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Hands On: StarCraft II - Legacy Of The Void

Into the Void

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I am, and always will be, ambivalent about StarCraft 2 [official site]. It is a game I can barely play at the best of times, where my greatest exertions will raise me to the barest level of competence. It is the eSport I fell in love with, the competitive game I still get the most excited about during long, lazy weekends at home. It is a game I admire, but will never master.

Yet hope springs eternal. Maybe with Legacy of the Void, StarCraft 2 can finally become what I want it to be. Maybe this time it can be everything.

StarCraft 2 was the last game to lure me into attending a midnight launch. I surprised myself when I went walking across town through a deserted business district and into an overlit Best Buy where I knew half the people in line.

I wasn’t sure I should be there. I hadn’t enjoyed the beta very much. My RTS skills had atrophied, and the game was too much of a self-conscious throwback to the first game. I felt like RTS games had moved on. Relic had picked up where Warcraft 3 had left off, and made strategy games that were as much about tactics and terrain as they were about resource management. Supreme Commander had taken the Total Annihilation formula and expanded it beyond my wildest imagination.

And here was StarCraft 2, with its restricted camera, fussy worker-management, and blindingly-fast pace of play. It was defiantly old-fashioned and demanding, and that’s no longer what I wanted in an RTS.

But on that warm summer evening five years ago, the memories grew too strong. Raynor’s lazy, staticky drawl through my speakers. An aria playing inside an admiral’s stateroom while the Zerg overran a world down below. LAN parties that went until dawn, and self-important Battle.net clans that were long on trash-talk and short on achievement. Money maps and streams of Marines leaning wading through groves of Lurkers’ spikes.

I wasn’t sure I liked StarCraft 2. But as the clock crawled towards midnight, there was no more denying that I loved StarCraft in a way that I have loved only a few other games. So I put on my shoes and started walking.

For a time, it seemed like StarCraft 2 could satisfy every audience and build from where Brood War left off. By late 2011 and early 2012, StarCraft was a phenomenon within strategy and competitive gaming. Hundreds of thousands of people were tuning into tournament livestreams. People like Sean “Day[9]” Plott were able to build careers around teaching and analyzing the game.

But over time, the contradiction between the game “as it’s meant to be played” and the level of play that most casual players can attain has nibbled away at StarCraft’s audience. It’s a game that stopped being fun for people who just wanted to have fun and, as their interest in playing StarCraft waned, so did their interest in the competitive scene. StarCraft might still be healthy but, for a game that once seemed like it would be the future of competitive RTS games, a long period of stagnation and relative decline has started to feel like a deathwatch.

Which brings us to Legacy of the Void.

Legacy of the Void arrives with nearly as much expectation and a lot more baggage than Wings of Liberty did. That’s because this expansion represents at once a chance to complete the narrative saga that began almost 15 years ago, the last hope for a competitive game that’s struggled to extend its appeal beyond a small, dedicated hardcore group of players, and a badly-needed revamp of a game that seemed markedly less fun after its last expansion – Heart of the Swarm.

It’s easy to underestimate just how drastically Legacy of the Void changes StarCraft 2, because it’s most dramatic change isn’t the new units or the new multiplayer mode. The biggest change is, in fact, the least glamorous thing about the game: the increased worker-count at the start of games, and the reduced resources at each base location. These seem like tweaks, but they transform StarCraft as a multiplayer game.

StarCraft 2 openings were both finicky and drawn-out. There were a lot of ways for players to botch the early stages. Yet, once you’d mastered your openings, StarCraft games proceeded almost by rote for the first few minutes of each game. Only after these repetitive opening stages did the real game, in most cases, begin. At that point the complexity ramped up very quickly.

Legacy of the Void cuts the crap and lets you get to the major fork-in-the-road decisions right away. Do you want to ramp-up your economy and get a second base down right away, at the risk of being caught-out? Do you want to start building an army? What kind of army do you want to build, if you do that? Will you attack early, or simply try and cover your bases while you expand? You get to make all those important decisions without carefully timing each new worker and building for five minutes.

I’ve also noticed another effect of the reduced wealth at each base – early game aggression and harassment is much more effective and rewarding than it used to be. It’s no longer quite as safe to sit on two bases. By the time you’re finished saturating your first expansion with workers, you’re already starting to run low on resources in the main base, and that third base is beckoning. So players have to expand, and move into more dangerous positions, because the game is driving you out of your corner and into the middle of the map.

It’s a subtle shift, but it changes just about every aspect of the risk-reward calculation in a game of StarCraft. Denying an expansion is not just a nuisance or a brief setback, but a potentially crippling blow. Likewise, the action starts to happen a lot faster, because both players have so many more reasons to get in each other’s faces. I’m having fewer and fewer games end with giant death-ball armies and more of them being decided over the course of a half-dozen little skirmishes, raids, and battles.

It sounds like a harder game, and perhaps in time it will be. But I’m not so sure. Where I always fell apart was in balancing the macro work of controlling three or four bases’ worth of workers and unit production against the micro work of maneuvering an army or two around the map.

Legacy of the Void seems to operate at a smaller, more manageable scale for a longer period. It starts faster, but it’s harder for both players to reach and sustain that mid-game economic and production boom. That leaves lots of opportunities to do meaningful amounts of damage and harassment before the game reaches that point, and I find that a lot easier to handle. There’s more that I can accomplish in-game before my lack of high-level skills begins to take its toll.

On page two, new units, loneliness and the brilliance of Archon Mode.

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