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.

Plot Similarities in Blizzard Games

Blizzard Entertainment

With StarCraft II just released, and from recently playing the original StarCraft and WarCraft III campaigns, I’ve noticed that, between the plots, there are quite a few similarities. Blizzard’s creative department is very good at this. The list of Blizzard games [abbreviations] I’ll be using in this post:

  • StarCraft [SC1]
  • StarCraft: Brood War [SCBW] (expansion)
  • WarCraft III: Reign of Chaos [WC3]
  • WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne [WC3: TFT] (expansion)
  • StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty [SC2]

Well, I don’t own WOW, and I don’t know the plots of the first two WarCraft games. Therefore my comparisons will mostly run between StarCraft and WarCraft III, including expansions.

SPOILER ALERT

The Hero Becomes the Villain

Diablo (!):

  • At the very end, the hero defeats Diablo but tries to contain Diablo’s soul within himself. This fails, because Diablo takes control of the hero’s body. In Diablo II, the Diablo you face is the hero of the first game.

SC1:

  • In the first campaign (Terran), mission 9: “New Gettysburg,” Arcturus Mengsk abandons ghost agent Sarah Kerrigan to the Zerg. She is infested. In the next campaign you can use Infested Kerrigan, a Zerg unit. By the end of SCBW, she has become the “Queen of Blades,” the ruler of the sector, and the primary antagonist.
    • BUT, in SC2 we learn that she is the prophecized savior of the universe, and she is de-infested at the end.
  • Also in the first campaign, Arcturus Mengsk himself is initially a hero, trying to overthrow the evil Terran Confederacy. When he takes power, he crowns himself Emperor of the new Terran Dominion, but his government ends up being just as oppressive as the Confederacy that he overthrew.

WC3:

  • In the first campaign (Human), mission 9: “Frostmourne,” Arthas Menethil, a human paladin, is so blinded by vengeance that he would kill the dreadlord Mal’Ganis at any cost. Unfortunately this cost is the taking of the cursed blade Frostmourne, which essentially binds the wielder to the Lich King. By the next campaign you can use Arthas, an Undead Death Knight. He becomes the primary antagonist.
  • In the second campaign (Undead), mission 5: “The Fall of Silvermoon,” Arthas (now undead) defeats the high elf Sylvanas Windrunner and turns her into an undead banshee. She later becomes the Queen of the Forsaken.
  • In the third campaign (Orc), mission 5: “The Hunter of Shadows,” Grom Hellscream, in order to defeat the Night Elves, drinks from an enchanted well; however, this enchantment is from the blood of Mannoroth, a pit lord. Hellscream subsequently falls under demonic possession.
    • BUT, in mission 8: “By Demons Be Driven,” Thrall rescues Hellscream’s soul, and Hellscream redeems himself by slaying Mannoroth before dying.

WC3: TFT:

  • Throughout the first campaign (Sentinel), Maiev is trying to hunt down Illidan. By the end, Malfurion remarks that “[Maiev] has become vengeance itself.” Given Illidan’s intentions, however, it is arguable whether Maiev is a protagonist or antagonist.

The Villain Was Serving a Greater Power

SCBW:

  • In the secret mission “Dark Origins,” when Zeratul discovers Samir Duran‘s experimentation on Protoss/Zerg hybrids, Duran explains: “I am a servant of a far greater power.” Could he be referring to the Xel’Naga?

SC2:

  • Tassadar reveals that the Overmind from the first game was actually controlling the Zerg against its will (it was itself controlled by a more powerful force), and that it sought to infest Kerrigan so that someone else could control the Zerg.

WC3:

  • In the second campaign (Undead), Kel’Thuzad summons the demon Archimonde into the world. Archimonde, however, has no need for Arthas or Kel’Thuzad. Arthas becomes appalled, and Kel’Thuzad informs him that the Lich King has already foreseen this, and that he has plans for Arthas.

WC3: TFT:

  • In the first campaign (Sentinel), Illidan Stormrage appears to be using the Eye of Sargeras for himself. Later, at the end of the second campaign (Blood Elf/Human), we learn that Illidan was serving the demon Kil’Jaeden, who gave Illidan the task of destroying the Frozen Throne and subsequently the Lich King.

