Any discussion of Nova gameplay must begin with the mission, which is a single task usually involving travel to one or two star systems with a specific objective. This task varies widely, but often involves pickup or delivery of specific cargo or passengers, usually on a deadline and facing the threat of interference by hostile parties. Missions are generally (but not always) part of a larger storyline called a mission string, which is a sequence of linked missions orchestrated by one of the larger entities in the galaxy, such as a government or a corporation.
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Missions are the heart of Nova, so much so that it is nearly pointless to ask about a player's progress in a Nova game without using some variant of the phrase, "What mission are you on?" If you are not on a mission at the moment, it's usually because you're trying to find or prepare for the next one. (And, yes, wandering around looking for things to blow up is a mission, too.)