Tag Archives: Starcraft

Are MMOs Too Easy?

 

There are many perennial debates that rage eternal within the MMORPG community. Lockboxes. The trinity. And the question, “Are MMOs too easy?”

A boss fight in World of Warcraft

That’s a question I’ve long struggled with myself, as I do often find myself frustrated by the relative difficulty of most of the MMOs I’ve played.

The more I try to answer that question, though, the more I realize it’s so much more complicated than it seems at first glance.

Defining Difficulty

First we need to discuss what true difficulty actually is. This feels like it should be obvious, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding of it in the gaming community, especially where MMORPGs are concerned.

Firstly, tedium is not challenge. One tests your skill, while the other simply tests your patience. A lot of people who talk about MMOs being so much easier these days simply mean that you no longer need to spend hours looking for a group so you can spend an hour getting to your destination so you can spend hours grinding the same mobs over and over.

That wasn’t difficult. That was just time-consuming.

Similarly, I’m not convinced that simply having harsh punishments for player error — like corpse runs or perma-death — necessarily makes for a truly challenging game. Certainly corpse runs could prove a challenge, but things like that mostly serve to make players risk adverse, and if you’re not also challenging players before they die, then you’re just adding a tax to people who lag or go AFK.

For perspective, the most challenging MMO I’ve played to date was the original incarnation of The Secret World, and it also had arguably the most lenient death penalty of any MMO I’ve played. Only gear repair fees that were so small as to be utterly trivial. Didn’t stop the game from being so hard I almost threw my monitor out the window a few times.

Doing battle as a Sith inquisitor in Star Wars: The Old Republic

And then we need to consider that not all difficulty necessarily makes for interesting gameplay. You can triple the health and damage of every enemy in an MMO, and it will definitely make the game harder, but it may not make it anymore fun.

What defines interesting difficulty may vary a bit from person to person, but broadly speaking I would say it’s about testing your ability to react (such as active dodge or block mechanics), to strategize (such as saving cooldowns or resources for a crucial moment), to adapt (such as adjusting your build to meet a specific challenge), and to coordinate (such as forming a plan with your teammates to tackle a difficult encounter).

Other Complications

And there are other things that make it difficult to determine just whether MMORPGs are too easy or not.

For one thing, difficulty is somewhat subjective. Two people can play the same content and come away with one feeling it was too easy and the other feeling it was too hard.

Challenges that are trivial for dedicated MMO players can still be significant hurdles for someone who is new to the genre, or new to video games as a whole, and on the other hand someone who is used to challenging themselves playing very difficult games like Dark Souls or StarCraft may find even relatively challenging content to be a cakewalk.

The social aspect of MMORPGs further complicates matters, because your experience of the game is affected by the skill level of your fellow players as much as your own. I’ve had easy dungeons turn into miserable slogs because of the crumby players I’ve been matched with, and I’ve had very difficult content made absolutely breezy through the assistance of top-tier players.

A priest using the holy nova spell in World of Warcraft

The fact that MMOs are social games also means that there may be some value to skewing things toward the easier end of the spectrum. It’s a terrible feeling if you can’t play with your friend because their skills aren’t up to the task — and an even worse feeling if you’re the one your buddies have to carry.

Making MMOs easy allows them to cast a wide net and attract the greatest number of players. This means there’s more people to meet and more potential for social bonds to form.

It also means a greater potential pool of customers for the developers, which is probably the real reason most MMOs tend to be fairly easy games.

So from that perspective, an argument could be made that MMOs should be catered to the lowest common denominator.

And finally, let’s not forget that the MMO industry’s devotion to vertical progression means that most any content can eventually be made easy with enough gear, further blurring the definition of what an acceptable level of difficulty would be.

The Real Question

So now that we’ve gotten all that out of the way, let’s answer the real question: Are MMOs too easy?

In a word, yes, but I’m not sure that captures the real issue.

My opinion on this is mainly based on the “WoW clone” model of design that so long dominated the MMORPG industry, and to some extent still does.

A bow-wielding character in Elder Scrolls Online

In World of Warcraft and its copycats, it’s generally the case that the large majority of content is extremely easy. This is especially true of open world content, where enemies are tuned to be so weak that they’re almost never a credible threat unless the player does something incredibly dumb.

