Project Nova: Hands-on with EVE Online’s Promising New Shooter

Although it still needs a bit of work, CCP's Project Nova is a promising new shooter set in the EVE Online universe.

In 2013, EVE Online developer CCP launched its first foray into the shooter genre, Dust 514, a niche but ambitious free-to-play multiplayer FPS title for the PlayStation 3 that sought to seamlessly connect two games set in the same universe. Battles fought in Dust 514 were meant to affect the eternal power struggles playing out in EVE Online while spaceships in the MMO offered bomb support from orbit during matches in the shooter. Players from both games could even communicate with each other in real-time for the ultimate ground and air assault. While Dust 514 shut down in 2016 after a tepid reception at launch, it remains an admirable experiment in cooperative play the likes of which we’ve not seen since.

Project Nova, CCP’s new cooperative PvE and competitive PvP shooter, isn’t quite as ambitious as its predecessor, trading gameplay cohesiveness with the MMO for something much more important: getting the foundations of a great FPS right. While the experience isn’t quite there yet, the game, which is still in active development, is a promising start.

I spent a day at CCP headquarters in Reykjavik, Iceland with Project Nova, playing a pre-alpha version of the game as well as talking to the developers working on the project. The focus of my demo was the four-player cooperative PvE mode, Onslaught. CCP showed off a single map set on a ship under attack by Sansha’s Nation (EVE Online players should be familiar with this faction of “cybernetic zombies”), with a few basic loadouts to choose from. It’s important to note that what I played is an early, in-development version of the game that still has quite a few kinks to work out. Needless to say, I encountered a few bugs and glitches during playtime, the animations and physics were rough at times, and matches crashed once or twice.

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You play as a Warclone, an elite clone soldier recruited by AEGIS, a branch of EVE‘s space police specializing in “defense against external threats.” In this case, the grotesque cybernetically-enhanced soldiers of Sansha’s Nation, which seek to enslave every living being in their path. Your job is to rescue those under attack and eliminate the Sansha threat. 

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Only three hero classes were available during the demo: the usual assault, heavy weapons, and sniper types with their own unique loadouts. CCP explained that players will be able to unlock new heroes and loadouts and customize them as they progress through the game.

To start, your team of four will want at least one of each starter class to survive the Sansha horde. My personal favorite was the Logistics hero (the heavy weapons guy), who is armed with a grenade launcher that can blast through a group of enemies when in a tight bind. When surrounded by the Sansha — and the adaptive AI on display in the demo showcases an enemy that can flank you very quickly — you’ll want someone with that grenade launcher to blow a path through the enemy ranks for a quick getaway. 

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Assault is your typical infantry hero equipped with an assault rifle while Sharpshooter can lend a hand from several yards away with the sniper rifle. Each class also has a special ability that can be activated after a cooldown. Assault, for example, can activate a relay that heals any player within range as well as replenishes ammunition. Sharpshooters, on the other hand, have a cloak they can use to escape sticky situations. 

I was also able to try out a few other weapons not found in the default loadouts, including the shotgun and a flamethrower, an exciting prospect that’s unfortunately a bit disappointing in its current form. The flamethrower is limited in range and doesn’t quite spew the ball of fire you’d expect, instead shooting something closer to a beam of light (but only when you’re basically in an enemy’s face, which is usually too close when it comes to the brutish Sansha). The shotgun also lacks the satisfyingly devastating blow to the enemy you’ve come to expect from first-person shooters. It’s clear that these weapons are still a bit underdeveloped, and overall, I think that all the weapons (besides my beloved grenade launcher) could probably use a bit of a buff. There’s still work to be done when it comes to making players feel like they’re actually holding an assault rifle or a shotgun or flamethrower. 

While Project Nova will boast “procedurally-generated objectives,” the demo played out more like a standard tower defense game. My team was tasked with holding down three strategic zones on the ship while fighting back the Sansha. If you’ve played zone-capture modes such as Control in Destiny, Domination in Call of Duty, or Territories in Halo, you’ll get what this PvE mode is all about pretty quickly. 

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Most of the time, you’ll find yourself running back and forth between zones, defending them from the enemy. The experience is hectic and at times exhilarating as you fight for control of the board. The more zones you control on the map and the longer you hold them down, the more points you get on the scoreboard. Trying to control all three zones at the same time is key to dominating a match, but the ruthless Sansha won’t make that very easy. I found that the AI could deduce which zone to focus its efforts on at any given moment, meaning that close games can play out like chess matches, as you sacrifice one zone to hold down another. 

Even when surrounded by approaching Sansha, you’re not completely alone when defending a zone. Players can install automated weapons to protect a zone’s perimeter. Depending on which character you choose, you can install machine gun turrets, rocket launchers, and the like. I didn’t find these emplacements particularly effective against the enemy in large numbers but a turret can have your back when a stray Sansha approaches. 

Even if you survive the Sansha and manage to reach the score limit, the game’s not over. The final sequence of the match sees you and your team shooting your way towards an extraction zone before the timer runs out. It’s pivotal for your character to reach the extraction if you want to gain the most XP and rewards at the end of a match. It’s that last push that proves to be Onslaught’s most interesting moment. 

While I can’t say that the extraction portion of the match will feel as epic after the 10th or 50th time you play it, it really did the first time around, as my teammates rushed to the evac point, trying to stay alive. We found ourselves subconsciously creating a story around that escape, that of the heroes who saved the day but weren’t able to make it out alive to enjoy the spoils of victory.

