Nova takes place around star systems in the Milky Way, many of which have planets or space stations that the player can land on. Each star system is either controlled by a faction and has an evaluation of the player's crimes or contributions to that star system and its faction, or is uninhabited and controlled by no one. The player's ship usually travels between star systems by "hyperjumping" by fixed (and to the user, instantaneous) paths to surrounding systems. The player can also use rare wormholes which transport the player's ship to a fairly random star system, or can use a "hypergate" system to move between certain systems after the Sigma Shipyard mission string has been completed.
In space, which in the game is limited to two dimensions, the player controls his spaceship to land on planets, jump into another star system, or engage in combat and board ships. The player can also communicate with other ships, obtaining information about supply and demand of commodities on different planets, and can also get missions in this way.
On inhabited planets, the player can refuel his ship, find and accept missions, trade commodities, buy ships or ship upgrades, and hire escorts. Each planet, "spaceport bar," and ship or ship upgrade has associated images and descriptions.
The game has six major story-lines that the player can participate in, one for each of the major factions: Federation, Rebellion, Auroran, Polaris, Vell-os, and Pirate.
These story-lines are the bulk of the game. Each storyline is a long and involved set of plot-filled missions which are like "playing" a short story written in second person. Each story-line forces pilots to align themselves with a particular faction, restricting a player's freedom but giving him access to more powerful ships and technology. A single story-line can take anywhere from an hour to several days to play to completion, depending on the player's level of experience and preferred pace. There also exist a few shorter minor stories and missions, which are difficult to find but have great rewards, such as the ability to use the old hypergate system.
Some major and minor story-lines branch into others so that, for example, a player in the midst of the Federation story-line can, along the way, choose to join the Rebellion instead. Nova has only a small fraction of the freelance missions that were common in the previous games in the Escape Velocity series.
In the standard game, only a single major storyline can be played per pilot, as opposed to previous games in the Escape Velocity series where one could play most all missions as one pilot while gathering ever more powerful ships and weapons.
There are two minor storylines however, both of which help the player into the major storylines. These include the Bounty Hunter and Wild Geese storylines. The Bounty Hunter storyline can lead to either the Federation, Rebellion, or Auroran storylines. The Wild Geese storyline can lead to either the Auroran or Pirate storyline.
Starting with a simple shuttlecraft, the player obtains new ships, weapons, and other technology, such as cloaking devices, beam weapons, and fighter bays, by purchase or as the result of completing certain missions. Throughout the course of the game, the player can choose to pilot bigger and better ships — ultimately leading to powerful capital ships with alien technology — that can also carry more cargo, and can also obtain controllable escort ships.
Like the other games in the Escape Velocity series, Nova allows registered users to create their own plug-ins which can be used to slightly or drastically change stories and technology, or even completely replace the universe. There is a large community at the official Ambrosia forums where players can trade tips, get help, and swap favorite plugins and pilots.
Of particular note are two official plug-ins available to registered users which replace Novas scenario with those of the first two games, allowing the original Escape Velocity and its sequel Escape Velocity Override to be played natively on both Mac OS X and Microsoft Windows.
After the war ended, many of the colonies to the south seceded from the Council and formed a loose confederation known as the Auroran Empire. Once again the Council was thrust into war, this time to regain the lost colonies. Although they did not defeat all of the groups which made up the Aurorans, one group known as Armetis eventually turned to terrorism. One former council member, who was disenchanted with the Colonial Council gave Armetis the codes to the hypergate system. Armetis destroyed Earth's hypergate, which sent shock waves throughout the entire hypergate system, crippling it and isolating many of the former Council worlds.
It took two hundred years before Earth based ships were capable of exceeding the speed of light. They recontacted many of the former worlds, which formed an alliance with Earth. Earth forces attempted to invade the Aurorans, with little success. As a result they decided to pool their resources and form the Federation.
The Federation created an investigative body known as the Bureau of Internal Investigation. The Bureau, as it is known, was created to investigate and remove subversive influence in the Federation, but also pursues the goal of reunifying humanity under the Federation. The Bureau uses illegal and unconstitutional means to accomplish its goals. They also use the help of Vell-os slaves. Based in the Wolf 359 system, the Bureau is so pervasive that some Federation citizens charge that it runs the government. Many of the Federation's leading citizens have started a rebellion against the Bureau.
The Rebellion is in the middle of a war against the Federation, particularly the Bureau. The Rebellion claims that the Bureau has committed heinous crimes, and controls the Federation itself and that the Bureau should be removed from power. The Rebellion hates killing the puppets of the Bureau but knows that there is no way of fighting the Bureau without destroying Federation ships. The Rebellion is vital in all of the major storylines, and the outcomes of all of them affect the Rebellion, and their war against the Bureau in one way or another.
