StarCraft II

I’ve been playing StarCraft II for a few weeks now, and I am impressed. This is the first Blizzard ‘RTS’ (real-time strategy) game I’ve played, and it’s easily changed my perspective on the genre and modern-day gaming. I’ve long enjoyed RTS games, but have typically played the same titles for a few years at a time. My experience of RTS games is pretty limited as a result. I tend to fare poorly in single-player games, and have usually leaned on co-operative modes for fun instead.

StarCraft II is beset by an audience of keen veterans; this much I knew from the beginning. Though I was excited about the game prior to its release, it was really only because the game looked glitzy and because I’d come to enjoy Blizzard games through my time in World of Warcraft. I haven’t played the first game, or any of its fantasy counterparts in the Warcraft series. Fortunately the game has been designed with newcomers in mind, and while the online matches can be a hostile place indeed, the single-player campaign serves up some friendly scenarios to help orientate us.

Orientation

My game started, with inevitable curiosity, in the tutorial section. There wasn’t anything particularly innovative on offer here, though it is a fine thing to have continuous narration provided by a 3D portrait avatar throughout. The Adjutant, an electronically-voiced gynoid, guides us through basic controls using the terran units. She addresses the player in the menu, and from inset screens in the game’s UI. It’s a quick and effective way of introducing the game logic and allowing us to get by in the campaign, helped along by markers which are laid straight into the game world as targets for us to click on.

From these short tutorials we are expected to turn to the campaign. Most missions introduce new units, above and beyond the basic gatherer/marine/medic combination. This is done in combination with the campaign’s ‘RPG’ (role-playing game) features, in which mission objectives earn the player credits to be spent on upgrades to units and buildings. The overall effect is a neat, player-focused narrative as Jim Raynor (the game’s protagonist) gathers steadily greater forces to his ranks.

StarCraft II‘s role-play themes continue between missions, as Raynor is guided about various parts of his ship in order to purchase the aforementioned upgrades and to converse with other characters – all from a safe haven in which the player can save their game. This feature threw me at first; I’m not particularly familiar with RTSs staging anything beyond a simple mission screen. It does allow us to appreciate the characters in much greater depth, and time aboard the Hyperion breaks the flow from what can otherwise be a frantic and detailed campaign. It is also a very FMV-rich experience, which takes almost as much adjusting to. The end result is a game which can, at times, feel split equally between strategic action and watching chunks of FMV.

This video content is directed quite well, and the fact that many of the ship-board events take place in situe means that, for example, players will see their achievement trophies hung upon the wall while Tychus and Raynor scrap in the cantina. There’s a personal touch to be had there. Blizzard have also prepared a series of high-resolution videos for key events like the game’s introduction and those surrounding the bloodthirsty Queen of Blades. Just as in World of Warcraft, these lend an escapist degree of gravitas and spectacle to events which would be near impossible to recreate in the game’s own engine. They fill the role of ‘stage setter’ much more effectively than the events which bookend each mission. I am, as of yet, undecided on how this balance of intrusion and continuity actually adds up in the overall experience.

Gameplay

Ultimately, StarCraft II is a game in which we expect to gather resources, train units and send them into combat. Though the campaign presents a lot of FMV content it does train us in the finer points of terran unit control. The campaign also features some missions which are arranged as flashbacks, involving Zeratul and his loyal protoss forces. These introduce us rather swiftly to the protoss unit types, but not in the same depth. Considering the bias towards terran forces in the basic tutorials too then, it is something of a shame to be left entirely in the dark when trying to play as zerg – the third playable species.

When I took to the online, player-vs.-player leagues there was only one viable option, and that was to play as terran. I knew enough to get by, being sure to train a variety of unit types to deal with different enemy types. Knowing this much does not prepare you in any way for online play, however – veterans of the game are quite likely to play as protoss or zerg, with entirely differently tactics and unfamiliar unit types at their disposal. Being able to recognise an air-to-air unit, against which you should deploy ground-to-air defences, is just one of those lessons in logic which inform the RTS genre.

I felt thoroughly alienated by StarCraft II‘s matchmaking service, at first. The game allows players to engage in up to 50 ‘practice league’ matches, all of which go unranked and so do not impact upon the player’s league standing. When these tickets are used up, or if the player elects to skip the leagues, they are then invited into 5 placement matches. These matches can be frantic and punishing; all 5 of mine were clearly veteran players of the game, who had no problem at all with bombarding my freshly-build base and building resource collectors right on my doorstep. 5 harrowing losses later, and relief came:

The bronze league – a polite way of saying I am pretty newbish. I can see the logic in pitting new players against each other in order to decide where our abilities best place us, but the beating I received (even in good sportsmanship) was almost enough to discourage me from ever visiting online play again; and yet, my next match within the bronze Auriga Phi league was a fair and balanced one. The trial may be tough, but it gets results, and while I have still had the odd mis-placed opponent since then, it has turned out to be a good league placement. What I’m unsure of as of yet is quite where Auriga Phi stacks up in the overall ladder.