The Apparent Ally Is Actually an Enemy

SCBW:

  • In the first campaign (Protoss), Aldaris is initially reluctant but accepting of the need to go to Shakuras. He then incites a rebellion, and the player must defeat him in mission 7: “The Insurgent.”
    • BUT, later we learn that he was the good guy all along—see the next entry.
  • The dark templar matriarch Raszagal is a seeming ally of Zeratul throughout the entire game. But we learn in the third campaign, mission 9: “The Reckoning,” that Raszagal was a puppet of Kerrigan. Thus, Aldaris’s rebellion against Raszagal was justified.
  • In the second campaign (Terran), Samir Duran is a seeming ally, but during mission 7: “Patriot’s Blood,” we learn that he is actually working for Kerrigan and the Zerg.
    • Actually, in the secret mission “Dark Origins,” we learn that he is serving not Kerrigan, but an even greater power.
  • Also in the second campaign (Terran), Alexei Stukov is the vice-admiral of the United Earth Directorate, but after some suspicious activity, the player is sent on a mission to kill him in mission 7: “Patriot’s Blood.”
    • BUT, it turns out he was the good guy, and Duran was the bad guy. (See above.)

SC2:

  • Tychus Findlay is Raynor’s buddy for the entire game. But at the end, he reveals that he “made a deal with the devil,” Arcturus Mengsk. He would have to kill Kerrigan. But Raynor kills him first.

WC3:

  • In the fourth campaign (Night Elf), Tyrande Whisperwind frees Illidan Stormrage in order to help fight against the demonic invasion. Illidan later serves a demon, and is the first antagonist to appear in the expansion.

The Apparent Enemy Is Actually an Ally

SC1:

  • In the beginning of the third campaign (Protoss), both Tassadar and Zeratul are considered enemies, the first a traitor, the second a dangerous outcast. They eventually defeat the Zerg Overmind.

SCBW:

  • Kerrigan goes both ways. She is an enemy from the first game, but in the first campaign she helps the protoss Zeratul and Artanis recover the Uraj and Khalis crystals. In the third campaign she also helps Mengsk recover his Dominion capital of Korhal from the United Earth Directorate.
    • But, she turns on her allies, killing Duke and Fenix, revealing that she had used everyone as a part of her own plan to rule the sector alone.
      • BUT, at the end of SC2 she becomes uninfested, and it is hinted that she will be the hero again.

SC2:

  • Kerrigan. See above.
  • The Overmind from the first game. Tassadar says the Overmind had “courage.” See “The Villain Was Serving a Greater Power.”
  • Valerian Mengsk, the heir apparent to Arcturus Mengsk, seems at first to be another loyal Dominion agent. But it is revealed that he is the owner of the Moebius Foundation, that he can help Raynor rescue Kerrigan, and that he is against his father.

WC3:

  • In the third campaign (Orc), Grom Hellscream’s Orcs slay Cenarius, who was actually trying to prevent them from unleashing demonic powers from the Chaos Well. Hellscream drinks from the well and becomes corrupted.

WC3: TFT:

  • Actually uncertain for Illidan. He is at first the foe who brought into power the Naga, but he was actually trying to destroy the Lich King, though he was doing so albeit under Kil’Jaeden’s command. Then again, he does help Malfurion rescue Tyrande. At the final fight, it is Illidan versus Arthas, and neither can be said to be good.
  • Lady Vashj is apparently an enemy, but she and her Naga assist the player in the Alliance campaign.

The Grand Alliance

SC1:

  • In the final mission (Protoss mission 10) “Eye of the Storm,” the Protoss under Tassadar and Zeratul and the Terran under Raynor join together and defeat the Zerg Overmind.

SCBW:

  • The final mission (Zerg mission 10) “Omega” essentially inverts “Eye of the Storm.” Kerrigan‘s Zerg defeat the combined forces of Mengsk‘s Terran Dominion, DuGaulle‘s United Earth Directorate, and Artanis‘s Protoss fleet.

WC3:

  • In the final mission (Night Elf mission 7) “Twilight of the Gods,” the Night Elves under Malfurion Stormrage and Tyrande Whisperwind, the Humans under Jaina Proudmoore, and the Orcs under Thrall hold off a demonic invasion led by Archimonde against Mount Hyjal, the World Tree.
    • Well, eventually the invasion succeeds, but Archimonde falls into Malfurion’s trap upon reaching Mount Hyjal.

The Prophecy

WC3:

  • Medivh is THE Prophet. He foretells the invasion of the Burning Legion (making him a doomsday prophet), and ends up uniting the Humans, Orcs, and Night Elves to defeat Archimonde’s invasion.

SC2:

  • Zeratul becomes the prophetic character, telling Raynor that Kerrigan is the key. To some degree, Kerrigan is also prophetic. In SCBW, Duran could be considered prophetic.

The Guy that Nobody Believes (At First)

SC1:

  • None of the Protoss believe Tassadar at first when he says they must trust the Dark Templar, and they believe he has defected to the dark side. The Dark Templar end up being invaluable to the fight against the Zerg, and Tassadar ends up being the ultimate hero of the game.

