Category Archives: Online Co-Ops

Emergent Storytelling Reigns Supreme

This is a collaborative post debating merits of emergent storytelling vs. static storytelling between yours truly and Roger from Contains Moderate Peril. After reading this, make sure to check out his side of the debate!

When it comes to MMOs, emergent storytelling is king.

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good static story. The choice driven narrative in The Witcher series is as compelling as the linear experience of The Last of Us. For a single player game, it’s still the way to go. Emergent storytelling is improving for single player games like future XCOM-like releases, but they still pale compared to a hand-crafted story. The reason for this is single player games lack the human component. We’re still not close to AI that can mimic humans. But if there’s one thing that existing MMOs don’t lack it’s people. It makes the genre what it is.

Think about the most memorable stories in MMORPG history. Lord British’s assassination in Ultima Online. Felling the Sleeper in EverQuest. World of Warcraft’s Corrupted Blood plague. Eve Online’s heist (and basically everything else in that game). For MMO-lites, Rust has long been a source of entertaining stories. These events are so special that they transcend the worlds from which they originate. The common denominator between them is players using (perhaps abusing) the game system in unforeseen ways.  You literally can’t make this stuff up. That’s the potential of emergent storytelling.

emergent story eve heist

It’s true that to fully experience emergent stories, you need to be there when the event occurs. For the regular person, that’s not feasible. Gamers also work or go to school and can’t be available for something cool that’s happening in a video game. Fear of missing out affects a lot of people, given how many choices we have for entertainment. Playing a game where that’s a constant threat can be stressful. The flip side is that every login, it’s possible you will experience something memorable and unique. Maybe you’ll even be the one to initiate it. There’s no end to the storytelling in an open-ended system. Contrast that with a static story that will eventually end, and I think it makes the risk of “missing out” completely worth it.

Most of the events also tend to revolve around loss of some kind. Eve Online makes news based on espionage or massive wars, leading to the loss of property for players. Even the family friendly World of Warcraft’s most newsworthy happenings revolved around a nasty plague and disrupting a funeral. These are the things that make headlines – but I think that’s because MMORPGs have largely relied on PvP for emergent gameplay thus far. Non-MMO multiplayer games, like Minecraft, have demonstrated that players can impress us with cooperation as much as with conflict. Unfortunately, MMORPGs in that realm (like Landmark) haven’t made it very far. And in terms of PvE gameplay, public quests in games like Guild Wars 2 and Rift have been too predictable.

Ultimately, there is a lot to be gained by emergent gameplay. The point of the above is to show that thus far developers haven’t gone far enough with it. World of Warcraft blew everything up with its focus on solo play and quests. MMORPGs are expensive to produce so that’s been the blueprint for a decade. Thanks to the beauty of crowdfunding though, developers can now take risks to differentiate. MMORPGs like Star Citizen, Crowfall, and Chronicles of Elyria will (hopefully) deliver some exciting emergent options.

star citizen emergent gameplay

The core element is focusing on freedom of choice. I realize that’s easier said than done. The balancing element that also narrows the scope is consequence. Everything is possible, but everything has a price. It’s from this choice and consequence that people create these memorable narratives. Whether MMORPG developers like it or not, people play pivotal roles in storytelling both by their absence and their presence.

1) Absence – AI is predictable. Predictability does not lead to good stories. Good static stories circumvent this through scripted events to weave their tale. The problem is that these events work in isolation. When players are running around the world, that changes the experience in unseen ways. The absence of real players is usually critical for the storyteller to deliver their goods as intended. But MMORPGs are not solo affairs. Why focus on stories best experienced alone when the medium itself is built around multiplayer?

2) Presence – Humans are anything but predictable, especially when relatively minor consequences and internet anonymity gets thrown into the mix. MMORPGs should use this to their advantage. I’d argue that playing Eve Online is boring at best, but experiencing Eve Online’s multiple PvP systems is thrilling. Give players the tools, and they’ll create history. Again, just look at the massive success that is Minecraft and all of its copycats. Whether it’s building and destroying or cooperating and conflicting, it’s the people that make the MMO genre what it is.

Even language itself changes in unintended ways thanks to the players. MMO first timers might be overwhelmed by all of the genre’s jargon. It can feel practically like a foreign language. What’s cool is how this language naturally evolves to create terms or abbreviations that didn’t exist prior. Language may not be flashy, but altering the way we communicate fascinates me. And we have MMO players to thank for that.

