Finish the fight against the Defenders of Man.
PC Release: November 22, 2016
By Ian Coppock
The end of the year is quickly approaching. 2016’s been a colorful year in the world of video games, with a variety of indie darlings up against a smattering of big-budget games. Some were wins, a lot were losses, but the overall variety of titles available to gamers continues to grow. In that spirit, the series of reviews on the strategy-heavy Nova Covert Ops series continues today, with a (hopefully) epic conclusion to be found in Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3. Blizzard has managed to tweak the StarCraft II formula with this campaign’s new focus on stealth, but reviewing Chapter 3 is the only way to find out if this shakeup sticks the landing.
Chapter 3 is the third and final installment of Nova Covert Ops, a bonus StarCraft II campaign set years after the conclusion of the main StarCraft II trilogy. As with the previous two chapters, Chapter 3 stars inveterate psionic assassin Nova Terra, on a mission to save the Terran Dominion from a mysterious faction of dissenters. Although these missions retain the real-time strategy mechanics that the StarCraft series was built on, Nova Covert Ops also encompasses stealth missions in which Nova goes solo against bases full of baddies. It’s a surprising olive branch to stealth fans coming from StarCraft II, but Nova Covert Ops also emphasizes tactical upgrades to various units. Even more than in the main StarCraft II campaigns, tactics is king in Nova Covert Ops.
Chapter 3 comes hot on the heels of Chapter 2. After a harrowing trio of missions across Dominion space, Nova finally learns who the leaders of the Defenders of Man are and contrives a plan with Emperor Valerian Mengsk to bring them to justice. Nova finds them readily enough, but Alarak, leader of the Tal’darim, arrives to attack the Dominion and slaughter anyone standing between him and the Defenders. Alarak hasn’t reneged on the deal he and Nova made in Chapter 2, but he did promise to destroy the Defenders wherever they hide, even on a planet teeming with innocent civilians.
Nova and her black ops regiment steel themselves for a battle on two fronts. With the Tal’darim mindlessly slaughtering innocents on one side and the Defenders of Man making their escape on the other, it will take all of Nova’s wits and resources to keep the Dominion’s enemies at bay. So begins the third and final Nova Covert Ops mission pack, one whose mission is to continue refining that which was introduced in previous chapters and bring this mini-narrative to a successful conclusion.
Like the previous Nova Covert Ops packs, Chapter 3 emphasizes a blend of solo stealth encounters and the more classic StarCraft II base-building and army-fielding mechanics that the game is best known for. Nova’s time is spent both infiltrating enemy facilities by herself, and commanding her battalion of elite black ops soldiers out in the field. To supplement these missions, Nova Covert Ops allows players to customize Nova with a variety of guns, grenades, stealth suits, and other equipment, as well as share elite spec ops technology with her troops.
Not that Chapter 2 wasn’t a fun mission pack, but its abject lack of Nova stealth missions was a little weird coming from a miniseries that promised lots of, well, stealth. Indeed, there were only two such encounters in the entirety of Chapter 2, and both were optional side objectives about retrieving old equipment. Chapter 3 slits this problem in the throat by starting Nova off on stealth in the very first mission, as she moves in to apprehend the Defenders of Man’s leader. This mission is undeniably the best of Nova Covert Ops’ stealth’em’ups, scattering invisibility-shattering laser beams and hordes of sentry drones across a labyrinthine map.
After that, the cadence of the following two missions settles back into the wide-scale battles StarCraft II is known for. The second mission comprises repelling a huge army of Tal’darim invaders, and the last mission, a final, epic showdown with the Defenders of Man. Even though both of the latter missions are much more conventional StarCraft II fare, the tail end of mission three features Nova, alone against the enemy she swore to track down. That setup is quintessentially Nova Covert Ops, but how well does it bring the series to an end?
To touch on the gameplay a bit more, the stealth odyssey in this mission pack is the best the series has to offer. It’s considerably longer than any other stealth mission in Nova Covert Ops, and encompasses a wider array of challenges and opportunities. Nova has a new power that grants her mind control over any one enemy unit, opening up the floor for some pretty fun sneak attacks. Forcing enemies to fight one another is also the stuff of subterfuge, so it’s nice to see the mission pack get a bit sneakier with Nova’s powers (it’s also fun to sick a Thor onto a squad of unsuspecting Marines).
Additionally, the Defenders of Man have tightened their security against Nova’s attacks, exponentially widening the arsenal of defenses she’s expected to tackle. There are no flame turrets, thank God, but there are laser beams that both alert nearby units and disable Nova’s passive invisibility. Not even Nova can stand against all the units crammed into the mission, so players have to be a lot more considerate of their stealth tactics. Couple this with an array of sensor drones in both unit and building forms, and the result is a mission that does a great job at forcing players to switch mental tracks constantly.
