Monday, February 14, 2011

Starcraft 2 Unleashed!

Starcraft 2 comes out today and God have mercy on our souls. The game is arguably the most ubiquitous and longest lasting since, well, chess. Competitive Starcraft has become something close to the national sport of South Korea and has endured for ten years past its release. It’s quite popular over here in the West, as well, and is poised to become even more popular with Starcraft 2’s improved graphics and state-of-the-art multiplayer experience. VGChartz’s sales projections are about two million units in the first week, so it’s likely that Starcraft will be sticking around for another ten years, at least.

I was able to sample Starcraft 2 during the open beta and I have to say I’m impressed with the thoughtful multiplayer presentation and balanced gameplay. I’m not very good at Starcraft, so it was discouraging to play the original and have an expert with a new account (most likely created to stomp noobs) come in and rush me before I could even decide what I wanted to build. Now, though, you play a series of placement matches of various difficulty and you’re assigned to a league appropriate to your skill. It was so nice to be able to have some casual fun in the bronze league while the experts in the platinum league had their serious duels of skill and talent. If you win too many games, you’ll get upgraded to the next league more appropriate for your growing ability. Best of all, it’s only one account per copy of Starcraft, so no one can create a fake account for the purpose of torturing the less skilled (a practice known, hilariously, as smurfing).

The game itself is a nice balance of old and new. There are no earth shattering changes from the original. You still have Terran, Zerg, or Protoss gathering minerals and Vespene gas to turn into death dealing units. The units are still designed with strength and weaknesses in the classic RTS rock-paper-scissors design. The design is clearer, this time around though, with each unit’s focus clearly spelled out in the tutorials and generally more streamlined for fun and exciting battles. Just as an example, they’ve combined the Terran transport unit and the medic unit to create a medivac, a flying guardian that sweeps soldiers in quickly and then sticks around to heal them during the battle. If things aren’t going well, you can pick up your remaining dudes and heal them as you make an escape. It’s a great innovation and a smart expression of the Terran’s role as masters of utility and defense. All that said, I doubt I’m going to pick up the game any time soon, a month of the Beta before it all got old for me.

I didn’t get to play the single player campaign but, after looking through the previews, it looks worthwhile. A sprawling tale told through lush cinematics, in=game moments, and, most surprisingly, between-mission point and click adventure style encounters a la Myst. Blizzard has a reputation for going the extra mile, so no doubt they’ll have some value, but without having played it I couldn’t tell you how much is hype and how much is real. Also, the story of Starcraft tends to run a little on the generic side, so I wouldn’t go running to your Gamestop without a love for balanced RTS gameplay.

The most interesting thing, to me, is that Blizzard is breaking the game into three parts. The core Starcraft II game, Wings of Liberty, focuses on the Terran chapter of the single player campaign and allows for the full multiplayer experience. Each successive expansion features a campaign from another alien races and adds units and features to the multiplayer game. I think this (and the online store that will sell premium maps, mods, and who knows what else) is a brilliant and diabolical ploy from Blizzard that will make them so much money that they’ll move Blizzard HQ into a pyramid made of gold on Manhattan Island. The multiplayer experience is the most successful and enduring element of the game and each of the expansions will be a requirement if you want to stay abreast of the scene. Yet, due to the single player element, they’ll be able to charge more for each expansion as it is more akin to an independent game rather than a traditional expansion pack. It’s true that the original’s Brood War expansion had an single player campaign but the difference is in the extra mile they ran to provide the cinematics and the in-between mission moments. I have no doubt the Wings of Liberty campaign will end in a dramatic cliffhanger that demands you shell out an extra ten or twenty bucks more than you would have for a gussied up expansion.

My purchase will depend on seeing how the first player campaign feels. If it’s as grand and compelling as the hype, It might be worth it but I think I’d prefer to indulge in the inevitable Starcraft 2 collection at a reduced price so I can experience the story without feeling I’m paying extra for multiplayer that has already grown boring. Still, it cannot be argued, it’s a big day whenever a new Blizzard product is released.

Still unaddressed: at what point do you actually start crafting stars? Giant plot hole.

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