StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void
The Good: Interesting new units. Well scripted RTS missions.
The Bad: Units have limited brainpower on their own. Some pathfinding issues.
The Ugly: Multiplayer remains a stratospheric learning curve. Does anyone have any idea of what is going on with this plot anymore?
I really wanted to hate this game, which may sound like a strange thing for a game reviewer to admit, but allow me to explain. I’ve been playing RTS games probably longer than many of the people reading this have been alive. Ancient Art of War, Dune, Z, Dark Colony, Warlords Battlecry, dozens of others – RTS remains my gaming drug of choice. So it irks me to see my favorite genre co-opted by E-sports which sacrifice the single-player experience on the altar of the multiplayer sporting gods. Consider the advancements that have been made in other single player genres over the years compared to RTS games. Twenty years ago the first Elder Scrolls title was released. Anyone care to make a comparison to Skyrim? XCOM of 1994 vs XCOM today – almost unrecognizably different. StarCraft nearly twenty years old vs. StarCraft today – not all that different. RTS games remain, decades after their conception, very much hemmed in by the same formula. Do a mission – wipe out the enemy, recover some object, defend an area while some clock runs down, maybe with the occasional dungeon crawl mission thrown in for a smidge of variety – watch a cutscene, do it again. The big improvement that actually changed the field of RTS games, the inclusion of a hero unit, occurred over ten years ago. What since then? Nearly nada. And I blame E-sports, and no one is more complicit in hijacking my genre than Blizzard thanks to the phenomenon that is StarCraft.
So, that mini-rant aside, Blizzard continues, as they did with Heart of the Swarm, to mix in little elements, throw a few curveballs into the old mission structures, add some new units, and the result, I’ll admit, almost against my better nature, I enjoyed playing it. The new units (I counted four, though everything on the interwebs tells me there are six, so I just didn’t recognize a couple as new) don’t change my play style significantly. I’ve got my favorite units and I’m sticking with them, but I’m sure there are players who will rejoice in the new strategies offered by these units. More interesting to me is the inclusion of a mothership called the Spear of Amun in the single player game. Over the course of the single player game you get to augment the ship (by completing secondary mission objectives) with all kinds of cool capabilities that you can use during the missions. As a consequence, even if I found a mission itself kind of dull or repetitive, I was still engrossed, trying to accomplish all the secondary objectives to maximize my ship improvements. I’ll add that Blizzard has tried really hard to keep the missions from becoming repetitive with fair results. Distributed resources or resource shortages, shifting primary goals, pop up goals, and other stuff while not exactly turning the RTS mission structure on its ear, at least keeps things interesting.
Running your army remains a highly micromanaged affair because without your help your units are pretty stupid. Ground units that are attacked by an air unit they can’t attack in return, make only half-hearted attempts to flee. Big groups of units trying to cover ground get caught on scenery and each other, and rapidly separate because some units move faster than others – I’ll admit that’s a complaint I’ve had since Ancient Art of War. I’ve tasked workers to build something for me, then checked back later to find that they’ve gotten caught up in some pathing issue and abandoned the task.
Despite the addition of some new multiplayer modes that I’ll describe in a moment, I’m just not StarCraft competitive and not interested in investing the monumental amount of time it would take to become so. I can understand Blizzard’s desire to make multiplayer more accessible to players not StarCraft obsessed, and while I don’t know what it would take to accomplish that, this isn’t it. One of the modes, called Archon, has two players running a single army as a team. I think their hope is that StarCraft professionals will take bad players like me under their wings and make us better. It doesn’t happen. What I think mostly happens (and happened to me) is superior players team together to create superteams, and if I thought getting shellacked by one kid who dreams of playing StarCraft for a living was bad, two people who collectively have spent more time playing StarCraft than I did getting my PhD can elevate that beating to a whole new level. If anything, Archon mode has raised the bar on StarCraft multiplayer even higher. More interesting, at least to players of my skill level, are the co-op missions in which two players join to play missions against the computer. Professional players seem more willing to play alongside me, though I’m not really learning to be a better player – mostly I’m just trying to not suck up the mission too badly. I think beyond all of this, my biggest problem with StarCraft multiplayer is that it is limited to Battle.net. On Steam I’ve got a whole group of friends I’ve made through the huge number of games I play on that platform, but on Battle.net all I’ve got are StarCraft friends (and to a lesser extent Diablo friends), so for the most part I’m playing with (or against) complete strangers. Just another big piece of fruit in the cornucopia of reasons for me not to love or becoming invested in StarCraft multiplayer.
With Wings of Liberty now over five years old, and StarCraft closing on twenty, I’ve completely lost any thread of the overall plotline I might have one day been grasping. Who can follow a story that they think about so infrequently over years and years? What I remember from the original StarCraft was pretty much limited to Jim Raynor losing his girlfriend (Kerrigan, not Nancy, but I can’t remember her name) when she is kidnapped by the Zerg. Wings of Liberty picked that thread up, and I blur WoL and Heart of the Swarm, but I think Kerrigan is rescued after spending some time brainwashed as the Zerg leader named the Queen of Blades. And at the end of the HotS, the Protoss have lost their homeworld. There’s a movie at the beginning of LotV which describes, I’m not even sure what. I mean, clearly it’s trying to give me a summary of the story so far, but the whole thing is such a convoluted mess. Double crosses, and triple crosses, and probably a quadruple cross or two thrown in for good measure. The plotline is a cringe-worthy, overwrought, mega-cheese space opera. But, and to give credit where credit is due, the actors for the most part manage to pull off some of the most absurd dialog ever written admirably.
Blizzard knows their core audience, and it ain’t single player gamers like me. To give Blizzard credit, they stuck with their sprawling behemoth of a space opera long enough to see it through to its conclusion, even if it was one I’d need to read the Wikipedia page to figure out (which is more than I can say for, say, Valve and Half-Life). I fully expect now that they’re done, that they’ll concentrate on the core E-sports audience, the next title perhaps not even having a single player campaign, just skirmish maps and multiplayer. I’m thankful then that indie developers like the guys who made Gray Goo are working to keep and expand the tradition of campaign RTS gaming alive. I’ll wish them luck, and be there with my Kickstarter dollars when they are. But I think as a parting gift, a little wave to the guys like me who were there way back when, Legacy of the Void is OK, better than OK.
Reviewed By: Phil Soletsky
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
This review is based on a digital copy of StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void for the PC provided by Blizzard Entertainment.