StarCraft: Co-op Appreciation

I’ve starting to feel a little burnt out on the Old Republic lately, so for the last week or so, I’ve been playing a lot of StarCraft II’s co-op missions for a change of pace. I’m once again struck by how fun they are, and I picked a good time for it, as Blizzard has also just released a major patch with a lot of new additions for co-op, including everyone’s favourite gene-splicing slug as a playable commander.

The co-op mission screen in StarCraft IIWe stand unified:

I’ve been trying to think of a good analogue to compare SC2’s co-op missions to, and I’ve realized I don’t have one. That’s not to say they’re wildly unusual, but I’ve not encountered anything exactly like them.

Usually my experience has been that RTS games have their single-player campaign (my favourite part), and competitive matches, and not a whole lot in-between. At best they might have versus AI skirmishes, which are usually meant as training before you step into PvP.

Co-op missions are somewhat unique in that they aim to have all the endless replayability of PvP, while being a purely co-operative, versus AI experience.

And they do a damn good job of it. Co-op missions do play more like the campaign than anything else, but they’re also highly replayable.

They achieve this through having semi-randomized elements, a number of different missions (although admittedly not as many as I’d like) with unique objectives, and even the fact you’re matched with other players, who may not exactly match your skill level.

Victory in StarCraft II's Temple of the Past co-op missionI still very much wish that I had a friend I could play co-op missions with regularly (I do have one friend who plays StarCraft, but she’s usually too busy), but playing with PUGs is still plenty fun.

The very unreliability of other players is in a strange way sort of fun. The other day I had a run of really bad partners, but that added its own special thrill. I came to think of it is just another challenge to overcome, and honestly, I really like carrying people. It feels good to help people achieve victories they might not otherwise be able to, and it appeals to my vanity.

It also helps that the StarCraft II community tends to be a fair bit more pleasant and respectful than most gaming communities (not that it’s a high bar to clear).

The final piece of what makes co-op so replayable is the sheer variety offered by its many commanders.

Take, for example, the three Protoss commanders currently available. Obviously they’re all the same race, but they all play very differently. Artanis is the Protoss of all Protoss, building armies of big, slow, powerful units that streamroll everything in their path. Vorazun is the rogue archetype translated to the RTS genre, leaping from the shadows to assail her enemies with crippling crowd control and units with devastatingly high damage. Karax… well you’re basically playing tower defense with him.

Activating orbital strike as Artanis in a co-op mission in StarCraft IIAnd that’s just the Protoss commanders. Obviously the representatives of the other races provide even more diversity. There’s even decent variety within each commander’s toolkit, with most having at least a couple of different possible builds/strategies.

Vorazun remains my preferred commander. Her units have devastating power, and she has relatively little emphasis on macro, which I like. She also feels very well-rounded, without major drawbacks. Sometimes I wonder if she’s overpowered. Does it even matter if something is OP in co-op?

To revisit the above topic, she’s also a great commander to pick up the slack if your ally is lagging. Nothing makes you feel awesome like bouncing around the map, throwing down black holes and time stops and warping in clutch reinforcements to save your ally’s base and win the objective all at once.

I’ve gotten to level fifteen on Vorazun and started on mastery levels (more on that later), but I’ve also been branching out a bit. I’ve been playing Artanis and Zagara with some regularity, and I’ve started on co-op’s newest commander.

Untenable to oppose:

Yes, Abathur is here. Somewhat interesting because in beta I believe Stukov was hinted to have been the third Zerg commander, but much as I like Stukov, I think Abathur is probably a better choice. Everyone loves Abathur.

Healing an allied army as Abathur in one of StarCraft II's co-op missionsAbathur is a paid DLC, but he only costs $5 US, which is reasonable in my books. I had no problem buying him right off the bat. Partly because I genuinely wanted to play him, but also because I want to support the co-op feature.

Gameplay-wise, he’s a very interesting commander. He’s basically a Protoss in Zerg’s clothing.

Normally, Zerg is all about churning out huge numbers of fast, cheap, disposable units. You just keep the flood coming and win through sheer attrition.

But by Zerg standards, Abathur’s units tend to be big, slow, and expensive. His armies are slow-moving juggernauts, having more in common with those of Artanis than, say, Zagara.

This impression is further reinforced by Abathur’s core mechanic: biomass. All enemy units drop biomass when killed, and Abathur’s combat units can collect it to grow more powerful. If they consume enough biomass, they will eventually evolve into an ultimate form. Ground units become brutalisks, and air units leviathans.

This further encourages Abathur to keep his units alive for as long as possible. Losing a unit costs you not only the resources you spent on creating it, but all the biomass they’ve collected.

Playing as Abathur in StarCraft II's co-op missionsThe good news is that Abathur’s units tend to be pretty tanky, and he has access to a lot of healing. Late-game, his armies are probably the hardiest of any commander.

My general experience has been that Abathur is quite weak in the early game, but an unstoppable force once he gets going. He also has fairly weak anti-air and mobility, but I think that’s a worthwhile trade-off for his other strengths.

My recommendation would be to lean heavily on toxic nests for defense early on. Try to focus all your biomass into one unit to begin with so you can get your first brutalisk as soon as possible. Play greedy and fast tech until you’ve got your expansion and swarm hosts with the anti-air upgrade. After that, you’re on easy street.

I’ve been making three vipers to evolve into leviathans, but otherwise I pretty much ignore air units. Abathur actually has a very good air units, but it takes a lot of time and resources to get them, and a ground army works fine.

