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From Dust: CCP's New Free-To-Play FPS Project Nova

An uncertain future

Dust 514, the free-to-play EVE Online shooter for the Playstation 3, was a bit of a tragedy for me. It was both relentlessly ambitious and sadly crippled, hamstrung by its attempt to create a microcosm sandbox with a complex relationship to its big brother, EVE Online. But after talking with Snorri Árnason, the senior director for CCP's new FPS, Project Nova, I'm worried that the failed marriage between Dust 514 and EVE Online is preventing them from doing the one thing worth doing with the recently unveiled shooter: taking risks.

At least, that's how I felt after playing Project Nova and seeing that CCP's latest experiment feels like little more than another generic sci-fi shooter built using Unreal Engine 4. For what it's worth, Project Nova is at a stage that is far too early to judge conclusively. The demo itself lacks all of the supporting structure and progression that most free-to-play shooters, and Dust 514, need to survive. Those systems are missing because they simply don't exist. As Árnason explains to me, the focus is on building a "good shooter first" before considering everything else.

Talking about Dust 514, Árnason says that he felt the potential was squandered on poor fundamentals. "People came in and they expected a shooter, but what they got didn't deliver on performance," he says. "Even skilled players couldn't enjoy their mastery of the game because they were fighting the controls or fighting lag. You were rarely playing the game to the fullest." That lesson was taken to heart, and CCP is adamant not to make the same mistakes again. "Framerate and performance is number one," says Árnason. "It's the foundation of this whole new project."

Playing Project Nova, that conviction was obviously apparent. Though still rough around the edges, the performance was already smooth and, as a basic foundation, the shooting was enjoyable enough. What has me concerned is that this focus on starting simple and getting the basics right is creating a game that won't distinguish itself from the crowd should CCP release it without the ideas that fuelled Dust 514.

For many, the appeal of that game wasn't the moment-to-moment shooting but rather the notion that events in Dust 514 could play a part in the larger political structure of EVE Online. With orbital bombardment, ships in EVE could directly impact the battles playing out on the planets of Dust 514. But the problem was that, in hoping to accomplish so much, Dust 514 really accomplished very little. "I always felt like we put the cart before the horse with [orbital bombardment]," says Árnason. "It wasn't played by a lot of people."

Orbital bombardment was only one problem of many for Dust 514, including half-baked economic and social aspects that didn't really inspire devotion from a larger community of players. And, of course, all of it was wrapped up in a first-person shooter that wasn't very fun to play. "That's one of the lessons we learned: the bigger the scope, the harder it is to deliver quality on all fronts."

Right now, Project Nova has absolutely no plans to communicate directly with EVE Online. Though Árnason hopes that won't always be the case, getting to that point is going to be a long road. Árnason explains the process: "If you have a great game first, then you can connect them thematically, then socially, economically, and finally you can start talking about crazy ideas like taking over a Titan [the largest spaceship class in EVE Online] from the inside."

Vehicles, a crucial aspect of Dust 514, will also be missing from Project Nova, which will instead focus entirely on infantry combat. Though Árnason admits that there might be room to include vehicles in the future, he says their presence in Dust 514 often did more harm than good with all of the balancing issues they created.

Árnason's very conservative approach to Project Nova seems sensible, but it has me worried that it will be missing the ambition it needs to survive in an ecosystem flooded with free-to-play games. During the demo, we squared off in rounds of 6 versus 6 (Árnason confirmed that there are plans for teams of 16), in which we battled to hack a console and earn points. Like many other online shooters, Project Nova uses a classed-based system that one could assume will be influenced by an economy similar to how EVE Online and Dust 514 works. But, right now, it plays like a thoroughly basic shooter.

Do you want to snipe? There's a perfectly fine sniper rifle for you, and the same goes for just about every other style of weapon. I had hoped that one of the gatling gun-wielding heavy soldiers would've offered a more distinct experience, but that class largely felt the same as the others. The only aspect that stood out to me was the ability to hack spawn points to create new options for how quickly reinforcements could get back into the fight, providing an extra layer of strategy beyond rushing in to assault and hack objectives.

Árnason is bursting with ideas of how Project Nova can evolve once the team has the fundamentals of good shooting down. It was a conversation full of half-formed—but fascinating—hypotheticals involving space elevators bridging Project Nova and EVE Online, using resources between games to build new weapons and ships, and more. As tantalizing as it seems, all of it is little more than hopeful speculation of where Project Nova could go. First, Árnason needs to create a good shooter. "If we can get to that point, I'll be incredibly happy," he says.

If I sound overly critical of a game that barely exists, that's because it could very well cease to. Part of CCP's process for developing games includes arigorous reviews that puts Árnason in the position of constantly having to prove Project Nova is something worth investing more resources in. It's that same review process that saw Project Legion, which was another successor to Dust 514, shelved years earlier after debuting at a previous Fanfest in much the same way Project Nova is now. Árnason adds that World of Darkness was killed off by a similar fate.

According to him, the next "gate review" for Project Nova is fast approaching, and whether or not it can find a "place at the table" with other free-to-play games will be heavily scrutinized. Following a successful review, several more will be waiting down the road as Project Nova steadily approaches a more complete state. Fanfest itself is playing a crucial role in these reviews, as Project Nova's unveiling this year isn't an announcement in the traditional sense, but a way for CCP to gauge if Project Nova is even worth pursuing. "We want to collect feedback," Árnason explains. "Not just on the gameplay, but the viability of the product."

Part of what made Project Nova worth considering to begin with was the fact that it is recycling a large portion of the art and assets used in Dust 514. Árnason says that millions of dollars were spent on creating high definition character models and environments for Dust 514 that were then downscaled to fit the tight requirements of the Playstation 3. On the PC, those same assets look remarkably better and went a long way in making Project Nova worth considering from a financial perspective.

All of that, however, will be for nothing if Árnason can't prove his project's worth during CCP's internal reviews, which is exactly why there's very little to be excited about. As it exists, Project Nova is adequate, but it's also another chapter in CCP's growing history of tossing experiments at the wall and seeing what sticks. If you're like me and you immediately perked up at the first mention of what Project Nova could be, you can safely settle back into your chair. It has a long and hard road to travel before we'll be able to judge for ourselves if the journey was worthwhile.

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