This is less true of games outside that mould, but only slightly. You can’t sleepwalk through open world content in Elder Scrolls Online, but it’s not exactly strenuous, either.

But here’s the thing: Those games do have challenging content. Very, very challenging content. Mythic raiding in WoW is brutally difficult. It requires meticulous coordination between players and virtually perfect execution of both your class’s abilities and the encounter’s mechanics.

And most MMOs have some equivalent high end content. It might not all be as ruthlessly unforgiving as mythic raids, but there’s usually something for the adrenaline junkies among us.

So we have a lot of easy content, and some hard content, but that leaves us missing something very important: mid-tier difficulty.

Content that is moderately challenging is all but unheard of in MMOs, and I think that’s where the real feeling of MMOs being too easy comes from.

If I’m being honest, I would rate my skill as roughly average or at best slightly above average. I will not pretend that I am up to the task of mythic raiding or its equivalents. I’m just not good enough.

I am, however, good enough to find most content in most MMOs tediously easy. The hard content is out of my reach, so all I’m left with is easy-mode. There is no option that feels comfortable for a player like me. And I’m willing to wager a lot of other people are in the same boat.

It creates other problems, too. The dearth of moderately challenging content means that the difficulty curve of most MMOs is actually more of a cliff. Most people are left without the incentive or the opportunity to improve their skills.

Combat as an Imperial agent character in Star Wars: The Old Republic

It creates a kind of feedback loop, I think. Without a proper ladder of difficulties, people don’t get the chance to learn, so the difficulty has to stay easy to accommodate them, so they continue to stagnate…

Of course, some people manage anyway, but is it any wonder so few people manage to make the jump to raiding when it is so unlike the trivial open world content they’re used to?

The really frustrating thing here is that I’m not sure I know what can be done to fix this problem. For all the reasons listed above and more, this is a very complex issue, and I’m not sure there are any easy answers.

You want to find a way to provide a greater variety of difficulty options and more challenge for those who crave it without alienating too many people in the process.

In a perfect world, I’d love to see MMOs have a wealth of global difficulty settings the way single-player games do, but I’m not sure how you make that work in a shared world game. The closest I’ve seen is Kritika Online, which has a variety of difficulty settings for its instances, but that’s a game of nothing but instances. How would that work in an open world?

You could make specific zones, quests, and dungeons that are designed to be a step up in difficulty, but then you’re effectively cutting down on the available content for people who can only handle the easy stuff, and if the more challenging content is more rewarding (which is only fair), you risk creating a situation of haves and have-nots.

And while for the sake of my sanity I have to believe most people could handle a greater challenge than you find in the average MMO, the fact is any increase in difficulty is going to drive away at least a few people, and that makes it a very hard sell to developers who want as many customers as possible.

MMOs are too easy, but I won’t pretend I know how to fix it.

 


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.


Is Blizzard Moving Away from Narrative?

This year’s BlizzCon had a lot of good news, but there was also a lot about it that disappointed me. In particular I was saddened by the continued lack of an expansion for Diablo III. Yes, some updates are planned, but they’re mostly pretty small, and they do nothing to expand the story.

A cutscene from Diablo III's story mode

That combined with other recent developments has planted a disquieting thought in my mind: Could Blizzard be giving up on narrative in its games altogether?

The shift away from story:

Up until quite recently, story was a pillar of every Blizzard game for the past two decades. All of the older Warcraft, StarCraft, and Diablo games featured extensive story-driven campaigns, without exception.

Now, in the space of a few short years, we’ve reached a point where fully half of Blizzard’s current catalogue has no in-game story to speak of.

In some cases this isn’t a bad thing. I don’t think anyone really expects a single-player campaign for Hearthstone or Heroes of the Storm. They’re silly games meant to deliver fun and exciting gameplay, and nothing else.

And that’s fine. Not every game needs to be some narrative-driven work of art. There is a place for games that are purely mechanical.

But then you get to Overwatch, and that’s more worrisome. Like Heroes and Hearthstone, it lacks any kind of story content, but unlike those games, it has lots of potential for a good story. That potential is simply being ignored.