The Rebellion is more of an ideological faction than a political one; as such it only has control of two systems, Evlei and Koria, to the Galactic north of the Federation. Merrol in the Aldebaran system is the only Federal planet that is in open rebellion, but it is under permanent blockade by the Bureau.
By and large, the Rebellion is made up of older pilots and a great deal of their funding comes from the Association of Free Traders. Although they have managed to acquire some Polaron technology and steal a few of the less powerful Federation warships, their sparse numbers prevent them from fighting anything other than minor battles. As a result, the majority of the war between the Rebel and the Bureau is fought as a "spy-war".
The Auroran Empire is one of the main political blocs in the game. They are the most populous of the blocs, but, since they remain largely uninterested in technology, one of the least technologically advanced.
The Auroran population is approximately 100 trillion, according to ATMOS - most planets have at least one arcology that can house tens of millions of people, and the "homeworlds" of the six different Auroran factions each average a population of around 175 billion. As a result, many Auroran worlds suffer from severe pollution and overcrowding problems, and the colonization of new systems to relieve the burden of overpopulation is a major factor in their political agenda.
The Auroran Empire consists of five "Families" or "Houses" (Moash, Heraan, Tekel, Dani and Vella). Each of the five families fight with each other constantly. Additionally, there are systems governed by the "Auroran Empire". These systems do not belong to any family, but are instead governed by the central Auroran government. Also, one system is formally governed by the "Dechtakars", warriors who are loyal to the Auroran Empire as a whole rather than to a specific house, although their presence is spread throughout the Empire. Their warriors love to tattoo themselves and engage in "honorable" combat, and their ships have very heavy armor. The Auroran weapons are very heavy but they deal a lot of damage. The player can help the Aurorans by either passing through the Bounty Hunter storyline, or having a high combat rating and going into any bar within Federation or non Heraan-family Auroran space.
As the player progresses along the Auroran and Polaris storylines, he encounters the Thurokiir, the Obsidian Heart or Spiritual Master of House Heraan, Techerakh the Bloody Hammer. If following the Auroran storyline, Techerakh renames your character KarHallarn, or the Wolf. Both titles, one as Thurokiir, and one as a fleet master (KarHallarn of the Pack) symbolize the Aurorans' deep respect for clan-warfare and battle honor. Similar to East Asian countries of earth from the Dark Ages to mid 1960s, the Aurorans build their society around "face" and "shame." To flee from battle or surrender to the enemy is an atrocity against one's empire, house, and self. Thus the Aurorans provide one of the most complex factions in Nova, due to the intricacies of their warrior society.
The Polaris are a race of technologically, and in some cases telepathically, advanced humans who broke away from the Colonial Council in 480 NC. The first expedition that ventured in the direction of the North Star was arranged by Kerrell Polaris, who unfortunately died 3 days before it was started. Over the next century, the Polaris encountered the Wraith, a space dwelling race of creatures that can utilize hyperspace. Nearly all encounters the Polaris had with the Wraith ended in bloodshed, which is what initially fostered the Polaris' isolationist ideology.
The isolationism of the Polaris, in turn, caused problems when the Colonial Council attempted to re-establish contact with them by sending in a diplomatic fleet. The Polaris misinterpreted this as an act of war, and destroyed the fleet. Outraged, the Colonial Council sent out an invasion fleet, which was stopped by the Vell-os — a cousin race of humanity with advanced telepathic abilities, who have always supported the Polaris. This sparked the Vell-os/Colonial Council war, which did not affect the Polaris.
After the destruction of the Council hypergate system, the Polaris hypergates were still operational, allowing the Polaris to advance technologically (Oddly enough, none of the hypergates in Polaris space are operational in the game, even though they were never destroyed). Just over 500 years later, the Federation (successor to the Colonial Council) sent a military task force into Polaris space, which the Polaris destroyed quickly.
The Polaris have six separate castes, set up so that the skills of an individual can be best utilized by the caste he or she becomes a member of.
In the 500 years after the hypergate system's destruction, the Polaris advanced towards more organic technology. Much of their biotechnological knowledge was gained by reverse engineering the Wraith. Polaris scientists discovered how to utilize polarons (a type of high-energy particle) to create practically massless torpedoes which cause great damage. They have also harnessed nuclear fusion and antimatter annihilation as reliable, high-yield power sources. Polaris ships are much more difficult to defeat in-game, compared to Auroran or Federation ships, as their shields are the most powerful in the game, and their capital ships heavily utilize the Polaron Torpedo, arguably the most deadly missile weapon in the game. Their ships also utilize powerful beams for close range combat.