I’ll close saying that games like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars: The Old Republic offer good stories, but I’ve never seen them talked up besides from those who have experienced them. By contrast, I do see single player stories talked up. That’s all because it’s a strength of that focused medium. I say leave static storytelling to those single player games and push MMOs to invest in systems that allow players to tell their own stories and build their own legends. MMOs were built for emergent storytelling.

Like any good debate though, there’s always another side to the story. Check out Roger’s discussion in favor of static storytelling at Contains Moderate Peril.

How a PvE Survival Sandbox Could Surpass PvP

These days it feels like you can’t swing an epic Sword of Valor in the MMO space without hitting three or four survival sandboxes. They’re the latest trend every developer is eager to jump on, following WoW clones and MOBAs.

A screenshot from the survival sandbox DayZ

But this is one fad that’s mostly passed me by. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the biggest is the focus on PvP that dominates the survival sandbox genre. I’m not a big fan of PvP, and I’m even less a fan of the free for all anarchy that is the preferred style of competition in survival games.

PvE-focused survival games are rare, and multiplayer versions thereof rarer still. If you want a survival game that hews closer to an MMORPG, you’re doomed to be constantly looking over your shoulder, fearing the next gank.

But I don’t think it needs to be this way. I think a PvE multiplayer survival sandbox can work. I think it could even sell the fantasy of survival against all odds much better than its PvP counterparts.

How We Got Here

First, I think it would be helpful to examine why PvP has come to be the “default setting” for survival sandboxes. Some of the reasons are good, but some aren’t.

Of course, there are clearly plenty of people who simply enjoy it. They find the cutthroat experience of gank or be ganked thrilling. I may not share their view, but I can respect it.

From a broader perspective, PvP puts the “survival” in survival sandboxes. Without risk and loss, the challenge of staying alive in a hostile world would become trivialized, and the entire concept of the genre would fall apart. A survival game needs a threat, and other players can provide that.

But there are, I think, other factors that are more problematic.

A screenshot from the survival game Conan Exiles

To be blunt, PvP is cheap. And I don’t simply mean that as a casual put-down. From a literal financial perspective, enabling open PvP is one of the cheapest ways to add threat and challenge to a game.

Survival sandboxes are clearly games that are being done on the cheap, at least relative to a full-featured MMORPG. Most are indie games who begin charging for admission long before an official launch. For a developer looking to cut corners or at least save costs, PvP is a life-saver.

PvP doesn’t require a lot of development time or expertise. There’s no mechanics to design, no AI to program. Just throw a bunch of people into a box, give them weapons, remove consequence, and let the dark side of human nature take its course.

That brings me to another issue with the survival genre. It seems to be caught in celebrating the worst aspects of humanity.

Most survival games are set after some sort of disaster — usually a zombie apocalypse — and even if they aren’t, there’s usually some sort of environmental threat, like dinosaurs or other nasties. Despite this, though, the greatest threat usually comes from other players. The message is clear: Rather than banding together to survive, humans turn on each other. We’re the real monsters here.

I don’t wish to veer too far off into the realms of politics or philosophy, but to me this seems symptomatic of a growing cynicism in our society as a whole. We’ve come to believe the worst about ourselves as a people. We don’t just acknowledge the darkness within us; we wallow in it.

A screenshot from the multiplayer survival sandbox Ark: Survival Evolved

People are capable of terrible things, but that’s not all we’re capable of, and we can change. We don’t have to settle for the worst; we can be better.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with some games making humanity’s darkness their star feature. Sometimes I like to indulge my dark side in games, too. But I find it disquieting that an entire genre seems to have made “people are awful” its core conceit.

In the end, all a survival sandbox needs is persistent danger. Players are not the only or even necessarily the best way to provide this. I think the environment can provide just as much of a threat, and perhaps even bring something positive to the online community, as well.

How It Can Work

At a fundamental level, all we need is an enemy for players to fight, something genuinely threatening. The trouble is that humans tend to be a lot smarter than AI, but I think this problem can be solved.

You don’t really need AI that’s particularly good at strategy. You just need it to be powerful, and unpredictable.

Zombies are played out, so let’s say our bad guys are robots. I’ve been watching a friend stream Horizon Zero Dawn lately, and I can’t help thinking what an amazing setting it would be for an MMORPG — or a multiplayer survival game. But if you prefer, you could also imagine our hypothetical game is Terminator Online.

Power is easy enough to achieve. Just give the bots a numerical advantage over players. Design it so there will always be more robots on a server than players by a wide margin. Doesn’t matter if they’re stupid individually; their sheer weight of numbers makes them a threat.