Hearthstone is just a spin-off of Warcraft, so it’s backstory has already been fully fleshed out, and Heroes is just a ridiculous “what if” scenario throwing together random elements of Blizzard’s other games. Overwatch, though, has a pretty rich world, a detailed backstory, and some interesting characters, but none of this is leveraged by the game itself.

The tutorial for Overwatch

Overwatch has all the right ingredients to provide a fantastic narrative experience, but for whatever reason Blizzard doesn’t seem to want to try.

And now it seems like even Blizzard’s older franchises are beginning to leave story by the wayside.

Everyone has spent the last few years expecting a second expansion to Diablo III, but now it’s looking like that might never happen. There are some updates planned, but they won’t do much to advance the story.

This is despite the fact that the ending to the previous expansion, Reaper of Souls, left the story very clearly unfinished. Both the main storyline of the world and many of the characters’ personal stories have been left obviously unfinished. As with Overwatch, there’s plenty of potential for story here; that potential is simply being left to wither on the vine.

And then there’s the news that StarCraft II will not be producing any more mission packs following the conclusion of the Covert Ops storyline later this month — or at least not for the foreseeable future.

At least in this case there isn’t a pressing need for more story content in StarCraft. There’s definitely potential for more stories within the universe — I’d been hoping for some mission packs around Selendis and Alexei Stukov, myself — but after three massive campaigns and a fairly substantive DLC in the form of Covert Ops, you definitely can’t argue StarCraft’s story fans haven’t gotten their due.

The lack of new mission packs for SC2 is mildly disappointing, but it’s not the sort of thing I’d get too worked up about under other circumstances. It’s only when viewed in the context of a potential shift away from story for the company as a whole that it becomes worrying.

A cutscene in the campaign for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void

And then there’s the recent retirement of Chris Metzen to consider. Metzen was the main creative force behind the worlds and stories of every Blizzard game since the early days of the Warcraft strategy games. Blizzard has other writers, and of course the company can continue to produce good stories without him, but I worry his departure might signal a culture shift in the company.

Metzen, so far as I can tell, was the main voice within Blizzard that argued in favor of the importance of lore and narrative. In fact I seem to recall hearing he’d wanted to do a story mode for Overwatch but had been voted down.

Now, I don’t think Metzen quit because he disagreed with the direction of the company, or he was forced out, or anything like that. I’m not that paranoid. But with Metzen gone, I have to wonder how much desire for story there is within Blizzard. Who is left to argue for its importance?

Individually, these things might not be a great cause for concern, but together they seem to form a pattern, and that pattern worries me.

What remains:

Blizzard is still telling stories… but increasingly it seems to be happening outside of their games.

StarCraft just launched a new tie-in novel, Timothy Zahn’s Evolution, and Overwatch has been putting out a steady stream of tie-in content, from digital comics to animated shorts to the upcoming First Strike graphic novel.

I enjoy tie-ins like this — I fully intend to pick up Evolution. But it’s not the same as actual in-game stories. It’s not quite so satisfying. This is especially true for Overwatch. Normally tie-ins like this are meant to supplement the main story, which happens in-game, but when the entire story takes place outside the game, it feels thin and scattered.

A shot from the animated short for Overwatch's new Sombra character

With the way things are going, one could even envision a future where all of Blizzard’s story-telling takes place outside its games, and I think we can all agree that would be a pretty weird situation for a video game company.

Of course, the elephant in the room — as is often the case — is World of Warcraft. There’s no evidence at all that WoW is moving away from telling stories in-game. Quite the opposite, in fact. Legion is probably the most story-driven expansion to date.

But it’s possible that the shift away from narrative simply hasn’t begun to affect Warcraft yet, or that WoW is a legacy of an older version of Blizzard and will continue on as it has out of a sense of tradition, even as the rest of the company’s games abandon in-game stories.

It’s also possible that I am seeing patterns where none exist, and that this entire post is nothing but paranoid nonsense. I remain open to that possibility.

Why it all matters:

“If the gameplay is good, the story doesn’t matter” is an attitude you’ll see a lot of in the gaming community. A lot of people view plot in gaming as an optional frill, nice to have at but hardly essential. That can be true for some people and some games, but I think the importance of a good story is often greatly overlooked within gaming.

