Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty

StarCraft II

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a real-time strategy game and yet another impressive gem from Blizzard.

Overview

This post is a review in all but the usual sense. I’m not here to assign the game a number from 1 to 10 (though if I were, it would be very high); instead, I am going for a “review” in a more academic sense—a study of the game.

Which means I’m not trying to praise or condemn the game, but rather, to gain an almost artistic appreciation for it, like I would of a film or book.

Gameplay Background

The real-time strategy genre is a type of chess where you can move all your pieces at once and you don’t take turns. What the original Starcraft (1998) did was create totally different factions. Instead of each side’s army consisting of a king, a queen, two rooks, two bishops, two knights, and eight pawns, one side could have four pieces that moved like knights and pawns, another two like rooks with limited range, two more like bishops that could jump over pieces, and a piece that could teleport to another unoccupied square within two rows, but only once every three turns.

Call the standard 16-piece setup A, and this new 9-piece setup B. Each piece in B might be more powerful than in A, but B has less pieces. In Starcraft, if the Terran (humans) are A, then the Protoss (an alien race) would be B, for they use smaller numbers of stronger and costlier units.

The Zerg (the other aliens) are the opposite of the Protoss. Perhaps their chess setup would have 16 pawns, four pieces that moved like kings (but don’t obey the rules of check), four knights, and a queen. This is a total of 25 pieces.  This allows swarming with larger numbers of weaker and cheaper units.

Of course this is a drastic oversimplification of the game style (I’ve left out important things as resource collecting, production buildings, scouting, etc.), but that covers it essentially. Starcraft II continues the same gameplay, just with different units.

Plot Background

In Starcraft II’s single-player campaign, you follow the actions of Jim Raynor, a rebel leader against the Terran Dominion and its evil leader Arcturus Mengsk. You learn that Raynor is a friend of many Protoss factions, and that he is especially on good terms with the dark templar Zeratul. And the Zerg are led by Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades.

This alignment did not occur from accident.

Starcraft: The Terran Confederacy in the Koprulu sector in the Milky Way suddenly encounter technologically advanced Protoss warships that incinerate some Terran fringe colonies. They find that the Protoss have done so to prevent the spread of a parasitic race called the Zerg.

At this point, Jim Raynor is a Marshall on the planet Mar Sara, which is attacked by the Zerg. The Confederacy is slow to help, so Raynor puts himself in charge of saving as many colonists as he can. When he destroys a structure that has been infested by the Zerg, the Confederacy arrests him, and to evade arrest, Raynor has no choice but to join the Sons of Korhal, a terrorist group led by Arcturus Mengsk.

To overthrow the Confederate capital world of Tarsonis, Mengsk sends his second-in-command, psionic agent Sarah Kerrigan to place a psi-emitter on the planet. This device lures the Zerg, who will overrun the human population on Tarsonis. When the Protoss under Tassadar come to destroy the Zerg, Mengsk orders Kerrigan to stop the Protoss, but when she does so, Mengsk abandons her on the planet to the Zerg. Raynor, disgusted by the betrayal of Kerrigan, defects from Mengsk, and in the fall of Tarsonis and the Confederacy, Mengsk creates the Dominion and crowns himself Emperor.

The Overmind, ruler of the Zerg, had actually decided not to kill Kerrigan. She was instead infested to be an agent of the Zerg Swarm. The Protoss dark templar Zeratul assassinates the Zerg Cerebrate Zasz, but this act reveals to the Overmind the location of Aiur, the Protoss homeworld. The Overmind quickly mounts a direct assault, and embeds itself into the planet.

Even as the Zerg take over Aiur, the Protoss Conclave insists on conventional, honorable fighting against the Zerg, even though the Protoss are hopelessly outnumbered. The Conclave also seeks to arrest the high templar Tassadar, who has tried to free Zeratul—only dark templar energy could defeat the Overmind. After a brief Protoss civil war, the combined forces of the Protoss under Tassadar and Zeratul, and Raynor’s rebel group, defeat the Zerg, and Tassadar sacrifices himself to slay the Overmind.

Brood War: Not terribly important to the storyline of Starcraft II, except that Kerrigan becomes the sole leader of the Zerg.

Story and Storytelling: The Single-Player Campaign

Blizzard has come a long way in storytelling. In Starcraft, the plot unfolds in-game as well as in mission briefings. Key cinematics also illustrate critical points. The plot was linear, meaning one mission directly followed another.

The campaign of Starcraft II is, by contrast, nonlinear. You often have different missions to select from (though you end up playing through most or all of them anyways), and have choices to make in upgrades and research. Three times in the campaign, you will have to make a binary choice that either affects the plot or what you’ll face the next mission. These choice selections were very interesting, and lead to interesting replay options.

In one choice, you must decide whether to help Tosh break out a group of Specters or help Nova stop the Specter operation. If you help Tosh, you’ll have the ability to create Specters in later missions, whereas if you help Nova, you’ll have the ability to create Ghost. The two missions where you either help Tosh or Nova are my favorite in the campaign.

