Friday 30 July, 2010 20:26
So, STARCRAFT II, huh? Would you believe it’s great?
The last time I waited for a sequel that took forever to materialise, it was Dario Argento’s MOTHER OF TEARS, a film which bore little resemblance to its predecessors, SUSPIRIA and INFERNO and, despite not being wholly without merit, was something of a disappointment. STARCRAFT II’s twelve-year gestation period is small fry compared to MOTHER OF TEARS’ twenty-seven, but in the world of computer games, where yearly sequels are all too common (Electronic Arts, I’m lookin’ at you), over a decade is practically unheard of. The original STARCRAFT is justifiably regarded as one of the best of its class, if not THE best, and it’s basically the unofficial national sport of South Korea, so developer Blizzard Entertainment obviously had a lot riding on it. If they screwed it up, I doubt they’d ever have heard the end of it.
Not that that was ever seriously going to happen. Blizzard is a developer with the luxury of being able to spend almost infinite time and resources on its games, and in the past has been more than willing to pull the plug on a title completely rather than release a subpar product (see WARCRAFT ADVENTURES and STARCRAFT: GHOST). In that regard I liken them to the Pixar of the computer games business (which presumably makes their bedfellows at Activision the equivalent of DreamWorks). STARCRAFT II has taken this long to arrive primarily because of the developer’s commitment to quality: with so much riding on it, there was no way they were going to release anything short of perfection.
And what perfection it is! In terms of overall presentation, I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much polish in a game before. Every single element - from the intricate, stage by stage construction of the Terran’s mechanical structures to the rivets on the intricately designed main menu screen - looks like hundreds of man hours went into its making. Even if the underlying gameplay mechanics weren’t so thoroughly awesome, the game would at least deserve some sort of award for its surface gloss. This truly represents big budget game development at its very best.
I’ve already discussed the core game mechanics at length in my earlier posts on the beta, so I won’t delve into them too much today. Instead, I want to talk about the elements that weren’t included in the beta - namely the single player campaign and of course the obligatory Collector’s Edition. I ordered the US version of the latter, although given the game’s current region-locked status (a sticking point that has been promised to be remedied within the next few months) and my desire to get the thing up and running on Day 1, I ended up also ordering the EU digital download version direct from Blizzard’s online store (they were all sold out of analogue downloads, unfortunately ;)).
Contents: behind the scenes DVD, soundtrack CD, hardcover art book, STARCRAFT comic issue #0, exclusive avatars and in-game skin for the “Thor” unit, exclusive WORLD OF WARCRAFT pet, the original STARCRAFT and BROOD WAR expansion on a dog-tag style USB stick… and, of course, the game itself. Personally, I think that’s a heck of a lot of material for £70, although if none of that takes your fancy, there’s also the standard game for around half the price.
So, on to the game. Once I’d activated my copy (which basically means tying the provided game key to your Battle.net account), my first step was to dive straight into the single player campaign. STARCRAFT II is very much a game of two halves, and while the multiplayer component was thoroughly tested and reported on over the course of the online beta, considerably less information was available about the campaign, which wasn’t available for testing. Blizzard were on the receiving end of no small amount of flak when they announced, a couple of years ago, that rather than continue with the regular STARCRAFT format of including around ten missions for each race for a total of 30, they would be splitting STARCRAFT II into three instalments, with the first focusing exclusively on the Terrans and the two expansion sets (currently in the pipeline) dealing with the Zerg and Protoss respectively. A lot of people cried “rip-off”, claiming that Blizzard was charging people three times for a single game. Not so. Having completed the single player campaign over the course of a couple of day-long marathon sessions, I never felt like I’d been sold an incomplete product. WINGS OF LIBERTY is undoubtedly a fully-featured stand-alone game, and I don’t doubt that the next two chapters will simply slot in in much the same manner as BROOD WAR did for the original STARCRAFT. All three races are fully playable in both the single and multiplayer skirmish modes, while restricting the focus to a single faction for the campaign allows for a far more coherent story to be told. (The Protoss, incidentally, do get a look-in in the form of a four-mission mini-story within the main Terran campaign.)