You would be surprised how many people I’ve talked to who stopped playing World of Warcraft after Wrath of the Lich King purely because Arthas was dead, and his was the story they cared about. With him gone, they lost their investiture in the game world and simply moved on.

The conclusion of the Dragonwrath quest chain in World of Warcraft, modified by a local void totem

Overwatch has been a big success despite its lack of narrative, but one has to wonder how much bigger it could have been if it had also appealed to story fans. I know it lost my patronage by focusing purely on PvP.

You can cite plenty of other examples of games that succeeded with little or no story, but then again I can also think of more than a few games that succeeded entirely based on the strength of their narrative. You’d hard-pressed to find much praise for the gameplay of the original Mass Effect, yet it’s still considered a classic. We’re even starting to see an increased demand for games that focus entirely on story with little or no gameplay to speak of, such as the much-praised Life Is Strange.

Personally, I’ve never been a huge of fan of the core gameplay of World of Warcraft. It is at best adequate. More than anything else, it’s my love for the world of Azeroth that always keeps me coming back. And this is far from the only time I’ve invested in a game despite lukewarm feelings toward its game mechanics.

Over the past twenty years, Blizzard has built some incredibly deep and vibrant worlds, full of beloved characters and memorable stories. That is a powerful resource, and it would be tremendously wasteful not to capitalize on it.

Blizzard is too much of a juggernaut for the loss of story to be a serious threat to its financial success, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose if they leave narrative behind. I’m sure I’m not the only one who will find other games to play if they give up on plot entirely, and putting aside more practical considerations, games lose something special without story. I know I’m going to remember Arthas’ fall a lot longer than that time I got off a good gank in Heroes of the Storm.


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.


BlizzCon 2016 Predictions

BlizzCon 2016 is now just a few weeks away. It’s bound to bring some exciting reveals, but the interesting thing about this year’s BlizzCon is that we don’t have any clear idea what those reveals will be.

BlizzCon 2016 celebrates all things Blizzard Entertainment

While the exact details may be a mystery, we can usually make some ballpark guesses on what the big news at a BlizzCon will be. We might, for example, suspect that a World of Warcraft expansion is being announced, even if we don’t know what specific features it offers.

This year it’s a lot harder to predict.

What we can expect:

There are a few things that are probably a given for BlizzCon 2016, or any BlizzCon these days.

For Heroes of the Storm, we’ll probably hear about some new heroes, and maybe a new map or two. The rumor mill has been floating Warcraft’s King Varian as a likely addition in the near future, so be on the lookout for that.

There have also been some teases about a very “crazy” new hero soon. Fan speculation points at either StarCraft’s Arcturus Mengsk or Warcraft’s Gelbin Mekkatorque for this role, both of those being characters that have been mentioned by Blizzard or found in datamining in the past.

I also wouldn’t be shocked if another Overwatch hero made the jump to Heroes. There’s been rumors of datamined dialogue pointing to D.Va as a possibility.

Heroes just got a couple new maps with the Machines of War event, so more coming soon isn’t too likely, but I wouldn’t entirely rule out some early concepts being announced at BlizzCon. I would have expected the new version of arena mode to be announced at BlizzCon, but that’s already been announced as Heroes Brawl.

The Li-Ming character in Heroes of the Storm

Similar to Heroes, I would expect Overwatch to unveil a few new heroes and/or maps. There’s been a lot of teases for a hacker character named Sombra lately; I expect that she’ll be announced before BlizzCon at the current rate, but if not, expect her then. Even if Sombra’s reveal is at BlizzCon 2016, I would expect to see other reveals, be they heroes, maps, or both.

Personally I would like to see an announcement of some PvE content for Overwatch — maybe even a story mode — but for now Blizzard seems content to remain incredibly unambitious with Overwatch, so I wouldn’t bet on it.

I think another expansion for Hearthstone at BlizzCon 2016 is a very strong possibility. It gets new expansions pretty regularly, so that would hardly be a shocker.

We’re still pretty early into World of Warcraft’s latest expansion, so I wouldn’t expect any terribly big news for it. Expect some previews of upcoming patches — maybe a glimpse of what the next raid might be, though given that all of the launch raids haven’t even been enabled yet, even that’s in question.

