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.

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