WC3:

  • The humans initially laugh at Medivh‘s doomsday prophecies, but he ends up indirectly saving Azeroth.

One of the primary reasons there are so many twists, like the good guys becoming the bad guys or vice versa, is how the campaigns are structured. Each game involves a thread of campaigns that use different races. So when you’ve fought against a certain foe for an entire campaign, and then get to command them in the next, you immediately begin to ask moral questions, like whether what you did in the previous campaign was the right thing.

That’s really the genius of these games, that characters don’t have fixed allegiances. And with certain characters, specifically Kerrigan and Illidan, you really don’t know whether they’re ultimately good or evil until you know it for sure.

The StarCraft II Map Editor, in Context

It’s basically the WarCraft III editor. Plus a lot more.

The point of this post is a comparison between the WarCraft III (WC3) and StarCraft II (SC2) editors. Of course, because SC2 is in beta right now, along with its editor, many things may change. The general idea, however, should stay about the same, and moreover, it is the overall resemblance between the two editors that prompted this post.

I speak from several years of experience with the WC3 editor, and with two very extensive and elaborate maps under my ownership (one self-owned, one co-authored).

StarCraft

My map making started with SC1, and I must say that the WC3 editor is vastly superior to that of SC1. To put the WC3/SC2 editor comparison into context, I shall first go over the basics of the SC1 editor.

Original StarCraft Editor
StarCraft 1 Editor—Terrain (Click Image to Enlarge)

SC1’s editor was far more powerful than others in the time period in which it was released—StarCraft debuted in 1998. The editor’s main strength was the Trigger Editor, which allowed the creator to script the action of a map according to events that happen in the game. The events, however, were not called events—they were called conditions, and this made sense for SC1. Hence, the SC1 Trigger Editor relied on a condition-action schema.

SC Editor Triggers
StarCraft 1 Editor—Triggers (Click Image to Enlarge)

Also powerful was the Unit Editor, with which a user could modify the basic stats of a unit or building:

StarCraft 1 Editor Unit
StarCraft 1 Editor—Unit (Click Image to Enlarge)

Note, however, that this only allows very basic modification. If I wanted to change the attack speed, attack range, attack animation, movement speed, collision size, building options, etc. of a unit, I would be at a total loss with the StarCraft 1 editor.

WarCraft III

Within just four years, in 2002, Blizzard released WarCraft III, which came with a much, much more capable editor.

WC3 Editor Terrain
WC3 Editor—Terrain (Click Image to Enlarge)

Note carefully the icons in the terrain palette in the screenshot above, particularly the ones for “Apply Height.”

Basically, the WC3 editor can produce beautiful terrain. But that’s not the point. Its Trigger Editor is incredibly more complex than that of SC1, and this is where the  superiority shows. Here is a screenshot of the WC3 Trigger Editor:

WC3 Editor Triggers
WC3 Editor—Triggers (Click Image to Enlarge)

Okay, the screenshot is not that impressive, but keep it in mind when we compare it later to SC2’s editor. Do note the Event-Condition-Action schema. Finally, here’s the WC3 Object Editor:

WC3 Editor Objects
WC3 Editor—Objects (Click Image to Enlarge)

This is much more impressive than SC1’s editor, which only lets me change ten integers and a name at max. Note that the screenshot by no means captures the whole list of customizable attributes: look at that scroll bar! Surprisingly, most StarCraft 1 players seem to not know about this power—most of them have no idea how powerful the WC3 editor is.

After all, one of the few World Cyber Games (WCG) game is Defense of the Ancients, more commonly known as DotA. And yep, it was created by the WC3 editor. It appears in fact on Battle.net that more WC3 players play DotA than the actual WC3 ladder.

To further reiterate the power of the WC3 editor, I present to you a demonstration of custom spells I made a long time ago in WC3.

This is far beyond the dreams of a StarCraft 1 map maker. Now, as I mentioned in an earlier post,

. . . I was appalled when SC players and map makers posted numerous questions [on the Blizzard forums] asking whether the SC2 editor will have certain features; Blizzard just said yes, yes, yes. In one of their FAQs, they had the question along the lines of, “Will the editor be able to—,” with the answer, “Yes.” The reason the questions were appalling was because nearly every single feature requested was already in the WC3 map editor, released five years prior to the announcement of SC2.

And if SC2 is released later this year, in 2010, it will have been eight years since the release of WC3. That’s double the time between SC1 and WC3. This means the jump in editor capability from WC3 from SC2 should be twice as high as that between SC1 and WC3, right? Well, it was certainly an improvement, but not a shattering one.

