Blog 700: (C) Over the Top(s)

It’s here at last, the third and final installment of Starcraft II bonus campaign Nova: Covert Ops. Which has, to date, featured six ops but none of them particularly covert. With three missions left in the bag and the second pack a good improvement on the first, will these finally hit the spot? (Also thank goodness there are only three packs, because as you can see I’ve already run out of title puns.)

Nova: Covert Ops (Pack 3: Missions 7 to 9)

Quite apart from replaying the previous six missions to get in the mood, I noticed that SC2 seems to have become unstable of late. Not sure if it’s just my system needing the wax cleaned out its ears or it’s specifically related to SC2 and might come from recent patches, but the game was stuttering sporadically through some the missions and the cinematics alike, and it even crashed out at one point. A minor irritation, but the game used to be buttery smooth so not sure what’s going on.

"They expect us to try something... so we will."

“They expect us to try something… so we will.”

Mission 7

This, finally, is what we’re here for. A sprawling single-hero infiltration mission that finally lets you choose your approach on the fly. It begins in some sewers and laser tripwires have been added to the mix of vision cones and detector enemies to ensure your stealthy path is fraught with danger.

However, they have finally admitted that maybe being able to change your equipment during a mission would be quite a nice idea and there are stashes scattered around the level. While the opening sewer section is fairly constrained, after that the level opens out into a sprawling mansion lined with troops and optional passages. You can choose how you want to do things — sneak right in front of their eyes in perma-cloaked mode, dominate scientists to open doors for you, take the jump-jets through the air vents, or just rock up with the plasma rifle and murder everyone in your way.

Basically, hell to the power yeah. This one’s finally the grand adventure we’ve been looking for, though it’s slightly sad that we’re only breaking out the good stuff at the end of the campaign. Better late than never though — we’re finally into territory that justifies the entry fee.

It's always fun to get other people's units to do your dirty work.

It’s always fun to get other people’s units to do your dirty work.

Mission 8

The second mission of the this final pack goes back to defence against waves of our favourite grim ‘n’ gritty Protoss pals, the Tal’darim. Alarak is back on glorious form but it’s a mission with a completely standard format simply scaled up — there are more than five lanes constantly pulsing with enemy soldiers, making it very difficult to keep track of everything that’s going on. There are AI-controlled emplacements everywhere so it’s more up to your own roving ball of death to plug the gaps — but with so many lanes, there are so many gaps and it’s a bit too scattershot for comfort.

By this point you have reached Battlecruisers and your tech tree is complete, even though there are two disappointingly empty slots left on the pre-mission configuration screen. As always, I miss the chaotic profusion of units from the original Wings of Liberty campaign, to be tossed around at your whim during missions. There’s not all that much variety on offer here and everything seems to be so expensive and take so long to build; with the mission an endless onslaught with very little respite, it’s too much of a scramble to be all that much fun.

You can tell they're bad guys because the lasers are red.

You can tell they’re bad guys because the lasers are red.

Mission 9

The final boss is a monstrous robot. You can only damage it, not kill it, when it assaults various defensive emplacements — then you have to chase it back to base and only while it repairs can you hurt it for real.

This is a good solid finale where the enemy breaks open all the cans of whoop-ass. As soon as Nova tries to cloak, they scan her back into visibility. They have their own Ghosts and they try to launch nuclear missiles at you. The Xanthos, that monstrous robot, cuts through your forces like a hot knife through butter so it’s a race to rebuild before it returns to the field — and each time it comes back, it gets a new feature.

The push and pull of defence and then offence keep this mission feeling nice and dynamic. Computer allied assistance from the Hyperion’s bombing runs mean that the enemy can be suitably entrenched without stacking the odds too far against you, so the Xanthos feels like a seriously powerful enemy rather than some of the more lame boss units you’ll find in the other SC2 campaigns.

Fwoooooosh.

Fwoooooosh.

The Verdict

Overall though, sadly a few moments of hope surrounded by a sea of fairly average. Okay, this is “fairly average” in terms of Blizzard quality — the polish is exceptional and here mediocrity is never bad. The earlier missions are too short and don’t give you enough time to get your teeth into them, while the modified Terran army in use across the board just isn’t that cool.

The ultimate failure, of course, is that the campaign barely made any use of Nova being a super-spy super-assassin. The name of the campaign, Covert Ops, suggested something vastly different than Just Another Terran Campaign — and while there were those little segments of quality infiltration and stealth navigation puzzles, these are too few and too far between.

And narratively, instead of getting to play the brutal bad-ass Nova who takes no shit, we got a weak conspiracy backed by amnesia and confused pouting. Overall, would I recommend it? No, not really. It’s fine, with moments of pretty good, but it’s never great and as a whole it is nothing special.

It does, however, end with an ominous “good luck and have fun” message from the Starcraft II Development Team that sounds like SC2‘s development cycle is finally coming to a close. Hell, it’s probably about time. Shifting gears to Warcraft IV?

Fwoooooosh.

Fwoooooosh.

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