Besides the nonlinear story, the story itself was greatly enhanced by the various methods of storytelling. Besides mission briefings, in-game actions, and cinematics, the story takes place interactively on the Hyperion, Raynor’s ship. The most amusing method was the television broadcasts, which show Donny Vermillion and/or Kate Lockwell. Donny often cuts off Kate’s report of the real news, reporting his own biased information.

As always, the story is full of surprises and plot twists. The most shocking part of the story was Zeratul’s appearance on the Hyperion, and his visions that Raynor later viewed. It turns out the Overmind in Starcraft was more than it had seemed.

To soften the overall serious tones of alien invasion and saving the universe, Blizzard added plenty of references and humorous dialog. My favorite is the part when Tychus jokes to Raynor that using the Xel’Naga artifact could destroy the space-time continuum, to which Raynor responds, “This isn’t science fiction!”

Favorite Mission: “Ghost of a Chance”

This one is intense on micromanagement. You control no base, only Nova and a few reinforcements. The positioning of units and usage of abilities is key. The mission is like an epic version of “The Dylarian Shipyards” from Brood War.

Next Favorite Mission: “Breakout”

Essentially an Aeon of Strife game, like DotA. You control only one unit, Tosh, and try to control the tide of a battle. As in “Ghost of a Chance,” the key is positioning and using abilities. It is similar to the mission “The Search for Illidan” in Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Also, the parts where Raynor constructs bases in areas you capture is the opposite of “Twilight of the Gods” in Warcraft III, where the enemy Archimonde constructs bases in areas that he conquers.

Battle.net and Multi-Player

Also a great improvement. Battle.net is a state-of-the-art online system, and the lack of LAN is not a big issue. This is because the new Battle.net has very little lag, and whatever use for LAN can be done on Battle.net.

Besides that, the gameplay is excellent and well polished. The only qualm I have is that the Terran and Protoss seem more fun to play than the Zerg. Note that I’m not saying they’re imbalanced or easier to play; they just seem to have so many more options. Protoss with their Warp Gates are extremely fun.

Favorite Protoss Unit: Stalker

An very flexible unit that can hit air and ground. It is extremely mobile with its blink ability, and the option to use Warp Gates to warp in many of them at once is amazing. Massed stalkers with upgrades seem to be very effective.

Terran Favorite Unit: Viking

It has a very long-range air-to-air attack that is perfect against capital ships or Overlord hunting, and it can transform to ground mode, making it a viable ground-to-ground mech fighter. The ship upgrades work for both modes.

Zerg Favorite Unit: Baneling

There’s nothing more satisfying than watching your opponent’s army decimated by a massive blob of rolling green spheres.

Balance

As an amateur player I cannot speak much about this, but Starcraft II seems very well balanced. Each race has a distinct feel, but together they are matched up quite well. The game has come a long way from the early days of the beta (in which I did play), when several cheap strategies could win consistently. Even now, the Void Ray rush is super effective, at least at lower levels.

Achievements

How do you enhance the replay value of any game? Add achievements. I’m not sure whether this is new for the real-time strategy genre, but Blizzard certainly has success with the achievement system in its World of Warcraft. I’ve read an article somewhere about how achievements scientifically make a game addicting. But Starcraft 2 doesn’t even need the psychological effect.

For example, in the campaign missions, there are two bonus achievements, and it can sometimes be difficult if not nearly impossible to grab both awards in one play of the mission. One achievement might be to kill every last structure on the map, while the other might be to finish the mission in under 20 minutes. You’d have to play the mission at least twice, once to get the first achievement, another to get the second. Plus, there are de facto achievements such as finding research points on the field that can be used for valuable upgrades for later use in the campaign.

This system is very addicting for perfectionists like myself. Even without achievements, I would search every corner of a map for hidden stuff (e.g., in Warcraft III, especially the expansion, there were secret items and tomes everywhere if you looked for them). The achievement system makes you want to do this even more.

Graphics

While I don’t consider graphics to be the most important part of a game, I am fairly impressed by the graphics of Starcraft II, mostly the ability to generate in-game cutscenes and rendered movies in the campaign. Also, the real movies are in much higher resolution and detail than those in previous Blizzard titles such as Warcraft III.

Map Making

Blizzard’s map editors have been incredible, and during the beta I have already discussed the basics of the Starcraft II map editor. I haven’t found time to really experiment with it yet, but when I do, I’ll keep you updated.

The Fun Factor

To be honest, Starcraft II is one of the funnest games I have ever played, if not the most. It is because they made it much more than a game—they made it an environment, and a very immersive one at that. My only real concern here is that it might be too immersive, and be another World of Warcraft, a very addictive game due to its fun factor. World of Warcraft is what happens when you make a game too good.

Then again, there is no monthly subscription fee for Starcraft II, so Blizzard needs not make it as addicting. But once you get the game, it will be very hard to put down, at least for a while.

Concluding Remarks

Starcraft II is incredibly polished and incredibly fun, and it proves that the real-time strategy genre is not dead—it just needed another kick. And Blizzard gave it this kick.

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