Project Nova Hands-on: CCP Games Expands the EVE Online Universe

We teamed with our fellow elite clone soldiers to crush the Nation of Sansha in CCP Games' new first-person shooter.

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EVE Online is a long-running video game with unparalleled depth, beautiful graphics, and a thriving economy. CCP Games’ successful MMORPG also comes with a black diamond steep learning curve that might frustrate people who think they’ll simply jump into a ship and go pew pew pew.  The studio is well aware of how challenging EVE can be, which is part of the reason why the company hired a separate development team – with additional support from SUMO Digital - to create Project Nova, a casual friendly first-person shooter set within the EVE universe. Their goals are to give EVE fans a new way to experience the franchise while at the same time attracting newcomers who crave instant gratification. I went hands-on with a pre-alpha build of Project Nova at CCP Games HQ in Reykjavík, Iceland, and while the game is early in development, there’s a solid foundation in place for a title that could stand alongside EVE Online.

Project Nova is a spiritual successor to CCP Games’ 2013 PlayStation 3 release, Dust 514, an ambitious FPS that gamers criticized for being too hardcore for casual fans. That said, Project Nova is a multiplayer FPS/tower defense hybrid game with both PvE and PvP modes that you’ll jump into and get your quick fix without getting lost in stats or pulling your hair out after getting killed.

“Dust had a lot of loss, a per death penalty,” said Game Director, Snorri Arnason. “You bought in bulk because of the risk-averse gameplay. Similarly, Project Nova will have a loss per battle. You can die, but you will be deducted for the battle itself.”

“We tried to make everything opt-in,” said Kevin Clarke, lead designer on Project Nova.  “People will often talk about the high barrier of entry for EVE Online. We want the opposite for Project Nova. We’re trying to do that through something we call opt-in complexity. For a player who is used to first person shooters, they’ll come in on day one and know how to play. They’ll understand the goals and the objectives. Even the most casual player will feel like they are a part of something much bigger.”

Despite the game’s user-friendliness, Project Nova is very much an EVE game. You play as an elite clone soldier from DUST 514, a Warclone who receives a chance to clear his or her name and regain their rights while battling in a dystopian universe against the Nation of Sansha, a horde of cyber monsters controlled via neural implant; CCP also refers to these enemies as Sansha’s Nation.

“We set it [Project Nova] narratively several years after DUST 514,” said Clarke, “but we’re trying to keep themes between the two games.  Something happened to your mercenary at the end of DUST 514, and now there’s a reason why this character will be a part of the EVE universe.”

With that in mind, the team has no plans to port content from DUST 514, and while some of the weapons will seem familiar to people who played that game, CCP re-imagined them so that they look and feel unique in Project Nova.

The story, meanwhile, exists mostly in the background for players who want to invest in EVE’s rich lore, but you don’t need to know about the plot in order to progress in Project Nova.

“We want to tell the story through narrative jigsaw pieces,” said Clarke. “We’ll drop in some of these pieces, and if players want to engage with these and dive into the lore, that’s great, and if they don’t, we’ll provide a linear story for them to follow. These narrative pieces let players shape their own stories.”

You and your squad will team up to battle the Sansha in Project Nova’s PvE game mode, Onslaught, which reminded me of King of the Hill, or Control in other games. The idea here is to control various points on a map while battling a never-ending swarm of enemies that are out to eliminate you. The tower defense portion comes into play with the ability to set up defenses around these control points, like turrets. Similarly, the Nation of Sansha’s enemy types have specific jobs in the game, like the grunts, whose sole purpose is to rush to these control points and destroy them.

For instance, the demo had three different types of grunt. There is the shotgun grunt that exists solely to kill you, then there is the aforementioned normal grunt that attacks charge points, and finally, we have the grenade-throwing elite grunt. Each of these enemies followed a predictable pattern of behavior that contributes to me thinking of Project Nova as a tower defense FPS.

“Archetypes have specific and predictable behaviors that are also fun and challenging,” said Arnason.  “These archetypes are like enemies that you’d see in a tower defense game. They have a purpose, and when they are combined, the game becomes difficult.”