A screenshot from Horizon Zero Dawn

Players should generally be more powerful than the machines so that other players are always seen as a valuable resource. It’s a quality versus quantity proposition; players are stronger, but bots are much more numerous.

Unpredictability is a little trickier, but I think it can be doable without investing millions into advanced AI research. Again, the bots don’t need complex strategies to be a threat. Place some broad limits on their behavior — an upper limit on the number of NPCs that can be deployed server-wide, for instance — and then apply a certain degree of randomness to their distribution and aggressiveness.

Those two factors alone should be able to make for an unpredictable world. One day, the bots might swarm a certain zone heavily while neglecting other regions; the next, they might stick to the wilderness, presenting a threat to lone wanderers but not organized groups.

This would undoubtedly lead to some odd behaviors now and then. The robots might go a brutal rampage across a zone with no players. They might swamp a smaller settlement so much the players within have no hope of survival.

I think that’s okay. Survival sandboxes have always been a bit random, and they were never meant to be fair. A PvE sandbox doesn’t need to change those things.

What’s most important is that players never feel entirely safe, that they never know exactly when the next blow will come.

Couple this with the removal of the option to attack your fellow humans, and suddenly you have a game where you’re always happy to see other people. Bonds are formed not by arbitrary goads toward socialization, but by the simple fact that there’s strength in numbers.

Hasta la vista, noob

I think the bigger challenge would be to ensure nothing else in the game’s mechanics discourages cooperation between players, but I think this is also a solvable problem.

My initial thought was to emulate the open-tapping and personal loot of Guild Wars 2, but that could sabotage the scarcity of resources that is a core part of the survival genre. Adding more players would simply generate more resources.

A better option might be to make resources more of a node system than directly looted items. If players capture a mine, then those in the immediate area can craft metal items.

This could also create interesting emergent gameplay. Maybe there aren’t any mines in your area, but a new one just opened up to the west, so you have to make the journey there to craft new weapons.

But the bots are swarming between you and the mine. Do you try to sneak through and hope you don’t get noticed? Do you take the long way around and risk the mine being conquered by bots in the meanwhile? Do you rally your fellow players and fight your way through?

Adding some randomization to the resources could also help ensure scarcity. Mines regularly deplete, farms regularly fail, and so forth. New resources will appear, but not always consistently. Shortages can happen, forcing players to ration, or perhaps to risk forays into enemy territory to capture what resources remain.

With a few simple mechanics, we’ve designed a game full of danger, where survival is a constant struggle, but where other players a resource and not a threat. It’s human versus machine in a constant struggle for dominance. Picture people manning the walls of player-made cities in a desperate struggle to protect precious resources from a swarm of robotic foes. Picture random strangers rushing to each other’s aid after a wilderness encounter with a bot patrol.

That, to me, seems like a much more appealing prospect than the Lord of the Flies simulators we’re stuck with now. Rather than encouraging the worst in all of us, a PvE survival sandbox could foster cooperation and fellowship among players.

It might not solve toxic behavior in all cases, but I do think it could foster an environment that’s more positive than negative. Adversity can bring out the worst in us, but it can also bring out the best, and it’s time the survival genre acknowledged this.

Steam Hammer Interview: Survival in a Steampunk World

Steam Hammer just wrapped up a $50,000 Kickstarter to help bring to life their hardcore steampunk, sandbox-style RPG. Lots of words there, but there’s a lot to describe. We talked with Konstantin of Big Way Games to find out more about their upcoming multiplayer title.

Steam Hammer is a sandbox survival RPG. Aside from the Steampunk theme, how will Steam Hammer differentiate itself from other multiplayer survival games?

The game also includes the Acribians, a race with their own architecture, armor, weaponry, and, of course, airships (they get flying whales). Other survival games generally stick to one race, while Steam Hammer players also get to enjoy how Acribians fuse flesh and machinery. The result is the kind of Frankenstein/cyborg mix you’d expect from the end of the 19th century.

steam hammer

Since it’s important to our audience, what sort of features will most appeal to MMO fans?

MMO fans get your standard package: 64-person servers, the ability to create and join guilds, and the opportunity to play on a single server with friends. That way they can build the city of their dreams without worrying that someone is going to come rampaging through and wreck the whole thing. None of that should come as a surprise, however, so, again, I’ll just say that what we offer is fairly standard.

What was the motivation behind choosing a Steampunk setting?

We’ve had a soft spot for steampunk ever since Arcanum. I think it’s becoming more popular lately, which means we can make money on a game we’ve had a blast spending more than a year developing.

