The Games Of Christmas’ 10: Day 21

Twenty ONE! Nearly there!
There are always sequels. Always. But there aren’t many sequels in a year that are as significant as this. What could it be? You already know, don’t you?

It’s… Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty!

^____^ gl hf

Jim: I haven’t even played the single-player. That’s what I’ll be doing when RPS closes up shop for the year, three days from now. You might think I would be making Christmas cheer with my family, but no. I will be embarking on a the solitary bombast of the Terrans. And I will love it.

But there’s little chance that I will love it as much as the multiplayer because, in truth, this is why this game was forged in the steam ludo-pits of Castle Blizzard. The code goblins down there really do care about making their mark on the great RTS campaigns of history, so much so that the game is to be spread like luscious golden game honey over the next two years. But what they are best at, where their art and their science sings with precision and relevance, is in the multiplayer. That’s what I have been playing.

It’s telling that one of the smartest pieces of design in Starcraft II is the match-making via Battlenet. It knows what you have been playing, it knows what you have achieved, who you beat, and how easy you found it. The chances of you ending up playing someone whose skill is grossly different to your own are low. It does happen, but not often enough for me to doubt the prowess of whoever it was that put this stuff together. It’s masterful.

Of course it helps that the game itself is like a Kung Fu of micromanagement. It’s one of those learned processes, of course. And the maths of the perfect build orders are frightening. But it allows you to play at your own pace, slowly ramping up the intensity until you are flickering robot of tactical trickery. Pushing yourself upward into the endgames, where you deal the final blow to an opponent, are one of the most satisfying things in competitive gaming.

I ended up playing more RUSE than I did Starcraft 2, but I have little doubt about which was the better versus game. It was this.

Quinns: I thought I had what it takes. I did. When StarCraft 2 came out, I decided I’d put in the hours and get good at it. Why not? Here was a game that I liked, that was polished to an unheard-of degree and that had top-quality stat-tracking and matchmaking. Plus, I could play a side with the ability to squirt its troops directly into an enemy base via an enormous
subterranean worm
. The time was ripe. I was going to learn how to squirt my lads into enemy bases the world over.

For a couple of months, I was a contender. I watched replays like a hawk, learned hotkey combos and spent hours shaving seconds off my build queues. A little kernel of skill was developing inside me, and every successive victory felt like I’d earned it. Then one afternoon Rich McCormick pinged a message at me.

Let me explain- Rich McCormick works for PC Gamer, and back in the StarCraft 2 beta he was the star of this video of Kieron and myself beating PCG at SC2, which I obviously posted on this very site. The afternoon when he sent me a message was months later, and well into the release of StarCraft 2. It was a link to his SC2 profile, showing that he’d reached the Silver league, or something. I noticed something else on his profile, though. Here’s the transcript of our conversation after that.

Rich: sup.
me: Well. I mean. Let’s say they take 15 minutes each, which is a conservative estimate.
Rich: very conservative. very very.
me: You’ve spent some 80 hours playing SC2 since it came out 7 weeks ago. That means you’re averaging 90 minutes every single day. I hope you realise this means I’ll never be playing you, ever.
Rich: unfortunately, I have called you out already. I’ll even take a handicap and do a 2v2 with Tim [editor of PC Gamer UK].
me: For a start, I have no partner. For a second thing, in what universe is it where if a blatantly superior player calls out an amateur the amateur has to take time out of his day to get stomped.
Rich: but ahah! the amateur made his own bed when he posted a video to youtube and then relinked it when his opponent grew into his horrible carapace.
me: You made your own bed when you lost! Tell you what. I can see this is important to you. Therefore, I will not post the video again.

