Thursday, 31 May 2012

Starcraft II - Wings of Liberty

Blizzard is easily one of the most well-known companies in the game industry. However, they don't actually produce all that many games, with a total of only four releases in the last decade, spread over Blizzard's three active franchises: Warcraft III and World of Warcraft for the warcraft franchise, Starcraft II for the starcraft franchise and, released just this month, Diablo III for the diablo franchise. We've already talked quite a bit about the warcraft franchise, but today I wanted to look at a different franchise: Starcraft. More specifically, I wanted to take a look at starcraft II. But first, an introduction for those not familiar with starcraft.

After the smashing success of warcraft II in 1995, Blizzard wanted to make a quick buck by quickly churning out another RTS. Within five months, the game was in the final stages of design, and blizzard presented it at E3 1996. This is what they came up with:

If you have ever played Warcraft II, you should instantly spot the problem with this game: it's a blatant rehash. They don't even try to hide it. I can't even say that it has improved graphics (if anything, it looks worse). Needless to say, the fans were not amused, and jokes about 'orcs in space' became a fairly common phenomenon amongst the gaming crowd.

Luckily, blizzard decided to step up their game and make starcraft more distinct, upgrading the old warcraft II engine to allow for new unit abilities, as well as giving the game three distinct races, rather than the carbon-copied orcs and humans from warcraft II. First of the races is the Terrans, a group of humans whose ancestors were exiled from earth during a communist revolution and whose greatest strength lies in tactics. Second are the zerg, a swarm of constantly evolving monstrosities, whose primary advantage lies in their great numbers. Third are the protoss, an ancient empire of psychic aliens who have great strength and psychic capabilities, but small numbers.

And thus, a gaming classic was born. With highly balanced and compelling gameplay, as well as great music, a fantastic backstory and high-quality cinematics, starcraft became a massive hit, popular up to this very day. I'm also still a very big fan, despite the fact that the game is incredibly dated at this point. For me, it is mostly becaouse of the incredibly epic story of starcraft, which has awesome civilisations, a great backstory, high stakes and interesting characters.

That said, starcraft isn't exactly perfect. A big limitation is the fact that you can only select 12 units at once, which, with armies of up to 400, can get very annoying (especially considering the poor pathing often requires you to give multiple movement commands to the same group of units). The story itself isn't perfect either. Most of the actual missions are very generic, a couple of important turning points happen off-screen with no explanation given in-game. Still, the story is epic and helped make the game as much of a success as it became.

And because of that success, a sequel went into production. Starcraft: Ghost was planned to be a shooter game following the adventures of Nova, a powerful Terran psychic assassin. The game was in production for a few years, and there were apparently even some demos, but it was never finished due to quality concerns. Instead, the starcraft universe received a metric ton of novels. Some of the books were meant as simple explorations of the universe, a few others filled in holes in the story from the original game, but most of the books were meant to set up a sequel: Starcraft II.

Starcraft 2 – Wings of Liberty
Wings of Liberty was designed to be the first story in a three-part epic, focusing on the Terrans, while the two planned expansions will serve to tell the story of the zerg and protoss. Wings of Liberty is the story of James Raynor, one of the main characters from the previous game, now organising a group of rebels to overthrow the Dominion, an oppressive government that rose to power in the first game.

Let's start with a positive: starcraft 2's campaign is mechanically nearly perfect. The missions are varied and interesting. There is a wide array of units and tactics that can be used in each mission. The different difficulties are very well-executed. Allowing the player to upgrade units and hire mercenaries using credits adds actually makes it worthwhile to play the optional missions, even if you're not that interested in the story. The upgrades and research options themselves are also very well-designed, each giving interesting new tactical options, rather than just some boring passive bonuses. So yeah, as a game, starcraft 2 is freaking awesome. But how does it hold up as a story?

Let's start with some of the game mechanics. The whole research and development thing I mentioned simply doesn't fit into the story of the game at all. Raynor is a rebel, with only a single ship under his command. His science team consists of a single person, who is implied to not be very good at his job. Yet, somehow, this guy is able to devise countless new technologies, mastering short-range teleportation, zerg mind control and a deluge of other advancements. The technologies themselves don't make a lot of sense either. The science vessel was a unit from starcraft 1, built simply as a scientific research ship. So why do I need to study zerg DNA to discover how to make it? And, despite the fact that you are supposed to have developed these things yourself, you can also see enemy terrans making use of the exact same upgrades. Sure, you can just ignore these things storywise as just being a game mechanic, but why should I have to? This problem is so damn easy to fix. Rather than recovering zerg specimens and protoss relics and making discoveries based off of that, why not find Confederate and Kel-Morian (two other factions of Terran) research files and pierce together their research? It would make it believable that it can be done by a small team, it would explain why you and the terran dominion (who have taken over the old confederate research facilities and are allied with the Kel-Morian combine) are using the same technology and, since most missions already include human outposts or former human outposts, would be easy to integrate. You'd have to shuffle around the research trees a bit, but that's all. Is this a very minor complaint? Yes. But I'm building up to something.

