I’m brownbear. Today I was fortunate enough to play three separate games with the new cooperative commander, Zeratul. I wanted to put together my thoughts for fans looking for more details on the latest addition to cooperative missions.
If you’re interested in the official press release – including Zeratul’s talent progression – check out the official preview from Blizzard.
Zeratul is available as a controllable hero unit on the battlefield, similar to existing co-op commanders like Kerrigan, Dehaka and Alarak. He starts in a stasis shell and emerges after a few minutes (240 in-game seconds in the demo I played). His core hook is his ability to search for and find Xel’Naga artifacts, which unlock new calldown abilities from the top bar.
When the search ability is activated, players see a small circle above Zeratul highlighting a portion of the map. This circle contains enough detail to be an identifiable location on the map, but not so much detail that an inexperienced player would be able to find the location easily. Even with more than 400 games of co-op under my belt, I frequently had to scan through the map to find out where the artifact was located. Fortunately for me there was also a circle on the mini-map highlighting where I should go, so it was a pretty easy process. Note here that I only played on Casual difficulty (because I didn’t realize the level caps in the demo are faked, and I was in fact playing a level 15 commander) so I’m not sure if the mini-map circle is also available on Brutal.
The search ability features a lengthy initial cooldown, presumably to manage the pacing of unlocking new calldowns. Once it unlocks, it can be re-cast freely until the next artifact is found, which kicks off the cooldown once again.
Finding artifacts unlocks new calldowns, which are a key component of Zeratul’s design. Each calldown slot features three selectable talents. Once a player selects a talent, they’re stuck with it for the rest of the mission. As far as I know, this is only the second instance of a commander featuring irreversible choices within the context of a single mission (with Tychus being the first, having access to 9 outlaws but only being able to field 5). This feels like an incremental change in design direction, offering players weightier and permanent choices rather than the softer choice of picking a specific unit composition.
An interesting note on the first calldown: it can be used immediately, but costs 500 minerals. This means a player could theoretically skip their initial buildings and rush the first calldown. I tried this on Part and Parcel and it didn’t seem worth it (unupgraded it only lasts 120 seconds) but I’m guessing someone better than me at co-op will figure out some cool uses for this.
Tier 2-4 calldowns are all described in the official preview – I don’t have anything more to add than what’s written there.
Easy to Learn, Hard to Master
Zeratul features streamlined core mechanics: he doesn’t require Pylons and can build his buildings anywhere. He has no Stargate or Fleet Beacon; he also doesn’t have a Twilight Council. His entire set of buildings is as follows: the Nexus, the Gateway, the Cybernetics Core, the Robotics Facility, the Robotics Bay, the Dark Shrine, and the Photon Cannon. (Note that all of these were renamed to something else, following the pattern of more modern commanders.) Zeratul’s units are similarly streamlined: he can only build stalkers, sentries, dark templars, immortals, disruptors, warp prisms, and observers. (Again, all were renamed).
This pattern extends to other aspects of Zeratul’s design. His upgrades research automatically based on how many Xel’Naga artifacts the player has found (everything from Observer Speed to attack and armor upgrades). Vespene geysers auto-mine, cost nothing and are built automatically from the Nexus at the start of the game (or when a natural Nexus is placed down). Zeratul’s total army supply is limited to 100, something the developers alluded to when discussing Zeratul’s design philosophy:
… we wanted him to have a small elite fighting force, as he was most often featured in insurgent-style missions in the StarCraft II campaign.
Zeratul’s depth comes from his unit control and army management. My impression here is that the developers are trying to thread the needle for both the casual and hardcore audiences, making Zeratul a truly “easy to learn, hard to master” commander.
On the “easy to learn” side, Zeratul has a bunch of novice-friendly components. He features at least one pure A-move army composition, Stalker / Sentry, in which both units can auto-cast their fairly powerful abilities. Zeratul can also warp to any visible location on the map, solving the mobility problem for more casual players in a straight-forward way. The Void Array unit (discussed below) can be configured to automatically unload if players would rather have a single exit location, functioning kind of like a limited Nydus Worm. On the calldown side, the first one (Zealots, Void Rays, or Dark Archons) is physically unmicroable, meaning players only need two clicks to use it more or less optimally. Finally, the removable of some macro mechanics like researchable upgrades simplifies the overall experience and makes it easier to get into.
On the “hard to master” side, I found a few interesting mechanics. First are a variety of unique and mechanically intense styles. For example, cannons can be manually teleported to any visible location for 60 seconds; in one game I built no units, choosing instead to mass cannons at home and strategically teleporting them to my ally’s army as they pushed on the objective. This is micro-intensive, but rewarding. I believe Dark Templars also feature some micro potential, but didn’t get much time to play with them. Sentries also feature a manually castable shield spell. Note as well that units’ auto-cast abilities can be turned off, allowing players to freely control units like Stalkers if they’d like.
Next is Zeratul’s mobility mechanic, which features virtually unlimited mechanical potential. Zeratul’s Warp Prisms are known as Void Arrays, and they allow units to load into one Array and unload out of any other Array (so long as the arrays are set to “Load/Unload” mode, which is effectively the same as “Warp” mode for Warp Prisms). But Void Arrays feature the same capacity constraints as Warp Prisms, making them a bit more mechanically difficult to use than Nydus Worms. In other words, Void Arrays are a more mobile and powerful version of Nydus Worms, but they’re also more mechanically intense to use (assuming you don’t use the single exit point auto-cast ability mentioned above) – not to mention the existing mechanical potential of pulling units in and out of a warp prism to protect them from damage or move them around more quickly.
I can imagine experienced players combining Zeratul’s mechanically intensive mechanics together, perhaps teleporting in a cannon for detection, ferrying units through Void Arrays to solo primary and bonus objectives simultaneously, or meticulously using numerous abilities to maximize damage-per-second. There’s a bunch of room for optimization and creativity in which calldowns are selected and how they’re used throughout the mission. I’m fairly interested to see how much depth the community can plumb out of the commander here, and whether folks end up agreeing with my “easy to learn, hard to master” interpretation.
The entire mini-map is revealed (but not visible) to Zeratul at the start, which is kinda neat – I learned Lock and Load actually has extra bases on the sides, in places I had never been.
Zeratul features an extremely cool Xel’Naga-inspired art style. All of his units look great; on the demo machine (running at what I presume to be max settings), everything looked fantastic.
Finally, note that I played a Level 15 commander, so I can’t speak to what Zeratul’s progression system is like. The official preview lists out all the talents so you can make up your own mind there.
I missed sOs vs. Maru for this write-up – I hope it was worth it! Let me know if there’s any questions I can answer or if anything is unclear. Thanks folks!