StarCraft II

I opened up the SC2 editor for the first time today. My first thought was, Wow, this looks like WC3. In contrast, I was not suddenly reminded of SC1 when I first opened the WC3 editor. Here’s a screenshot of the SC2 editor: (I recently got a new laptop, and hence the Windows 7 theme in the following pictures will look different from the Windows XP theme you saw in the preceding ones, as I have SC1 and WC3 on my old laptop, and SC2 on the new.)

SC2 Editor Terrain
SC2 Editor—Terrain (Click Image to Enlarge)

Remember those “Apply Height” icons I told you to remember a few screenshots back? Well, here they are again. It turns out the SC2 terrain editor is very similar to that of WC3. After all, WC3 already allowed beautiful 3D maps, and there wasn’t an incredible amount of room to improve upon.

Okay, now I never really cared too much about terrain in the first place. So naturally, my first instinct was to go to the Trigger Editor. You can imagine the surprise I felt when I saw this:

SC2 Editor Triggers
SC2 Editor—Triggers (Click Image to Enlarge)

Not only are the icons and interface the same, but so is the Event-Condition-Action schema! You’ll notice the “Local Variables” as well, but I assure you, from WC3 editing experience, that it is nothing new: Blizzard just made local variables a little more friendly to use. Now, this resemblance really says one thing: not that SC2’s editor isn’t powerful, but that WC3’s editor was so powerful that they had little to improve upon.

I don’t have this in the screenshots, but once you go to add events, conditions, or actions, the interface does change a little. Overall it is very easy to adapt to, from a WC3 perspective. I think it’s actually a little more user friendly: in WC3 you often had multiply nested fields in a trigger, and to modify a single one would require peeling away the layers, which would require several clicks; in SC2 this requires just one click no matter how many layers of nesting occur, because all the fields are written out. Of course, to more advanced WC3 mapmakers this is not a problem because of JASS scripting, but it is an improvement nonetheless.

What about the SC2 Object Editor? Here’s a screenshot:

SC2 Editor Data
SC2 Editor—Data (Click Image to Enlarge)

It’s actually called the Data editor in SC2. For consistency, I have screenshot the place where you change a unit’s hitpoints for each of the three editors, and you see quite a change on each one. Unlike the very familiar trigger editor, the Data editor does take a while to get used to. Its basics are, however, the same. The right-hand-side panel looks very similar between the WC3 and SC2 data editors (for now I’ll refer to both of them as data editors), and even the left-hand-side is not totally different. If anything, the WC3 data editor is more organized, by both type of data (unit, item, doodad, destructible, ability, upgrade) and within each type (units categorized by race and role); in SC2 all the data is there in one big list.

Alright, that’s my first look at the SC2 editor. I’m not incredibly impressed so far, but I do think it has great potential. After all, SC2 is still in beta, and there are two more expansions coming out. And from the experience of StarCraft: Brood War and WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne, expansions tend to make editors way better.

I’ll probably be messing around with the editor a bit in the upcoming days or weeks, if AP/IB tests allow. I’ll let you know if there’s anything bizarre.

StarCraft II Beta Overview, Cont’d

This is a continuation from my post StarCraft II Beta Overview.

In the last post, I mentioned among other things the apparent lack of improvement for the Terran and Zerg in comparison to the Protoss. Improvement, that is, in capability from the original StarCraft to StarCraft II.

Now I am going to change my opinion on that. After extensive play, I found Terran to feel just as innovative as the Protoss. Perhaps it was because I was trying only old units at first: Marines, Siege Tanks, Battlecruisers. These units are pretty much the same. On the other hand, old Protoss units like the Zealot and Dragoon, which is now the Stalker and Immortal, gained new abilities. Perhaps this is why the Terrans felt so unimproved. But as soon as I started using new units—Reapers and Vikings especially—the Terrans seemed to be a lot stronger.

The Reaper was especially impressive. In the last post I said that the Reaper’s cliff jumping did not add much power to the Terrans, but I found this statement to be totally wrong. That game, I was against Protoss. I set up a generic Marine plus Supply Depot defense, and then built 12 Reapers. I sent the Reapers on a raiding mission through a roundabout path, and the opponent’s army must have been on the offensive—it was missing from its base. I managed to destroy the Nexus just as the Zealots and a couple of Stalkers made it back to defend. At that point, the game was virtually over.