The hero of the campaign is one Jim Raynor, freedom fighter, outlaw and alcoholic. Raynor appeared extensively in the first STACRAFT, albeit in the form of a tiny 40x40 pixels talking head, and it’s nice to see him again, even if his appearance has changed dramatically. On that note, it’s a very good thing indeed that common sense ultimately prevailed and the original voice actor, Robert Clotworthy, was rehired. It lends the character a sense of continuity not present in his visual depiction. I’ve come across some degree of criticism of both the character and the manner in which he is written, most notably at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, where the cut-scenes, dialogue and characters are described as “bloody awful”, but personally I’m not convinced. Raynor is admittedly an archetype, packaging virtually every sci-fi and western cliché known to man into one character, but in my opinion that’s simply how Blizzard approaches its storytelling, and anyone claiming their previous games to have offered anything different is guilty of looking at them through rose-tinted glasses. STARCRAFT II’s narrative and characterisation aren’t exactly subtle, but they get the point across, and the voice acting and animation are, on the whole, pretty damn good for a computer game. True, put them beside MASS EFFECT 2 and they begin to look a little clunky, but that’s hardly a fair comparison since MASS EFFECT 2 pretty much represents the pinnacle of animated acting in a video game. STARCRAFT II’s numerous in-game FMVs (referred to by Blizzard as “cinematics”, a word which sets my teeth on edge almost as much as “animations”) are nicely staged, lit and acted, and go a long way towards bridging the massive gulf between Blizzard’s infamous near-photo-realistic pre-rendered FMVs and the deliberately colourful, exaggerated nature of the in-game, top-down graphics.
Storytelling may be Bioware’s forte, but Blizzard have come a long way since the basic “scrolling text with narration” delivery of the first two WARCRAFT games and indeed the “talking heads” mission briefings of the original STARCRAFT. Through the in-game FMVs and the point-and-click adventure stylings of the inter-mission segments, set aboard Raynor’s battleship, the Hyperion, they convey a world rich with elaborate detail and allow the players to get as much or as little out of the story as they want. Those who want to explore every nook and cranny and click till the sun comes up, while those who just want to get on with the next mission are equally well-served. Of course, taking your time and examining every possible avenue provides a much richer experience than simply barrelling through the missions and skipping all the dialogue, but each to their own. Still, it’s clear that the campaign is designed provide a vastly different experience to the multiplayer component - one in which the player is rewarded for taking his or her time and becoming immersed in the game world rather than cranking out units and steamrolling the opposition as quickly as possible. It ultimately pays off, and even if the characters remain broad archetypes rather than fully-fledged, believable individuals, and I was able to invest in the key characters of Raynor and Kerrigan to the extent that the ending (which I’m not going to give away here) manages to be genuinely emotionally affecting in a way that I don’t recall any of Blizzard’s previous games being.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Hyperion segments, however, is the possibilities it affords players to customise their army and the technology at their disposal. By collecting Protoss and Zerg artefacts in the missions, the player adds points to two separate upgrade paths, each of which provides an either/or choice of which technology to purchase every five points. For instance, after obtaining 15 points in Zerg technology, you can choose to either unlock the Predator, an anti-infantry unit, or the Hercules, a massive transport unit. Credits earned by completing missions, meanwhile, allow you to outfit your units with a variety of upgrades. You won’t earn enough credits to unlock every single upgrade during the course of a single game, however, so some difficult decisions have to be made. Credits can also be used to hire various mercenary groups - more powerful versions of regular units who can be called down instantaneously 2-3 times per mission. Finally, on three separate occasions the player is provided with a choice between two different missions, the results of which directly affect your future progress (i.e. by providing you with access to one piece of technology rather than another, or ensuring that you face a different line-up of enemies in a subsequent mission). The ramifications of these choices are far from world-changing, but they do a good job of adding a bit of variety, and I found myself wishing more use had been made of this feature.
Ultimately, though, all this detail is merely in service to the gameplay, which doesn’t disappoint. In recent years, Blizzard have placed a far greater emphasis on technology than they did in the past (when DIABLO II was released in 2000, its 640x480 2D graphics were seen as positively archaic), but they haven’t done so at the expense of what really matters: whether or not it’s fun to play. And it’s been well worth the wait.
PS: It’s also worth pointing out that, although an internet connection is required to activate the game (something I generally don’t approve of), this is a one-off and it is completely feasible for solo players who don’t have a persistent internet connection to play the game’s offline mode (called “guest mode”). This of course denies you access to any form of multiplayer mode given Blizzard’s decision to remove LAN support (boo, hiss). It also means that you won’t be able to earn achievements, but beyond being denied the bragging rights of collecting these shiny medals for killing a thousand Zerglings and so on, you still get the fully functional single player experience. Myself, I decided to play online to test the waters (and because I’m slowly becoming addicted to the pursuit of achievements), and I’m happy to report that I haven’t had any problems. Unlike the problematic launches of DIABLO II and WORLD OF WARCRAFT, Blizzard’s server infrastructure this time round seems to have been up to snuff, and I’ve yet to encounter a disconnect. (Either that, or I’ve just been uncharacteristically lucky.) Additionally, if you’re playing a single player mission and your connection drops, you won’t be kicked out of the game à la COMMAND & CONQUER 4 or ASSASSIN’S CREED 2. You can continue to play, with your progress being saved to your hard drive and resynced with your online profile the next time you connect.