Preview: Starcraft - Nova Covert Ops

JOAB GILROY never saw it coming.

Preview: Starcraft - Nova Covert Ops

With the release of StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void, Blizzard’s iconic RTS has reached a point considered ‘complete’. The game first launched five years ago, when stage one of the game’s release took players through the Terran portion of the saga - since then, they’ve released the Zerg focused Heart of the Swarm and, just recently, the aforementioned Protoss standalone expansion.

For the longest time, the promise of the next expansion has been the extent of Blizzard’s commitment to campaign focused StarCraft fans -- while multiplayer has seen half a decade of balance changes and updates, the only real differences for those who play the game alone come in massive, biennial story packs. At Blizzcon this year, however, the StarCraft team committed to abandoning this cycle -- starting with Nova Covert Ops, a mission pack aiming for release in Autumn 2016.

“There are actually more players who play campaign than there are multiplayer players,” Tim Morton, StarCraft II’s Lead Producer, told us when we caught up with him at Blizzcon. A big friendly giant, Morton always wears a smile and speaks softly (so spare a thought for my transcription efforts!) and his enthusiasm for StarCraft seems limitless.

“The multi-player players stick around the longest, because that has organic replayability,” he continued. “So we looked at that and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we were also able to provide continuing engagement for campaign players?’ This will be our first effort in that direction. A series of mission packs, called Nova Covert Ops, telling a little bit more of a character story around Nova, rather than a save-the-cosmos kind of story like the Starcraft 1 and StarCraft II story arcs. It’s a chance for us to experiment a little bit, and hopefully bring fans content that they’ll be excited about.”

Nova: Take Two

This isn’t the first time Nova has been promised her own story, mind you. Some of you might recall StarCraft: Ghost, a third person shooter announced in 2002 and put on ‘indefinite hold’ in 2006 -- Covert Ops will not be that game, and Blizzard were careful to make sure people didn’t mistake their new update for the cancelled shooter, deliberately calling it an RTS mission pack. We asked him why they decided to go in that direction with the game.

“I’d say, knowing that she’s a fan favourite had some influence on our choice, but the team itself just really felt like being a Ghost is such a compelling fantasy,” he said. “And Nova, as a character, has played an intriguing part in the storyline so far, and it felt like there’s so much more depth there that we could explore.”

“[But] it’s actually an effort for us to get content in players’ hands more quickly. In a lot of ways, we’ve been inspired by what our fellow developers upstairs--our Heroes of the Storm team--has done in terms of continuous content delivery. We’ve gotten feedback over the years from players that we take too long between releases for Starcraft, and they really wish we had a more steady cadence to our content release. From a, ‘How do we pull that off?’ perspective, the team still has a lot to learn about delivering content quickly, but we’re really up for the challenge.”

A Faster Cycle

And a challenge it will be. Blizzard has traditionally done an amazing job at using their other games as experimental laboratories for concepts -- World of Warcraft: Legion is drawing inspiration from Hearthstone’s Daily Quest system (which Hearthstone itself initially stole from World of Warcraft) for example. So while a lot of Nova Covert Ops will be uncharted territory for the StarCraft II team, they have a lot of experience to draw from -- both internally and externally.

“We’ve never done episodic content before,” Tim explained. “From a storytelling perspective that’s very interesting. From a mechanics perspective, we’re going to have an equipment system for Nova, so you’ll get to really tailor her abilities. If you look back on how the Terran faction was treated in Wings of Liberty, Raynor’s raiders are kind of a scrappy mercenary element of the Terrans. In Nova Covert Ops, Nova’s got the backing of the full might of the Terran dominion, so sort of unlimited resources to put behind the gear that she’s using. It has a very distinct feel to it, so definitely, there are some new game mechanics that’ll be there.”

“Just how she outfits her unit, what unit composition does she choose, stuff like that,” he said when we pressed him for details. “That’s something that’s somewhat consistent with the other games. We always provide some amount of customization there. We did want to carry that mechanic forward, and there will be some new choices, I’m sure, that play a part of that.”

Heroes of the Form

To customise Nova players will get the opportunity to change her loadout in four slots -- her helmet, her body armour, her gadget and her iconic weapon. Fans of other Blizzard games will know that Nova as a hero character is already quite fleshed out -- especially in Heroes of the Storm, where she is a popular ranged assassin.

This move to a speedier release cycle will probably be great for StarCraft II and its fans, who have definitely been at the mercy of Blizzard’s methodical scheduling for some time. Multiplayer fans can rest easy knowing that instead of negatively impacting balancing patches for the online portion of the game, StarCraft II development is getting more streamlined as they draw inspiration from Heroes of the Storm.

“You know, there’s a lot of great back-and-forth between the Heroes team and the Starcraft team because so many Heroes team members got their start on the RTS team. I’d like to think that there’s some cross-inspiration there,” Tim said, laughing when we asked whether it was her success in Heroes of the Storm which lead to her lead role in the mission packs. There are a number of StarCraft heroes available in Heroes, but apparently even amongst the team she’s one of the most popular.

To wrap things up, we asked if they knew which hero would get the RTS Mission pack next.

“I think all options are on the table in the future, but we haven’t made any decisions about what’s after Nova,” Tim answered. For the record, we told him it should be either Sergeant Hammer or Abathur. 

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