Now, we let's take a look at a few missions. One of the first mission arcs involves the colony of Agria, who you have to help evacuate due to a large zerg invasion. In the next mission, it turns out the colonists have been infested by the zerg, and the infestation has been spreading. However, the infested are sensitive to the local sunlight, so can only emerge at night, giving us a nice zombie survival mission. However, in the original starcraft, as well as in the books, infestation wasn't actually contagious. A few missions later, Ariel Hanson is able to invent a cure for the infestation in Jim Raynor's laboratory. This cure is apparently highly effective, and able to cure people on a massive scale. And yet, we never see it again after this mission. The entire campaign of starcraft 2 revolves around assembling an ancient artifact that is capable of de-infesting people, and even this super-powerful artifact isn't capable of fully curing someone. But why would you need that if you already have a far more effective cure at your disposal? Both problems could have been spotted with only a few seconds of thought, and fixed by simply stating that this is a different kind of infestation (a change which would require only two or three changed lines of dialogue).

In 'the great train robbery', Raynor hears of the dominion finding something valuable in the ruins of Tarsonis. He is planning to rob the supply trains to obtain this valuable item. The mission mechanic here is that you need to destroy eight enemy trains, and not letting more than three trains escape. From a gameplay perspective, this is fun and exciting. From a story perspective, it doesn't really make a lot of sense. Again, the solution is fairly simple. Have Raynor not hear of one particular valuable item, but just that the dominion is excavating an old military base on Tarsonis for materiel. The discovery of the valuable item could just be a surprise. With only a few changed lines of dialogue, you have again made the story make a bit more sense.

Now we look at a big one: The Tal'darim. These are a fanatical group of protoss that pop up in several missions as enemies. They were actually introduced in the expanded universe, in a series of books called the 'dark templar saga' (which I higly recommend to starcraft fans). The problem with them? They're never given ANY explanation in-game. Because of this, Raynor looks pretty damn evil for constantly invading their planets and stealing their religious artefacts in order to make a quick buck. Hell, from the dialogue, it becomes pretty clear that Raynor honestly doesn't know a damn thing about the Tal'darim, which makes any of his actions against them morally disgusting. Again, the fix is a fairly simple one. In a couple of missions, you're following the legendary protoss dark templar Zeratul, an old ally of Raynor. Since the Tal'darim absolutely hate the dark templar, you could have had Zeratul encounter a group of them, which would give both the players and Raynor some exposition about them, as well as justifying his actions against the Tal'darim.

Speaking of the Tal'darim hating the dark templars, have you ever looked at their unit selection? Yeah, that's right, they use dark templar units. True, they're not actually utilizing the dark templars themselves, but they are using dark templar technology, like the stalker and the void ray. Unlike the above example, this isn't really a big deal, but, again, easily fixable. During a portion of the beta, the void ray was actually a high templar unit called the warp ray. Since that model and the slightly different mechanics were finished, you could very easily replace the void ray. The other dark templar unit, the stalker, is a bit harder. However, its role as a ranged unit can be filled by a few other protoss units, so you could just leave it out entirely. Alternatively, you could edit the model of the immortal in order to recreate the dragoon, a unit which filled the stalker role back in starcraft 1.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Almost every single mission in the game contains head-scratching moments that could easily be fixed, if only a second more thought had been given to it. They spent months refining the gameplay of the multiplayer game, but obviously didn't spend nearly as much time refining the story of the campaign. However, this doesn't mean the story is bad per se. It's just not nearly as good as it could have been

However, that isn't my only major gripe with starcraft II. The other one is with the dialogue. Every single sentence in the game is a cliché. While I usually don't mind a few stupid, stereotypical lines in my games, this games goes so far over the top that it almost becomes a parody, despite the story actually being fairly serious.

So what's my final view on starcraft II's campaign? Well, I really enjoyed the gameplay. The overall story was decent, if a bit bland. However, the details do take me completely out of the game. So is it good? Yes. Is it as good as the first one? Not even close. So, for the final score, the game gets a 7/10. When next we meet one another, we will return to the roots of this blog and take another look at the warcraft RPG.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Warcraft - World of Warcraft - part 2

I was originally planning to do a review of the F.E.A.R. series, but then I realised that my review was a poorly written mess, so that's going to have to wait. Instead, lets take another look at world of warcraft. Last time I said that the story of world of warcraft often felt disconnected from warcraft III. We're going to explore that a little more today.

