Sunday, August 1, 2010

Starcraft 2 in review

This is my extensive review of Starcraft 2. I've been waiting for this game for about 12 years and now that the wait is over, I have to say that it's been mostly worth it. Mostly. For convenience sake I've divided this review into four parts: Single Player, Multiplayer, important game changes, and the new Battle.Net. The reason behind this will hopefully become apparent.

Single Player
In the single player, the player assumes the role of the rebel leader Jim Raynor who is fighting the corrupt Dominion regime of his one-time partner Arcturus Mengsk, as well as two alien races - a radical religious faction of the Protoss, and the Zerg led by Raynor's ex-lover Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades. Along the way, Raynor makes new friends and enemies, acquires new (and old) weapons and units, and uncovers secrets that propel the Starcraft setting forward. The campaign structure is nothing like the linear plotline of the original Starcraft, instead letting you do missions in nearly whichever order you prefer. The format is somewhat reminiscent of Dawn of War 2, Dune 2000, or Dawn of War expansions. In the end you have to complete every mission regardless of the order you do them in, but because different missions unlock different units and upgrades, the order in which you do the missions actually make some of the missions play out very differently. There are also three instances where you have to pick between two missions, and completing one then makes the other one (and its unlocks) unavailable - this helps the campaign's replay value somewhat.

Overall I am very happy with the variety of missions, even though you only play as the Terran faction (and three Protoss missions). Blizzard has clearly looked at how the RTS genre has progressed over the last decade, and learned its lesson. There are still some fairly straightforward missions (destroy enemy base, defend your base), but there are many more puzzle missions that make inventive use of terrain and special units to tell a compelling story. I particularly liked missions with special objectives, such as taking out trains, protecting civilian convoys, hijacking monstrous mechs, infiltraing a high-security prison, etc. What Starcraft 2's campaign does particularly well is to tell the story, provide character growth, and explore the setting within the missions rather than just through cinematics and in-between interactions (the way most RTSs do it). During the campaign you get access to the new units, all of the old Starcraft units (firebat, vulture, goliath, wraith, medic, science vessel) and new special units that do not appear in multiplayer, such as the Diamondback tank. In addition, you can hire mercenaries - stronger versions of regular units that have limited squad size.

In between missions you can talk to other characters, explore your battleship Hyperion, conduct research, hire mercenaries, and watch cinematics (some are done using in-game engine and still manage to look on part with some of the latest RTSs like Dawn of War 2, while others are the usual stellar Blizzard pre-rendered cinematics). There are also many neat little details, like trophies you bring back from missions, news channel, jukebox (with some classics like Sweet Home Alabama, and some hilarious new 'hits' like "Protoss, Zerg, and a shotgun"). Overall the ship and its denizens are wonderfully detailed and really bring the setting to love. I was very happy with the quality of the writing and the plot. There were a number of cliches in the plot, and some rather clumsy foreshadowing; however, when compared to the quality of single-player in most RTSs Starcraft 2 really manages to stand out. There were a number of genuinly emotional moments, a couple of stirring speaches, some stellar action scenes, and interesting twists. The single player campaign is like a big budget action movie with a better-than-average plot. I also really have to give a thumb up to the voice actors and skin artists, for in-game cutscenes the characters demonstrate impressive range of emotions, though some people have problems with the style of animations (that is slightly cartoon-y). The pre-rendered cinematics for which Blizzard is famous for do not suffer from this effect however.

This part of the review is based mostly on my beta experiences, but there have been relatively few changes between beta and finished version in regards to multi-player. Once again, there are three races: Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg, and you have but one goal - kill the enemy while staying alive yourself. You have to juggle base building, economy (harvesting two kinds of resources), building and upgrading units, and of course managing your units in combat. Thankfully there are no Warcraft 3-style heroes that muddy up the strategy part of an RTS. The core mechanic of the game is unchanged: there are many viable strategies, but each one has some sort of a counter (and a counter to that, and so on). That means that most games are decided when one of the players makes a mistake. Scouting out the enemy is just as essential as ever, because it lets you see what kind of strategy the enemy is going for, and thus prepare an appropriate counter. Micro-management skills are just as essential as they were in original Starcraft, so people who have grown used to more modern RTSs (like Dawn of War, World in Conflict, End War, etc.) may be put off by this style of gameplay. Sadly, Blizzard took no note of advances in terrain-building and integration of meaningful cover that have been done in the last 10 years, so the terrain is only important in the early game, before air units have been built.

