SC2: Master and Commander

It may have taken me the lion’s share of three years, but I’ve finally reached level 90 mastery in StarCraft II co-op.

Hitting level ninety mastery in StarCraft II co-op missionsThis is essentially the level cap, though that’s become a terribly nebulous concept in co-op. First we just had commander levels, but those run out fast, so account-wide mastery levels were added. Now after mastery you progress past level 90 into “Ascension” levels. But those are purely for bragging rights; your power level ceases to increase after 90.

I wasn’t exactly in a rush to get here. It’s the journey, not the destination, after all, and after about forty to fifty mastery points, it stops making any real difference to your playstyle. Some mastery can make a big difference to some commanders — unit cost reduction really changes how Karax plays, for instance — but after a while you’re just padding the score.

And I must admit that co-op does not hold the same thrill it once did in the heady days when Legacy of the Void was new and we still had hope for ongoing story DLC. Partly this is just the inevitable fatigue that comes with playing largely the same maps for three years. Partly, it’s down to questionable decisions on Blizzard’s part.

By far the biggest issue is that power creep is absolutely out of control. Nova, Stukov, and Dehaka were so absurdly over-powered they effectively broke the game, rendering even brutal difficulty almost trivial.

The real problem comes from the fact that rather than nerfing these outliers, Blizzard has decided to buff everyone else up to their level.

Defending on the Dead of Night map in StarCraft II co-op missions.You might think this is okay. Co-op is, after all, a non-competitive mode based around stomping the AI. Players are supposed to be over-powered. Rigorous balance and serious challenge were never the point of co-op. Certainly I would not have seen a problem with balancing the game by making everyone god-tier until I actually experienced it.

Unfortunately, this has turned out to be a master class in why nerfing things, while viscerally distasteful, is still necessary for the health of a game.

Between the absurd heights of power commanders have been buffed to and the fact pretty much everyone has high mastery now, very little outside of mutations requires any real effort now, and even those aren’t what they used to be. To have anything resembling a challenge, I need to play on brutal now, even though I dislike the increased game speed.

A more minor but still irritating issue is the fact we still don’t have a map veto option. The map pool is big enough now that there’s really no excuse not to let us veto at least one map. Personally I never want to see Lock and Load again.

I also must say I’m very disappointed in the addition of Tychus Findlay as the latest commander. It’s true that co-op was never a particularly story-driven mode, but I did like having it as a sort of “story adjacent” mode to fill in gaps in the lore. The addition of a character who was long dead at the time of the End War completely breaks that and makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a farce.

Tychus Findlay and his outlaws in StarCraft II co-op missions.Not to mention Tychus is arguably the worst character in StarCraft history, contributing nothing but Wings of Liberty’s biggest and most glaring plothole while being an annoying git on top of it all.

Perhaps most importantly, though, he’s just not interesting to play at all. Now, I like hero units a lot, and I prefer smaller armies, but having just five hero units and nothing else is just not how StarCraft was meant to be played, and it shows.

For starters, like Karax, he straight up doesn’t work at low levels. Oh, you can still win, but you’re sure not going to be having any fun. You have no choices on what outlaws to hire and thus no meaningful decisions to make whatsoever. You’ve got no map presence, crap mobility, and nothing to spend resources on in the late game.

I don’t doubt he gets a lot better at higher levels (I’m definitely not spending money on him), but some issues are going to persist. He’s always going to be an incredibly basic commander to play, with no economy to speak of and very little micro.

In theory, he’s meant to be a micro-intensive commander, but the power of the outlaws is weighted very heavily toward their raw stats, so their abilities never feel that impactful. Even if they did, at the end of the day you have at most five active abilities, which isn’t that much compared to what other commanders have to juggle. Fact is you’re mostly just a-moving.

Joey Ray's Bar in StarCraft II co-op missions.There’s a lot of other weird hiccups in his design, too. His Reaper outlaw’s ability is a bomb that deals high damage, but it has such a long wind-up that whatever you’re going to blow up will be long dead before it detonates. There’s an upgrade at high levels to reduce the wind-up, but it feels like you shouldn’t have to pay for an incredibly expensive upgrade just to make his ability not worthless against anything that isn’t a train or a Void Thrasher.

Meanwhile, the Medic outlaw’s pathfinding is just terrible. StarCraft 1 Dragoon terrible. Half the time she’s running ahead and getting herself killed, and the other half she just randomly stops moving and ends up way behind the rest of your troops.

Pathfinding in general is a problem for Tychus. The hitboxes for all of his outlaws are quite large, and they’re always getting in the way of each other and your ally — or your ally is getting in their way.

Also, the Hercules who drops his bar at the start of the game is obnoxiously loud, for both players. That is going to get old fast.

It’s not that he’s weak. He’s plenty strong. He’s just terribly unfun to play. He feels half-baked and unpolished.

Fact is he needed an army, even a small one. One time my ally (an Artanis) DCed, and I got to control his base and army along with Tychus’. And it was great fun. With an army and a real economy to manage in addition to the outlaws, he’s really enjoyable. The outlaws feel really good as the support to a larger force.

But as designed, it’s a very empty experience.

The Dominion Fleet calldown ability in StarCraft II co-op missions.All that being said, for all my complaints about Tychus and about the direction of co-op generally, I am still playing. StarCraft II is one of the best games I’ve ever played, and co-op is the best way to keep playing it indefinitely. The variety of maps, enemy compositions, and commanders gives it near infinite replayability, and the quick matches are ideal for whenever I want some low stress virtual slaughter.

Onward to level 1000, I suppose.

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Review: The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings

A friend who is also a big fantasy reader had been raving about — and trying to get me to read — the first book of Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series for some time. I was a bit skeptical because I’d tried Mistborn, also by Sanderson, a few years back and been unimpressed, but my friend was insistent. Eventually I realized it was in the best interests of my ongoing health to simply acquiesce and let her lend me the damn book.

Cover art for The Stormlight Archive, book one: The Way of Kings by Brandon SandersonAfter all her raving, I was expecting The Way of Kings to be something really different and original.

Certainly the setting is unusual. Way of Kings takes place in a world that is constantly lashed by titanic “Highstorms,” and all of the plant and animal life has evolved along strange, exotic lines to survive this brutal environment.

However, when you get down to the bones of the story, Way of Kings is a very classical, almost generic, high fantasy epic.

And I could not be happier about that.

Way of Kings feels just like the books I grew up reading and loving: Lord of the Rings, Shannara, Obsidian, and the like. Ancient evils return to swallow the world, and heroes rise to fight them.

The characters all feel very familiar, almost cliche — a nobleman chosen by the divine to redeem his people, a slave fighting to survive against brutal oppression — but you know what? Some things are cliches for a reason. It works. They’re characters that I want to cheer for. They’re characters I want to see succeed.

Similarly, the meta-plot thus far feels like the sort of thing I’ve seen before, but it’s a story that I like. It feels epic. It feels meaningful. The fate of the world is on the line, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. This is exactly what I look for in fantasy: big ideas, big threats, epic conflicts with mighty heroes standing to save what they hold dear.

It’s not a perfect book. It does inherit one sin from the old school fantasy it’s clearly emulating: It has a very slow start. For those with the patience to persevere, Way of Kings eventually becomes very exciting, but it does take its time getting there.

I think the author could have spaced out the big reveals a little better such that there isn’t more happening in the last hundred pages than in the first six hundred.

And sometimes he gets a bit too bogged down in details. He has an odd obsession with describing every article of clothing worn by every character in excruciating detail, and it gets wearing after a while.

Finally, one of the main characters — a scholarly girl named Shallan — has thus far failed to capture my interest. Her story is as cliche as the others, but her cliches aren’t cliches that I ever liked in the first place. I’ve kind of had my fill of “tough but fair” mentor characters, among other eye-rollingly predictable choices that are too spoilery to get into.

That said, I wasn’t immediately impressed by the other characters, either, so there may be hope for Shallan to redeem herself later in the series.

And don’t let my complaints detract from the fact that this is a strong book. Considering it’s twelve hundred pages long, the pacing is actually a lot better than you’d expect, and again, it does eventually become very gripping. Those of us who are fantasy fans are used to slow starts, so I don’t think anyone in this book’s target audience will consider this an unforgivable sin.

If you are a fan of traditional high fantasy, I definitely think that The Way of Kings belongs on your reading list.

Overall rating: 8/10