Rich: but I want to wiiiiiiin. and I want to wangle you into plaaaaaying.
me: Ha. Tempted as I am, I’m going to have to return to my busy life of being busy and not playing SC2
/me twiddles thumbs
Rich: won’t one of the RPS chaps back you up? you could have John! he’d be…some…help?
moral support?
me: I’ll give you moral support in a minute

And that was that. The whole conversation left me crushed, but this crushing took its time. It was like my will to train had been placed in some kind of slow-motion trash compactor. Rich had unintentionally shown me that in 100 hours time I’d be in exactly the same position I was now, only with some different numbers on my player profile. More importantly, he’d also proved that I wasn’t a contender. I was just playing.

I suppose what I was interested in, really, was the mystique surrounding high-level StarCraft play. It’s like Eve Online- I see this intense, inspired community that’s built up around a game, and I read some of their stories, and I want in. In Eve’s case, I’ll read an article about a player who pulled off some twenty thousand dollar heist after six months undercover. For SC2, it was watching commentaries on high-level matches.

But when I play these games I always find that the same sad reality is waiting for me like a pervert in a bush. The truth is, just to /get/ to that level of involvement is going to take more time than I’m willing to give, not to mention all the games I won’t be able to play because I’ll be spending however many hundreds of hours playing this one. It’s just not worth it. Yet the richness of play that I could be experiencing still sucks me in every single time.

I don’t play StarCraft 2 anymore, but I do still love the Zerg. I love that I got so much better at playing them when I adopted a hive mentality of MAXIMUM REPRODUCTION and MINIMUM VALUE OF LIFE. On a simpler level, I love that they’re different, disgusting and make up for weakness with speed, making them the Kieron Gillen of the RTS world.

I should also mention that I don’t regret my time spent training, even if I didn’t get where I wanted it to. It was all worth it for the few half-decent Nydus Worm plays I managed in my last matches before Rich got in touch. The beauty of it- assembling your assault team, scouting the spot for the worm, and then suffering the agonising countdown as your worm takes its time burrowing into place before bursting out of the Earth and spewing out your forces at the touch of your button. This is a wonderful game. It is. And when Heart of the Swarm in 2012, I know I’ll be lured right back in.

Kieron: While I’ll remember it for the short, intense few weeks where Quinns and me were at each others’ throats (him Zerg, me Protoss), I’m one of the members of RPS who did actually persist into the single player game right to its conclusion. And while I’m with Alec in thinking it more than a little bland, it did manage to do a few clever things in removing “choice” from “failure” in its branching area. And in its own little way, it was nifty. It was hyper traditional, but I didn’t play another entirely traditional RTS this year, so making it somewhat fresh. It was a blockbuster RTS in the best way – as in, it did everything you could reasonably ask. Nothing impossible or reaching, but for a reasonable lovely time, it’ll give you it. And, as I argued elsewhere, it’s fascinating how Blizzard’s success fundamentally fossilised the design. It’s the one RTS who really, in its heart of hearts, believes its peer is Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter rather than – say – Call of Duty, Jim’s little WW2 men game or Ruse. And it’s not wrong, and for that, I’m very glad it exists.

Alec: The Blizzard effect is forever an extraordinary thing. This is a developer able to resist the entropy that blights its peers – their subscription-only MMO only grows even as the rest close up or turn hungrily to the unsure future of free to play, their ancient 2D space RTS has an entire nation at its disposal even as one-time rival Command & Conquer is driven into the ground by its publisher… And StarCraft II? A traditional RTS through and through, but instantly a global phenomenon despite every other RTS disappearing into a niche or being forcibly stuffed inside an RPG.

The singleplayer was my main experience of StarCraft II. I despised the narrative and characterisation, couldn’t understand why a company with so much time, money and resource would burn it on such hokiness, but somehow that didn’t really get in the way of feeling like I was having my own, tailored galactic adventure. The silent illusion of choice and the impeccably scripted mission/map design was enough to have me convinced I was carving my own heroic path across a universe in peril. I picked my units, I picked my priorities, I came up with plans I was convinced derived solely from my own wits and derring-do: but all along I was doing exactly what the game knew I was going to do. It knew how to make me feel good, and it offered me all the signposts and all the self-indulgence I needed to achieve that.