There’s a slender chance we might hear about a sequel to the Warcraft film, but it’s probably too soon for that.

So that leaves Warcraft, Heroes of the Storm, Hearthstone, and Overwatch as franchises likely to have announcements, but also unlikely to have any earth-shattering news. BlizzCon is an expensive convention to run, though, so they wouldn’t run it without something big to announce.

So just what are they up to?

The Black Rook Hold dungeon in World of Warcraft: Legion

Where the guesswork begins:

By process of elimination, it seems StarCraft and Diablo are the only franchises for which there could be major announcements. I very much doubt they’ll be announcing another new franchise.

The hardest evidence — and that’s not saying much — is for a StarCraft announcement. StarCraft’s in-game rewards for those who purchase a BlizzCon 2016 virtual ticket are being kept a mystery until the convention, and they only do that when rewards are relating to a new announcement that they don’t want to spoil beforehand.

My initial thought was the announcement would be a new mission pack DLC. The timing makes sense, since the final installment of the Nova DLC should be out pretty soon.

However, there’s now word that Blizzard may not be doing any more story DLC, so that idea is out the window.

I think some announcements for co-op may be a good possibility, but that would hardly justify the cloak and dagger attitude around the virtual ticket rewards. The StarCraft II trilogy has wrapped up, so another full expansion being announced is unlikely, and I think it’s far too soon for StarCraft III to be a possibility.

But there is one other option.

There have been fairly credible rumors for a while that Blizzard is planning to announce a remastered version of the original StarCraft. Without a lot of other strong options, that seems the most likely bet… though it is worth noting the virtual ticket page specifically mentions StarCraft II content.

A screenshot from the Mass Recall mod for StarCraft II

The Mass Recall mod already allow players to experience the original campaigns in StarCraft II’s engine.

If a remastered original StarCraft is what’s coming, it will be welcome news for anyone who misses the original StarCraft’s multiplayer scene, but the original campaign was already playable with modern graphics and mechanics via the fan-made Mass Recall mod, so it’s not quite as exciting as it might otherwise be for single-player fans. Personally, I’d be more interested in remastered versions of the old Warcraft games, or maybe even the first two Diablo titles.

Speaking of Diablo, that’s another franchise around which much speculation has been floating. BlizzCon 2016 will also celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Diablo franchise, so it would be a good time for a major announcement.

The obvious option would be another expansion pack for Diablo III. Even before the base game released rumors swirled that Diablo III was slated to receive two expansion packs, and given the huge financial success of both the base game and the Reaper of Souls expansion, a second expansion would seem to make good sense.

However, recent events have thrown that possibility into doubt. It’s been so long now since Reaper of Souls was released that people have begun to despair of ever seeing another expansion, and the fact is we have no evidence to support an expansion announcement beyond the fact that the timing seems right.

It’s also true that Diablo III is the only game in Blizzard’s portfolio with no monetization beyond box sales, so that might discourage them from further development on it.

Further complicating matters is the fact that a number of high profile Diablo-related job postings have appeared on Blizzard’s career page in recent months. They could be for positions working on Diablo III, but it seems more likely they’re for a new game in the franchise, presumably Diablo IV.

A Nephalim Rift in Diablo III

It seems supremely unlikely that a new Diablo game would be ready to be shown at BlizzCon, so if Blizzard’s decided to abandon D3 for a new game, the odds of a major Diablo announcement this year are virtually zero.

That said, it’s also possible that Blizzard is working on both a new game and a new expansion. The severe content drought Diablo III has experienced over the past few months has been interpreted by many as a sign the game is being put on maintenance mode, but it could also be a sign that the team has decided to put all their efforts toward a new expansion.

This would be consistent with Blizzard’s behavior elsewhere. World of Warcraft frequently suffers lengthy content gaps in the lead-up to a new expansion.

Finally, there are also those speculating that BlizzCon 2016 might see the announcement of remastered versions of one or more earlier Diablo games, but there’s no hard evidence to back this up.

For my part, I hope for an expansion announcement. The ending to Reaper of Souls left the story obviously unfinished, and the core gameplay of Diablo III remains strong. I don’t think we need a new game yet.

