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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Gaming Round-Up: A Return to SWTOR, Wolves of Midgard, the Horners, and More

I finally got a bit burnt out on Legion, so I’m taking a break before I tackle the last few class stories. In the interim, I’ve been bouncing around between a few different games, which means it’s time for another multi-topic gaming post.

A rare moment of quiet in Vikings: Wolves of MidgardBack in the Republic:

Long-term, I want to give some serious time to SWTOR. Catch up on the story and maybe finish the last two class stories. However, there’s supposed to be a major content patch soon, so I figure I should wait for that before I get too heavily invested, and as a result I’ve just barely dipped my toes in.

Despite my obscure tastes, I did lose a couple of character names during the recent server merges. I’m rather pissed to have lost my bounty hunter’s name, as it was already my second choice for her name, and now she’s down to like my sixth or seventh choice. The others I don’t mind, but boy is it hard to find a new name now. Absolutely everything is taken. Who the hell even knows what “Bagrada” is other than me?

I did eventually think of a name for my knight that wasn’t taken, and I actually really like it. I should use it more. And thankfully my main characters — agent, warrior, and consular — all got to keep their names. The reign of Empress Maigraith Numin continues undisputed.

Another mild annoyance is that SWTOR apparently stores UI data client-side rather than server side, so I had to set everything up again since I’m playing on a different computer now.

Unlike most MMO players, I’m not fussy about my UI. I’m usually happy to play with the default settings of any given MMO. Even ESO’s much maligned interface is fine by me. But for whatever reason the default UI in SWTOR makes me want to punch kittens, so I have to rekajigger it a fair bit.

Cipher Nine and Lana Beniko in Star Wars: The Old RepublicOn the good news front, I am delighted to be able to customize the armour of my KotFE companions. Well, Lana, anyway. I never much bother with the others. I put together an outfit based around the Protoss-looking armour from the new light side vendors, and she is now the glorious space paladin of my dreams.

Mr. and Mrs. Horner:

In other news, this week saw the hotly anticipated (by me) release of StarCraft II’s latest co-op commander(s), the husband and wife team of Matt Horner and Mira Han.

My early experiences with them were actually something of a baptism by fire. I was struggling even on normal — something I haven’t done since I first started on co-op. I’ve come to the conclusion they’re a bit like Karax, despite having a totally different playstyle: They have a very steep learning curve, and they’re highly dependent on leveling upgrades.

I’m getting the hang of them now, but I would definitely say they’re one of the most challenging commanders in co-op.

The thing is that Matt’s units are extremely strong, but also extremely expensive. Meanwhile, Mira’s are pretty much just trash. The goal, then, is to mass up a large force of Matt’s air units while using Mira’s mercs only as a mineral dump. The trouble is getting to that point. You simply can’t afford Matt’s units in the early game, but you can’t spend too much on Mira’s or you’ll never get ahead.

Matt Horner and Mira Han's army in StarCraft II co-opThus, while the Horners are a force to be reckoned with late game, the early game is a nerve-wracking ordeal.

Their one saving grace in that regard is the Assault Galleon. These are Mira’s main production structure, but they’re also powerful capitol ships. They’re a lot like Tempests — long range, high damage — but with much more health, and you can build them right off the bat, and they only cost 200 minerals. And later on you can upgrade them to also be Carriers.

Galleons are kind of amazing.

My strategy therefore is max out on Galleons (you can only have a maximum of five) ASAP, lean on them to survive, and try to fast tech to the truly valuable units: Wraiths and Battlecruisers.

As far as Mira’s units go, my preference is for the Hellion. Their range means they don’t die quite as quick as her other stuff, and their damage is quite respectable. A lot of people seem to like Reapers, and that can work, but they die so much you end up replacing half your army after every battle.

The good news is the Horners definitely scratch my itch for an air-focused commander. Five Galleons plus their fighter bays plus Wraiths plus Battlecruisers is the unstoppable doom fleet I’ve spent all my life longing for.

Matt Horner and Mira Han in StarCraft II co-opAlso, dropping a space station on people is every bit as hilarious as I dreamed.

Overall I do think they’re a fun commander, but you definitely need to bring your A game. You have to work for your wins.

One final thing to note on the subject of StarCraft: I recently managed to solo a brutal mutation for the first time ever. My ally DCed on the load screen, and I was left to fend for myself. It was very challenging, I had to base trade with Amon, and there were only 21 seconds left on the clock when I killed the final objective, but I did it.

Considering I normally struggle to solo even standard matches, and that brutations are generally the toughest thing in the game short of PvP, I feel pretty proud of myself.

Nova OP.

Favoured of Skadi:

On top of that, I also played through a single-player RPG I got cheap on a Steam sale, Vikings: Wolves of Midgard. It’s a Diablo clone inspired by Norse mythology, which also neatly explains why I bought it.

Fighting a boss in Vikings: Wolves of Midgard

Most folk’ll never lose a toe, but then again some folk’ll, like Cletus the slack-jawed Jokul…

Even after having finished it, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it.

It has some neat ideas. One example is the exposure mechanic of environmental hazards. For example, if you’re traveling in a cold area, you’ll need to warm up by fires regularly or risk freezing to death. I really wish more games made the environment part of gameplay like this.

The combat is also very fun, and it does an admirable job of bringing the world of Norse mythology to life. It’s clear they actually did their research, even if they still take liberties in places. The story’s junk, but the strength of the setting carried it through, and the main character’s voiced by Alix Wilton Regan (if female), which is always a plus.

I did enjoy the class system, as well. Rather than traditional classes, you gain bonuses based on which of the Norse gods you follow, and it’s possible and even encouraged to put points into two skill trees at once, with the option to swap between them at will. I enjoy that level of versatility.

Most of the trees still more or less correspond to traditional RPG archetypes — Skadi, my main choice, is an archer class — but the Odin tree is a bit different. It’s the caster class, but it’s melee, focusing on acrobatic staff fighting. I suppose that might be bad for people who prefer traditional casters, but for my part I think “Gandalf + ninja” is a pretty awesome class concept.

But Wolves of Midgard a lot of rough edges. Despite some solid graphics, it’s nonetheless clear the game was done on the cheap, and it has many polish issues. That I could live with, but what really surprised me was how old school and unforgiving it felt at times. Save points, for example, are few and far between, so a single death can prove very punishing.

The realistic snow effects of Vikings: Wolves of Midgard

This is the first game I’ve played where the snow actually behaves like snow.

It got worse near the end. There’s a massive spike in difficulty in the last few levels. The intention seems to be to grind earlier content to level up, which is fairly awful. You can get around this by lowering the difficulty, but it’s just not a great situation all around.

So that put a damper on what had otherwise been a pretty fun game up until that point. If you really like Norse mythology and/or you want a more “hardcore” RPG, it might be worth a look, but otherwise I’m not sure how strongly I can recommend it.

And finally…

There’s actually one other noteworthy thing I’ve been playing lately, but that deserves it’s own post, so it can wait.

In the meanwhile, why not check out my latest article for MMO Bro? This time I’m pondering if and how the stories of MMOs can be given satisfying conclusions.