While I’d ultimately rather slow-dance with DOW2: Chaos Rising for its mood, tone and fiction, I can’t for one second pretend StarCraft II isn’t the finest art singleplayer RTS design has yet seen. I’d rather read a Wikipedia summary of all 50 years’ worth of Coronation Street episodes than of Starcraft’s backstory, but I’ll be playing Heart of the Swarm on launch day just for the grand toybox it will surely boast.

The multiplayer isn’t for me. I’m just too lazy. It’s exercise, essentially: endless training in the name of self-betterment. I’ve never managed so much as an hour at the gym. I’m just too god-damned lazy. I’m glad it’s there for those who need that thrill, who need to master a game rather than simply beat it. I am glad, even though there’s a few games journalists I’m going to have to unfollow on Twitter because all they ever bloody talk about is arranging and playing SC2 matches. (Though I’m grateful even for that – as other PC journos increasingly spend all their time and enthusiasm playing and writing about only this or WoW, RPS is left free to explore and celebrate the grand variety of PC gaming.)

Thanks to years of experience and billions of words of player feedback, Blizzard have worked out the precise scientific formula for competitive RTS. I’ll eat my cat if anyone manages to outdo ’em. Blizzard’s surely the richest developer in the world. They can’t be beaten. That is absolutely terrifying: so much power in the hands of one company. But hell, let’s reap the rewards.

The pay-off of StarCraft II simultaneously reviving and destroying (for everyone else, at least) the RTS genre is it leaves the floor clear for strategy games that aren’t slavishly chasing the traditional multiplayer audience. Aware that there’s no point in fighting SC2’s sheer polish, the rivals have mostly disappeared, which means those interested in the furtherance of strategy can wade into the smart and inventive likes of Blight of the Immortals. The future of strategy, now unbound from build’n’bash, is incredibly bright.


  1. Jhoosier says:

    “I was going to learn how to squirt my lads into enemy bases the world over.”

    Is that what they’re calling it these days?

    Hey comments system, how are you? I thought I’d write you a note since you seem to think I’m posting too quickly. So. Hi. What’s up? You having a good day? Not me. It’s cold and rainy here. But now I’m going to play some video games. Bye.

    • Rich says:

      You’ve just been rushed.

      Yeah, I’ll get my coat.

    • Chris D says:

      Gah! first time it lets me post today and it’s in the wrong place. Ignore me.

  2. Navagon says:

    Amnesia will be along shortly, right?

    • Rinox says:

      I would hope so! And New Vegas, obviously.

    • Lilliput King says:

      It’ll be Amnesia, Mass Effect 2 and Minecraft, in that order.

    • Fede says:

      Maybe not so shortly. I’d be very happy to see it beat Mass Effect 2. :)

    • Skull says:

      Civ 5 must also make an apperance!

    • Kieron Gillen says:

      The games are in no order (except when they obviously are)!


    • Meat Circus says:

      I really must protest. What kind of chaotic, indolent list arrives in *no particular order*?

      I demand the Hive Mind impose some kind of structure before I take my end-of-year games rundown consumption custom elsewhere.


    • Navagon says:

      I don’t think that Minecraft is very likely seeing as development hasn’t been finished on it yet.

      Plus, they didn’t exactly like New Vegas much…

    • Chris D says:

      Hmm, five nominations, three spots left. I don’t think New Vegas is going to make the cut, and I don’t see Amnesia and Mass Effect 2 not getting a place. Which leaves Minecraft and Civ 5. I’d guess that Minecraft isn’t eligible as it’s only just reached beta although it is possible they found Civ 5 underwhelming. In which case Minecraft gets top place.

      But what do I know? Maybe it’s New Vegas, Mafia 2 and APB.