Let's talk a bit about the three factions and how they play in Starcraft 2. Terrans are still presented as the 'balanced' faction, with a mix of cheap and expensive, weak and powerful, units. The terrans retain the ability to pick up and fly their buildings around, and now they also have access to more mobile defenses since the traditional terran bunkers can now be salvaged (to get their resource cost back). In addition, one of the new terran units - the Raven - can place automatic turrets that can help protect secondary bases and workers. Overall the new units that terrans get are a mix of boring and interesting. The Viking that can transform (Robotech style) between flying and ground mode is excellent, while Thor (which replaced the old anti-air mech Goliath) is very lukewarm - I'd rather have the old faster and cheaper Goliath back. The new Medivac - that combines the healing ability of medic and transport ability of the old Dropship - is excellent, but sadly only appears in the late game, thereby robbing terrans of their old marine rush strategy (it is now replaced by MMM - marines+Marauders+medivacs - strategy, which nonetheless comes later than other factions' rush strategies). In addition, the Terrans now have two universal add-ons and can freely switch buildings between the built add-ons. In the hands of a player with good micro-management (micro for short) skills, the terrans can quickly juggle between upgrading their units, or pumping out huge numbers of units. Finally, another major new addition to Terran box of toys is the improved Command Centre. It can still conduct scanner sweeps (revealing the fog of war), but now it can also call down a special super-resource gatherer that really gives Terrans a boost to production, and it can also upgrade supply depots (so that the terrans don't need to build as many). Speaking of supply depots, the terran players can now lower them into the ground, allowing their units to walk over them, thereby making the terran "wall of depots" strategy to be even more effective.

The protoss have changed quite a lot since old Starcraft. Their core shtick - powerful and expensive units - has not changed, but now they have added mobility and teleportation options. For starters the Protoss can now warp their ground units directly onto the battlefield (so long as it is within radius of their pylon building). This allows a protoss player to quickly reinforce in the middle of battle, and create devious ambushes and back-strikes. In fact the old Protoss transport is instead replaced by a unit that allows protoss to build other units at its location - if these are not shot down, the Protoss can pump out a huge army right on your doorstep. In addition the Protoss can use their Nexus to briefly double the rate at which their units or upgrades are being built - it requires a lot of micro-management, but essential to a protoss player. Overall I'm very happy with the new units that the Protoss get - more so than Terrans. The new Stalker replaces the old Dragoon, and has short range-teleportation powers (to bypass cliffs, or to escape enemy fire). The huge colossus (think the Martian Tripod from War of the Worlds) replaces the old lumbering Reaver, and does terrible area damage. The Void Ray has already been dubbed 'the N00b Ray' by the community and is probably the most unbalanced unit in the game. The new Mothership that replaces the Arbiter is a super-powerful and expensive ship (and you can only have one of them on the field at any time) cloaks friendly units and buildings (including your ally's), can suck enemy units into a vortex, and does huge damange. The worst two things about the new Protoss that I would have to pick on are: a) the lack of shield batteries that made Protoss static defense possible in Starcraft 1, and b) the new Phoenix anti-air flyer which is very inadequate in its role.