Finally, I’m intrigued by the implications of Abathur being a Zerg commander without a hero unit. I hope this means we may start to see commanders of other races that do have hero units. I love heroes, but Zerg has always been my least favourite race (although Abathur and Zagara are changing that a little).

Nova in StarCraft II: Heart of the SwarmI could definitely see Nova being a hero unit if they add her as a commander. That would be sweet.

Mutation complete:

Abathur isn’t the only big co-op addition brought by patch 3.3. Blizzard has also expanded the mode with mastery levels and weekly mutations.

Mastery levels are very similar to Diablo III’s paragon levels. Once a commander has reached level fifteen, any XP earned begins to count toward mastery levels, each of which gives you points to spend on various incremental bonuses. Mastery level is also shared between all level fifteen commanders.

Mastery leveling seems surprisingly fast — I’m already level nine after the weekly mutation and one regular match — but it’s certainly an improvement over having no progression at all after level fifteen.

Meanwhile, weekly mutations are similar to the brawl modes of Hearthstone and Overwatch. They spice up the gameplay with new and strange challenges and complications. Though this being StarCraft there’s less of any emphasis on wacky off-the-walls mechanics and more on finding new and creative ways to challenge the players.

A mutator mission in StarCraft II's co-opThe first one has as its main mechanic zombies that spawn randomly across the map as well as when any enemy unit dies.

Fun idea, but it proved a lot less challenging than I expected. To be fair, I did have pretty much the ideal composition for such a scenario: Vorazun and Karax. My ally turned our bases into invincible death fortresses that obliterated anything foolish enough to venture too close, and my dark templars’ Shadow Fury just instantly melted any zombies I encountered.

Completing a mutation grants a huge chunk of bonus experience, but only once per difficulty per week (completely a higher difficulty also awards any bonuses from the lower difficulties). So there’s not much cause to do the mutation more than once a week.

On the whole, mutations are probably the most underwhelming aspect of the patch, but I’d still rather have them than not.

One final small but welcome change is that there is now an XP bonus for your first co-op victory each day. Good way to keep people logging in.

* * *

This also feels like a good time to mention that StarCraft II is actually largely free to play, though this fact is very poorly advertised. As far as co-op goes, the only limitation is that free players can only play as the basic commanders: Raynor, Kerrigan, and Artanis.

They’re not any less powerful than the others, just less mechanically complex. Artanis is my personal recommendation for total newbies. You can win most things just by making a giant army of dragoons and a-moving.

Reviews: The Warcraft Chronicle, Vol. 1, and The StarCraft Field Manual

Following the success of Diablo’s Book of Cain and Book of Tyrael, Blizzard has began producing similarly lavish lore books for their other franchises. Warcraft gets the Chronicle, which will be spread out over several volumes, and StarCraft so far has only been given the StarCraft Field Manual.

Cover art for the Warcraft Chronicle, volume oneOf course you just knew I’d be on these like stink on a monkey.

The Warcraft Chronicle:

The Warcraft Chronicle represents an attempt to streamline, clarify, and unify all of Warcraft lore to date — an ambitious effort considering what a morass of retcons and scattered storylines Warcraft has become over the years.

Volume one covers the entire history of the Warcraft universe from the beginning of time up until just before the opening of the Dark Portal, and much of it covers periods of history we have previously had little to no knowledge of.

All this is helped along by some incredibly beautiful and detailed artwork depicting major events and locations, many of which we have never seen before, such as the Black Empire, ancient Zandalar, and Zin’Azshari at its height. The art of the Warcraft Chronicle is absolutely fantastic and probably the best reason to get the book.

As for the story content of the book… well, I’m still digesting it.

There are a lot of very big revelations in this book. Some are retcons, others just new info. A lot of what the Chronicle talks about is epic, thrilling, and fascinating in the way Warcraft lore is at its best, but it does change a lot of things, and it will be a while before I fully decide how I feel about it all.

The Black Empire, as depicted by the Warcraft ChronicleIt is good to finally get a clear and ordered history of things and try to clear up the vagaries and contradictions that have cropped up over the years. This will likely benefit the story going forward.

On the other hand, sometimes a little mystery is a good thing, and having an answer to (nearly) every question can rob the universe of some of its mystique. I do think knowing exactly where the Old Gods came from and what their goal is robs them of some of their intimidation factor. They’re not these terrible, incomprehensible enigmas anymore.

Still, even with my mixed feelings, I’d consider the Chronicle a must have for Warcraft lore fans.

Overall rating: 7.5/10

The StarCraft Field Manual:

Unfortunately StarCraft’s lore tome proves less impressive.

The Field Manual is presented as an actual manual given to Dominion marines to help them understand the threats of the Koprulu Sector.

The entire manual is “enhanced” by comments scribbled into the margins by the manual’s original owner. This is a clever idea in theory but fairly annoying in practice. Terran marines are not known for their wit or insight.

A page from the StarCraft Field ManualAnd unlike the Chronicle, the Field Manual does not offer any major new insights into the lore. Mostly it’s just a series of blurbs describing the backstories of the various units and buildings, similar to what they had in the old game manuals. Which is all well and good, but I’m not sure it quite justifies the book’s relatively high price tag.

The artwork is nice, but nothing compared to that of the Chronicle. Really my favourite part of the book was a chart offering to-scale size comparisons of most units. Turns out the Spear of Adun is seventy-four kilometers long.

Them Protoss don’t mess around.

Overall rating: 5.5/10 Only worth it for collectors and extreme super fans.