    • PeopleLikeFrank says:

      A zillion people have been having a blast with Minecraft and it shook up the indie scene. I’d say it’s development status doesn’t really factor in – it was a major feature of 2010 either way.

    • Muzman says:

      The ratings are kind of Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate, Chocolate…etc Christmas!. Which is a decent system.
      I hope that’s it ’cause otherwise Call of Pripyat is Too Damn Far Down -rage,fume,etc-

    • BooleanBob says:

      There’s no way it won’t be Minecraft.

    • Shazbut says:

      Was the Void last year? I’m getting worried

    • Wizlah says:

      The Void was last year, and deemed to weird and disturbing to be a game of christmas.

      Civ V is the only one I can think of that could break that top 3 of amnesia, minecraft and mass effect 2.

      Hell of a top 3 mind.

    • Zenicetus says:

      If they’re doing Civ 5, I hope they’ve had time to play with the latest patch (Dec. 15). The diplomacy and battle AI is still kinda lame, but it’s much better than it was. Since it’s still in a half-cooked state as a game, I’m betting it won’t make the list.

  3. realsch says:

    I really liked the single player for the variety of missions, but the story would have been so much better if it didn’t take itself so serious (though there’s a case to be made for a badly written serious plot over a badly written comedy plot).
    As for multiplayer, I played a fair bit of 2v2s and 3v3s with friends but kinda gave up on it. Despite never playing SC1 or any of the previous RTS like it (I was a CoH guy!) I got into the diamond leagues (1v1) rather easily which made the challenge fizzle out. It’s really good at what it wants to be, but it feels too backwards. It’s the last great huzzah of a genre but I’d rather play a newer style of RTS than be stuck with SCII.

    The best moment would probably be in 2v2 when it seemed like I was battling the other 2 players on my own for ages while my buddy was rather quiet. I was too busy trying to keep our bases safe until suddenly there was a lull in the fighting and we win soon after. Turns out my buddy was building about 20 if not more Ultralisks and unloaded them all at once into their bases for crunchy victory. It’s rather disturbing seeing them all come out of that tiny worm.

    I still occasionally watch HuskyStarcraft for entertainment value.

  4. Donkeyfumbler says:

    “Closes up shop for the year, three days from now”?

    Noooooo – what am I going to do when I want to avoid the wife and kids (and in-laws, parents, etc.)? Don’t tell me I’m going to have some time to finally play all those games that RPS has persuaded me to buy, rather than just scouring the posts for more to add to the bottom of my (very,very long) list?

  5. adonf says:

    Happy winter solstice, o Endless Horace

  6. Skull says:

    I think Starcraft 2 is GotY for me and I havn’t really delved that deep into its multiplayer. I found the single player levels offered something diffrent and each had a unique twist on them which got rid of all notions of repitition. I loved every moment of it, sure the writing was cheesy but it sort of suited the feel of the game. The way it introduced units was also very clever, desinging a level where you could maximise that units potential and therefore get a better feel for it.

    In regards to the multiplayer however, I never got to far into it. I played a few matches, all of which I won and loved every moment of it but now I don’t want to ruin this winning streak I have because I like to fool myself Im good at the game. I think I will try and get more into it over xmas, the multiplayer seems solid and the fact I have enjoyed my time with it is a good sign seeing as I gave up with RTS multiplayer ever since getting crushed repeatedly in Warcraft 3 all those years back.

    Cant wait for Heart of the Swarm, I am more excited about it than Diablo 3!

  7. westyfield says:

    “There are always sequels. Always. But there aren’t many sequels in a year that are as significant as this. What could it be? You already know, don’t you?”
    I was sure this one would be ME2. Curse you RPS, for tricking me!

  8. rocketman71 says:

    Biggest disappointment of the year

    • Xocrates says:

      And still an unquestionable contender to Game of the Year. Just shows how absurdly high expectations were.

  9. drewski says:

    No one man should have all that POWER.