Now, before I start, let me make one thing clear: I do genuinely enjoy world of warcraft and its universe. I'm going to be nitpicking a lot, because, overall, world of warcraft does act as a legitimate sequel to warcraft III. But a lot of the smaller stuff got lost in the transition, and this has happened so much that I do feel like many interesting story aspects have been lost. But we have dallied for too long already. Let's start.

The eight races
The story of world of warcraft practically revolves around the eight playable races. There are a few minor stories outside of it, but they get the big ones. I already covered each race for a bit in the main review, but we're going to go into much greater depth here. I'm going to go with the order presented in the character creation screen.

Human: As is standard in almost any fantasy story, we start with the humans. Traditionally, humans were divided into seven kingdoms: Alterac, Dalaran, Gilneas, Kul Tiras, Lordaeron, Stormwind and Stromgarde. During warcraft III, the city of Theramore also emerged as an entity of its own. While all the kingdoms were originally part of the kingdom of Arathor, they have had hundreds of years to develop on their own, developing complicated histories, conflicting interests and different views on the world.
Well, its all completely irrelevant in the game. I'm not kidding here. With the exception of a few quests (most of which are horde-only), humanity could just as well consist solely of the kingdom of Stormwind. I honestly don't get why they chose Stormwind to be the centre-piece of humanity either, as it hasn't really done anything since warcraft II and often feels like the most generic kingdom. I don't get why they didn't use Kul Tiras instead. It's involved in the story of the last few games, it makes sense for it to be the most powerful remaining human nation in the alliance and it would allow Jaina Proudmoore to be the leader of the alliance, making it a smooth transition from warcraft III and more believable for the night elves to join the alliance.

Dwarf: Dwarves in modern fiction need a bit of a gimmick, as the old Scottish miner/blacksmith has gotten way overused. In the case of world of warcraft, the dwarves have three gimmicks.
The first is that, like in dungeons and dragons, the dwarves are split between three subraces. The bronzebeard dwarves are the mountain dwarves, living inside an ancient city built around a massive forge. They are one of the most loyal members of the alliance and are the dwarves that the player can play as. The wildhammer dwarves are the hill dwarves, living at the top of Aerie Peak, where they have bonded with the spirits of the land. While they aren't actually members of the alliance any more, they do assist during times of war, riding mighty gryphons into battle. The dark iron dwarves are the dark dwarves, living in a distant volcano as servants of Ragnaros, the firelord. They are enemies of pretty much everyone, but they are currently wrapped up in a conflict with the remains of the old horde and their black dragon tyrants. Unlike with the humans, the distinction between the different kingdoms of dwarf actually do have an impact on the story, and will continue to do so in future expansions.
The second gimmick is that the bronzebeard dwarves are technologically rather advanced, with the gun as their trademark weapon. While they aren't as big on technology as either the gnomes or goblins, the dwarves' technology is much more reliable.
The third and final gimmick is that the dwarves are archaeologists, something which originated from the RPG. Luckily, the writers of world of warcraft actually thought for ten seconds and decided that archaeology is not, in fact, a religion. However, I do still have a bit of a problem with the execution of their idea, as it makes it really hard to sympathise with the dwarves. Even though a careless opening of their very first discovery, Uldaman, led to the death of most of the gnomish race, the dwarves still rush headlong into any discovery without thinking of consequences. When the dwarves discovered that Alterac Valley, where they wanted to excavate, was inhabited by the frostwolf clan, who reacted violently to what they thought was an attempted invasion, they ordered the stormpike clan to kill every single man, woman and child of the frostwolf clan and take the valley as the rightful property of Ironforge. All the way over in Kalimdor, the dwarves have all but declared war on the Tauren, killing most of the Stonespire Clan and invading Mulgore because of rumours of titan artifacts. And all of this would have been perfectly normal and fitting into the setting if the dwarves had better reasons than archaeology. However, this aspect does improve a lot over the next few expansions, though that's a story for another time.

