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Nova Covert Ops, part 1 - Reflections

Hawki May 24, 2016 User blog:Hawki

So, Nova Covert Ops. A game I played later than most, but a game I played awhile ago by this time of writing as well. Truth be told, I've been pondering reflecting on this game for some time. On one hand, my Legacy of the Void reflection had more responses than I thought it would, and I was glad to see that even when people disagreed with me, they could be civil about it. On the other, I feel iffy about reflecting on NCO now, as it's only one third of the way through. However, I've decided to go ahead and do it, for two reasons. The first is that with the declaration that Co-op Missions are non-canon, NCO is now currently the only means of gaining lore/story for the setting, at least until StarCraft: Evolution is published. The second is that I've been spending a lot of time in the Overwatch wiki (the Gamepedia one), another case of me being made admin. It's something I've enjoyed, as I've watched the lore and characters build up over time. Don't worry, I'm not abandoning this wiki anytime soon (or maybe get worried if you hate my guts ^_^), but spending time with Overwatch has made me look at NCO in a different light. Because something bothered me with NCO even before it was released. Something bothered me with NCO while playing it. And now, in recent times, I feel I can articulate what that is. And I'm going to start by asking the same question that I asked awhile ago...

...why does this exist?


This being more a reflection rather than a review, don't expect this to be impartial or objective by any means. That said, I feel that the gameplay is worth discussing. Because while it's got definate strengths, it's got definate cons as well.

On the plus side, there's the upgrade system. Not that the upgrades of WoL/HotS/LotV were slouches by any stretch, but this is certainly every bit their equal. Well, almost, but this being DLC rather than a full game or expansion, I can deal with this. Not sure why only one upgrade can be applied to one set of units (e.g. super stims can only apply to marines or marauders, not both), but I can roll with it. The upgrades are fun, creative, and in the case of the Tarsonis level, as I lifted my siege tanks onto rooftops to take out the zerg, downright entertaining. There's even Nova herself - I never would have figured that Nova would be one for hovering around with a jetpack and blasting zerg with a shotgun, but hey, now I know. And not only is knowing half the battle, but the other half consists of cone shots and grenades in a non-Ghosty, but every entertaining manner. I figure that if we get nine missions worth of this, then we'd have a real gem on our hands.

However, here's what else I've noticed - the game often forces you to approach situations in certain ways. On Borea, you have to use the jetpack. On Tarsonis, after entering the Defenders of Man base, you're obligated to use the sword. Now, the jetpack is undoubtedly the best bet for Borea, and something can be said for the sword as well. However, unless I'm missing something (and I have tried replays), you can't avoid using these items for these missions. You have to use the jetpack. You have to use the sword. This isn't entirely new in games - sometimes only certain weapons can harm bosses for instance - but I can't help but be put off by the lack of choice when the pre-mission sequence is based entirely around choice, to customize Nova and your army how you want. Maybe it's to introduce new players, but this is the third add-on for a game that's six years old. I think we're well past the stage of needing to be tutored. I'm partly reminded of Zeratul in Wings of Liberty, how some complained that he was monologuing, that even if this was to introduce new players, it should have been done differently (e.g. tooltips). I personally disagree, as it feels far more organic than how Warcraft III used the narrator's voice to guide Thrall around in the prologue campaign, but regardless, first game, first stealth mission? I'm fine with a tutorial. Fourth game, still tutoring? Not so much.

Minor gripes, but I think that even if new missions introduce new tech as part of their narrative, the choice to use that tech or not would be appreciated. But overall, on the gameplay front, NCO is fun. No doubt about it. Oh, and Vultures on the highway. Gimmicky and derivative perhaps, but fun. I can get down with that no problem. Even if I have no idea how logically speaking, Nova and Stone must be firing cannister rifles with one hand and hitting Banshees and Warhawks out of the sky. 0_0


Did This Story Need to Happen?

But aye, here's the rub. Story. I'm going to use two sayings that I was reminded of when I heard NCO would be released:

  • "Once a story goes into space, anything else feels like a step back."
  • "And then this stuff happened."