  10. Ian says:

    There’s about as much chance of me sprouting a second penis as there is of me playing Starcraft 2 in multiplayer even if I eventually bought the game cheap for its single player. I’m an enormous cupcake and have no desire to have to remember build orders and click a squillion times a minute and that sort of thing.

    It’s one of those games that tends to make for good reading, though.

    • subedii says:

      You don’t need to play to advance ranks.

      You can just play to have fun.

      Once you get into that mindset, multiplayer games in general stop being as threatening. And SC2 actually does have a pretty solid matchmaking system for matching you up with people around your level.

    • Rhin says:

      I dont’ see how you can play for unlimited length of time if you aren’t aiming to get better though.

      On the other hand, the custom maps are great for less-competitive types.

    • subedii says:

      Oh sure you can seek to get better at the game. The higher skill games are usually more fun. The difference is that you don’t focus on it, and in particular, don’t fall into the trap of trying to become one of the really high tier players. That just takes a ridiculous amount of time, and typically turns online games from fun into work.

      Like with FPS’s, I’m happy with not being “l33t” (do kids still use that term?) as long as I can roughly hold my own against people I’m playing against, and have fun. Trying to aim for ultra high level play, well, that’s for other people.

    • realsch says:

      The multiplayer is pretty forgiving, I think it aims to have you at a 50% win ratio (so if you win more you go up a league, if you lose more you get easier opponents).

    • Vandelay says:

      To be honest, even in the low leagues it feels like people have spent a long time thinking about build orders, watching their own or higher level replays, reading strategies and watching Day9. Now, a lot of those people still aren’t very good and can’t cope if you defend their rushes, proxies or drops, but it still helps a lot if you go into each game with a game plan and have a good understanding of the various moves your opponent may make.

      The difference between the quality of players that were playing after the first couple of months and now really is vast and I rarely play anyone that hasn’t had at least 200 games under their belt. I could imagine people just getting in to the game now struggling quite a bit.

      Having said that, the guidance that is provided is like no other RTS game and it really is much more welcoming for it.

  11. westyfield says:

    Forcing people to register to prevent spam lasted all of three days, then.

  12. Hmm-Hmm. says:

    Less than that, even.

  13. Baka says:

    hey trevor what is that thing u put in my base

  14. pkt-zer0 says:

    But there aren’t many sequels in a year that are as significant as this.

    You could say they’re NOTHING COMPARED TO STARCRAFT.

  15. Trousers says:

    Kieron has an amphetamine problem?

  16. SwiftRanger says:

    While SCII can be fun with friends (at least for a ’97 RTS) and while it offers an enjoyable campaign SupCom 2 obliterates this (and Ruse and Chaos Rising) for sheer skirmish fun. Very, very odd that a PC gaming site like RPS didn’t even touch on that (PCG did though) … yet?

  17. Chunga says:

    Urgh. Can we move on, please? Even the snotlings are getting restless here.

  18. vodkarn says:

    “And SC2 actually does have a pretty solid matchmaking system for matching you up with people around your level.”

    I don’t want to be ‘that guy’ – but my last five games were:
    Win: Go up 75 points (ranks, whatever)
    Loss: Go down 1 point.
    Win: Go up 60 points.
    Win: Go up 65 points.
    Loss: go down 2 points.

    So, yeah, I’m going to have to say it’s NOT that good. (Also, my two wins were ‘cheesy’ rush wins, so factor that in too).

    • Teal Hydra says:

      Here’s the thing about that though: Those points are not your matchmaking rating. The game does not actually care about those points, and that’s SC2 multiplayer’s biggest fault.

      While you may have gone, say, 100 points up from just winning and losing an equal amount of games, your MMR – what the game actually uses to match you up with other players – has likely stayed the same.

      At any level but the very highest, ladder points mean little more than how much you play. Your actual matchmaking rating is unfortunately not transparent and bonus points are a crock.

  19. Flowerpot Wang says: