwarpdrive speeding over to the asteroid. We got our ore mined and into the refinery just before the armour gang, completing the site's main objective and securing the entire reward for our fleet. It's a competitive PvE race to the finish line, and all bets are off. You're free to declare war on opposing corporations, beat them to important mission objectives or even try to insert spies into their fleets to betray them at a crucial moment. While practically all fleets are free of these intrusions, the fact that it's possible is awesome.
Looking for group
When you reach an incursion zone, a new constellation channel opens to help you organise your defense efforts with other players. As happened with the faction warfare militias and their communal organisation channels, pick-up groups form in this channel all throughout the invasion. Although there are still some security concerns with the use of logistics in a fleet of strangers, I found these groups to be extremely fun. Like faction warfare, incursions are a social experience that will see you grouping up with strangers and making some friends.
One of the great innovations of the incursion encounters is that as long as the gang is within the recommended size limits, every pilot in the gang will get the full reward. The lack of profit-splitting means that groups would rather invite extra players up to the site's payout limit than run the content with the minimum number of ships. This increases the fleet's damage-dealing capabilities and so speeds the mission along. The difficulty limits have been carefully considered to make groups viable at a range of skill levels. A specialised team of five highly skilled characters can tackle the 5-10 man Vanguard sites with ease, while newer pilots may need up to 10.
In those first few days of incursions, thousands of players charged straight into their own slaughter. Horror stories flooded the forum of fully faction-fit marauders and expensive deadspace-fit strategic cruisers being melted in seconds. To find out for ourselves, I took a friend and five brave pilots from the Massively Mob corporation to the incursion in Obray constellation. We soon discovered that it wasn't as tough we we had been led to believe. As long as a group uses solid co-operative strategies like spider-tanking gangs or logistics chains, the content is easily accessible to players with only a few months of skills under their belts.
In true EVE style, there are many viable strategies for tackling the encounters. I've seen fleets of spider-tanked battlecruisers, specialised logistics cruiser setups, and even gangs relying entirely on logistics drones. There has been an even mix of both armour-tanking and shield-tanking fleets, with both performing admirably. The types of NPCs that spawn in each site introduce another level of tactical decision-making. Do you take out the torpedo-hurling stealth-bomber type frigates first to protect your fleet's battleships, or do you tackle the electronic attack ships with their ECM and energy neutralisers to protect your logistics chain? Having played in both World of Warcraft's raids and EVE Online's incursions, I can say without a doubt that incursions are every bit as much an EVE experience as nullsec PvP, mission-running or faction warfare.
Although the nullsec alliances have largely ignored the Sansha incursions into their space, player response to incursions in high-security space has been immense. In leading corp fleets into the unknown, I've found the incursions replicate a lot of the explorative excitement that occurred when Sleepers first appeared on the scene. What really surprises me, though, is just how much fun I've been having doing PvE with random groups of strangers. The first incursions in high-security space have been successfully fended off, and players eagerly await Sansha's next move. Keep an eye on the EVE Evolved column over the coming weeks and months for guides on how to set up your ship for incursions and how to tackle the various Sansha encounters. I've got a feeling I'm going to be doing a lot more of this awesome new feature.
Brendan "Nyphur" Drain is an early veteran of EVE Online and writer of the weekly EVE Evolved column here at Massively. The column covers anything and everything relating to EVE Online, from in-depth guides to speculative opinion pieces. If you have an idea for a column or guide, or you just want to message him, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.