Overall, the Terran units seem to fill all the needed roles, and the units work together well. The only unit I have a problem with is the Banshee. It seems completely redundant. I built a few for testing purposes, but in an actual game I have not ever felt the urge to build one. Basically, the Banshee is an air-to-ground attack unit. But Terrans already have three ground units that can hit ground-only: Marauders, Hellions, and Siege Tanks. And each of these has a special effect: slowing, line splash, and area splash. The Banshee simply doesn’t help. True, it has the special ability to cloak, rendering it invisible. But Protoss Observers, Zerg Overseers, and Terran Scanner Sweeps all cause the Banshee to be useless—the Banshee can’t attack air units, so if you happen to have a group of cloaked Banshees, and see an Overseer (or suspect that there’s an Observer and use Scanner Sweep to reveal one), you can’t do anything about it. Then why not include air-to-air units like Vikings with the group? Well, then it would somewhat ruin the point of an invisible air force.

Other than the Banshee, however, the new Terran units seem amazing. The Reaper I have already mentioned. My next favorite is the Viking, an air-to-air flyer that can transform to a mechanized ground unit that can attack ground targets. That said, my main use of the Viking is for anti-air (as Terrans, without the Goliath, don’t really have any other good way to counter air). It is very effective against capital ships, or any large air unit. A few Vikings can punch serious damage into a small Carrier fleet. Vikings are fast, cheap, strong, and efficient. The ground form is pretty useful—it’s especially good for raiding.

Regarding other units, in gameplay I feel the Siege Tank is much stronger than it was in StarCraft. In the original, it dealt 70 damage per hit in Siege mode, but had a 50% damage reduction (down to 35) against small units like Marines and Zealots. Now it deals 60 damage, but with no damage reduction—a damage bonus of over 70% against small units. It also has slightly more range, 13 instead of 12.

The Marauder is a very interesting unit: it comes really early in the game, and is much tougher than a Marine, with 125 hitpoints and 1 armor as compared to 45 hitpoints and 0 armor. Plus, it does as much damage as a Dragoon did in the original StarCraft: 20 to armored (large), 10 otherwise, and has an additional slowing effect per hit. Marauders are also classified as Biological (as well as Armored), allowing Medivacs, which come later in the game, to heal them.

I would still say that the Hellion and Thor are not as amazing as the other new units, but are strong nonetheless. Ghosts and Ravens are the Terran spellcasters, and are both pretty powerful. The Raven’s Auto Turrets are especially good. And meanwhile, the Ghost has access to nuclear launches much, much earlier in the game.

Did I mention Ravens?

With that, I’d say the Terrans and Protoss (see last post) are both well made. But the Zerg still seem to offer the player fewer options. Roaches are extremely powerful, but are somewhat boring to use. They have Burrow, but how boring is that compared to Charge, or Blink, or cliff-jumping?! The Protoss, with Warp Gates, Warp Prisms, Charge, and Blink, became more mobile than before. Terrans, with Thors, Vikings, Reapers, gained raw power and mobility (though it’s also easier to turtle with upgradeable 6-slot Bunkers as compared to 4). Zerg seems to have gained little. True, my opinion on them might change the next few days, as it did for Terran the past few. Maybe I haven’t adapted to the feel of the new Zerg yet. Whatever the case, I can still say StarCraft II is looking incredible so far.

StarCraft II Beta Overview

After playing a few games of StarCraft 2 beta, I find it bears more overall resemblance not to the original StarCraft, but to WarCraft III. That is, the game feels more like “WarCraft III Sped Up” than “StarCraft with Better Graphics.” And this is by no means a bad thing—StarCraft 2 is much better right now than either StarCraft or WarCraft III.

Its ties to WC3 are numerous. First, it’s in 3-D. Even though most real-time strategy (RTS) games after SC are 3-D, there is still the obvious graphical resemblance that any WC3 player will notice. It is not enough to say, of course, that just being in 3-D makes games similar. There are plenty of 3-D RTS games that look like neither WC3 or SC2. But SC2 just appears familiar. The following pictures, for instance, are of similar-looking air units from three different games—the SC2 Mutalisk, the WC3 Gargoyle, and the Rise of Legends Glass Dragon:

(Note: None of the images in this post are mine.)

SC2 Mutalisk
WC3 Gargoyle
RoL Glass Dragon

Notice that the Mutalisk and the Gargoyle look very similar. The Glass Dragon is similar in shape, but different in about everything else, such as the head, the large body, the wing texture, and the wing spines.  Compare to the original 2-D Mutalisk:

SC Mutalisk

This demonstrates the earlier point: The SC2 Mutalisk looks far more like the WC3 Gargoyle than the original Mutalisk—the merit of three dimensions is enough.

Okay, enough with graphics. Blizzard games aren’t known because of their graphics—they are known because of their gameplay. And here, SC2 bears another resemblance to WC3.

