Even pure action games aren't all about twitch reflexes. Patterns, puzzles, tactics, or something else always figures in to make action games more complex than they might seem. But every once in a while, there's an action game that goes further afield, adding elements that might make it seem like something quite different. CDV's Project Nomads is one game that will attempt to be different from conventional PC action games. The game tips its hat to other hybrid games--like Battlezone and Sacrifice--that have blended action and strategy elements. In Project Nomads, you'll not only control the main character from a third-person view, but you'll also jump into gun turrets and remote-controlled fighters and have some basic base management to take care of. And the game itself has a rather unusual premise.
As Project Nomads starts, you see three fighters flying through the clouds and among a bunch of rocky crags floating in the air. Your character has entered the ancient world of the nomads, where the only land you'll see is that of small islands suspended above a seemingly endless void. As you watch, a patrol of sentinels attacks your small band of nomads, captures two of them, and leaves you stranded on an island after a fiery crash landing. Fortunately, that particular island happens to be where the sentinels long ago imprisoned one of the ancient master builders. Out of gratitude for freeing him, the master builder sets you up with a battle island and enough artifacts to create some basic structures. Then you're off to find better artifacts to improve your island, defeat the sentinels, and rescue your friends.
It's quite easy to build a base in Project Nomads. All structures require an artifact, which you can pick up and store in one of your five belt slots before activating. Artifacts are effectively the blueprints and the resources necessary to build all structures. If a structure is destroyed, it usually leaves behind the artifact that created it so it can be rebuilt. Artifacts are placed in a half-dozen set locations on an island that you scroll through, and starting out, there are just a few basic types that you can build--although more advanced versions become available as the game progresses. A basic island will have a wind generator to provide the energy your island needs, gun turrets for point defense, a hangar to create a remote-controlled fighter plane, a conning tower for navigation, and a lighthouse that represents the overall health of the island. You can interact with all these buildings by running up to them, hitting the use key, and then choosing one of several menu options. Any structure can be repaired or disassembled back to its component artifact.
Once you get your base set up, you don't have to worry about it too much, apart from periodically repairing structures that are visibly damaged. The world of Project Nomads is mystical and often bizarre, but the advanced technology that can make islands float in the air also makes them smart enough to fire the point-defense turrets automatically. Though this automation is more to keep the three or four turrets busy than to keep you from firing them, there's little doubt you'll want to jump into the gun or fighter view and get a piece of the action.
Islands in the Sky
The single-player missions contain quite a bit of variety. You do spend a fair bit of time running around maps in the third-person view, talking to your allies, infiltrating enemy bases, or just exploring ancient ruins to find forgotten artifacts. There are a few weapons you can pick up to deal with ground enemies, including a fireball spell and a bomb. Your character has a powered-up jump that's good for crossing the gap in between your battle island and the mission locations, but we didn't find much in the way of jumping puzzles otherwise.
Much of the action focuses on the gun turrets. The sentinels often send waves upon waves of fighters against your island. These aren't that tough to take down, but to stop their attacks, you either have to get close enough to their spawn point to use the gun turrets or go in with your fighter and attack their base from a distance. There are much tougher air threats to deal with as well--notably the big bombers that can destroy your base in a single bombing run if you let one get close enough.
Considering that the island's navigation works purely by waypoints and doesn't allow for manual control, the game does seem like a shooter on rails at times. But it is a shooter that gives you a number of different turrets to control at once, lots of enemies, and satisfying explosions. Fortunately, you don't have to drop into the third-person view and run to another turret to switch positions. A simple toggle key cycles through the available turrets. There are some missions that take you away from your island altogether. A plot twist early on puts you in control of an enemy attack fighter, and suddenly, the game feels more like a space shooter. This sort of variety seems to be one of the game's strong points.
Project Nomads' graphics deserve more than passing mention. The graphics engine Radon Labs developed for the game delivers crisp object detail, curvy island terrain, and subtle lighting. The lighting is perhaps the most notable element, if only because the build we played had a key that would accelerate time to dramatically show how the world smoothly changes the bright daytime to amber dusk to starry night. The view distance is quite far, and while the levels composed of floating islands aren't the most complex we've seen, it's impressive to spend a mission getting progressively closer to a base off in the distance until it's close enough for a devastating close-range attack. The visual style of the game, particularly that of the characters, can be quite bizarre, although the fact that it seems reminiscent of Sacrifice makes it more familiar that it might normally be. We were told that the game was designed for the European audience, and the style does seem to confirm that.
Project Nomads is due out for both the PC and the Xbox, and it's one of Germany-based CDV's first forays into publishing for consoles. The build we played was at least as easy to control with a controller as with a mouse and keyboard. In fact, using the mouse to control the fighters isn't that easy at the moment, because the planes level out as soon as you stop moving the mouse in a given direction. Our preview build of the game included a full complement of single-player missions, but it didn't have multiplayer play enabled. While Project Nomads could still use some polish, including a cleaner English translation of the dialogue, it generally seems to be coming along for its planned fall release on the PC. The game isn't schedule to ship for the Xbox until early 2003.