What are the biggest incentives for players to work together in Steam Hammer?

Players pick from a variety of professions, and the fact that they can’t master them all forces them to work together. You can only pick one or two classes to perfect. For example, you might be an armorer and a farmer, but that rules out being a builder. That, in turn, means that all you can build is a miserable little shack. If you want to create a powerful weapon at a factory, you need someone to build the factory and then an engineer to build the machinery. Plus, there’s collective defense—you can’t stand alone on the field of battle. Large airships, to take one example, have four turrets, and so you need four gunners as well as a pilot to man them.

Players can fly airships! So how difficult is it to build one?

It takes a three-person team something like 30 hours to build a large airship, though we’re currently working to balance that. Our Kickstarter campaign let us add small airships to the game as well. They’re still in development, but I imagine they’ll take half as long to build.

steam hammer screenshot 2

Steam Hammer looks to be a very socially interactive. Are there any AI controlled threats in the game or does most of that come from other players?

Other players definitely represent the most serious threat, but there are also ornery wild animals to worry about. At some point in the development process we also plan on adding blots, which are humanoid monsters that swim up out of the depths of the sea to raid player settlements. In addition, there are also caravans of airships flying over the islands that can be looted or even boarded and captured.

Will the game feature long term progression for your characters like a typical MMORPG?

You can play Steam Hammer for quite a while, spending the time mastering different professions and switching classes. Another factor is that all materials and weapons have a quality attribute that takes a long time to max out. Leveling up several combat and peacetime professions will take about 10 days of playing time.

How will the servers operate for Steam Hammer?

We will have plenty of very customizable servers all around the world. For example, on our servers at around 7-8 p.m. we have a judgment hour, which is when you can attack any guild or player without your karma taking a hit. When you set up your own server, you’ll be able to turn judgment hour off or turn on those conditions permanently. You’ll also set how fast players level up and many other parameters.

Can players transfer character between servers?

No, they cannot.

Steam Hammer seems quite ambitious. Are you worried about not delivering any of the features promised in your Kickstarter?

Everything is right on schedule. We’re currently hard at work building everything our backers paid for.

Finally, for those that missed the Kickstarter, is there any way to late back Steam Hammer?

Certainly. The game will be released to Steam in March 2017, and buying it will be the best way to support us. Strong sales, after all, will give us impetus we need to keep developing and making the Steam Hammer world more interesting and engaging.

Thanks for your time!

There’s no short supply of multiplayer survival games on the market but a well-done steampunk setting is sorely lacking. Big Way Games looks to fill that gap in impressive fashion, if all goes according to plan. With Early Access launching in just a couple of months, it won’t be long before we can dive in. Follow Steam Hammer on Steam and get notified as soon as it goes live.

Favorite Games of 2016

2016 has come and gone and now it’s time to reminisce about what turned out to be a great year in gaming. Tyler Bro and I have compiled our three favorite games we played in the past year. Most of them didn’t actually release last year, but that only shows one of the great things about gaming. Multiplayer games especially tend to evolve over time and many are in better shape than we’ve ever seen.

The Bro’s Picks:

Elder Scrolls Online
elder scrolls online 2016

I’ve fallen in love with Elder Scrolls Online. There’s so much interesting content here and two months later, I’m just scratching the surface. I tend to get a little ADD when it comes to MMORPGs so the wealth of options is fantastic. There’s a ton of dungeons (with a myriad of difficulties), expansive PvP, crafting, and crazy amount of customization options.

Unlike many other MMORPGs, I don’t feel compelled to play in a particular way. I log on and get rewards for doing whatever it is I find enjoyable. This is not the MMORPG it was when it first launched. ESO took a while to get to the point it’s at now, but One Tamriel really sealed the deal for me. This is my MMORPG of choice for the foreseeable future.


overwatch 2016

Elder Scrolls Online lacks one important multiplayer feature: competitive PvP. This is where Overwatch comes into play. I don’t always want an intense skill based multiplayer game. When I do, Overwatch is just a few clicks away. For a long time, League of Legends was my competitive multiplayer game of choice. With less time to devote to mastery, Overwatch has served as more than a capable replacement.

The characters feel truly unique and most of them offer a different experience from a typical shooter. Using abilities at the right time can mean the difference between a victory and a loss. The pacing of the matches feels just right too. Overwatch is one of the few multiplayer games that really changes things up for a gamer who sometimes feels like they’ve seen it all.