Chances are you recognise the first saying, but not the second. That's because the second is a personal term of mine to discuss any series that I feel has gone beyond its natural point of conclusion. Citing personal examples, the Star Wars expanded universe beyond Return of the Jedi (and by extension, The Force Awakens) is one such case. By the end of RotJ, the Emperor is dead, Darth Vader is redeemed (and dead), and the Death Star II is...ahem, 'dead' (okay, blown up, but who's counting)? Does that mean the Empire itself is defeated? No. But I would contend that it's a story that didn't need telling, because the trilogy ends at a natural place for its characters. Likewise, Lord of the Rings. Does Sauron's defeat mean that there's suddenly no trouble whatsoever in the Fourth Age? No. Would that make for a compelling story? I would argue, no. It's why I think Tolkein made the right choice in not writing The New Shadow for, in his words, it was "just a story." That was all. It didn't need to exist.

The first saying however, has clear parallels, namely that once a series reaches a certain high point, anything after that high point will never have the same impact that high point had. Sauron is that high point in Lord of the Rings. Amon is that high point in StarCraft II, in that when you're fighting a godlike being who threatens the existence of all life in the galaxy, if not the universe, you can't really up those stakes. This can be applied to any number of settings based on personal belief, but I bring these up to demonstrate that while NCO avoids the perils of the first setting, in that it wisely dials down its stakes from LotV, it doesn't avoid the second. Not when, among other things, the Dominion entered a golden age post-LotV. So either that golden age lasted for just a few years until the Defenders of Man showed up, or the DoM are "doomed by canon," and can't interrupt said golden age. So, I'm therefore left in the same position I was in ages ago. NCO's story didn't need to be told. That SC2 felt like a great place to conclude the overall storyline, that while certain plot points could be followed (e.g. the UED), they didn't have to be. That's not to say it's a bad story. But it still feels superfluous, and in other areas, problematic. And if I had to attribute that to one thing, it's that it tries to emulate StarCraft I, but doesn't entirely succeed in doing so.

There's No School Like the Old School

To quote our own article, for NCO, "the story was designed to be darker in tone than StarCraft II, which focused on galactic events. Covert Ops is designed to be "a little bit closer to home." I read on a Kotaku article ages back that it was specifically trying to emulate SC1, but unfortunately you can only take my word on that, because I've realized I never made the edit in our NCO article to reflect that info. But that NCO is a different kind of story than previous SC2 installments is, I would wager, pretty apparent. The most obvious element is that the stakes are smaller. It's also far more militaristic. I've said before that StarCraft isn't actually military sci-fi, because as far as the terran campaigns go, the themes don't always match themes that are usually explored in military fiction, sci-fi or otherwise. SC1 has militaries in it, but you're on the side of rebels overthrowing the military of the de facto government. Rebel Yell's closest thing to a protagonist (key word on "closest," because this will become important later) is Jim Raynor, who abandons both the Confederacy and the Sons of Korhal. Military fiction has a few commonalities to it, among which are themes such as loyalty and service, obstensibly to one's country. There's also a style of dialogue in military sci-fi that is hard to describe (as a member of a writing group, I know two members who are retired servicemen, both of whom could illustrate military-style writing more), and SC1 doesn't have that. Brood War, and the UED, certainly do, as demonstrated through Stukov and DuGalle. The dialogue is more formal, they're focused on UED objectives rather than personal ones, and their eyes never waver from that goal. Even Stukov with the psi disrupter. And again, there's no clear protagonist.

Come to Wings of Liberty, and the story has changed. WoL is, without a doubt, Jim Raynor's story, and without a doubt, he's the protagonist of said story. Even the genre is somewhat different, in that we have a hybrid of space opera and space western. There was a StarCraft retrospective from Noah Gervais that argued that StarCraft has always been space opera, and while I'm inclined to agree (if only because Brood War has the telltale elements, whereas SC1 is smaller in scope), these elements are at the forefront in WoL. Personally, I love that. No surprise that I consider WoL to be the strongest game entry storywise. But the point is, that the nature of each terran campaign has changed over time. NCO isn't like WoL in any sense. NCO actually establishes this rather well in a subtle way, in that prior to missions 2 and 3, we have a tactical map display of the battlefield, emphasizing the more militaristic feel. But if NCO's stated purpose is to emulate SC1, it falters in a key aspect - NCO is obstensibly Nova's story. And yet, it isn't. Nova is the protagonist, yet she's reactionary. There's nothing in NCO that's on a deep, personal level to Nova (so far at least), yet she remains centre stage. To illustrate this, let's look at the previous SC2 entries:

  • WoL: Jim Raynor's story. While humanity is touched on in some respects (including themes), he's at the forefront, and he drives his own actions.
  • HotS: Sarah Kerrigan's story, and that of the zerg as well.
  • LotV: The story of the protoss, though Artanis is still the core protagonist
  • NCO: Nova is given a mission

