StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Synopsis: Caught between a corporate notion of intellectual property rights and a moronic fan base, the StarCraft II design team decided that Wings of Liberty would be conceptually identical to the 1998 classic.  To achieve this, the design team jammed all of the old game concepts into a new game engine.  In taking little consideration for the ramifications, the result is the most absurd level of unit lethality in any popular real-time strategy series which does not bear the Command and Conquer name, and the issue is compounded by the absence of the powerful and fun weapons that were present for crowd control in the original game.  The end result is a small-scale strategy game which entirely encourages massed formations at the expense of other tactics, a game that plays much like Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, another Dustin Browder project.  It’s a competent foray into real-time strategy as played between two individuals, but offers little value beyond that format.

This is a re-review of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and its game assets.  For discussion of 2.0, consult The Creation of 2.0 and 2.0: The Antithesis of Consumer Confidence, amongst other resources.

The company goal of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was not to outdo StarCraft: Brood War, but to replace the third-party organizations and third-party rule of law that developed around tournament StarCraft, all made possible by an open interface that allowed one to play the game without the consent of the creator.  In conjunction with the launch of 2.0 (a closed gaming service akin to Xbox Live and likely inspired by the success of World of Warcraft), the purpose of the game was to replace South Korean professional StarCraft with Blizzard’s rule of law.  But in order to do this, the people that had been playing StarCraft for over a decade had to be satisfied with StarCraft II.  Unfortunately, when those players channeled their creative energies into discussion of their “perfect sequel to StarCraft“, they settled on “exact same game as built for pretty graphics updates”.  The players and the suits had the same vision in mind: Change nothing.

So basically, caught between a corporate notion of intellectual property rights and a moronic fan base, the StarCraft II development team was put in the impossible situation of modernizing a mechanically-demanding, small-scale real-time strategy game where you can select a maximum of twelve units at any time.  But when you remove the mechanical restrictions created by the limited interface, StarCraft as a successfully-designed game of lower unit counts, fewer unit types, and intense mechanical input ceases to be interesting.  You no longer have a bang-up hybrid of action and strategy but a shallow strategy game.  And you have two ways of fixing this: One, you can design more interesting unit types with more functional and interesting utility, ending up with something closer to Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos or Armies of Exigo.  And two, you can add more complexity into the strategy side of the game: Higher unit counts, larger maps, more resources, a larger technology tree, all in the pursuit of something closer to Total Annihilation.  Instead, in creating a sequel to StarCraft, the developers improved the interface and little more.  The twelve unit selection cap was increased to 255, you could select more than one building at a time, they improved the pathing, yada yada.  Conceptually, Blizzard Entertainment settled on the same game.

Well, imagine if Yoshniori Ono went to his bosses at Capcom and said, “You know what Street Fighter needs?  Rotation inputs are so 1991.  Let’s do what the Smash series does.  Let’s replace the Street Fighter input commands with single-press inputs.  This way, new players can more easily get into our fighting games.”  The misconception amongst many people is that this would “dumb-down” the series, making it easier to play competently.  No, that’s not why it would be a stupid idea.  It would be stupid because the concepts in Street Fighter—its movement properties, moveset, special attacks, meters, and characters—are all designed for and balanced around rotation (and “charge”) input.  Figuratively speaking, Blizzard Entertainment added single-press inputs into a game which used more complex inputs.  They improved the pathing and interface without any consideration for the variables that existed in the previous game.  In this case, they redesigned all of the lower-level systems (game engine, pathing, user interface) and jammed the old concepts (food cap, resources, pace of game, units, buildings) into it.  That was the designer compromise, and compromises tend to suck.

The end result is a game where army movement is simply too flexible and rapid.  When the the large armies in Wings of Liberty are placed in tight situations, it more often looks like a fluid simulation than aliens, bugs, and humans all fighting to the death on an unknown world.  The result of this ease in movement is the most absurd level of unit lethality in any popular real-time strategy series which does not bear the Command and Conquer name.  Where units once struggled to make their way across the battlefields of Brood War, stumbling and piling up over each other—and providing the foundation for how players could control entire battlefields in a game with such a small supply cap—unit types march in lockstep as they gelatinize for the faster and slower units moving through their ranks.  These issues are even further compounded by the lack of a true high ground advantage, terrain advantages that were already primitive and disinteresting in the predecessor.  This makes it extremely difficult to defend against these rush tactics without heady foresight, foresight which is difficult to acquire with the lack of early scouting options.  All of this leads to a game where rush tactics and “timing pushes” are not only incredibly powerful and the central core of most higher tier play, but are so powerful that swift early aggression almost entirely dominates the team game modes, and are hardly worth a mention nor your time.

