Cast your mind back to 2011 and you’ll probably remember the insane hype that was building for DUST 514, CCP Games’ ambitious console MMOFPS which promised some incredible realtime integration with PC MMO EVE Online. DUST 514 unfortunately didn’t live up to the hype when it launched in 2013 and was officially shut down three years later, but the dream of an EVE shooter didn’t die there. CCP had already been exploring the option of re-imagining DUST on PC for several years at that point, and showed off a playable prototype of it in 2016 under the name Project Nova.EVE Vegas 2018 and spoke to some of the developers working on the project. This new incarnation promises both PvE and PvP modes and is officially a pre-alpha build, with signups recently opened for those who want to participate in the alpha and help shape the game as it develops. Developers are currently still focusing on the core shooter experience with Nova and say that any integration with EVE Online would have to come after its initial release.
In this in-depth edition of EVE Evolved, I break down my hands-on experience with Project Nova at EVE Vegas 2018, show 18 minutes of raw footage from my first playthrough, and give some thoughts on how the game is shaping up.
The key message from the Project Nova devs at Vegas was that they are still focusing heavily on nailing the core shooter experience, and it shows. Nova is a competent sci-fi shooter with responsive controls, great graphics, solid performance, satisfying weapons, and some interesting tactical tools that lend themselves well to squad-based gameplay. There’s satisfying feedback when you kill something and it’s genuinely a lot of fun to play; the core minute-to-minute shooter experience is solid.
The game mode we played at EVE Vegas 2018 is a four-player co-op PvE mission that mixes control point and horde gameplay with some tower defense elements. Players have to hack control points on the map and then defend them from a constant stream of zombie-like Sansha soldiers being dropped into the battlefield. Each control point has one or two set emplacements at which you can build a variety of turrets to help defend, from rapid-fire chain guns to powerful rocket launchers that can kill you with splash damage if you stray into the firing line.
In my first playthrough (see the video below), we weren’t really going in with a strategy and found it difficult to hold control points for extended periods of time. We made sure to work as a team on subsequent matches to quickly capture each point and set up turrets before moving onto the next, leaving one person behind to defend. This helped us stay in control all throughout the match and cut our round time down from nearly 20 minutes to around five. If nothing else, this demo proved that strategy is king in Project Nova — As Game Director Snorri Árnason puts it, Nova is “a thinking man’s shooter.”
There were three pre-defined dropsuits to play as in the Vegas demo, each with a different equipment loadout and unique special ability. The high-mobility Assault class was a great all-round setup, with a satisfying assault rifle that provided the same kind of run-and-gun gameplay you’d expect from any sci-fi shooter. The Assault’s special ability is a huge slide along the ground that helps you escape from combat or charge to a teammate’s rescue, and it was incredibly fun to use.
The Sentinel heavy logistics suit was comparatively slower but tougher, sporting a slow-firing grenade launcher that could one-hit most enemies and some kind of shield special ability that I honestly never worked out how to use. Guess I should have read the manual! Both the logistics and assault suits also came with a deployable beacon that healed everyone in range and replenished ammo, which created a great teamwork dynamic and encouraged you to fight around cover. Finally, there was a Sharpshooter dropsuit with a personal cloaking device and a powerful sniper rifle but no ability to heal itself.
The three dropsuits in this demo had some interesting tactical interplay, and at one point I found myself strategising with three strangers over our selections just like the start of a game of Overwatch. The Nova developers expect to eventually extend this strategic element with fully customisable drop suits using a system of passive and active modules similar to EVE Online’s ship design system. This should naturally lead to shifting metas in PvP just like it does in EVE, adding an interesting layer of complexity for players to explore.
“We’re kind of doing the hero shooter, the progression, then the customisation in steps. It’s almost being too careful because I don’t want to deal with these super balance-breaking things that we can’t test for because players will figure them out, like a combination we didn’t expect or something like that in the customisation. So that’s why we’ve created these fixed loadouts.” – Snorri Árnason, Game Director (Project Nova)
While the core shooter gameplay of Project Nova is certainly solid, that alone won’t make for a compelling enough game in a market filled with similar existing titles. Nova will need something special to make it stand out from the crowd, whether that’s an entirely unique hook or just a compelling style of gameplay. An EVE Online-style modular customisation system could be something of a killer feature, though Game Director Snorri Árnason confirmed that this will definitely not be in the alpha.