If we do see an expansion announcement, I’m expecting druid — or something similar to a druid — as a new class. It’s the only archetype from Diablo II that isn’t represented in any way by the D3 class line-up.

There would also undoubtedly be at least one new act of story content, though its setting is anyone’s guess. My hope would be for the northern isle of Xiansai to bring in a nice Eastern flair, but it could be anything, really.

All hopes aside, there remains a strong chance we may see nothing at all significant for Diablo at BlizzCon 2016. Our only real evidence that there might be something is a single tweet by the official Diablo Twitter account saying that BlizzCon will be “cool” this year.

On the whole, BlizzCon 2016 remains shrouded in mystery.


Alarak and Mist Opportunities Shake up StarCraft II’s Co-op

StarCraft II’s co-op mode has become something of a sleeper hit after its release with the Legacy of the Void expansion last autumn. Despite minimal attention from gaming media, it’s developed a thriving community of players and is now at least as popular as StarCraft II’s famed PvP.

The home screen for Alarak's release in StarCraft 2

SC2’s co-op got some major shake-ups this month with the addition of a new playable commander, fan favorite Alarak, and a new map, Mist Opportunities, in the 3.6 patch.

Sometimes, it’s nice to take a break from MMOs. Being an avid co-op player myself, I was eager to get my hands on these new updates.

Alarekt:

The Tal’darim leader Alarak became an instant fan favorite when he was first introduced in the Legacy of the Void campaign. A lot of this can be attributed to John de Lancie’s excellent voice-overs, which elevate smugness and contempt to a fine art. Now Alarak has joined co-op mode as the fourth Protoss commander, and the first non-Zerg commander to take the battlefield as a hero unit.

Alarak is a bit different from the previous co-op heroes, though. For one thing, he doesn’t have energy. His abilities are limited only by their cooldowns.

As for the abilities themselves, he has a charge attack that deals a large burst of damage to a single target, and a large column AoE that deals moderate damage and knocks enemies back a short distance. A tricky but very fun advanced tactic is to charge behind enemy lines and then use his knockback to push the opposing forces into the waiting arms of your army.

At level five, he unlocks a third ability with a much longer cooldown, Empower Me. This temporarily increases his stats based on the number of friendly units near him, and it can stack to some pretty insane levels. 600% increased ability damage is nice to have, let me tell you.

The new Alarak commander in StarCraft 2's co-op

He also has relatively low health for a hero unit. Instead of a high health pool, he sustains himself by harvesting the life of other units. As in the campaign, killing enemy units will restore some of his health and shields, but when his health reaches zero, he’ll turn on his own units, sacrificing them to restore his own life.

This is obviously very much a double-edged sword. On the plus side, Alarak is completely impossible to kill as long as he has some units nearby — your ally’s units will not be sacrificed, however, so keep that in mind. He will always be the last one standing.

The downside is that if you’re not careful Alarak can end up tearing through your army faster than the enemy. The only control you have over this, aside from not risking Alarak unnecessarily, is to ensure you keep a strong stable of supplicants.

Supplicants are Alarak’s replacement for zealots. They’re ranged, can only attack ground, and spawn in pairs, like zerglings. They’re actually pretty weak, with minimal damage, but they’re crucial for one reason: They will always be the first unit sacrificed to restore Alarak’s health.

It is therefore crucial to keep a decent number of supplicants in your army at all times to prevent Alarak from sacrificing more valuable units.

Alarak’s other core gateway units are the slayer, a stalker variant, and the havoc. Havocs deal no damage on their own, but they offer powerful buffs to nearby units. They’re also detectors, which gives Alarak some of the easiest access to mobile detection in the game. At level eight, he unlocks ascendants, a powerful offensive spell caster that can sacrifice supplicants to restore their energy and continue casting.

The Alarak commander in StarCraft 2's co-op

A lot of Alarak strategies will hinge on robotics facility units, especially at lower levels. The vanguard is an AoE attacker that can be upgraded to do bonus damage to armored units, and the wrathwalker is a colossus variant that deals massive single target damage. Unlike in the campaign, the wrathwalker must be upgraded to attack air units.

Finally, the war prism is a warp prism variant that can also attack at range. You’ll need to keep a few of them handy at any given time to warp in reinforcements in the field.

