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StarCraftMar 31, 2016 3:00 pm CT

StarCraft: Nova Covert Ops impressions

In anticipation for Nova Covert Ops, I played Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void for the first time. During that process, I remembered why I never played beyond Wings of Liberty until now. Even back then, I felt hollow playing through the game’s campaign. The StarCraft franchise, all the way back in 1998, was the title which introduced me to PC gaming — perhaps gaming in general beyond a few Super Mario titles on the NES and SNES. I remembered StarCraft as an immersive, engaging piece of scifi. Playing through Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, I wondered how that science fiction became over-the-top space fantasy, trading in galactic political machinations for Sith Lords and Naked Space Angels. The conniving Samir Duran, one of the franchise’s enigmatic masterminds, had been reduced to a mustache-twirling mad scientist with his top hat on backorder. Had I remembered it wrong all along? Was I only remembering StarCraft as seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old boy who didn’t know better?

But since I put in the time to prepare for Nova Covert Ops, I sure wasn’t going to skip out on it. I wasn’t going to run a marathon and stop just before crossing the finish line. The first of three episodes of Nova Covert Ops has finally released, I played them, and I found the StarCraft I remembered so fondly.

nova-chokehold-header

The narrative delivered in Nova Covert Ops is, so far, not only less outright cartoonish than the StarCraft 2 trilogy, but is full of what seems like deliberate callbacks. We are, in a way, back where it began: seeing the galaxy through the eyes of a subject of the Dominion, dealing with the machinations surrounding a Mengsk regime as rogue factions within humanity attempt to bend the Zerg to their will — which has never gone well for anyone, has it? Nova Covert Ops — what little we get to see of it in these first three episodes — feels like a story from a different era of StarCraft altogether. I wouldn’t be surprised if story elements from Covert Ops were taken from the canceled StarCraft: Ghost and retrofit to a post-Legacy of the Void universe — an old story made new.

Certainly, the developers took gameplay cues from StarCraft: Ghost for Nova Covert Ops. As best they could in the RTS genre, anyway. After playing through the missions, I hopped over to the StarCraft subreddit to read others’ impressions — instead, I found a thread detailing the many mechanics which had been seen in StarCraft: Ghost previews back in the day which can be found in Covert Ops.

nova-break-neck
When I say these mechanics can be found in Covert Ops, what I really mean is an incredibly simplistic, unsatisfying facsimile of those mechanics can be found in Covert Ops. Yes, Nova can break necks during the opening infiltration mission. You do so by pressing Q with no further input. You snipe, you throw grenades, you deal with turrets — you do infiltration things when Nova is infiltrating enemy territory, but not in a way which provides satisfying gameplay. In a world where indie titles such as Mark of the Ninja exist, a game which gives a full campaign of stealth gameplay for $15, Nova’s infiltrations only feel novel because they’ve been created within StarCraft. Similarly, an on-rails side-scrolling shooter segment early in the campaign is novel, but only because it exists within StarCraft. These game mechanics provide varied gameplay, and they’re good considering they’re made within StarCraft‘s engine. StarCraft can do these things, but that doesn’t mean they can do them well.

nova-side-scroller

When the game falls back to more traditional StarCraft gameplay — basebuilding, controlling an army, making tactical battlefield decisions — Nova Covert Ops continues the endless tutorializing of the StarCraft 2 trilogy. A new mechanic is introduced every mission, the entire mission is spent teaching you about that mechanic, then once that mission is over, chances are high you’ll never use that information again. One full mission out of three in the mission pack taught me how to use Spider Mines in a Tower Defense scenario. In the introductory mission, Covert Ops made damn sure I knew how to break peoples’ necks. After a whole two minutes of gameplay, I had a gun. Neck-breaking time was over. I couldn’t break a neck anymore even if I wanted to. That time spent learning how to do it? It’s never going to be relevant again, because now I’m learning how to snipe people, which sure came in handy when they took my gun away and gave me a laser sword. Admittedly, laser swords are cool.

While the shallow gameplay in this episode of Nova Covert Ops (all two hours of it) didn’t leave a good impression on me, I still have no regrets about playing it. Even if Blizzard Entertainment hadn’t given me a free review copy of Covert Ops, I would still pay $15 for a good StarCraft visual novel. So far, the narrative unfolding is keeping me engaged. I love it, I want to know more, and I want to follow Nova to the bottom of this conspiracy. I’m back in 1998 discovering science fiction all over again. It’s a shame there’s a video game getting in its way.

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