Indeed, switching tracks is the name of Chapter 3‘s game. After Nova completes her mission and the Tal’darim attack, mission two switches gears over to defending against Protoss invaders on six fronts. Not two, not four, six. Nova’s got some assistance from mainline Dominion forces, but this mission is a delectable exercise in multitasking. To escalate matters further, she has to slay over a thousand Tal’Darim before the mission ends, making the mission an exercise in endurance as well as versatility. Of course, this mission’s structure feels derivative of the Shakuras Zerg slaughter mission in Legacy of the Void. It goes without saying that Nova has no time for pensive stealth solos in this mission.
The last mission of Chapter 3 and indeed the mission pack comprises Nova’s final showdown against the Defenders of Man, a space platform brawl reminiscent of the maps from the original StarCraft. Like the previous mission, this last sortie deals with defending multiple targets against constant enemy attacks, all while fending off a giant baddie that keeps coming back for more. Like the missions of Chapter 2, this mission feels quite bombastic for a series built on stealth and tactics, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. Or a lot of fun.
Overall, the gameplay of Chapter 3 is fun, but it never quite gets to the core of what Nova Covert Ops promises to be about. Ironically, the very first mission pack of the series is the stealthiest of all. At least half of that pack is spent playing solely as Nova, with two solo stealth missions and even a classic high-speed highway chase with enemy agents. The second mission pack drops the ball by focusing exclusively on action, and though the stealth mission in pack three is great, it’s just the one mission. The rest is classic StarCraft II, albeit with more versatile mission and hero upgrades.
The level design in this pack is nothing that StarCraft II fans haven’t seen before. The stealth-centered mission is definitely the most maze-like that the series has yet produced, containing the most elaborate traps and trickery. However, the remaining two missions are big brawls that any StarCraft II fan will have fought. They might be a bit unfamiliar to players brand-new to the series, but that only begs the question: how would someone stumble upon StarCraft II and then Nova Covert Ops without first playing the main campaigns? There is no logical way these missions won’t look familiar to anyone.
The other question at play with this mission pack is double that of its predecessors. Is its own narrative any good, and more importantly, does it manage to bring the overarching Nova Covert Ops story to a satisfying end? The pack’s own sub-narrative isn’t terrible, but it’s clear that the writers rushed things along to get to a speedy ending. No sooner does the player know anything about the Defenders of Man’s leader than they’re engaging the enemy in the final showdown. Valerian Mengsk’s subplot from Chapter 2 is barely extrapolated upon in Chapter 3, and the confrontation with Alarak is abruptly aborted without any explanation of why the Tal’darim hated the Defenders of Man. Presumably, the Defenders attacked the Tal’darim to force them into fight with the Dominion, but Alarak usually has more creative answers than that.
As for the overarching narrative, it, like so many video game narratives before it, is okay until the last five minutes. Nova engages in a satisfying standoff with the Defenders’ leader, but makes a decision at the very end of the game that needlessly implicates her and forces her on the run. Without divulging too many details, she basically makes a decision that makes no sense and had no running-up in the narrative preceding it. Perhaps this last-minute 180 was made to leave the door open for future StarCraft plots, but boy does it feel shoehorned in. One minute Nova is executing the emperor’s orders, the next she abruptly decides to do something different because “it’s better this way”.
It sucks to say it, but for all the fun to be had in its battles and sneaking, Chapter 3 is the worst of the three mission packs that Nova Covert Ops has to offer. Its gameplay is fun (if a bit stale by round three) but Chapter 3‘s gaping plot holes make Nova Covert Ops go out with a scratch of the head rather than a raise of the fist. There is an inherent challenge in squeezing a compelling story into three packs of missions released months apart, but that still doesn’t excuse this mission pack’s abrupt, confusing ending. Nova Covert Ops‘ writers started out strong on a wave of space-age intrigue, but it dwindles down to baseless changes of character at the very end of the series.
Overall, the Nova Covert Ops series is neither a must-avoid nor must-have for fans of StarCraft II. It toys with some new concepts here and there, but is otherwise another plate of missions that are quite derivative of the main campaign. Couple this with Nova Covert Ops‘ subpar writing and abundance of plot holes, and it comes up noticeably short in comparison to previous StarCraft II efforts. A few promised features, like being able to walk around Nova’s ship like Jim Raynor did the Hyperion, also go unfulfilled. StarCraft II fans considering a purchase would do well to hit Nova Covert Ops up much like Nova would herself; wait for a (sale) opportunity, and then strike. Otherwise… meh.
You can buy StarCraft II: Nova Covert Ops, Chapter 3 here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.