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt

witcher 3 2016

Of course, sometimes it’s important to just sit back and enjoy a fully immersive single player experience. In that regard, Witcher is hard to beat. I actually played this for the first time in 2015, but I enjoyed it so much I played through it again (with DLC) in 2016. There are some flaws, sure. The pacing is a little off in the main game, and combat isn’t super deep. I don’t think I’ve ever played a perfect game though so I’d qualify these as pretty minor complaints.

I love the characters, story, choices, and world. I can’t say at any point that I lost my sense of immersion in The Witcher 3. Actions and reactions flow in a natural manner, and there is a ton of choice & consequence. Making tough moral decisions is such a great part of the game. I hope to see something similar in that regard in 2017.

Tyler Bro’s picks:


A player character in Landmark

Landmark was a pleasant surprise. We were all pretty disappointed by the cancellation of EverQuest Next, but if that was a case of life giving us lemons, Landmark is some pretty fine lemonade.

It’s a pretty simple game — really more of a toolkit than a game — but for what it is it does its job well. There’s almost no limit to what you can create in Landmark, and some of the creativity on display within it is truly awe-inspiring.

It might not be “main game” material, but it’s a nice place to pop into for some relaxation every now and again.

Star Wars: The Old Republic

An Imperial agent character and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old Republic's Knights of the Eternal Throne expansion

If we’re to measure only by hours spent in-game, SW:TOR was my top game in 2016. Bar a few short breaks here and there, I played it heavily over the entire year. The major changes made by Knights of the Fallen Empire intrigued me, and I wound up getting sucked in for the long haul.

This is actually a bit surprising, even to me, because I’ve never really been a Star Wars fan, and there are some pretty big things about the game that I don’t like, from its business model to its combat.

However, I am a sucker for a good story, and that’s one thing Bioware tends to deliver pretty consistently. Between the class and expansion stories, I had no shortage of plot to keep me engaged, even as I largely ignored the multiplayer and endgame content.

StarCraft II

Nova's ship, the Griffin, in StarCraft II's Nova Covert Ops DLC

Although its last expansion technically launched in 2015, 2016 was still a fantastic year for StarCraft II. Its co-op mode has far exceeded everyone’s expectations, and I can’t even count how many matches I’ve played over the past year. With new maps and commanders coming regularly, it just keeps getting better.

Meanwhile, the Covert Ops DLC also provided a small but very quality dose of story content. I had my doubts about whether Covert Ops could measure up after the excellence of Legacy of the Void’s single-player experience, but it won me over with its intense story, innovative gameplay, and epic challenges. If Covert Ops is truly to be the last story update to StarCraft II, at least they left on a high note.

For all the stumbles made by Blizzard’s other properties in recent times, StarCraft seems to have the Midas touch these days.

StarCraft II: Nova Co-op Guide

Nova is one of the most powerful commanders in StarCraft II’s co-op mode, but she has an unusual playstyle that can take some adjustment. I already offered some tips when I wrote up my first impressions of Nova, but now I bring you a more detailed breakdown.

A promotional splash screen for co-op commander Nova in StarCraft II

Whether you’re new to co-op in general or just new to Nova, the following guide will help you get your bearings and begin calling down the thunder on Amon’s forces.

Economy, upgrades, and army composition:

Naturally, you should begin by making SCVs. Try to avoid queuing up multiple at a time, but make sure production is continuous. As soon as you can spend 100 minerals without compromising SCV production, begin construction on your first Refinery. Build the second as soon as the first is finished.

Once you can spend 150 minerals without compromising SCV production, dispatch another SCV to begin building your Barracks.

I usually cap out at sixteen SCVs mining minerals at the main base. This is a bit lower than the game recommends, but it frees up more supply for your army, and the resources you lose are pretty negligible. If you haven’t unlocked Automated Refineries yet, make sure to also have exactly three SCVs at every Refinery.

I don’t count the SCV building the Barracks toward the cap of sixteen. He will be used to build the rest of your base. Start with an Engineering Bay, then a Factory, then a Starport, then an Armory. Remember to attach to Tech Labs to your production facilities as soon as possible, and I also recommend assigning them to control groups. I assign each production building to its own group, but you can also assign them all to one and tab through them as needed.

Nova never has to build Supply Depots, allowing you to focus on other matters.

Nova blasting zombies on the co-op map Miner Evacuation in StarCraft II

Once the main base is constructed, you can dispatch the spare SCV to your expansion, which may already be established by this time. The exact timing of your expansion will vary based on the map, but generally you should start building it as soon as possible. I usually assign fourteen SCVs to mining minerals at the expansion.