That NCO is less grand than previous entries is a given. But she's still the central protagonist. Character has been minimized, but not so far to the extent of SC1 or BW, which, apart from Kerrigan in the BW zerg campaign, I would argue didn't have a core protagonist for any of its campaigns. Characters, certainly, but nothing on the level of SC2. NCO might change this in later installments. But NCO itself, at this point in time, seems to be lodged between the SC1 approach to character (group of individuals with no clear protagonist), and the SC2 approach (core protagonist that usually drives the plot). While I've made no secret that I prefer the SC2 approach, not to mention that most writers would argue that character should drive story and not the other way round, I can hazard a guess that some prefer SC1's style. Except, NCO doesn't use that style. That's not to say that style can't work in a 21st century RTS (e.g. Tiberium Wars), but does NCO use it? No. So while I like Nova as a character, NCO, at this point in time, doesn't feel like her story. We haven't learnt anything we didn't already know about her, and her actions are reactionary to the plot, rather than the instigator. Is the latter appropriate for a Ghost? Yes. But so far, the first part has faltered.

You Know, the Koprulu Sector Could Always Use More Heroes

...alright, maybe it couldn't. But there's one more thing I'd like to say, and that's how StarCraft feels as a franchise now that it's part of the "big four" rather than the "big three." Because anyone with any moderate level of familiarity with Blizzard's franchises will quickly recognise common elements. That said, looking at where each of them stand right now, I feel that each is in an interesting space in comparison to each other:

  • Warcraft: Legion is about to happen. Burning Legion is about to invade Azeroth for the third time. Stakes don't get much higher than this. Aesthetic is well established (e.g. the style of demons and armour).
  • Diablo: The Nephalem is roaming Sanctuary, their last task having been exploring Greyhollow Island. Stakes have reduced. Widely praised for its aesthetic, of being darker both visually and tonally.
  • StarCraft: Stakes have lowered, aesthetic feels far more 'sterile.
  • Overwatch: Bright, colourful, frenetic, but too early in the story to start commenting about stakes.

I bring up Overwatch because in many ways, it appears to have appropriated the lessons taken from StarCraft II. StarCraft II is a very cinematic game, in as much that it uses cutscenes to further its story outside the game engine and/or using said game engine to create actual cinematics (e.g. not the Warcraft III style of having characters talk to one another). But comparing something like this to this highlights why I feel NCO lags. Bear in mind, I'm not saying StarCraft should emulate Overwatch by any means. But one cinematic highlights Tracer, the poster girl of a franchise, at her lowest. The other has Nova reliving elements of her past (Tarsonis), and not even showing them, only summarizing her reliving her suppressed memories without any kind of reflection or instrospection. While the NCO cutscene may lack any "cheese" factor, it's been done at the expense of emotional investment. Which would be fine, except again, this is still Nova's story. I mentioned above how "sterile" NCO feels, and that, to me, is perhaps the main clincher of its story. Within three missions in WoL, the zerg had invaded, Raynor had reunited with an old friend, we got a glimpse of the comraderie that would last throughout the campaign, and we got our first sighting of Kerrigan. HotS, within three missions, has Kerrigan going from her high (kissing Raynor) to her lowest point (Raynor's supposed death). Within three missions, LotV had the Aiur invasion fail, Zeratul die, and the beginning of the End War. Even with its reduced stakes, I can't think of any moment in NCO that's made me "feel" something.

Maybe that's for the best. Maybe it's intentional - we are dealing with a killer after all. But I can't help but feel that NCO is missing something so far. And while it's early days, we're still one third of the way through a campaign.

And So, in Conclusion

I'm actually curious as to what people think of NCO so far. I'm sure a lot of people are actually quite happy with it, if only because I know a fair amount of people don't like SC2's story, so for them, a change in tone and storytelling style might be welcome. For me though, who likes both SC1 & SC2 (hey, imagine that), albeit the latter more than the former, NCO A combination of a story that didn't need to be told, told in a way that is done in a weird hybrid of SC1 & SC2 that uses neither of their strengths, that's unnecessarily divided into three parts, that is supposedly Nova's story when she doesn't actually drive the story, and feels somewhat hollow compared to another game of Blizzard that has cold, merciless female killers with sniper rifles, neural resocialization, and pony-tails. Is NCO a bad game, or a bad story? No. There's a lot of good gameplay with the former, and the story isn't "bad," per se. But so far, it hasn't given me much impact. And with Co-op Missions now academic to wider StarCraft lore, I'd like to think that NCO could pick up the slack.

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