The Zerg probably came out the worst in Starcraft 2. Their core mechanic is unchanged - all their units are produced from larvae (produced in hatchery), and all their buildings must be built on their creep. The zerg still rely (in theory) on overwhelming numbers and ambush tactics, but in actual gameplay the Zerg - while able to pull off the ambush part - lack the overwhelming numbers they could have in the first Starcraft. The Zerg get the new Queen unit that is absolutely essential because it can produce bonus larvae (thereby obliviating the old Zergs' reliance on multiple hatcheries), it can also heal Zerg buildings, but it is also needed to lay down creep (in first Starcraft the creep expanded automatically). The Queen is so essential to Zerg economy and defense that if the enemy takes out the Queen early, it can spell doom for the remainder of the game. The new Zerg units tend to be lacklustre. The Roach - a short-range acid-spitting ground unit that can move undetected underground - is too expensive post-beta to be an effective rush unit, even though it's one of the cooler new units. The Infestor (that replaces to an extent the old Defiler) is interesting, but its abilities either consume too much energy, or do too little (like the ability to spawn Infested Terrans). The need to upgrader Overlords to Overseers (in order for them to act as detectors) is baffling, as it leaves the Zerg wide open to cloaked assaults. Probably one of the best things to happen to the Zerg are: a) the ability to pick up their spine and spore crawlers (their automatic defense structures) and move them around, and b) the new Nydus Worm that allows a Zerg player to create a tunnel to anywhere on the map where there is creep - that means that Zerg can pull off the best back-strikes or reinforce base when under attack. Overall, however, the Zerg lack the better end-game options that Terrans and Protoss have, as their end-game units are just the old Tarrasque and the new Corruptor (powerful anti-air unit). The new version of the Guardian (which used to be the best long-range artillery unit in the game) is so laughable in SC2 that most players do not bother with it at all. I am just not impressed with Zerg in SC2 at all.

Is multiplayer balanced? Overall I would have to say that Protoss and Terran are balanced against each other, while the Zerg suffer from a number of holes in their counters. Zerg can still pull off the dreaded zergling rush or the mutalisk rush, but it would seem for now that they lack some of the more interesting options of the other races, and their lack of long-ranged options is particularly crippling. Furthermore with the new ability to destroy the Zerg creep, less need for multiple hatcheries, and increased reliance on the Queen, it is easier to cripple the Zerg that it was in the original Starcraft.

Perhaps one of the best things about the new multiplayer in Starcraft is the new matching system. There are basically multiple ladders: 1v1, 2v2, 2v2, 4v4, and once you complete five placement matches you're placed in one of the proficiency categories: bronze, silver, gold, diamond. I have to say that the placement and matching system really works well, since I get 50/50 wins/losses most of the time and that's a sign that I'm in the right bracket. I'll talk more about the new and multiplayer features in its own section.

Important Game Changes
Okay, this part of the review will likely be tedious to anyone who has not played original Starcraft or any RTSs in general. Let's talk about the biggest change to the gameplay - the ability to have unlimited group size. Rather than being limited to 12 units in a hot-key group, you can now have as many as you want in a group. Some players are claiming that this makes micro-skills less important and makes the game more 'n00b' friendly. Some professional players on the other hand instead argue that this actually makes micro more important and interesting than before. In addition to this, you can now select multiple buildings and hot key them all! So you can now select all your barracks (or whatever else) with one button and queue up units in all of them simulteneously. It levels the playing field somewhat, but probably benefits Terrans and Protoss more than Zerg, since Zerg still only ever need to select one building (the hatchery) to build units. Speaking for myself I love not being limited to squads of dozen, and it also allows for more fun massive battles and I can now select a hundred units with one lasso and throw them all into battle. Using tab key becomes essential for cycling between different unit abilities within one group, so micro skills are still as important as ever.

The other big change is that you can now see the ranges of detection buildings and units, as well as the ranges of units such as Siege Tanks. Why is this important? Because it eliminates the need for either guesswork or obsessive 'square' counting of Starcraft 1. I'm not sure how I feel about this change, but it seems that most people like it.

One minor but important change is that on all multi-player maps the base spots come with two Vespene gas refineries instead of just one. That means that players can now rush to more powerful late-game units faster and pump out air units more efficiently. I personally do not like this change since this makes the game even more about the all-powerful air units than the first Starcraft. Furthermore, the static defenses in Starcraft 2 are worse than in the first game, and this often leads to the games boiling down to who can rush air units first, as air rushes are more difficult to stop. This especially benefits Protoss with their basic Void Ray air unit, and Zerg with their versatile Mutalisk flyers.