You may quickly find yourself floating extra minerals when playing as Nova. In StarCraft II, we’re trained to spend our resources as quickly as possible, but as Nova, it can actually be beneficial to float large sums of resources at times, due to the high costs of her units and top bar abilities.

I recommend trying to get a squad of Marines out as quickly as possible. Nova’s Marines are so strong that they can generally hold off early attack waves all on their own. Try to get their Super Stim upgrade at the tech lab (assuming you’ve unlocked it) as quickly as possible.

I also recommend getting Nova’s Ghost Visor upgrade at the Ghost Academy early on. It allows you to never have to worry about cloaked units and helps to target Sabotage Drone.

Moving into the midgame, you can focus on building your army. Regardless of circumstance, I’ll always make Marines and at least some Marauders. They’re versatile and cost-effective units that are always beneficial.

You should also always make as many Ravens as possible. Their most important ability is their repair drone, which provides crucial healing to your expensive units, but their other abilities are also strong. Their turrets can tank a lot of damage when deployed in front of your army, and their missiles provide significant AoE damage.

One of Nova's enhanced goliaths in StarCraft II's co-op

Beyond that, Nova has more options than just about any other commander in co-op, so it really depends on the situation.

Ghosts’ Snipe ability is amazingly powerful, especially with the Triple-Tap upgrade, but it does only target biological units, so I usually only make Ghosts versus Zerg or an infantry-heavy Terran. EMP can be good against Protoss, but it’s very micro-intensive.

If you’re facing Terran or Protoss air, Goliaths should be a priority. If you’re playing on Temple of the Past or Miner Evacuation, Siege Tanks are a good investment. Remember to deploy their Spider Mines regularly.

I’ll use Liberators to supplement my force if facing enemy air compositions or playing on Void Launch, but I generally don’t recommend using them as the backbone of your army.

I generally don’t make Hellbats or Banshees as Nova. They’re not bad, but they don’t offer much that other things can’t do at least as well.

Always remember to get the Tech Lab upgrades for any units you’re using. They’re all worth it, with the possible exception of the Liberator upgrades and EMP when not facing Protoss.

Using Nova:

Nova has two combat modes, with the second unlocked at level three.

I tend to focus on her Stealth Mode. It allows her to attack air, and her Snipe is useful for taking big chunks of health off dangerous targets like Hybrids.

Nova's Sabotage Drone ability in StarCraft II's co-op

However, the most powerful tool of her Stealth Mode is undoubtedly Sabotage Drone. In fact, Sabotage Drone is one of the best abilities in all of co-op. It’s completely undetectable and therefore completely unavoidable. Send a drone into an enemy base for a guaranteed burst of AoE damage that can instantly kill all but the toughest units and structures.

Sabotage Drone has a relatively short cooldown, and you should be using it as often as possible. Often I’ll separate Nova from my main army so she can begin softening up later targets even as my army is dealing with a current objective.

After level nine, Stealth Mode also allows Nova to nuke targets, dealing massive damage in a huge area. Like Sabotage Drone, I tend to use this before attacking, but it can also be useful in the middle of fights. Nukes do not cause friendly fire damage in co-op.

Assault Mode is more niche. Its main tool is a conal AoE shotgun blast that deals bonus damage versus light units. It’s devastating against things like Zerglings, Zealots, Marines, and Hydralisks, but fairly underwhelming otherwise.

Assault Mode also gives Nova a short cooldown teleport that shields her. This is important to keep her alive while she’s blasting away at the front lines, and can also be a useful mobility tool.

Assault Mode’s level nine unlock is a Holo Decoy. The Decoy is something that seems good on paper but whose usefulness is limited in practice. It has very high health and damage, but you can’t control it directly, so it tends to stay in the general vicinity of where it was first summoned, and you can’t be sure it will be attacking what you want it to. I usually throw it out in the middle of a big fight and hope for the best.

Top bar abilities:

Nova's Griffin air strike ability in StarCraft II's co-op

Nova also has a number of powerful global abilities accessed from the top bar. Uniquely, they cost minerals, though their cooldowns tend to be very short.

The first ability is Defensive Drone. This summons an immobile drone that will apply shields to friendly units when they’re attacked and has a decently long duration. The drone can be killed but is fairly tough.

This a very strong ability that should be used early and often. Don’t hog it for your own troops, either. It’s a great way to support your ally if your armies are separated.

The other top bar ability Nova begins with allows you to instantly revive her in the field if she’s killed, with the cost determined by how much is left on her revival timer. You should almost always use this immediately, unless you’ve somehow gotten Nova killed during a period where there is little or no fighting.