Alarak has no permanent air units aside from the war prism. At level ten, he unlocks the ability to call down the Death Fleet, a squad of elite Tal’darim air units. But this has a short duration and a cooldown.

In case it isn’t clear by now, Alarak is a commander defined by great strengths, but also severe drawbacks. Between his charge attack and the burst provided by wrathwalkers and ascendants, he can demolish high priority targets like hybrids and capitol ships with astonishing swiftness, but his lack of air units or strong counters to mass enemy air can be problematic.

He’s also held back by a lack of map presence or support abilities. Many commanders have strong options to assist their allies, even when their army isn’t physically present, but Alarak’s only option is his Structure Overcharge calldown, which grants a temporary attack to any friendly building. It’s a powerful tool, but you need buildings in the area to use it, so its applications are pretty limited.

Alarak also requires a lot of micro compared to other commanders. I’d even go so far as to say he probably has the highest skill cap of any current commander. You’ll need to constantly babysit Alarak himself, and you’ll need to make sure your wrathwalkers are not wasting shots on irrelevant targets or else spamming your ascendants’ spells, and you’ll need to manage your war prisms so you can warp in reinforcements… Add to that the usual economic management and strategic decision-making that are part and parcel of the StarCraft experience, and you have an almost overwhelming amount to do.

The new Alarak commander in StarCraft 2's co-op

For my part, I’ve been enjoying Alarak, but not as much as I’d hoped to. He’s an interesting commander — definitely unique — but he takes a lot of work, and while he can be quite competitive with other commanders, his power level doesn’t always feel high enough to justify all the disadvantages he has to cope with.

I’m also a little disappointed to see yet another Protoss commander so soon. Protoss now has four commanders to Zerg’s three, and Terrans’ two. Even as a mainly Protoss player myself, that doesn’t sit right with me.

Overall, Alarak is worth the price of admission, but keep your expectations managed.

Terrazine is a hell of a drug:

Alongside the new commander, 3.6 also included a new co-op map. Taking inspiration from Wings of Liberty’s Welcome to the Jungle mission, Mist Opportunities sends players back to the planet Bel’shir to once again collect terrazine gas, but with a twist.

Mist Opportunities showcases Egon Stetmann, the adorkable scientist first encountered in the Wings of Liberty campaign. After years spent alone doing research on Bel’shir and long-term exposure to terrazine, he’s… not himself.

Players must assist Stetmann by helping him harvest more terrazine to fuel his “research.” Periodically throughout the mission Stetmann will deploy harvesting bots that players must escort to and from the terrazine wells.

It’s a seemingly simple task, and it can be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security by easy early waves, but Mist Opportunities can be surprisingly challenging. The bots will spread out over a good chunk of the map, making it difficult to protect them all. You may need to split up from your ally, and maybe even split your own forces as well to cover them all.

The new Mist Opportunities map in StarCraft 2's co-op

The bonus objectives also tend to spawn during bot waves, forcing you to divide your attention even further. It can get very hectic, and your ability to multitask will be put to the test.

It’s important to remember that enemy attacks can come at pretty much any point during the bots’ journey — you’re not in the clear once they’ve collected the terrazine — and that these attacks can come from anywhere. It’s entirely possible for attacks to spawn in the middle of the map, behind your forces if they’re out in the field. Keep a close eye on the mini-map.

The best commanders for Mist Opportunities are those with mobile armies and/strong map presence. Vorazun, Raynor, and Zagara will all excel here. Kerrigan and Abathur may also do well if they can make good use of nydus worms or Deep Tunnel. Karax, Swann, and Alarak will find it more of an uphill battle.

On the whole, I like Mist Opportunities a lot more than I expected to. While it doesn’t seem that different on paper, it definitely requires a different kind of strategy from the other co-op maps, and it’s pleasantly challenging.

I find the jungle aesthetic a little dull, but Stetmann is plenty amusing.The voice actor sells his terrazine-induced madness very well, and many of his lines are laugh out loud funny. I just wish he wasn’t quite so… strident when his bots come under attack.

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Alarak is available for purchase at $4.99USD. Mist Opportunities is free to all co-op players.