The PvE mode on show at EVE Vegas 2018 was very similar to Mass Effect Andromeda’s multiplayer but with fixed hacking goals and the addition of sentry turrets as an interesting twist. The announced 16 versus 16 PvP mode with its dual payload gameplay also sounds kind of similar to Team Fortress 2’s Payload Race. Borrowing features and ideas from other games is absolutely OK and it’s actually encouraging to see that the developers are able to draw influences from other successful games, but I still believe that Nova will need its own killer feature to stand out.
Where Nova distinguishes itself most of all is of course in its relation to EVE Online, which provides both its source intellectual property as well as extensive design influences. The Nova team was even recently moved in-house to the Reykjavik studio that works on EVE Online. The PvE map I played was set on the outside of an EVE ship in the middle of a pitched fleet battle with a Sansha’s Nation incursion, and the plot for Nova revolves around Sansha’s use of boarding parties as a strategy.
Shifting the battles away from the planets of DUST 514 and onto ships in space is an interesting choice, and there are these incredible visual moments when you can physically see the Sansha ships warp in and fire drop pods full of troops into your battlefield. These visual signals reward aware players with clues about how the procedurally varying match will unfold and where on the battlefield certain powerful boss troops will be coming from. That sounds like at least one pretty interesting hook, though the ultimate hook would of course be close integration with EVE Online itself.
“Nova’s core is the EVE link, that is the contextual merging of two economies. That is the core vision. If I have my way and we survive with a small community, growing and getting better, that is absolutely the intent. And it’s inevitable, we’re on the PC platform and we’re in the same building [as the EVE Online team].” – Snorri Árnason, Game Director (Project Nova)
The one feature that really lets Nova down right now is its virtually non-existent AI, which mostly walks slowly to the nearest control point while periodically shooting any players in range. The more powerful boss creatures will charge at players and are trickier to deal with, but the grunts just line up to get shot. This may have been due to the fact that we were playing on the easiest mode, however, or it could be part of the story as the Sansha grunts are mind-controlled zombified soldiers.
As impressive as the visuals are, I also found it a little jarring to remember that we were fighting on the outside of an EVE Online ship (not least of all because the decor doesn’t exactly match what you’d be familiar with from EVE). I kept wondering what all these corridors, stairs and strategically-placed crates were doing just sitting on the outside the ship. Who put these hacking points on the hull, and what keeps everything bolted to the hull when the ship is fired on or makes the jump to warp?
These are just small thematic issues that are easy enough to dismiss on Minmatar ship made of welded girders and rust, but any future maps on Amarr, Caldari or Gallente ships should ideally focus on keeping its visual design consistent with that race in EVE. There were of course a few other small problems such as the fact that you can be holding a grenade in your hand but can’t throw it because it’s on cooldown (yeah, I did that a lot in the video above). These are the kinds of issues that will hopefully get ironed out in alpha, and they didn’t significantly affect my enjoyment of the game.
Project Nova is a solid sci-fi shooter with satisfying minute-to-minute gameplay and some great class-based tactical interplay. It now has a PvE mode that’s fundamentally very fun and a dual payload PvP mode is on the way, but the game lacks a really compelling hook that would make shooter fans jump out of their seats. I’m not convinced that a purely thematic connection to EVE is enough to accomplish that, and would like to see something more by release.
The two most compelling hooks that Nova could ever have would be a form of persistent territorial warfare or deep integration with EVE Online. Developers have teased various ideas for integrating the two games socially and economically in the future, but none of that will be in the game at release and it’s not guaranteed to happen at all. Even the EVE-style dropsuit customisation and itemisation system won’t be in the alpha and we don’t know if it will be in at launch.
Project Nova is already a genuinely engaging shooter and definitely triggers my “just one more game” reflex, but it’s still struggling to identify itself as a true EVE universe experience. I worry that CCP may be over-estimating how much a solid core FPS brings to the market by itself and might fail to carve out a niche for Nova by the end of alpha without a compelling killer feature. The game officially enters alpha in November, so sign up now and let your feedback be heard.