Since the release of Wings of Liberty in 2011, the StarCraft II franchise and core multiplayer experience has seen a number of improvements -- from the usual new units and structures through to new modes and several interface changes. And even some noticeable visual stuff too. But perhaps the most impressive StarCraft II change came in the presentation and progression of the subsequent Zerg and Protoss campaigns. 2013’s Heart of the Swarm introduced and expanded on the concept of customising your army around super units, whilst ramping up the cinematic qualities of each mission and set piece. 2015’s Legacy of the Void took things one step further, whilst also ensuring that each mission felt new and different.
So, after closing off the StarCraft II story through the eyes of the Zerg and Protoss forces, it makes a lot of sense for Blizzard to want to revisit the Terran side of things. Because no matter how good Wings of Liberty’s campaign was (and still is for the most part) it lacks that clear sense of confidence that can be felt throughout Legacy of the Void. A level of confidence that could only have come from experience and well, not being the first game out of the gate. Whilst playing through Legacy of the Void around this time last year we couldn’t help but try and imagine what a new Terran campaign with the visual polish and focus of Legacy of the Void would look like.
And now, thanks to Nova Covert Ops we’ve got the answer.
When viewed as a singular experience, the three Nova Covert Ops Mission Packs essentially provide players and StarCraft II fans with a new Terran campaign. The episodic release schedule may point to the current decade in which we live, but it’s clear that Nova Covert Ops is very much a traditional story-based expansion to StarCraft II. With its story taking place several years after the events of Legacy of the Void. Focusing on the exploits of Terran Dominion Ghost Nova, it also means that Blizzard can tell a more self-contained story and forego a lot of the fate of the entire universe stuff that can be found throughout the three main StarCraft II campaigns.
Even though there’s still a dash of that to be found here. After all, it wouldn’t be StarCraft if massive armies weren’t vying for control of something or someone special.
From the get-go, it’s clear that Nova Covert Ops is the result of many years of creating cinematic sci-fi RTS experiences. The opening real-time cinematic that introduces the first mission is both masterful in its setup of Nova as the main character as well as how quickly and efficiently it introduces players to the very volatile post-Legacy of the Void StarCraft universe. One where rogue Terran factions, separatist Protoss armies, and feral and unfocused Zerg can still cause a lot of havoc.
This level of polish and intensity can be felt throughout all of Nova Covert Ops’ real-time cinematic sequences. Cinematics that also serve as a worthy substitute to pre-rendered CGI. Which, for a Blizzard game is quite the compliment. From this perspective alone, the difference between what was possible in 2011’s Wings of Liberty to how Nova Covert Ops can provide a visually impressive and real-time cinematic planetary battle with relative ease, is impressive. As is the overall improvement to character models and lighting, with Nova herself feeling for the first time like a true three-dimensional character.
Putting aside the wonderful cinematic presentation of its story, one that also features a few familiar faces, it’s with its mission design where Nova Covert Ops truly shines. Like with Legacy of the Void, each mission feels different. And in many instances, provide new ways to play StarCraft II. An impressive feat no doubt. From a high-level structure, you can probably guess how they might play out. Here’s the bit where you control Nova and a handful of new units to reach some sort of objective, and here’s the bit where you control a full Terran army where you can then mass Goliaths and wipe out any attacking armies. Or, depending on what your favourite flavour of destruction may be, Battlecruisers. And yeah, that’s partially how it works.
But, outside of the opening mission that suffers a bit from tutorial-syndrome, the results are almost always refreshing. For example, there’s one brilliant mission where in addition to having to use an army to beat Protoss units to capture some valuable resources, you’re also given word about some strange signals. As a secondary objective investigating the signal is optional, but as secondary objectives are tied to new loadout options for both Nova and Terran units, they’re always worth completing. In any previous StarCraft II campaign mission all that would be required here would be to get a unit to the green circle to nab that new tech. In Nova Covert Ops not only do you have to get Nova herself to the highlighted bit of the map, but the action then pauses for a side-mission in a new map filled with enemy forces and even a boss-battle.
The way in which StarCraft II single-player deviates from the multiplayer side of things has been one of the best parts of each new entry. And that can be felt here too, with the final mission itself also serving as one big boss battle played out on a large scale. It’s awesome. If there’s one fault with the whole package, it’s its length. Narratively and mission-design wise, there’s a feeling that it kind of ends just as reaches its peak. Now, ending on a high note is never a bad thing but we would have loved one more Mission Pack, one that brought a bit more closure to the Protoss storyline.
But hey, as it stands Nova Covert Ops is a more than welcome addition to the StarCraft II saga. It sees Blizzard go back to where the series began, bringing its seasoned bag of tricks to a new Terran campaign.