Category Archives: Online Co-Ops

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.

* * *

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


Is Overwatch Missing the Mark?

Blizzard Entertainment is currently running a free open beta for their hotly anticipated new sci-fi shooter, Overwatch, which is due for release later this month. It’s shaping up to be a strong PvP game… but that’s all it is.

Reinhardt guards a payload in Overwatch

Overwatch consists entirely of competitive 6v6 matches played out over a handful of very similar capture-based game modes. It offers nothing else whatsoever. For a company as large and storied as Blizzard, that seems strangely unambitious, and the closer one looks at the missed opportunities of Overwatch, the more one begins to wonder if the game is missing the mark.

The potential versus the reality:

Overwatch generated a huge buzz when it was first announced at BlizzCon 2014. This was the first new franchise from Blizzard in more than fifteen years, and their first foray into the realm of first person shooters. Its announcement featured a spectacular cinematic trailer that showcased a game world full of color, excitement, and memorable characters.

As details filtered out, we learned that Overwatch depicts a near future world full of fantastic heroes uniting to defend the world from strife and conflict, to uplift the innocent and inspire as well as protect.

Overwatch was shown to feature a cast more diverse than virtually anything else in the gaming world, with a nearly balanced gender ratio and characters hailing from countries on every continent. No one could ever have expected Blizzard of all companies to become a champion of progressive ideals, but suddenly they were setting new standards of inclusiveness.

It was also immediately clear that Overwatch would be backed by lore and history as deep as that of Blizzard’s other franchises. Each of the game’s twenty-one playable characters has a strong backstory that connects to the greater narrative of a world on the brink of being torn apart by the conflicts between human and machine, citizen and corporation.

In short, Overwatch was a game brimming with vigor, optimism, and creativity.

A shot from Overwatch's announcement cinematic, featuring Tracer and Widowmaker

Yet it soon became clear that the reality of the game was very different from the impression given by its bright image and hopeful story. It would consist only of PvP matches completely divorced from the rich lore built for the game. Characters could potentially ally with their mortal enemies to kill their friends — or even themselves.

That in and of itself is not necessarily a problem, but there’s nothing else to the game. Blizzard has repeatedly shot down the idea of offering any other game modes.

It’s also strange that a game that is sold as being so light-hearted and hopeful is in reality quite harsh and unforgiving. Overwatch’s training tools are very sparse, and largely inadequate to the task of preparing those without prior experience in PvP shooters.The game’s mechanic of allowing players to change heroes mid-game also presents an extremely steep learning curve, forcing players to learn a large roster of characters off the bat if they want to play to their full potential.

It’s also a blisteringly fast game, where a split-second’s mistake or hesitation can result in a player’s instant death. There is little forgiveness for the slow or inexperienced.

Overwatch is a game that tries to send the message that all are welcome, yet the game itself has nothing to offer those who are not of a strong competitive mindset.

The missed opportunities:

Overwatch was clearly built to be a PvP game first, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but it could have offered a lot more than competitive play.

The Nepal map in Overwatch

From the moment it was announced, players have been asking about the possibility of a single-player campaign to flesh out the clearly rich lore of the Overwatch universe. Yet Blizzard has shot down the idea every time, preferring to tell Overwatch’s story through outside media like comic books and animated shorts. A strange decision indeed for a video game company.

The potential for a fantastic single-player experience definitely exists within Overwatch. As already mentioned, its backstory is clearly strong, and it’s hero-swap mechanic could make for very unique single-player gameplay, encouraging players to use different characters for different situations, perhaps even multiple times in the same mission. This would also have the advantage of helping people learn the characters before stepping into PvP.

Outside the single-player realm, there is still plenty Overwatch could do to appeal to those outside the hardcore PvP crowd. They could implement a co-op mode that would allow players to work together, rather than against each other.

Technically Overwatch does have co-op in the form of its versus AI matches, but it’s a very shallow feature, being merely a carbon copy of the PvP game with AI opponents. It’s clearly intended purely as a training tool, and it doesn’t even accomplish that very well, as the AI is very predictable and only uses about half of the game’s heroes.

Overwatch would benefit tremendously from a mode designed for co-op from the ground up, such as a horde mode. The game’s lore certainly offers many good scenarios to form the premise of such a mode, such as the robotic rebellion known as the Omnic Crisis.

Even for those who do enjoy PvP, Overwatch seems oddly limited. All of its maps boil down to some variation of “go to a point and stand there to capture it,” and it’s a game that becomes very repetitive very quickly, even considering its impressively diverse roster of heroes. It would benefit greatly from the addition of more game modes, such as team death match or a mode without hero-swapping.

The Hanamura map in Overwatch

Some variety is brought to the game with its weekly brawl mode, which shakes up the game with wacky new rules like random hero selection or reduced cooldowns, but even that feels like something of a stopgap solution to Overwatch’s repetitive nature.

Comparing to the competition:

When you start comparing Overwatch to other, similar games, its limited nature becomes even more perplexing.

Take the newly released Battleborn. It’s very similar to Overwatch, being a first person shooter with stylized graphics and a wide roster of unique heroes. However, in addition to three distinct competitive modes, Battleborn also boasts a full-length story campaign that can be played either solo or co-op, and players can unlock much the same perks and rewards via solo or co-op play as they would in PvP. It’s not just a neglected training mode; it’s a fully supported style of play.

One could also look to Call of Duty, the franchise sitting atop the shooter world. Call of Duty has a thriving PvP scene, but every new release also includes a full-length single-player campaign and some sort of co-op option.

Overwatch falls short even when compared to Blizzard’s other games. World of Warcraft has strong support for both PvE and PvP. Hearthstone regularly releases single-player adventures to supplement its competitive aspects. StarCraft II is a pillar of the eSports world, but also boasts a spectacular single-player campaign and extensive co-op support. Diablo III appeals to hardcore min/maxers and casual RPG fans alike.

In the context of that, it seems baffling that Overwatch has chosen to have a laser focus on such a specific type of gamer.

A co-op mission in StarCraft II

StarCraft II offers a robust co-op mode designed from the ground up to support team-based PvE.

Blizzard is the Midas of the gaming world, so it’s hard to imagine that Overwatch will be anything but a success, but one wonders how much more of a success it could have been if it had not focused so exclusively on competitive play.

It’s not a question of if Overwatch will lose players by offering no alternative to PvP, but simply how many. Those players will instead seek out Overwatch’s competition, and while it probably won’t be enough to stop Overwatch from being a hit, it still seems foolhardy for Blizzard to leave all that money on the table.

What might have been:

For what it is, Overwatch is a solid game. The core gameplay is strong, the art is fantastic, and the action is plentiful. But it is an incredibly narrow game. It’s a fantastic experience for those who crave intense, high octane competitive play, but very unwelcoming for everyone else.

One can’t help but wonder why Blizzard has set their sights so low with Overwatch.

Perhaps it has to do with the fact Overwatch is cobbled together from the remnants of Blizzard’s cancelled MMO, the game codenamed Project: Titan. Perhaps the company’s higher-ups were scrambling to recoup what they lost on Titan as quickly as possible, and thus they rushed Overwatch out the door as soon as they could.

If that’s the case, there’s always the chance it could expand to become more feature-complete after launch, but Blizzard has shown no interest in anything like that so far. They seem content with the game’s current, highly limited state.

It’s all very confusing, and for those who were inspired by Overwatch’s colorful and optimistic world when it was announced, very disappointing, as well.