After years of anticipation, Project Nova was unveiled to the world at Eve Vegas 2018, showing off the current development of the spiritual successor to Dust 514. The team at CCP Games and Sumo Digital were finally ready to let players and press go hands-on with the latest iteration of the shooter this weekend at the largest gathering of EVE players in North America and it didn’t disappoint.
After going hands on across multiple play sessions, my thoughts have changed throughout the course of the weekend. While I’m still not sold on the concept, there are some bright spots amid the confusing and uninspired elements.
Project Nova is the spiritual successor to Dust 514, and to say it's been long awaited is an understatement. While select players had a chance to go hands on with an early version of Project Nova at EVE Fanfest in 2016, EVE Vegas last weekend was the first time the general public has had the opportunity to play the long-anticipated shooter by CCP Games.
Project Nova is a tactical first-person shooter set in the EVE Online universe. Each match will actually take place on the hull of an EVE Online vessel. Project Nova isn’t a straightforward FPS as well, it’s what Snorri Árnason, Project Nova’s Game Director, called when I talked to him this past weekend a “thinking man’s shooter.”
“He who plans, wins,” Árnason said, aptly describing the entire EVE universe’s ethos in a nutshell. Project Nova also aims to personify that mantra. As a result, approaching Nova like your typical shooter isn’t always going to work, at least not in PVP.
Unfortnuately, PVP wasn’t testable at the show, instead we queued up for multiple rounds of PVE, specifically Nova’s “Onslaught” mode. This mode pits four players against waves of Sansha enemies who are trying to control the ship. You need to defend the ship by controlling points on the map and eventually exfiltrating once completed.
So it basically feels like your standard domination match.
Controlling the points themselves took some getting used to. Unlike other games where simply occupying a certain space you’ll start to control it, Project Nova forces the player to make a decision: to I keep my gun out and defend, or do I risk my life to hack the point?
To hack a point, you have to hold down E, which puts your character into an animation where they fiddle with a holoscreen on your left vambrace. This forces you to make a conscious decision to leave yourself open. At first, I hated this. At least let me use my sidearm while doing this to keep myself from just getting ganked once the Sansha forces got there, but the way Árnason described it, it makes sense. Everything in the game needs to be planned out. You can’t simply take a point by yourself super easy. You need to plan it, bring back up, invest in hacking to speed up the hack time - again, “He who plans, wins.” Once you keep that in mind, it makes perfect sense. However, Árnason did say the team is open to hearing feedback because at the end of the day they want Project Nova to be fun overall.
All around you space is exploding with activity. EVE battles take place above you as you fight on the hull, adding to the sense of belonging in the game. Each class that was playable was distinct and had specific roles to play - though I would stop short of saying Project Nova is a hero shooter. The level of customization you can do to each class’ loadout, such as changing the defending Sentinel class from a grenade launching tank to an EMP using Flamethrower of death provide a lot of different ways to play Nova.
However, we were stuck using only the standard load outs for each of the three classes: the aforementioned grenade launcher toting Sentinel, the AR-rusing Assault class and the long-range Sniper aptly named “Sharpshooter.” Each class has it’s pros and cons, and it’s up to each team to figure out the best loadout/class make up in the meta game.
EAch class also has a special ability that sets them apart, such as a slide the Assault class can use to rush into (or out of) trouble in an instant, or the hover jets that let me pop out of cover and hover in the air getting a few headshots in with the Sharpshooter. Gunplay feels crisp and responsive, a testament to the team’s ability to use Unreal Engine 4, and thankfully the moment to moment gameplay feels responsive and satisfying.
The real problem comes from the enemies themselves, though.
The Sansha enemies are pretty apathetic towards the player. As Árnason put it to me in our chat after I played Project Nova a few times over the weekend:
“The AI is playing a conquest game against you. They really don’t care about you, unless that’s their primary purpose. So their primary purpose is to win.”
The AI is attempting to win the match, not rack up kills. It doesn’t matter how much they win by, they are just looking to win (reminding me of AlphaGo against Lee Sedol from a few years ago).
Árnason explained: “[I]f they can win by holding three points and you hold two points, [they’re] going to casually attack the other points. But they’re happy to win it slowly. If they have two and you have one, they’re winning, so they’re not going to aggro you completely.”
The way the Sansha worked in my five or six playthroughs, it was like a slow, plodding wave of doom. They weren’t particularly tough, and the animations of their bodies floating into space as they die were satisfying to witness. But I never felt overwhelmed more than once.
Each point has a turret slot you can build on, turing these waves and these ships into tower defense scenarios. More often than not, I could build a turret or a team mate would and we could simply roatate through the map, the turrest cleaning up any Sansha left over when we passed through. Once we understood what was going on, there really wasn’t much of a challenge in the end.
However, Árnason mentions this may not be the only way the AI will act, as the team can mess with and control the personality, giving some AI a personality that rivals a nuclear Ghandi in the Civilization series, if they choose. “ We can change the personality of the AI, so it’s like we can make it want to own [you.] It wants to destroy you. So then it tries to hold all the points or it can be a defensive AI where it tries to hold just the minimum amount to win and they reinforce themselves at those points.”
The AI on display all weekend, though, didn’t seem particularly tough. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the AI should at least put up a challenge. For the most part, these enemies would simply move slowly towards the target, not attempting in anyway to save themselves from their impending doom. A few enemies are interesting like a melee unit that warps around you, but other than that I hope the differences in AI behavior can truly offer a challenge.
PVP is really where Project Nova seems to want to bring your focus, while PVE is moreso a break from PVP. While PVP wasn’t playable at EVE Vegas, it is going to be in the upcoming invite-only alpha. One of the modes consists of two concurrent payloads each team of 16 players wil have to move and impede. Being able to use your squads wisely and ensure you’re either attacking or defending a payload is key. Leave too many people at your payload and you won’t stop theirs from moving. Leave too little and the enemy team can stop yours in its tracks - even reverse its course.
Project Nova is all about teamwork and cooperation. “Fundamental” according to Árnason, and it was something that was central to both Dust and Nova since their inceptions. PVP will require some careful planning, positioning on the map and trusting your squad to work together towards the common goal.
Project Nova has a lot on the surface to like: it looks great, the gun feedback and animations look and feel great, and the idea of playing games that could have an impact on EVE Online gameplay (Asymmetrical gameplay as Snorri called it in his Project Nova panel) promises something worth looking at.
However, other than the interesting sounding PVP game mode, I’m not sold yet. The Onslaught mode is basically your standard control point mode and while the tweaks the team can make to the AI sound great, it’s hard to shake just how lackluster the Sansha felt while playing. They feel uninspired, a little too “hive-minded” for my taste. Maybe the different AI personalities the team can trigger will help with that, but that still remains to be seen. Hopefully when the invite-only alpha starts in the coming months, these concerns can be answered.