With Project Nomads finally nearing completion, we ventured down to the UK offices of publisher CDV in deepest darkest Tottenham to have a look at the latest build of this visually stunning action-strategy game with producer Friis Tappert.
The last time we saw Project Nomads was at ECTS and, as Friis told us, the game has changed quite a bit since then. "It started out more like an RTS game, but now it's more of a story-driven action game with lots of RTS elements."
Despite this shift in focus, the strategic side of the game is still important. Players are thrown into a (literally) shattered world made up of countless rocky islands floating in the sky. One such island becomes your base, where you can collect energy and house vehicles by constructing the right buildings using artifact blueprints. The small size of your island means that limited space is available though. "I cannot put ten plane hangars, ten power plants, ten gun turrets on [my island] - I only have nine places. And at a certain stage of the game I have far more artifacts than that, so I really have to see what kind of artifact I want to use."
To make things more interesting, different artifacts can be combined in the artifact press to produce more advanced building types. "I have two gun turrets, but they don't have AI, which is rather bad because then I always have to jump back and forth between the two gun turrets", Friis explained as he got stuck into one of the early missions. "The [next] mission is a trench run, and if you have AI controlled gun turrets by then it's [a lot easier]. If you would not experiment around with the artifact press, by now you would have three gun turrets but no AI at all, and that would really hurt."
More variety is provided by giving players three characters to choose from. Although some buildings are common to all of them, there are differences in their abilities. "For example, Susie's objects, items and buildings consume the least energy, but her weapons are not as powerful. John is the balanced guy, he consumes a considerable amount of energy and his guns are only so powerful. And Goliath is obviously the opposite to Susie; he's the big guy, so he has the big firepower but he really consumes lots and lots of energy."
Your island isn't just a stationary lump of rock either. In fact, it's more like an aircraft carrier, acting as a mobile base of operations. "You can move from navpoint to navpoint with your island, and you can also stop between navpoints. If you want to fight an enemy in the distance, you can always stop your island if you're in shooting range and keep your island out of his range, if you have different weapons. Or, obviously you have different types of planes on your island later, so it's a good idea to keep your island in the back and check out the area in front of you with the planes first, and not maneouvre with your island right into trouble."
Most of the time you will need to use your planes to scout ahead, as the flying abilities of your nomad character have been curtailed over the last year. Originally you could just take off and fly around like Superman, which gave players a great sense of freedom but proved to be a problem during testing. "It was cool, but it kinda ruined the game, because you could basically just go anywhere", Friis admitted. "So now you can [only] fly in certain missions. For example, you have to get a certain artifact, and in order to get that item you have to fly with the nomad. It's a rather small mission, but it's really fun to fly. The only thing you have to beware of is that the fuel for your booster pack runs out, so you've got to be on time on the island, grab the artifact, reload your booster pack and go back. So flying is in there, but not all the time."
Another feature which seemed like a great idea at the time but didn't withstand testing is island exporting. Players would have been able to use their finely honed islands from the single player campaign in multiplayer matches but sadly, as Black & White showed, this kind of feature can seriously unbalance a game.
"One guy almost finished the game and he has all these super cool artifacts, he exports his island, goes into a deathmatch, and just kills everybody because his island is so powerful. Basically we found that the guy who has the best island always wins, which sucks. So now we're back to a first person shooter kind of setup. You have a fixed set of artifacts and start amount of energy, and then it's really up to you. One guy will do the Age of Empires tactic, and make his island as powerful as possible and then start out to look for the other guys. But this could prove - well, it already has, especially for me, because I get kicked around frequently in multiplayer - to be a problem, because the other guy will put all his energy into getting the first plane hangar, and then he will just fly over to my island, and if I don't have any defences he will shoot down everything I have, fly through it with a plane, steal all my artifacts and put them on his island. And then he has a plane and all the stuff I built onto my island before that."
Luckily there's still plenty of room for tactics in multiplayer though. "Because we have volumetric clouds you can do the Star Trek thing and 'hide in the nebula' and stuff like that, which is nice", Friis told us. "And you can move the island freely in multiplayer, it's not nav points. Islands can also crash into each other; they won't fall apart or anything, but you can ram somebody. If both players have like five AI-controlled gun towers on the islands then basically it's last man standing, whatever survives."
Out of the box the game should offer twenty maps suitable for between two and eight players, with a mixture of original deathmatch maps and modified versions of single player levels. It's also possible that players will be able to design their own maps for Project Nomads, as the engine that powers the game is "open source and well documented", and developers Radon are considering releasing their editor "for people to fool around with".
One thing that mod makers may want to tackle is support for larger battles, something which is possible with the game engine but hasn't been used by the developers for fairly obvious reasons. "We can go up to sixteen [players], but the problem is that if you want to have a fun sixteen player game the map has to be enormously big, otherwise the islands would just take up too much space", Friis explained. "Sixteen people flying with those big islands .. I mean, we have it, but it's pretty crazy."
Whether or not any of this will make it into the Xbox version of the game is still uncertain though. "Obviously Microsoft would like us to do something with Xbox Live. They are pretty much dying out there, as you know, so they really want to push their online thing, especially for the US", according to Friis. "PAL territory-wise they're not really that depending on the Xbox Live thing because of all the different telecommunications companies and so on. We will probably do something, but I cannot really say if we will do online multiplayer, or if we will do something in regard of downloadable content like extra missions, extra items, extra characters, something like that. I assume that we will do something, they really urge us to do something, but we're still negotiating there."
The Xbox version of Project Nomads should be available in about six months, but in the meantime we can look forward to the PC original appearing in Europe towards the end of October. From what we've seen so far, the game appears to be shaping up nicely, but as Friis pointed out, "if it's no fun to play, the best graphics, sound, motion capturing or whatever doesn't do any good". Luckily then we went home with a beta copy of the game, so once we've found out if it's as much fun as it looks we'll be bringing you a full hands-on preview...