During my play session, we formed a squad of four (you can experience Onslaught in groups of two and three as well), selected our weapons (the list includes an assault rifle, grenade launcher, sniper rifle, shotgun, and even a flamethrower, among others) and beamed down onto a mining outpost map with space as the backdrop. During the session, we stuck together or broke into squads of two to capture control points on the map; lone wolf players were predictably picked off by the overwhelming opposition.

We played off each other depending on the weapons that we carried. For example, the sniper picked off enemies from afar, while teammates carrying the grenade launcher destroyed multiple Sansha at once; shotgunners were able to deal damage up close.

Meanwhile, enemies appeared all over the map and worked together to prevent us from achieving the objective. CCP informed us that Project Nova features adaptive artificial intelligence that changes strategy depending on player actions. They likened it to the Left4Dead series, with a behind-the-scenes strategy manager telling the enemy where to spawn and go next.

Unfortunately, given my limited time with the game, I couldn’t tell if the strategy manager was doing its job, though CCP assured us that the team has faith in this AI. And since the AI will react to player choices during a round of Onslaught, players can expect highly re-playable and dynamic matches.  If it works as intended, you’ll never experience the same battle twice.

The AI appear in bunches around the map, and it’s easy to get overrun if you’re not careful.  For the demo, death meant waiting a few seconds to respawn back into battle, but the final version of Project Nova might not be so forgiving. As previously mentioned, CCP wants to instill a fear of death in the player. Dying has consequences, but for now, it remains to be seen what this penalty might be. All we were told is that Project Nova won’t handle death as harshly as in DUST 514.  Additionally, the developers want to hand-hold first-time players until they grow accustomed to the gameplay.

On top of that, a Warclone’s Dropsuit will have light, medium, and heavy variations. Each one of those will have two variations that you can upgrade. Over time, as you finish missions and take part in multiplayer matches, you’ll earn new loadouts that let you customize to your playstyle.

While I couldn't get any time with Hijack, the game’s competitive multiplayer mode; CCP told us they're aiming for 16v16 on one map. It was described as factional warfare, with attackers and defenders doing whatever it takes to gain an advantage. What’s interesting is the fact that both factions have unique objectives to complete. In other words, it’s more than attack and protect. Each side has its own payload to protect, though how this will play out remains to be seen. We also learned that players can take on mercenary work to earn money and boost reputation. The various contracts, or jobs, that you take on come with unique rewards. The toughest, as we expected, pay the most; CCP aims to include seasonal rewards to prevent gamers from taking on the same tasks over and over.

Considering Project Nova’s competitive focus, I had to ask about the game’s eSports potential, and CCP Games gave an interesting response. The short and dirty of it is that the game is not intended to become part of the competitive circuit.  With that in mind, CCP won’t do anything to stop it from becoming an eSport organically, nor is there anything that prevents Project Nova from being watchable.

Concerning platforms, Project Nova is PC only for now, but there’s a reason for this:

“We released Dust 514 on PS3 and there were technical issues,” said Clarke. “When you release on console you are stuck with the lifespan of that console. At the time a lot of EVE Online players were disappointed that Dust 514 was on the PS3. They really wanted a PC shooter, something they could basically jump in a play for 15-20 minutes while they were waiting for things to happen in EVE Online. So we listened to our audience and said that if we’re going to do another first-person-shooter, we’ll make sure that it’s PC first and foremost. Then we can build from that.”

For the time being, Project Nova has tremendous room to grow, and there are plenty of unfinalized decisions; for example, CCP is unsure whether Nova will be a premium game or free to play. If CCP Games realizes its vision for adaptive AI, deep progression, upgradeable suits, and weapon modifications, then Project Nova might be able to coexist with EVE Online, similar to the VR extension of the series, EVE Valkyrie; CCP has plans to link EVE Online and Project Nova socially and economically after launch.

CCP committed to making this a quality experience, thanks to additional time afforded by the studio’s recent acquisition by Pearl Abyss, so with no firm release date scheduled, I look forward to seeing how Project Nova evolves. Keep an eye on our video game release dates guide for Project Nova launch date.

Freelancer

Christopher's earliest gaming memory was playing Cookie Monster Munch for the Atari 2600. Little did he know that devouring virtual sweets as a youngster would transform him into Shacknews freelancer at age 39! These days, he spends his time parenting the Dark Souls of children, while his video game backlog rises like the finest of pizza dough.

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