At level two, she unlocks the Griffin Airstrike ability. This is an expensive ability at 1,000 minerals, so you probably won’t use it much in the early or midgame, but it can be a great tool in the lategame, dealing massive damage in a large column.

Note that there is a slight animation delay between casting the Airstrike and its impact, so it requires careful targeting. A good strategy is to send a Sabotage Drone into an enemy base then use its vision to target an Airstrike into the unexplored areas (Ghost Visor can help you know where to aim). The unengaged enemy will simply sit there as the Drone and Airstrike deal ruinous damage.

The Airstrike also happens to be the perfect size and shape to deal incredible damage to both trains and their protectors on Oblivion Express.

Nova nukes the enemy in StarCraft II's co-op

Finally, at level five, Nova gains Tactical Airlift, which allows her to pick up a large number of friendly units and instantly teleport them to any place you have vision, for the low price of 200 minerals. This is a fantastic ability whose potential cannot be overstated. It’s especially great for protecting locks on Lock and Load, but it has applications on every map.

Mastery points:

In the first set, I prefer Nuke/Decoy cooldown reduction. Even at full mastery, the Airstrike will still cost 700 minerals, which is still a lot.

For the second, unit attack speed is definitely superior, though I still put some points in Nova attack speed just for funsies.

For the third, unit life regeneration should be your first priority, but once you’ve sunk five to ten points into it, you start to run into diminishing returns pretty fast. Spend the rest on Nova’s energy regeneration.

Nova Explodes onto StarCraft II’s Co-op Scene

Fans of StarCraft II’s co-op have gotten used to fairly lengthy waits between new commander releases, but that may be changing now. Just a couple weeks after the release of Highlord Alarak, Blizzard has unleashed another new commander: the elite operative Nova Terra.

Nova launches a nuclear strike in StarCraft II's co-op

“Explodes” is not a metaphor.

A long-time fan favorite, Nova was to have been the star of the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost and has since taken a lead role in several novels and mangas, as well as StarCraft II’s Covert Ops DLC. She is the first Terran co-op commander to be released post-launch, and also the first Terran commander to take the field as a hero unit.

But that’s just the beginning of Nova’s unique mechanics. She is perhaps the most creative commander to date, and she will completely change how you play StarCraft II.

Ghost reporting:

Nova has a very unique gameplay style that focuses much less on economy and more on the action. She has a supply limit of only 100, similar to Zagara, but she never needs to build supply depots. She has access to her full supply right from the start.

The way she trains units is also completely different. Her units are deployed instantly, in groups, at any location of your choosing within vision range. The downside is that there is a lengthy cooldown between unit calldowns. If you’re familiar with the mercenary units in the Wings of Liberty campaign, it’s a very similar system.

Nova’s units are vastly more expensive than normal, but also more powerful, with enhanced health and damage as well as potent new abilities. Most of these abilities can be set to autocast, though, so her army doesn’t require as much micro as you might think. In fact I find Alarak far more taxing from a micro perspective.

As for the units themselves, Nova gets three options per production structure. From the barracks, she has marines, marauders, and ghosts. Because she starts the game with a ghost academy, she can potentially begin training ghosts very quickly.

One of Nova's enhanced goliaths in StarCraft II's co-op

For mech options, she can produce hellbats, goliaths, and siege tanks from the factory, and the starport grants her access to liberators, ravens, and banshees.

So far I’ve been focusing on mainly infantry builds, occasionally swapping to goliaths when facing air compositions, but all of Nova’s units seem pretty strong, and I think she could have quite a lot of viable builds.

Whatever build you use, I do recommend investing heavily in ravens, as they can deploy powerful healing drones. Nova’s units are so costly that any loss is felt. You want to do everything you can to keep her troops alive.

That brings us to Nova herself. She has very low health for a hero unit — lower even than Alarak — but that doesn’t stop her from being spectacularly powerful.

Uniquely, Nova has two modes — the second unlocked at level three — that she can swap between on a short cooldown. Stealth mode is her default state and grants her pretty much the toolkit you’d expect from a ghost — cloaking, snipe. The one notable new option is sabotage drone, a mobile bomb that detonates for massive AoE damage after a short arming period.

I can’t overstate how amazing sabotage drone is. It has an advanced form of cloaking that makes it completely undetectable and a very long range, meaning you can deploy it with no risk. It’s essentially free damage. It’s easily one of the best abilities in co-op right now.