A bunch of other factors aside, the key difference between SC and WC3 gameplay is that SC is more intensive on macro and WC3 is more intensive on micro. Macro is the control of numerous units, structures, upgrades, attacks, and resources in numerous places, while micro is the control of a small number of units but as efficiently as possible. In SC, most units cost 1, 2, or 3 supply, and the supply cap for each player is 200. In WC3, most units cost 2, 3, or 4 supply (heroes—5), and the cap is 100. In reality it’s lower than that, because an income tax for unit upkeep is incurred at 50 supply, and a still heavier one at 80. The point is that a player can easily have over 50 combat units at a time in SC, whereas an army of 9-18 units is normally enough in WC3. But in SC, most units rely on brute attacks, while almost each WC3 unit has at least one special ability (and heroes have multiple special abilities, not to mention items). That’s not to say that SC doesn’t have micro or that WC3 doesn’t have macro, but that is the general case.

And SC2 has seemed to shift towards more micro, and hence, towards WC3. Let’s just look at the Protoss beginning lineup:

  • Zealot: Original has no special abilities, other than a speed upgrade. In SC2, it has Charge, which, although autocasted, must be used intently, and requires more micro than a purely passive skill.
  • Dragoon: Original has no special abilities. It has split into two units: Stalkers and Immortals. The Stalker has Blink, a teleport which is extremely micro-intensive, and the Immortal has a hardened shield that at least requires a lot of attention.
  • Sentry: Not in original. Has several useful active abilities.

That is not to mention the overall gameplay shift towards micro. A base unit with rally point on a mineral or gas field will now tell the worker to actually mine (as in WC3), rather than just sit there, so it is not necessary for you to scroll back to base and tell worker units to mine. You can also issue multiple commands in sequence (as in WC3), so you could tell a Probe to warp in two Pylons and then return to gather minerals; this would take a few hotkeys, a few clicks, and before the first Pylon even starts, you can set your focus to other units. You can also select multiple buildings (as in WC3), so it isn’t necessary to hotkey different production buildings.

The repetition of the phrase “as in WC3” in the preceding paragraph is not accidental. It is actually a point I’ve wanted to make for some time now. I remember when SC2 was first announced, and people were asking Blizzard, “Is feature X going to be implemented,” I knew that if it was a feature that was added from SC to WC3, it was going to be in SC2 as well. (I’m talking about gameplay mechanics features, not features like heroes or moon wells.) I was especially appalled by SC forum goers complaining about smart-cast and auto-cast, when they had no idea what those were, and were even using them synonymously. (A WC3 player with any knowledge of gameplay mechanics would be immediately dazed upon reading such posts.)

Perhaps I’m ranting here, but I want to correct the notion shared by many SC players that SC is still the definitive game in the RTS genre. Sorry, its multiplayer balance is bloody good, but just about everything else is outdated. Just look at the things I talked about in the last two paragraphs—SC needs a revamp. And SC2 does a mighty fine job of that.

Even on my first play, the SC2 gameplay experience was perfect. Blizzard masterfully combined SC and WC3, and made it into a far better game. All the outdated user interface stuff from SC was removed, as were all the cumbersome gameplay complexities in WC3. Basically, they took the best of both worlds (or universes, as the case may be) and brought them together into the next definitive RTS. Plus, they have two expansions in store—two more opportunities for perfection.

I do have one concern, and it has to do with balance between the races: not in terms of power, but in terms of capability. If we just look at new gameplay features, the Protoss seem to out-specialize the Terrans and the Zerg.

Picture Credits: Blizzard

Most Protoss units have some sort of innovative ability that did not exist before, and as a WC3 player, I was especially pleased in that, for the most part, there were no copied WC3 abilities. The most impressive ability actually was not of a combat unit, but of a building: the Warp Gate. The ability to warp units directly to the battlefield is an ingenious idea—major props to whoever thought of that. Besides that, I thought the Immortal’s shields were extremely unique, and the Colossus’ cliff-walking, laser sweeping attack, and susceptibility to anti-air attacks made it a very special unit. The Void Ray’s accelerating damage via prism focusing was also extraordinary. The Mothership looked amazing and gave the Protoss a very personal feel.

