Is Starcraft II Good? Plus, Star Wars: Special Edition post-traumatic stress disorder
(Note: this post is sort of the second in a series that begins with this one. Read that first to get a full view of where I’m coming from with this, the most anticipated of all computer games to ever feature the heaving embodiment of tentacle rape as its primary villain.)
A friend of mine complained today that Starcraft II is Blizzard’s “first misfire.” He said it is really more like Starcraft 1.5. I agreed, somewhat — enough, at least, to bemoan the game’s $60 price tag. I mean, that is darn close to pants-and-a-half, depending on your retailer.
Still, I think a wider perspective is in order here. Starcraft II has been 12 years coming; it’s sort of the gaming equivalent of The Phantom Menace. The original altered the Korean genome such that one in three babies can Zerg rush from the womb. Basically, the thing is a big enough deal to have been a huge success, sales wise, no matter its quality, very much in the same vein as those rancid Padme flicks George Lucas secreted from the secret anus between folds of his neck beard prequels set in a galaxy far, far away.
But while we’re working with Star Wars franchise metaphors, might we consider: is Starcraft II more like the Star Wars Trilogy: Special Edition? That is, a significantly altered release of the first version rather than an entirely new experience?
Why yes, I think it might be.
Now, Starcraft II is of course its own precious, sovereign entity. But then, so was Return of the Jedi: The Special Edition after George Lucas beefed up the performance of Sy Snootles and the Max Rebo Band at Jabba’s Palace. Because of that sequence, and because of the herd of CG banthas, and the beaked Sarlacc, and whatever, the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi is very much its own, new thing, even though it shares, with the 1983 original, the Battle of Endor, Darth Vader hurling Emperor Palpatine into a reactor core, and C-3PO making AT-AT noises in front of a baby ewok. (Side note: still very upset about the Sy Snootles sequence.)
What I’m trying to say is, after spending a good amount of time (by my standards) with Starcraft II, I don’t think anyone can really deny that its $60 cost does not buy a revolutionary new title, but rather a fresh, if a little boring, single-player campaign, a graphical update, and a genuinely very good Battle.net overhaul. Starcraft II, at the core, is still very beholden to the legacy left by Starcraft 1. On the bright side, though, this means things work out much better than they did for the Star Wars Trilogy.
My initial inclination is to think that Blizzard really couldn’t get away with shaking things up too much. Starcraft is a monolithic force that continues to be worshiped by a seriously devoted fanbase more than a decade after its release. Leaping from Warcraft II to Warcraft III really wasn’t a big deal; no one was really so devoted to Tides of Darkness or Beyond the Dark Portal, to my knowledge. When Warcraft III came out, Blizzard stayed true to the title’s genre roots, but that’s about it. Reign of Chaos was a complete upheaval of a franchise that was rendered all but completely stale by (ah, here it comes) the original Starcraft. It kicked the formula in the balls by introducing not only a diverse set of “hero” characters for the player to command in both single and multiplayer, but two new playable races (not to mention a thorough reworking of the two existing ones). In short, the gameplay was about as different from Warcraft II as it possibly could have been while still remaining familiar to those who had been fans of the series for so long.
This was good. It meant that Blizzard managed a sequel that truly advanced the series, but it also meant that Warcraft III was different enough that someone could, theoretically, want to pick up Warcraft II at a LAN every now and again. It also meant that the original Starcraft, which came out five years beforehand, could remain relevant, as Warcraft III’s smaller-scale gameplay was very much a different beast. For a time, Blizzard achieved an impressive balance with its canon. Warcraft III and Starcraft were both great, competitive, fun titles that were implicitly linked through genre much in the same way that Diablo II and World of Warcraft were.
Then comes Starcraft II. It is very, very similar in design to its predecessor. There are no new races, and really, no new significant elements to the gameplay. Sure, Blizzard added some new units and things like explodable debris on the battlefield, but the way that you play the game is largely unchanged. (Some units remain absent from multiplayer altogether, for instance.) It’s like this: Blizzard added a unit to the Protoss army called the Colossus that essentially sums up the extent of the shaking-it-uppedness to the Starcraft formula. It is really big and impressive for a ground unit (to showcase the shiny new graphics), which means that it can climb up cliffs and walls, and that anti-aircraft weaponry can target it. So, in essence, Blizzard designed two new elements (the ability for a ground unit to climb cliffs, the ability for a ground unit to be targeted by anti-aircraft weapons) so that the Colossus could function… exactly like an old-fashioned air unit.