Nova’s other stance is assault mode. In assault mode, she loses her cloak but gains an AoE blast ability and a short cooldown teleport that also shields her.

Nova in StarCraft II's co-op

Assault mode seems very niche. It can devastate large swarms of low health units — like zerglings — but it’s risky, micro intensive, and it costs her the ability to attack air. Most of the time you’re going to want to stay in stealth mode, I think. Sabotage drone is too good to give up, and sniping high priority targets is generally more important than mowing down swarms of weak units.

At level nine, she unlocks powerful new abilities for both stances. Stealth mode gains the ability to call down a nuclear strike for ruinous damage across a huge area, while assault mode can summon a holo decoy that will attack enemy units, doing full damage.

Again, stealth mode seems the clear winner here. Both abilities are powerful, but a well-placed nuke can annihilate entire bases, and the fact you can’t directly control the decoy limits its effectiveness considerably.

That said, you’ll still want to use both modes at least a little. The decoy and the nuke have separate cooldowns, so there’s no reason not to use both.

Finally, Nova also has access to a number of abilities accessed from the top bar. She begins with a defensive drone that can shield friendly units and the ability to instantly resurrect herself if she dies, and as she levels, she also unlocks a devastating aerial bombing run and a mass teleport. Uniquely, these abilities have very short cooldowns, but cost minerals.

Super Nova:

Every commander has their own distinct feel, but Nova is so different it almost feels like playing a different game. Maybe a better game.

Nova's Griffin air strike ability in StarCraft II's co-op

Nova requires almost no economic management. You’ll still need to train workers and build an expansion, but it takes almost no time to get her entire base established, and after that you can ignore everything other than controlling your army.

I love StarCraft II, but one thing that’s always bothered me about the game is how heavily it’s skewed toward economy. If you can macro well, commanding your troops is almost an afterthought. Nova is a very welcome respite from that paradigm.

Nova is theoretically very micro-intensive, but between her much smaller army size and the wealth of auto-cast abilities, she’s actually not hard to play at all. In fact I find her downright relaxing to play. There’s just enough to do to keep you engaged, but not to tax you.

And she’s powerful. Insanely, ludicrously powerful. She’s so good that I think some degree of nerfs are inevitable. While leveling her, I’ve easily outclassed allies who vastly out-leveled me. At times I’ve almost felt bad for my allies. I was able to devastate the enemy so heavily and so easily that there just wasn’t anything left for my partner to do.

Some may disagree, but I think Nova is probably the most powerful commander co-op has yet seen. The last time I felt this powerful in a video game was when I was eight years old and abusing god mode cheats.

The only map I’ve seen Nova struggle with so far is Temple of the Past, mainly because her static defenses leave a lot to be desired. Her siege tanks are very good, but it’s difficult to mass up enough of them due to the lengthy cooldown on summoning them.

Nova calls down a nuclear strike in StarCraft II's co-op

It doesn’t majorly harm her effectiveness, but one thing that can also be a little frustrating is how much Nova is skewed towards a slow, methodical playstyle — picking her enemy apart a piece at a time. I very much enjoy that way of playing, but it’s sometimes an awkward fit for a game mode that’s dominated by hard time limits and impatient teammates. With a little work, Nova can tear down an enemy base without risking any units, but often your ally will just Leeroy in before you get the chance.

However, on maps where Nova has the opportunity to play offense and the time to do it on her terms, she excels. Chain of Ascension is probably her best map, but she also does very well on Void Thrashing and Rifts to Korhal. Oblivion Express is another good one for her, purely because her air strike is the perfect size and shape to deal massive damage to the trains while also cleaning out most of their escorts.

If you want to maximize your potential as Nova, my number one tip is to always be using her for harassment. Any time sabotage drone is off cooldown, you’re wasting tremendous amounts of damage. Think of it as your “maintenance” task, like dropping MULEs or injecting larva.

I often split Nova off from my main army, using them to defend against attacks or push a current objective while Nova softens up whatever’s next. If you play your cards right, you can weaken enemy fortifications so much your army can march in virtually unopposed.

I also recommend capitalizing on the versatility inherent in Nova’s army. Don’t constantly lean on the same unit composition. Consider what map you’re on and what the enemy is bringing to bear and plan accordingly.

On the whole, Nova is an incredibly inventive, incredibly fun addition to StarCraft II’s co-op. As a long-time Nova fan, I had very high expectations for her, and she’s exceeded all of them. I can’t recommend her enough.

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Nova is currently available to all StarCraft II players for $4.99USD.