Video Games Review: StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops (PC, 2016)

If you’ve been following the development of the StarCraft IP over the last decade or so, you’ll surely have heard of the fan-favourite Terran ghost, namely November Annabella Terra, or Nova for short. The character was to appear in her own title, aptly named StarCraft: Ghost, however the project was sadly canned in 2005. Now she returns to the RTS in Nova Covert Ops – 9 new DLC missions for StarCraft II.

Blizzard are releasing the DLC in bite-sized chunks rather than at all at once, likely to give each section enough time to ensure maximum polish, rather than rushing them out in one go. Each pack contains three missions; pack 1 has just released, pack 2 is slated for release sometime later this year and pack 3 is due by this December. Each is priced at $10.95, but they can be quite reasonably purchased as a bundle for $21.95.

Covert Ops opens a few years after the conclusion of Legacy of the Void with Nova waking up with amnesia in a facility belonging to the mysterious “Defenders of Man”, rebels of the now benign Terran Dominion lead by Valerian Mengsk. Nova was one of several Dominion Ghost operatives who had gone missing, and following her return to the Dominion must investigate what the Defenders of Man are up to on the Zerg-infested planet of Tarsonis.

The new campaign features a reinvigoration of old game mechanics as well as modifications to the metagame. It is immediately apparent that Blizzard are intent on pushing the envelope of mission structure, thanks in no small part to the supremely capable “Galaxy Map Editor”, the StarCraft 2 world editor.

The first mission features a stealth-based bunker escape and a side-scrolling vulture chase as you come to grips with Nova’s abilities, the second is a play on the tower defence subgenre, and the third begins with standard base defence and objective consolidation, bookended by more interior stealth. This time, Nova gets a “monomolecular blade” – a lightsaber. You can choose to play this one in complete stealth, as a whirlwind of pain or a mix of the two. If you do choose to opt for violence, the enemies you slay all have custom death animations as they get sliced and diced into grisly pieces by Nova – it’s a cool touch.

What’s most striking about these missions, apart from each being gorgeously decorated, were the methods Blizzard have used to add a little complexity to an otherwise plain campaign mission. For instance, the third mission sees you defending your small base from three lanes of attack, but moving your troops to an objective building will actually garrison them inside, offering you fire support on the particular lane the building is situated on.

Strategising takes place off the battlefield as well. Between each mission the player can select upgrades for both Nova and her forces in a similar fashion to Kerrigan in Heart of the Swarm. Want to make Nova a stealth and sniping specialist with detection and stunning capabilities? Done. Want to equip her with a shotgun for AoE damage and a jetpack to move across the terrain? Lock and load. Want to mix and match? The world is your oyster.

Unit specialisation, on the other hand, is a familiar take on the campaigns of the main game with an interesting twist. Completing bonus objectives in missions reward you with a tech item which can then be allocated to a unit of your choosing – however, only one unit can be equipped with the particular tech item at once. As a marine-spammer, a welcome option was assigning my marines with the Super Stimpack, increasing their movement and attack speed but healing them rather than damaging them, which in turn removed the need for medics. An honourable mention goes to equipping siege tanks with jump jet tech, allowing them to scale cliffs and claim valuable vantage points without the need for medivac pick-ups. This lends itself to complex tactical choices and potent optimisations, shoring up weak points in a particular unit’s capabilities from mission to mission.

While the trademark cinematics bridge each mission – characters Valerian Mengsk, Matt Horner and even Rory Swann return – I did miss walking around the ship engaging in dialogue with ambient characters and picking up minor lore. Perhaps we’ll see a return to that once the main narrative settles down in later mission packs.

Whether you’re a fan of the StarCraft lore, particularly its perennial ghost, or you’re a fan of the RTS itself and the ways Blizzard iterates on its mechanics, you’ll get a kick out of Nova Covert Ops.

Review Score: 8.5 out of 10
Highlights: Continues the StarCraft II story, innovative campaign structure and game mechanic enhancements, slicing mooks in half with a lightsaber is extremely satisfying
Lowlights: A little on the short side; you’ll certainly be left wanting more
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Released: March 29, 2016
Platform:  Windows PC, Mac

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