So, one would think this calls for new unit designs that absolutely punish the hell out of massed formations.  They don’t.  In-fact, most of the options designed to control large areas have either been eliminated or negated, no doubt to please the scrub players who would have run their army into a defensive perimeter, lost everything, and complained on the Forums that Unit X was way too powerful.  It’s often been repeated that StarCraft is a balanced game because every unit is broken and it’s worth repeating here.  StarCraft II‘s units lack the powerful, defined identity that made them a joy in the original game, the Tanks and the Lurkers and the Reavers that could obliterate superior numbers of smaller massed units.  There is simply too much risk in spreading your army across the map in the ways that were seen in Brood War, because in StarCraft II, the opponent can easily mobilize his army, hit the weakest point in your spread defense, and pull a Sherman’s March right into your base and your production line.  This is a game where the most effective tactic is the “deathball”, the act of creating an optimal two-hundred-supply army and marching it towards what you want to die.  Engagements between deathballs tend to be so decisive that the outcomes quickly fall outside the range of player tactics as damage adds up, and any opportunities for retreat will often result in unsustainable casualties.  They provide a kind of finality that simply does not work in this game model.

StarCraft II is the bold response to the idea that fast action games become universally more fun as they become faster and faster.  Real-time strategy (as played on computers) still has to be designed for the limits of one man, his mouse, and his keyboard. Yes, the Brood War tactical model was built on interface limitation and restriction.  But the simple fact is that there is less room for players to separate themselves from each other in StarCraft II, doing it with less interesting units as used for less interesting tactics, leading to less diverse and interesting factions, all buoyed by generally less interesting sound and art direction, particularly within the spectacle of combat.  (It doesn’t matter how popular World of Warcraft is, the lessons to be learned from its visual concepts don’t have much place here, focus testers be damned.)  And these are not things that will be solved with a series of expansion packs or a long row of game updates.  The issues in StarCraft II are systemic.  And for the game to achieve its true potential, it would have to accomplish something analogous to the way that Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne reinvented Reign of Chaos.  It would have to be a game update or expansion pack that changes the game into something that the StarCraft die-hards would never tolerate, because it would be an assault on the “heart and soul of StarCraft“, or something.

There will be no shortage of video game players (at the time of release, today, and in the future) who will claim that StarCraft II is an identical game to its predecessor.  But in comparing unfavorably to the original game, StarCraft II ends up being very similar to Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2, another high-lethality, high-mobility real-time strategy experience as also made famous by lead designer Dustin Browder.  Both games focus the meat of their tactics into large, mobile, dangerous massed assaults, with players jockeying for that perfect pixel of opportunity.  And while I would consider the Blizzard real-time strategy model conceptually superior to the Westwood model—a series whose earlier titles rarely go beyond a single dominant strategy—Red Alert 2 matches were at least fast, to-the-point, and looked great.  So…much to the chagrin of anyone who has invested several months and years of their life into StarCraft as a vehicle for human competition and a launching point for games as spectator sport, it should speak to volumes that StarCraft II can’t do much to separate itself from a game (Red Alert 2) which has been largely forgotten and is often used as a checkmark for any hatred of the suits at Electronic Arts.

And in case you’re wondering why I haven’t given the single-player campaign much of a thought, my question would be, why bother?  You’re not buying this game for a failed choose-your-own-adventure campaign that retcons the StarCraft mythos to a detriment, turns Jim Raynor into the king of bipolar mood swings, artificially inflates the campaign length through a series of heavily-scripted timed missions, and can be almost entirely solved by finding the broken unit combinations within the excessive roster, all introduced to players for the purpose of novelty rather than tight design.  In-fact, the single-player campaign does such a poor job of worldbuilding that your context for multiplayer, if you’re fortunate, will come entirely from playing the 1998 original.  And if this was a review of Wings of Liberty as given a laser focus to its single-player component, I would be telling you to take your energy and place towards it the more competent campaign modes found in Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness, Homeworld, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion pack The Frozen Throne, Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War, and Armies of Exigo, amongst others.  (Whoops.  I guess I just did.)

All that’s left in Wings of Liberty is an utterly competent foray into real-time strategy’s twitch action roots, one which will appeal entirely to fans of one-on-one competition.  But this is as white bread as asymmetrical real-time strategy gets.  As it stands, StarCraft II is a competent but otherwise unspectacular figurehead for what has otherwise been a fairly dormant genre, and the series’ reputation will overshadow recent, superior games like Men of War: Assault Squad and the Wargame series.  It can merely speak volumes to the state of Blizzard Entertainment as a company that 2010’s men and money are only worth the weakest real-time strategy offering to come out of the company since they kicked off the Warcraft RTS formula back in 1994.  (Which is to give minimal lip service to the entire concept of 2.0, which was so successful that it sent all the people who bought Blizzard RTS games for the third-party content and the sense of community running for League of Legends as quickly as possible.)  So spare me your notions that StarCraft II is a sport, that it’s being played in front of live audiences, that its best players are celebrities in their own world.  So is golf, and just like golf, there’s better games worth playing.