Despite being spread over 30 systems (including two giant ringworlds), the Polaris are few in number. In the Polaris Preamble included in the Nova documentation, the former Nil'kemorya leader Iusia expresses his regret for having to fight a civil war to end a conflict between the castes. That war resulted in the deaths of three million Polarans, or slightly less than one percent of the Polaran population. Going by those numbers, it can be assumed that the Polaris population is a little more than 300 million (whereas the populations of other governments number in the billions), although some debate that their population is higher as the civil war occurred many years before the game occurs. The low Polaris population compared to the Aurorans or the Federation is more than made up for by their highly advanced technology.
The Vell-os are a telepathic race. They were led out to space, united by their telepathic powers by the Indian prince Vell-os in around A.D. 980. The Vell-os do not pilot true ships; the objects they use are simply psychic projections made by the Vell-os inside. They classify humans and Vell-os who have telepathic abilities into six ranks, or "T"s. The lowest rank possible is T6 (all normal humans are at this level with no actual telepathic ability), and starting with actual telepathic powers at T5, continues downward until T0, the highest rank a telepath can ever achieve. No Vell-os in recorded history has reached the rank of T0. The Vell-os were originally part of the Colonial Council (which preceded the Federation) but seceded when they protested the Colonial fleet trying to invade the Polaris for crimes they hadn't committed. Following a devastating war with the Colonial Council, they were enslaved by the Bureau of Internal Investigation, a shadowy group which effectively runs the Federation.
The Federation later evacuated the enslaved Vell-os to Federation space and proceeded to raze every inhabited Vell-os world via intense orbital bombardment, leaving dead planets with dangerously high radiation that will endure for millennia. The leaders of the Vell-os ruling council, the Krypt-tokh, escaped enslavement by fusing their bodies with their nanite-producing organs, becoming immense, immortal, telepathic space-roaming beings which ply the ruins of Vell-os space. The Krypt await the liberation of the Vell-os race as foretold in the so-called "Korell Prophecy."
Vell-os 'ships' are not ships in the common sense. The psionic power of the Vell-os pilot forms the shell of the vessel. The ship is also powered by the pilot's mind, and all defenses come from the pilot. The ship is literally an extension of the pilot within. While the ship does not have very powerful armor, the shields and weapons are some of the most powerful in the game. A single Vell-os Javelin can destroy two Federation destroyers and a carrier with ease.
Pirates represent the criminal side of the universe. There are many different branches of the common Pirates that mercilessly plunder and kill ships. In the game, they can disable and steal the player's goods and money and leave the player stranded in open space.
There are the more common Pirates, who are strong and dangerous raiders who either wish to kill traders, or to disable them and steal their money and goods. They are most prominent in the north of Federation space, as this space is policed little.
The Marauders are small raiders and pirates who plunder in a small scale, and are usually nothing to worry about to well armed merchants. Their ships are usually normal civilian ships, slightly upgraded, although sometimes a Starbridge or Valkyrie joins in the fleet. The Marauders are independent raiders who have no real leader or government, and therefore make very easy foes, though they should not be underestimated. The Marauders are weaker than the 'normal' Pirates, though they attack within Federation space. They are also universally despised, even by other Pirate factions, so they will be attacked by any warship or interceptor of any faction in a system.
The Association of Free Traders is a proud but dwindling organization, and they are not usually classified as Pirates. They are actually guardians of Federation space, and their main enemy is the Guild of Free Traders. They have created their own class of ships, which are civilian ships that have been thoroughly upgraded and tweaked, and fitted with a vast array of weaponry and Pirate technology. The once-proud Association met its decline in power after a very strong Bureau fleet helped by the Guild of Free Traders attacked the Association. The Bureau invited the Association leader, Morgan, to a peace-treaty, which turned out to be an ambush, helped by the Guild of Free Traders. The main ship of the Association, the Unrelenting (a very powerful Pirate Carrier) was destroyed along with other capital ships. Morgan, his crew and his wife met their death there, and the leadership of the Association has been replaced by Olaf Greyshoulders. The Association has ever since been an enemy of the Bureau of Internal Investigation, though they are not in open war with the Federation. Joining them grants the Unrelenting later in the game.
The Guild of Free Traders are the most worrisome and dangerous group of Pirates. They have their own government, and their current leader is McGowan. They are far more organized, and frequently smuggle illegal drugs and other goods. They have many secret bases scattered in Federation space, and commonly do strikes and raids among traders and merchants. They do not use civilian ships, and instead they use Association ships that are heavily upgraded. The Guild of Free Traders, though enemies of the Federation, have ties with the Bureau of Internal Investigation.
The other Pirate branch consists of the Auroran Houseless warriors. They are equivalent to the common Pirates in the Federation, and have similar strength and methods. Their fleet consists of Auroran civilian ships, gun ships and fighters. They normally attack in the center of Auroran space, and have their own base hidden inside an asteroid field.