Terran and Zerg, however, felt like the same races in the original SC, the Terrans more so. What special gameplay capabilities did they gain? Almost nothing. And I’m not talking about things like the Reactor Core—all this does is increase the rate of production, or modify a stat rather than add something new. Protoss gained a lot of new moves. Terran seemed for the most part the same. The Command Center’s upgrading is quite cool. Vikings, the transformers, were pretty cool, but didn’t make much sense. If they could attack the air from the air, why couldn’t they attack air from ground (or ground from air)? Banshees seem about as useful as Valkyries, considering that Terrans have so many anti-ground attacks already. I’m fine with the removal of the Goliath, but not with the removal of effective ground-based anti-air. Now Terrans will have to use Vikings and Battlecruisers to defend the skies. If anything, it seems that the Terrans lost their personality after the removal of the super-fast Vulture and its Spider Mines. In the original, if you had to point out one thing the Terrans had that the other races could not easily counter, it would be the Vulture. And again, it’s fine if a unit is removed, but something awesome better replace it. And the Hellion is currently lacking in awesomeness. Other new things, like Reaper cliff-jumping and Supply Depot submerging, don’t really add that much power to the Terrans. I think the Raven is probably the best thing the Terrans gained.

What solution to the Terrans would I propose? Simple. Make the current units more awesome. Buffing their stats isn’t a good idea—adding cool abilities is much better. And definitely include a good ground-to-air unit.

So, what about Zerg? They gained enough new abilities to be interesting, but not as much as the Protoss. The new role of the Queen is very appealing, as are the concepts of the Baneling, Roach, Corruptor, and Nydus Worm. These are the units that evoked a feeling of awe upon first sight. Not as awesome as the Protoss new capabilities, but enough to make it significantly improved from the Zerg in the original SC.

I’m really looking forward to the map editor. There is a major point I must make here: The SC2 map editor will be able to do anything. Really? Yes. Again I was appalled when SC players and map makers posted numerous questions asking whether the SC2 editor will have certain features; Blizzard just said yes, yes, yes. In one of their FAQs, they had the question along the lines of, “Will the editor be able to—,” with the answer, “Yes.” The reason the questions were appalling was because nearly every single feature requested was already in the WC3 map editor, released five years prior to the announcement of SC2. Most SC map makers who haven’t touched a better editor will think the SC editor is extremely powerful (and it is), but the WC3 editor makes the SC editor look like an abandoned baby. The WC3 editor can already do anything. True, it’s clumsy in some areas, but its functionality is unsurpassed in the field. And SC2 is just going to be a better version of the WC3 editor—it will do anything, and even more.

Doubters of the game need not worry; StarCraft II will work. Blizzard has again created a masterpiece.

Edit: After further beta testing, I wrote an addendum to this post, mostly about Terran.

Edit 2: As of beta patch 9, the map editor is out! Here’s my blurb on the StarCraft II Map Editor.

Warcraft III Map Making

As you may or may not know, I am a freelance map maker on Warcraft III, a game by Blizzard Entertainment, and not to be confused with World of Warcraft, another Blizzard game which, despite the similarities in name and story, are quite separate from each other in terms of gameplay and customization. Warcraft III (WC3)’s map editor is one of the most powerful of any video game, even though the game is eight years old. It pretty much allows an author to code anything (and Starcraft II’s editor is supposed to be much better still). Well, I suppose I’m not a freelance editor anymore—for the most part, I work collaboratively on a map called BattleShips Pro (currently v1.199).

The video above is of a special mode called Capfest. Basically, you may only use the Crusader (a type of ship) and may only win by capsizing, or “capping,” your opponent a number of times without being capped back. The next video is of a more standard game, with a variety of ships and weapons being used.

Warcraft III map making is no different from normal software development. A developer has to add content according to the needs of clients, fix bugs, preferably before clients find out about them as well as on demand, and of course, change content that needs to be changed. The last factor is especially important in a video game. Because of the way our brains work, and how many gamers are generally arrogant, players who lose a game will blame not themselves, but something about the game, especially if they know that whoever made the game is listening. That way, the player is still a better player; it’s just that the game was imbalanced, and he was put at an unfair disadvantage. Etc.

This is extremely annoying sometimes. In fact, very often. It didn’t happen so much with BattleShips, as there is relatively not as much content to balance. However, it did happen for Smota, a map that has tons and tons of content, and also a map where the skill difference between a new and veteran player is extreme. For this reason, a new player who chooses say hero A will fight a veteran with hero B, and lose horribly. He will think, “Oh my gosh, A sucks! B is so imbalanced.” The next game, the new player will choose B, but lose to a more experienced player controlling C. The next game he plays C, but loses to D, or even worse, to A or B. Frustrated, he randomly tries Q, but loses to Z. By the end, the player will be convinced that Smota is just a terribly imbalanced game. (The following video of Smota was not made by me.)

I don’t really know why I posted this; I guess this blog was just missing a critical element of what I do.

Concerning Football and Competitive Behavior

Last evening, the Texas–Alabama football game evoked impassioned feelings everywhere, especially from the city of Austin. I could see the excitement building everywhere. I would not consider myself a football fanatic, but I must admit that this game was intense. All year I watched like two college football games, and this was one of them. It showed just how people could become so competitive-minded, and yet, at the same time, still show exemplary sportsmanship. I use this as the springboard for today’s topic—competitive behavior.