Besides the side-step nature of the game’s new units, a lot of Starcraft’s problems are still weirdly present in Starcraft II. Your army cannot steer itself to save its life; units get caught on ledges, in foliage, behind your own buildings, which, really, is utterly unforgivable when you consider this shit was a problem in the first Starcraft and they had 12 years to fix it. There’s no way to automatically arrange your army so that, say, your medics remain behind your marines rather than in front of them, covered in acidic Zerg goo. Advanced players probably have no problem achieving the ACTIONS PER MINUTE required to simultaneously run their base and launch a successful attack that entails constant monitoring of their weaker units, but it is incredibly frustrating and dumb that Blizzard couldn’t implement some sort of formation system (or better A.I.) to streamline this stuff a bit for those of us that aren’t robots. (Side note: “actions per minute” is a very real thing. Look at a clip from the documentary The Hax Life to immediately demonstrate why this game is both an impressive and utterly depressing thing at the same time.)
These possibly sound like middling issues, but when we’re talking about the advancement of a franchise, they mean a lot. Addressing these glaringly obvious issues from the first game would probably have been enough to make Starcraft II stand out as a more clear cut success. There are new issues, of course, but they’re certainly more forgivable. On an average computer (the only sort that anyone I’ve talked to about SCII has), the game either looks awful or runs at a pace I might describe as “plodding”; on my shiny new MacBook, I’ve experienced upwards of two minutes worth of load times before missions, which just sucks. Though my video settings are such that the game looks pretty good and runs well, the first several seconds of every match are always laggy on my side, which means that my opponent has, what, 15 seconds or so to get a head start? It’s time that really does mean something in competitive play. But can I really fault Blizzard for not completely optimizing their brand new game for a MacBook? I guess not. It still runs, despite relatively frequent crashes, and I’m sure it looks sexy on a high-end machine. But, you know, I bet a lot of their business is not coming from people with high-end machines. Whatevz.
ANYWAY, I don’t think I’ve answered the question yet: is Starcraft II good? Of course it is “good.” It is not, for my money, more good than Starcraft and its expansion, Brood War, which you can get as a package for $15. Blizzard played it safe with the gameplay, probably so as to not alienate the Starcraft legions, and that’s just how it is. Starcraft II’s campaign adds a whole lot of garbage – unit upgrades! branching paths! – but is ultimately a less compelling experience (so far) than Warcraft III was. (Maybe that’s just because of the immense amount of loading I’m subjected to for the sake of hearing the cookie cutter cast explain and re-explain the slim happenings of the plot.) I mean, I’ll be honest here: I haven’t finished the game, haven’t poured in dozens of hours, but shouldn’t the start be the most compelling part? As I said in my last post, I do not have the patience for my video games to grow into a fun experience like some fucking potted plant. Pac-Man had no exposition, for Christ’s sake.
Here is why you will buy Starcraft II, though, and why it is actually worth buying if you see yourself as someone that will continue to be interested in Blizzard’s products: Battle.net. They really did a good job with that shit, and it’s pretty obvious why. Starcraft II will replace Starcraft as the new standard, just as Diablo III will replace Diablo II, and World of Warcraft will continue to fester and mutate for all time. They will all be linked, so you can track your friends’ statuses and communicate no matter what game they’re playing. There are achievements, points, and rewards that make pretty much everything in Starcraft II worth doing. Competitive multiplayer is now meticulously tracked, and because every individual’s profile is such a repository of information, Battle.net feels like a nerdy sports league, which is good. It’s actually pretty clever what Blizzard did: vastly improve the social aspect of Starcraft to ensure that everyone who has even a remote interest in multiplayer will have to buy the new titles while doing very little to impact the way the game plays.
This, combined with the facelift, would have been a wonderful value if Starcraft II cost, say, $30 or $40 instead of $60. And that seems like a silly thing to say — you wouldn’t judge the artistic achievement of a movie based on how much the theater charged you for a ticket — but there’s really no avoiding the fact that this is a lot of money for a product that, in terms of gameplay, does not really feel like a tremendous improvement on its 12-year-old predecessor. At the same time, Starcraft is one of the best games EVAR and I suppose it was a tall order to top it; at least Blizzard has essentially matched it while improving on the multiplayer infrastructure. From that standpoint, the game is good, and it is worth buying. Will its sequels, already planned and titled (“Heart of the Swarm” and “Legacy of the Void”) be worth buying since we already have all of the new Battle.net stuff, though? I sincerely doubt it unless Blizzard gets the balls to throw something daring in there (or fix the litany of rusty old problems held over from the first Starcraft; then again, doing so in the sequels but not the first Starcraft II release would be infuriating in its own way).
At the end of the day, Starcraft II is what it is: pretty much what everybody expected. Nothing more, nothing less. In a way, you have to marvel at Blizzard’s ability to literally manufacture a classic at this point, but that’s what they’ve done here.
It’s simple, really: is that worth $60 to you?