Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Review: Starcraft 2

For those unaware, ‘Starcraft 2’ is a sci-fi real-time strategy game. If you haven’t heard the name before now and you’re a fan of the genre, then, well, you probably don’t exist. There’s a certain degree of synonymy that comes to a game when it can stand up to more than a decade of professional gamers. And Blizzard has gone to lengths to maintain the simplicity and diversity that made the original dynamic so popular. There are three races; the Terran, the Protoss and the Zerg. Unlike ‘Dawn of War’, these races are not pathetically similar in their unit selection; I’ve found myself bogged down in many a conversation that extolled the wonderful fact of 40K’s many races, but it compels me to use the tired cliché that quality is better than quantity. And uniqueness is a quality in of itself. When you make a unit in ‘Dawn of War’ you can rest assured that a unit very much like it exists in pretty much every other race. Sure, there is variation, but when I play those differences off against ‘Starcraft 2’ in my head, they seem negligible. As someone might point out, what’s so weird about every race having a unit to fulfil specific functions of the game, like infantry, siege, artillery, or a giant robot? But the issue isn’t to do with functionality so much as it is to do with how much diversity can be applied to it.

This game had a massive amount of time put into its design. This isn’t a fact that necessarily guarantees a good game, as any who followed the production of ‘Daikatana’ will attest; it’s just a fact. This is something that I was well aware of when all that was known about ‘Starcraft 2’ was what Blizzard employees would gleefully share in the official podcasts. To clarify, this was almost two years ago, yet it seemed all they had left to discuss was the tweaking of balance issues. So when it was finally released it came as no surprise that playing the campaign imparted a feeling very reminiscent to that of ‘Half-life 2’s single-player. They both present a sequence of distinct areas, the ‘stencil’ of which had been carefully prodded and pruned to ensure an optimum experience, as well as a tight narrative. In the case of ‘Starcraft 2’, this progression is spread across several sub-plots that run concurrently, constantly offering you a choice between continuing one chain of missions, and starting some other. At several points you are also given choices that play a large role in the conclusions of these sub-plots. I would imagine a lot of campaign-content was sacrificed for the sake of concision, in both cases, and the gamer in me, who likes to see the form shine at telling stories, admires this.

But there is a part of me that enjoys huge swaths of content to get through. A part that’s clearly self-destructive, since the quality of the twenty-six missions, and of the story they hold together, is determinedly high. The story doesn’t out-stay its welcome, and the abundance of achievements provide a satisfying challenge for those who enjoy clearing everything, and rarely do the harder objectives to these challenges represent significant deviations from the main objective of the mission. I’m not sure if I could say all this were there an abundance of unnecessary missions.

There have been many attempts at innovation in the genre brought on by more recent titles—customisable squads, cover, morale systems—and yet these implementations mean little without a sound basis. Moreover, I would imagine such features have a way of restricting players to behave within tighter pre-designated parameters, limiting the over-all expansion of strategies. If developers want to make RTS games more ‘real’ with the implementation of layers of systems, then they’re in the wrong business. I believe ‘Starcraft 2’ has the firmest of foundations in this regard, since its races neatly fit the story’s continuity, while not catering to any un-needed sense of realism. The three races are, and I believe this isn’t an overstatement, as different as balance could allow. Almost to the point where I begin to question why, in the ‘Starcraft’ continuity, none of the units are more similar across the races, simply by chance. Almost. The only worrying outcome of this minimalist approach to game design is that newer features in the genre are not present. Neither is anything as ground-breaking as the use of ‘Heroes’ in ‘Warcraft 3’. I won't deny that an evil part of me would have rejoiced at seeing similar RPG-elements to that of 'Warcraft 3' here. But the fact remains that ‘Starcraft’, over more than a decade, has proven the strength of that original approach. There's no denying that Blizzard has certainly accrued the finances to take risks in their game design, but I think they made the right choice in staying so close to the original. In doing so they’ve introduced a solid game to a new audience, and while gameplay mechanics can be timeless, graphics however, are not.

I wonder at what this game could have been, though; a sequel that completely diverged from Starcraft’s design, as ‘Warcraft 3’ was considerably different to its predacessor. But it bears reminding that ‘Warcraft 2’ did not achieve anywhere near the staying power of ‘Starcraft’. As much as I enjoy gaming experiences that present themselves as innovative or unique, it feels like such a shameful idea for Blizzard; to disregard such a mightily established approach. Whether the theoretical ‘divergent sequel’ found its own success, or found inadequacy when measured up to its predecessor, it wouldn't matter. Players would go back to the original. With the game we have, though, it seems extremely unlikely that players will end up returning. Such is the devotion to accurately recapturing the dynamic of the original ‘Starcraft’.

I should mention that the single-player entails only one race’s missions: the Terran (although there are four missions where you play as the Protoss). Shortly after the announcement of the sequel, Blizzard stated that the other two campaigns would be expansions. At thirty-five pounds, though, I feel that they’re selling more than enough. Especially compared to some of the crap that goes up on store shelves. Sure, in terms of value for money it’s no ‘Orange Box’, few games are, but if there was a Protoss and Zerg equivalent to the Terran campaign here, well. I would have been astonished. It would be like buying one above average thing and getting another two for free. I know, not a great analogy, but I can understand the misgivings of the community as, conventionally, RTS games are self-contained entities that don't require expansions for full completion. But when you consider each campaign as a full story, and the multiplayer as a whole other entity altogether, it feels like by the time the expansions are released, ‘Starcraft 2’ will be a very full title. If the same care has gone into the Zerg and the Protoss campaigns as went into the Terran, then they will make worthy expansions.

The singe-player setting endears itself quickly with a simple central hub: the Hyperion, Jim Raynor’s command ship and home. You can go to a number of sections of the ship between missions, with each serving a mechanical purpose as well as additional dialogue. This setting is really what grounds the story in the characters; ‘Warcraft 3’ had the benefit of the main characters also being constantly around to fight, and in doing so, though the audience was able to have an excellent idea of just who those leaders were, they were invariably just that: leaders and lieutenants. This setting was a good idea, and goes a long way in avoiding the risk of the audience seeing the characters as disembodied voices.

There’s little more to say without spilling into unnecessary fine-details; if you enjoy the RTS genre, then this is a game you should try. Hell, even if you haven’t experienced the genre all that much I would suggest giving the game attention, simply on the grounds of a polish that resembles a mirror-surface. The real sell, though, is whether you can appreciate the multiplayer component. I’ve known people to play through the entire campaign of ‘Warcraft 3’ without ever giving online play a second thought, and still having nothing but good words for the game. I believe the same could be true here, but you would only be enjoying half the game.

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