The other two parts of multiplayer that I want to briefly touch upon are Cooperative vs. AI games and Custom Games. The former is very easy to set up and you can choose from five difficulty levels - Insane is exactly how it sounds, but Hard and Very Hard difficulties are just right. Custom Games are an awesome option and people are already coming out with some pretty sweet maps and new game modes thanks to the outstanding map creator. However, lack of chat (more on that in a bit) makes setting up Custom Games a bit of a pain.
Alright, I saved this for the last because this is the part of Starcraft 2 that I have the most problems with. First off, there is no longer any multiplayer options for connect-to-IP games or LAN games. You have to connect to to play multiplayer, even if you want to play with your buddy who's sitting beside you. To do this is simply inexcusable! Some of my fondest high school memories are of all-night long Starcraft LAN parties (does this date me? :P ), and now that's out of the question. Blizzard has stated that despite loud player demands there will not be any LAN or connect-to-IP options, ostensibly to: a) battle piracy, b) deliver the full Starcraft experience, c) link the accounts for various Blizzard games together. I call shenanigans on this, as I don't give a crap about either a, b, or c. Furthermore, Blizzard partnered up with Facebook and links account to Facebook. Sorry, but I don't want to spam my facebook account with my Starcraft 2 achievement updates, or get spammed with other people's Starcraft 2 achievement updates! Furthermore, there are already reports of security concerns and breaches where people were able to hijack facebook accounts through SC2 and vice-versa. In the final analysis the inclusion of Facebook in is entirely superfluous and annoying.

There there is the baffling lack of any sort of general chat or ability to create private channels. Basically you can only talk to those people who are on your friend list. If you want to have a conference chat you have to form a 'party' from your friend list and you're only limited to four people per party! How guilds (which used to be a huge part of Starcraft 1) are supposed to form and coordinate is beyond me. Moreover, the lack of any sort of non-friend chat means that coordinating setting up a custom game is next to impossible. There is an integrated voice chat that works pretty well, but once again you can only voice chat with people on your friend list or with people on your team, and only if they've enabled voice chat. On the one hand I'm grateful as this prevents idiot 8-year olds from spamming obscenities and other idiot things.

Then there is the problem with adding friends to your list. If you know their Facebook account name, their email, or their name, then adding them is a breeze. But let's say you just played a match with someone and you would like to add them to your friend list? Sorry, you get one shot at this, and if you forget to do it and haven't written down their name then you're S.O.L.! This is kind of annoying.

The new features the ability to view a replay of your match. This is one of the better aspects of the new The replays are very slick, can be sped up, you can view complete map or watch from perspective one of the players. The only problem with the replay option is that you can fast-forward, but not rewind - it's a little annoying. Oh, I guess the other problem now that I think about it is the lack of ability to slow down to 1/4 of regular speed, 1/16, etc., so you can examine your opponent's actions in detail.

Finally, thanks to X-Box-introduced achievements, Starcraft 2 has extensive - yep, you guessed it - achievements! These range from simple "You won 10 matches as Protoss" to more complicated "kill 100 enemy units with one unit", etc. Some achievements give you tangible bonuses like new portraits or decals, but most of these take a long time to unlock. Personally I do not give a crap about achievements in any game, and the inclusion of achievements in Starcraft 2 is utterly superfluous to me.

Final Thoughts:
Starcraft 2 is an extremely polished game. Its single player is one of the best single-player games I've ever played. The story and characters are compelling, engaging, and amusing. The plot, though somewhat cliched, is still fun and interesting enough that I found myself wondering what's going to happen next. The cutscenes - both in-game and pre-rendered - are excellent and voice-acting talent is superb. The multiplayer aspect is just as fast and furious as ever and accomodates both quick 15 minute casual games as well as all-night-long gaming marathons. There are some balance issues, and not all races got equally interesting upgrades and new units, but I'm sure that Blizzard will be working on game balance issues as they're well known to do in the original Starcraft. My biggest problem with the gameplay is that it is essentially still the original Starcraft, though with some changes, new units, better graphics, and more interesting terrain. It is a faithfully classic RTS experience, but one that ignores some of the excellent advances in modern RTSs: cover, better AI pathing and AI-use abilities, squad tactics, and unit synergies. Coupled with some rather annoying and baffling changes to and multiplayer lobbies and accounts I would recommend Starcraft 2 either only as a single-player experience (which in my opinion is well worth the 60 dollars), or to a fan of original Starcraft and 1990s RTSs.