Online play can be harrowing experience, win or lose – the adrenaline and quick decision-making necessary to do it has often left me pining for AI opponents, against whom strategies can actually work. For that I turn to StarCraft II‘s finely-executed co-operative mode.

Multiplayer and Friends

Serious misgivings about the so-called ‘RealID’ system aside, I am quite chuffed with the friends system and how well it works when setting matches up. By right-clicking a friend’s name I can invite them to a party, and from there the party leader can navigate the multiplayer menus and launch into online player-vs.-player, custom or co-operative matches against AI opponents. The decision is sent out to all party members for verification, and once confirmation is received, play can begin. It’s that simple.

I have already mentioned my disappointment in the thorough bias towards terran forces. It is only through playing against the AI that I have begun to learn a fraction of the protoss and zerg play styles, but it’s so much more of a self-led discovery when the terran tutorials are furnished with on-screen prompts, narrators and markers. StarCraft II has, by contrast, simply placed a zerg Hive and half a dozen gatherers before me and suggested that I figure things out for myself. I understand that Wings of Liberty is the first of three parts to this game, and that zerg will feature heavily in the second game; perhaps at that point, it will become less of a trial to learn their potential.

As a general rule, I understand that the species differ thusly:

  • Terrans, being in possession of mobile structures and auto-repairing units, offer a rugged and dependable base with middle-of-the-range units – armoured, but unshielded.
  • Protoss, whose units and bases all possess shields, are expensive to build for but make for a formidable and very mobile army.
  • Zerg, whose units are nimble but largely unarmoured, are build to swarm their enemies; their bases are too flimsy to stand much of a defence.

You can see then, that by being taught how to play terran well, the game leaves us at a disadvantage when trying the other two species out. Perhaps by focusing our attention upon one race, Blizzard is actually giving a leg-up to newcomers who can feel much safer playing the ‘home’ race rather than being raised (by the game) to be jacks of all and masters of none.

Conclusion

StarCraft II is a game of many levels. Its campaign, though bookended by a large amount of passive video content, manages to tell a decent enough story and throw some nice role-play elements our way – from weapon upgrades to decision-making and an active portrayal of Jim Raynor himself. The story is a little too familiar for me, though – murmurings that a race of demi-god creators may be returning to set the galaxy aright, and the fact one of these creators appears to have gone renegade, will ring very familiar bells to anyone who’s played World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade. More pleasant is the re-use of terminologies like “area of effect”, immunities to some abilities which seem plucked right out of the fantasy MMORPG, and a familiar system of ‘research points’, seen below.

The game is also presented with great panache. Embedded videos illustrate many of the game’s changes, such as when researching new upgrades. The slick UI supports a variety of useful notifications and in-context character performances, such as when a character alerts you to a new feature in the current mission. This surrounds a pretty well-balanced arena of military strategy, in which there are a few different routes to victory. Just as with World of Warcraft‘s class balancing there are the occasional whinges about units being “overpowered” or particularly susceptible to cheesy tactics, but on the the system does work, on the whole.

Personally I felt let down by a few bugs (which were since fixed) and some very poor decisions early on. Browsing the community fora too has revealed a number of baffling ideas which Blizzard has undertaken, and which call some players’ purchases into doubt.

There is, for example, an issue surrounding offline play. The game will cease to function if you do not log in at least once every month in order to verify your account, blocking even the single-player mode. Problems also arise if you are collecting in-game achievements, as a disconnection from Battle.net will prompt a warning to say you cannot earn them when playing offline. Those who bought the game in order to play alone have had their hopes dashed by this and Blizzard’s curious choice to save all campaign progress on their own servers.

Multiplayer has its problems too, with many players still outraged by the ‘RealID’ naming feature which broadcasts personal information to friends we know only by monikers. The game also features a region lock, similar to World of Warcraft. StarCraft II does not allow matches between European and American competitors, despite the earlier game’s openness. There are rumours that this may be addressed in future, but the sad fact is Blizzard are unlikely to alter this.

StarCraft II is fun, and it does some interesting things, but some of that interest is of the head-scratching variety – it’s unlikely to win favour with some players, casual or hardcore. It has me hooked for now…

StarCraft II

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