Thursday 8 April, 2010 23:11
I think it’s fairly safe to say that Blizzard Entertainment’s STARCRAFT II is THE real time strategy game release of the year, if not the decade. It had better be, because we’ve waited more than twelve years for it.
Just under a month ago, the latest and purportedly final instalment in Electronic Arts’ rival COMMAND & CONQUER series, COMMAND & CONQUER 4: TIBERIAN TWILIGHT, emerged as a damp squib rather than the glorious climax to the Tiberium storyline that many had hoped for, with the cost frequently voiced criticisms being excessive DRM and gameplay that deviated so far from the previous titles as to render it unrecognisable as a C&C game (I participated briefly in the open beta test and wasn’t particularly impressed by what I saw). I doubt that even the most ambitious bean-counters at EA ever seriously considered going head to head with Blizzard’s juggernaut, but it’s hard not to suspect that releasing the retain version of TIBERIAN TWILIGHT at around the same time as STARCRAFT II’s beta test was a seriously bad idea. After all, while beta keys have been given out in strictly limited quantities, the whole Internet seems to be abuzz with STARCRAFT II mania. Those who haven’t received keys have been watching YouTube videos, reading commentary on gaming web sites and forums, and generally just gnashing their teeth at the thought of the lucky bastards who managed to get their hands on an invite. I should know - I was one of them. When I received the extremely pleasant surprise that was an email invite in my inbox this morning, part of me couldn’t help feeling as if I already knew the game inside out.
Part of that is down to the sheer level of online chatter surrounding this game. Before even loading up the game, I already knew every unit, every counter… hell, I even knew the layout to every map. However, it’s also because STARCRAFT II is very, VERY familiar. In terms of its design, this is easily the most conservative RTS I’ve seen in a long time, eschewing many of the features that have now become mainstays of the genre - squad formations, terrain advantages, etc. - and instead delivering what feels a lot like 1998’s STARCRAFT with a new graphics engine, new units and a few interface tweaks. That’s got to be a bad thing, right?
Are you kidding? STARCRAFT was arguably the greatest RTS ever created, refined to the point of perfection and still played religiously to this day… particularly in South Korea, where it’s more or less the national sport, despite never having been officially released there. There’s nothing wrong with a conservative approach to game design provided it’s done well and the underlying concept is solid: to use a fairly predictable example, you don’t hear many people calling chess outdated and demanding that it be spiced up with a bunch of newfangled gimmicks. STARCRAFT may not have been around for as long as chess, but as far as computer games are concerned, it’s probably the closest thing you’ll get in terms of its longevity. I’ve seen some people accusing Blizzard of taking the easy route with STARCRAFT II in adhering so closely to its predecessor’s template, but I’m inclined to think they’re missing the point. By foregoing all the distracting bells and whistles of modern RTSes in favour of what is ultimately a minor update to a rule-set that was already well established when its predecessor came out, Blizzard have left themselves with no option but to get it right. If it doesn’t re-capture the pitch perfect synthesis of the original game, it has nothing to fall back on. And here’s the thing: after spending most of the day playing it, I’m inclined to think they’ve gone and done it (again).
“Familiar but different” is how I’d describe STARCRAFT II. From the moment you’re plonked down on the battlefield, with your top-down view of your Command Center/Hatchery/Nexus and SCVs/Drones/Probes, you immediately feel right at home. Sure, the new 3D graphics engine looks a lot shinier than the old 640x480, 256-colour visuals of the original, and ordering your units around has a noticeably slicker, smoother feel, but it’s basically the STARCRAFT you know and love. The interface that occupies the bottom portion of the screen is virtually identical to its predecessor, and while a number of the hotkeys have changed, you can basically get up and running immediately. If you’ve played STARCRAFT (or any of the WARCRAFT RTSes), there should be no learning curve at all in terms of the basic mechanics. Harvest minerals and gas, create buildings, pump out units, mash enemy. Rinse and repeat. Blizzard’s mantra, which they’ve repeated so many times I’m almost sick of hearing it, is “easy to learn, hard to master”, and that sums up STARCRAFT II to a T - something I quickly learned as, over the course of the day, I proceeded to have seven shades knocked out of me by players considerably more skilled than myself.
Arguably more so than the original, STARCRAFT II is absolutely merciless when it comes to unit counters. The “rock-paper-scissors” framework has been present in pretty much every RTS since the beginning of time, but going by the twenty or so matches I played today (a handful against the ridiculously easy computer AI, but the vast majority against actual people) it is especially pronounced here. Immortals defeat Roaches defeat Zealots defeat Marauders defeat Stalkers defeat Reapers defeat Zealots defeat Immortals, and so on and so forth. (The game includes a handy help screen which specifically outlines what each unit is strongest against.) Bringing the right units into battle is, as far as I can see, has far more impact than what you do with them once the fight kicks off, immediately differentiating this from the more micro-intensive WARCRAFT III, Blizzard’s previous RTS. That said, I don’t want to give the impression that micro is irrelevant: it can certainly turn the tide in what would otherwise be a stalemate, and it goes without saying that, even if you successfully counter all your enemy’s units, simply throwing your forces at him/her and putting your feet up is almost always a recipe for disaster. Still, though, it’s very much a game of picking the right unit for each situation, and the ability to adapt to each new threat rather than being restricted to a single build/play style is absolutely essential.
As to the issue of race balance, it’s early days at the moment. Just about everyone seems to be playing Protoss, and while I always tend to gravitate towards the most “human” race whenever I play an RTS (Human in WARCRAFT, GDI in COMMAND & CONQUER, Terran in STARCRAFT, etc.), I must admit that, having sampled all three to a more or less equal degree, I had the most fun with the Protoss. I’m not sure whether that’s because they’re currently more powerful than their Terran and Zerg counterparts, or simply because they’re more fun to play, or a little of both (the two often go hand in hand), but something about them just “feels” right to me - which is surprising, as I wasn’t all that crazy about them in the original STARCRAFT. All three races have greatly improved mobility options over the previous game, but the Protoss warp-in mechanic, which allows you to convert your Gateways to Warp Gates and instantly warp new units to any area where you have a building or a Phase Prism, is a lot of fun. There’s something insanely satisfying about sneaking a Phase Prism behind your enemy’s mineral line, then warping in a handful of Zealots and watching them decimate his/her workers in the blink of an eye.
That’s about all for now. Time permitting, I’ll post some more impressions at a later point, but for now I’ll simply conclude by saying that STARCRAFT II seems very promising indeed. I wouldn’t class myself as a hardcore gamer by any stretch, and I’ve not spent nearly enough time with the game yet to be able to make any profound judgements as to its ability to knock its predecessor from its position as the dominant RTS eSport, but so far my overriding impression is that the wait will be well and truly worth it. I certainly can’t picture going back to the original STARCRAFT now, and if that’s not a recommendation, then I don’t know what is.