Night elves
The night elves, in Warcraft III, were split between two groups. The first were the sentinels, a group of proud, savage warrior women fighting in the name of Elune, the moon goddess. The second were the druids, wise night elves who commanded nature itself and slept for the past 10000 years. While there were civilian night elves, the only group we actually saw were burning corpses at the time, so we had no idea what they were like.
In world of warcraft, the night elves are a lot less savage and proud. Nor are they really warriors any more. In fact, the Druidic part of their society seems to have nearly completely taken over night elf lore. Part of this was the (in my opinion) incredibly stupid decision to move the night elf capital to a Druidic tree, and have druids take over the old capital. If the druids grew the giant tree, why aren't they the ones living in it?
In warcraft III, the night elves employed various creatures of the forest as allies. In world of warcraft, they still do, but to a far lesser degree. Ancients of wonders and trees of life aren't included in the game at all, despite the tree being at the centre of any warcraft III night elf base. Chimeras, Mountain Giants and fey dragons are included the game, but they don't in any way act as allies of the night elves. Hippogryphs are included as allies, but they don't seem sentient any more. Green dragons and storm crows, while not seen as allies in warcraft III, were also described as allies of the night elves in other sources, yet they don't appear alongside them at all.
Of the eight original races, the night elves have probably gotten the shortest end of the stick. And I'm really not sure why. The night elves of warcraft III were mysterious warrior women with powerful magic. The night elves of World of warcraft are pretty much just tree-huggers. A big part of the problem is the existence of the Cenarion Circle. Anything related to druidism, which lies at the heart of night elf society, is now told through them, rather than through the night elves. The only real purpose of the night elves in World of Warcraft is to fight the orcs in Ashenvale, which is a big waste of an interesting race.

The butt of every warcraft joke. Gnomes are small humanoids with a penchant for engineering. During warcraft II, they were part of the alliance providing them with powerful technology. While they weren't included in Warcraft III, world of warcraft explained they were busy fighting their own underground war. After the dwarves unleashed the troggs from uldaman, they spread over the continent, including the underground home of the gnomes. In a desperate struggle to defend themselves, the gnomes opened radiation valves, but the radiation went out of control, killing most of the gnomish populace and turning many of the others into the zombie-like leper gnomes. Currently, they're living with the dwarves, trying to figure out a way to retake their home.
Between warcraft II and World of Warcraft, gnomish technology has improved significantly, to the point it getting kind of setting-breaking. They still got their old aircraft, as well as nice robotic strider mounts and mini-tanks, which are kind of cool. However, they also clearly have advanced AI, nuclear power, simple computers, death-rays and all sorts of other fun stuff. From the technology we see them use, gnomes should be ruling most of the world at this point. It's also really weird that they keep playing up gnomes and goblins as technological rivals. The goblins have zeppelins and simple missiles. The gnomes have nuclear power and armies of robotic servants.
I do still like the gnomes though. I just wish their level of technology was closer to that of warcraft II, rather than what they have in world of warcraft. AI and simple computers I can forgive, as there is plenty of magic that can easily do that sort of stuff. However, nuclear power is where I draw the line. If they know how to use nuclear power, why don't they simply nuke icecrown citadel? I'm not exactly a nuclear physicist, but isn't it relatively easy to make a nuclear bomb when you figured out reactor technology? Why not have the gnomes use something weaker and steampunkish, like, I don't know, an “arcanite-enhanced phlogiston pressure core”?

The orcs of the new horde are centered around Thrall, a young orc, raised by humans, educated in the ways of the horde by both the frostwolf clan and the warsong clan. In turn, the new horde draws inspiration from both the frostwolf and the warsong clan. The frostwolf clan is shamanistic, wanting to live in peace with the spirits of the land. The warsong clan consists of warriors, wanting to eliminate any threat.
At least, that's how it was in Warcraft III. In world of warcraft, things get a little weird. The frostwolf clan has suddenly left the horde, returning to lordaeron. I'm really confused by this, as Thrall is officially the chieftain of the frostwolf clan, and he still acts as the leader of the horde. The reason given for this is that the frostwolf clan wanted to avoid the growing hostilities between the horde and the alliance. But in Alterac Valley, the frostwolf clan apparently attacked the Stormpike Dwarves on sight.
The game also reveals that the frostwolf and warsong clans weren't the only ones to remain free after the second war. Three of the most powerful clans of the old horde, the blackrock clan, the dragonmaw clan and the Black Tooth Grin clan, have retaken blackrock spire under the command of the mighty black dragon Nefarian, carrying on the savage legacy of the horde. This causes a bit of a lore problem however. If these clans were still active, how come the warsong clan never joined them in their twenty years of struggle against Stormwind?
I also find it a bit of a shame that the other clans don't really have any identity in the new horde. Most of the shattered hand and bleeding hollow clans seem to be part of the new horde, yet we never even learn the identity of their chieftains. For that matter, we never exactly learn which clans are in the new horde.
The final issue is that a number of orc clans have suddenly stopped being orc clans. There is really no other way to describe it. The twilight's hammer clan from warcraft II is now called the twilight's hammer cult and is serving the old gods. Despite being an orc/ogre clan in warcraft II, most of the membership now seems to consist of other races. It's really odd, considering the twilight's hammer clan plays a significant role in world of warcraft, yet we never even learn what the hell happened to them. The burning blade clan has also underwent a weird metamorphosis. In warcraft II, they were a cult of absolutely insane warmongers who lived for the moment and only cared about destruction. In world of warcraft, they are a secretive cult of demon worshippers biding their time. It's really jarring to see these clans change so much with no given explanation.