What sparked this inquiry was Jooyeon’s blog post (on Tumblr) yesterday, before the game started, asking why there was so much hype:

I don’t know about anyone else, but I’m like dying from school right now. I just can’t get myself to focus or motivate myself to do well. And it makes me really wonder how I survived last year when I had so many other things on my plate. I think I might crash right after I finish this post.

Anyways, so tonight is the National Championship game, and my Facebook newsfeed is gonna be flooded with statuses about the game. Man, that’s gonna be annoying. I really don’t give a crap about football. People are making such a big deal about this, like it’s gonna be the end of their lives if UT doesn’t win tonight. And it’s kind of ridiculous. There are good citizens on both sides but people are treating this like war. You know, if I happened to be living in Alabama right now, it’d be the exact same case except with Alabama. And people also hurt each other in football. They hurt each other big time. Why would you cheer and cry out of happiness when you have just witnessed someone physically hurting someone else? I know “it’s fun” and all, but I guess the spirit of football has never really soaked into me. I’m aware that I am sort of being a hypocrite right now, because I’ve cried about many things other people wouldn’t give a crap about. So I guess it’s all about perspective. I apologize for my lack of spirit, but for me it looks like tonight’s just going to be another normal school night.

I agree—I’m not a huge supporter of football either. I watched the game because it was something out of the ordinary for me. It also might have been the last major Texas football game I ever watch while in Austin. I enjoyed it. But afterwards, I thought about your post, and realized that what underlies the hype is not the little details, but the big picture.

If we view the game as a bunch of large men running into each other and one of them holding a football, we won’t get very far. But that’s what football is! So why is it so popular, so fanatical, so compelling? The answer, I found, concerns competitive behavior.

Football is full of it. In fact, the hype for just about any competitive game, from football, to StarCraft, to chess, though varying in degree from game to game, rests upon the nature of human behavior.

But this behavior among humans (i.e. competitive behavior) was not originally for winning games amongst themselves; rather, it was for survival amongst nature’s hostilities. Because of this relationship with the surrounding environment, competition among early humans was not competition for the sake of competition, but rather, competition for the sake of life. So we weren’t consciously competitive—our intentions were just to live—but our actions gave the appearance of competition. In other words, in evolution, competition was an emergent property, and not a phenomenon in itself.

Humans changed that. Sure, we initially fought for our survival. But in early agricultural societies that created sufficiencies and surpluses, we began competing for other items besides food. Any survey of ancient civilization will tell you that. Times changed. By the Egyptian era, we had developed not only an appetite for tangible materials, but also knowledge. Fast forward again, and you have the Greeks, who greatly developed mathematics, history, philosophy, and politics.

Leap ahead, and we loom in the shadows of the Dark Ages. Competitions among religions were extreme. The Islamic expansions and the Christian Crusades demonstrated the use of war not as an instrument of survival, but as an instrument to spread divine beliefs. These were competitions of ideologies.

Jump again, this time to the Renaissance. Machiavelli is the prime point of investigation here. “The ends justify the means.” That changed the world. It might not be so true right now, as for a modern leader seeking power, almost each one of these “means” is closely followed and made public, but nonetheless, Machiavelli was the acknowledgment that competition was the ultimate war.

Today we find boundless examples of competition. Games (as aforementioned) are competitions. Politics is virtually a competition. The business world is an enormous competition. School, in many places (ahem), is a competition. Football games seem mild in comparison. Sure, they attract hundreds of thousands of fans, but the impacts of their results are undoubtedly nowhere near as relevant as those in politics or business.

Football is, of course, more entertaining than other competitions. It is a symbol of the human experience, for there are many lessons to be learned from it—yesterday’s game especially. The maxim of the game: Don’t give up. After losing Colt McCoy, and subsequently being 18 points down after the first half, Texas and its fans had every reason in the world to make excuses, blame Garrett Gilbert, or a combination of the two. The players must have been at a huge morale loss—they were against the number one ranked team, and they lost their star quarterback. What could they do? They could have given up, but instead, they fought as hard as they could, and nearly managed to bring back the game. They showed everyone that even if they lost, they lost it in style.

That is the essence of the big-picture perspective. In detail, football consists people running around on a giant field, but of course, there is much more it than that. In it, the highly-praised values of teamwork, dedication, sportsmanship are always there. It gives a sense of identity. It generates the feeling of community. It creates awe. For me, I don’t watch football very often, but I did learn something last night: The spirit of competition is greater than the competition itself.