In the end, we all died before we could be extracted. As one developer put it, the people of New Eden would one day sing songs about our sacrifice. You can already start to see how Project Nova might be able to emulate the story of player-created storytelling that’s made EVE Online such a unique staple of the MMO space, even if Project Nova‘s scope is a bit more limited. 

Overall, there’s a lot to like about Project Nova‘s Onslaught mode, even if it’s not exactly reinventing the wheel. You’ll definitely leave the experience feeling like you’ve played this sort of game before, but the fact that it’s set in such a rich sci-fi universe might be enough to set it apart from other entries in the shooter genre. Right now, it’s definitely a bit rough around the edges but there’s definitely potential. 

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“Opt-in” Complexity

There is one really important thing to note: I’m not a hardcore EVE Online player nor do I have a deep knowledge of the game’s lore. I’ve dabbled with the MMO and have more than a little admiration for the cut-throat community that populates the game’s universe and the stories this community has created, but I’m not currently running a corporation, waging war on any empires, or bending the knee to the Space Pope. I’m just a guy who loves first-person shooters. 

That’s an important audience for CCP, which is not only designing Project Nova for the most hardcore EVE players who spend several hours a day in New Eden, the setting of this massive game universe, but also for those who simply love the shooter genre. For Project Nova, CCP is really pushing a philosophy of “opt-in” complexity. 

Indeed, there’s a familiarity to Project Nova‘s gameplay that allows you to jump into the action without having to worry about allegiances, ISK (EVE Online‘s in-game currency), or much of the lore. Considering that EVE Online is often regarded as one of gaming’s most intimidating franchises — in terms of its history, size, gameplay possibilities, and ruthless playerbase — it’s an absolute breath of fresh air to be able to play in this universe without having to make much of a commitment to its larger metagame. 

“For normal FPS players, it should stand completely on its own, be fun, be exciting, and have still some classic FPS goals like unlocking achievements or medals, that kind of stuff should work, but there should be a deeper metagame that people can choose to be a part of,” Snorri Arnason, the game’s director and self-proclaimed FPS superfan, explains. “I think that’s very important, and sometimes even players that don’t want to do the corporations and all that stuff, they even found roles as just, ‘I’m the best in the game and that means people want me in their corporations. So I’ll join their corporation, I’ll show up and fight, but I’m not gonna do crafting. Tell me when to show up and I’ll kill everyone for 30 minutes and I can leave.'”

In terms of the shooter-specific metagame, Arnason, who also served as Senior Producer on Dust 514, stresses it’s completely up to players how much time they invest in Project Nova‘s progression system and customizable weapons and equipment. For those players who enjoy RPG elements such as crafting, Project Nova will certainly scratch that itch. 

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“For those players who like that much deeper, complex experience, we want to have that progression in there,” Kevin Clarke, Project Nova‘s lead game designer, says. “We want to have things where players can start customizing their drop suits, start swapping around equipment, finding what works best for their playing style. You know, changing the weapons, adding and removing attachments. Eventually getting to the point where you’re able to manufacture your own weapons, your own drop suits, maybe trade them.”

You won’t be thrown into Project Nova‘s complex systems right away though, according to Arnason, who thinks it’s important to ease in players to the game before giving them countless customization options.

“That’s where the hero to class-based progression comes from,” Arnason explains. “Let’s not try to make life extra difficult for normal FPS players, let’s give them something that they recognize. Just play the sniper guy, play this awesome guy. Then you can start to get into the game. Don’t give me a guy that doesn’t have a weapon and I’m supposed to choose which weapon he has. Too much choice in the beginning is a bad choice.”

The same goes for the storytelling, which will be as deep or light as the player wants it to be, according to Clarke. 

“With our narrative style, we’re not trying to make it lore heavy in such a way that you need to know everything in the game that’s happening in EVE to understand what’s happening in our universe. We want to sort of work with what we’re calling Jigsaw storytelling. It’s our sort of narrative device where we’re just gonna give bits and pieces for players to discover to interact with. If they’re interested in the lore, the lore is there for them to dive deeper into.”

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Casual players who have watched EVE Online grow from a distance but have been unwilling to put in the time to learn the ropes of such a massive universe may finally have the right alternative in Project Nova. Time will tell if the game can capture that audience or if it’s the playerbase CCP already has that will truly embrace this shooter. 

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Work in Progress

There are still plenty of questions surrounding Project Nova, such as its official title, whether a console version is in the works down the line, and if the game will feature controller support. According to Clarke, CCP plans to work with its community of players to determine what’s right for the game in the long run. 

“It’s not that we’re ruling out, we will never have a console port, but it’s just not on our roadmap because, right now, we’re really focusing on our core mechanics, that core gunplay,” Clarke says. “We want that gunplay to be satisfying. That’s our primary objective. When everyone’s really happy with that, this is when we build out, this is when we start looking to what to provide next. And we want to co-evolve this game with our fans, with our players.

In terms of controller support, “this is something that there is a real demand for, there is no reason why we won’t add controller support,” according to Clarke. “But, right now, we want to just get that core mouse, keyboard, first-person shooter experience working and then, basically, our players are gonna tell us what we need to provide them with. If they need controller support, then that’s something we would definitely consider.”

During a brief presentation before the demo, Arnason also mentioned that CCP is taking a “game as a service” approach to Project Nova‘s development, meaning that players should expect post-release content and support for the game. CCP declined to share the exact business model it’s putting in place for Project Nova or whether microtransactions will be present in the game, as the company has “not locked down” how it plans to monetize the shooter. 

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Fans dying to get their hands on the game will get a chance to do so sooner than expected. CCP will begin Alpha testing Project Nova in November. Players interested in participating in the Alpha will need to register here for an invite. No release date has been set.

John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @johnsjr9