During the events of warcraft III, the magic controlling the undead scourge weakened for a bit, allowing several of their servants to break free. Among these was Sylvanas, former ranger-general of silvermoon, who led these undead in rebellion against her former masters.
Between warcraft III and world of warcraft, Sylvanas has somehow joined/allied with the horde (I'm still kind of confused about that). She has also come into conflict with the remaining humans of Lordaeron, who have asked the zealots of the scarlet crusade for protection.
As far as the quests go, I think the forsaken probably get the most interesting ones. They actually deal with the various kingdoms of humanity, as well as suggesting a world bigger than the one incorporated into World of Warcraft, with a few references to secret chambers beneath Undercity. They also get the most plot development, securing Tirisfal Glades for themselves, developing a powerful plague and securing several powerful allies, as well as a few hints that they are harvesting a rare material called bloodstone from an old god, something which would also link them with the syndicate. With the notable exception of the plague, nothing ever really comes of it in the expansions, though I'm still hoping.
That doesn't mean the undead story is without its problems though. As I said, I still find the alliance between the forsaken and the horde a bit weird, especially considering they never really seem to do anything with it. There is also a distinct lack of non-standard undead, like skeletons, ghouls and especially banshees (considering Sylvanas is named the banshee queen). In Warcraft III, the forsaken frequently used banshees to possess their enemies and make them slaves, but we never see this in World of Warcraft, and most of the slaves have vanished into thin air. The only group that still appears is a group of ogres who have explicitly broken free through a magical artifact, so the possession thing wasn't retconned. So what happened to all the other mind-slaves?

There really isn't much to say about the tauren. They are a nomadic race, strongly inspired by the stereotypical image of the great plains native americans, without falling into any of the typical pitfalls of that stereotype. They are not militarist, but will still defend themselves and their lands if the time comes. They like living close to nature, but they aren't judgemental of those that don't. They are close to animals, but still hunt in order to survive.
Of all the races, the tauren are closest to their portrayal in warcraft III. However, they don't really get any interesting stories in World of Warcraft. It's probably because their culture is so close to that of the orcs, but there are still plenty of story opportunities that weren't used, like the ancient conflict between the tauren and the centaur.

Trolls can differ radically from fantasy story to fantasy story. Sometimes, they're ape-like hulking monstrities. Sometimes, they're three-headed giants. But even amongst the diverse trolls of fantasy, the warcraft trolls stand out. They are long and tusked, speaking with jamaican accents, practicing voodoo and grooving out.
The player trolls are of the darkspear tribe, a group of jungle trolls that sought to settle outside of the traditional jungle troll home of Stranglethorn Vale, moving to an island in the south seas. It was hard living, with hostile murlocs and humans inhabiting the island as well, and their numbers slowly diminished over time. When Thrall's fleet stranded during a storm, he saved them from a naga sea witch and allowed them to join his fleet to escape the sinking island.
And that's where my issues starts. How do the darkspear trolls have a large enough population to be a major faction? The remaining darkspear trolls had to fit on Thrall's fleet (which consisted of only a few ships), so there can't have been more than a few hundred of them. Since then, they have been shipwrecked, they have fought during the entirety of the third war, they have been attacked by Daelin Proudmoore's fleet and they have lost half their remaining numbers to to mad witch doctor Zalazane. And yet the trolls appear rather widely spread, with several villages and a presence in all major horde operations. And it's not like this problem would be hard to fix either; Just say that there were other darkspear villages than the one on the sinking isle, and that they too travelled to Kalimdor when chieftain Vol'jin told them of the safe haven of the echo isles.

With dozens upon dozens of tiny plot holes and nonsensical changes, world of warcraft is a significant step down from Warcraft III. However, while it isn't nearly as good, it isn't half bad either. The universe still has an interesting backstory with a unique feel and interesting characters. In a future installment, we will see how this develops, when we take a look the Burning Crusade. To fully grasp the story, we will also need to start taking looks at the various novels, starting with the war of the ancients trilogy. The warcraft RPG also received a second edition after the release of world of warcraft, and I'd like to take a look at that. But first, we will take a look at another blizzard franchise: Starcraft.