Hands On: StarCraft II – Legacy Of The Void

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.

45 Comments

  1. Snargelfargen says:

    Any word on what the campaign is like? Have the balance changes over the 2 expansions significantly changed the single-player experience?

    • Xocrates says:

      The campaigns have had essentially zero connection to multiplayer so far, what makes you think balance changes will/have affected them in any way?

      • Snargelfargen says:

        New units, changes to build times, prices, animation speeds, stats and probably other stuff I haven’t thought about, Hard counters could trivialize old content.

        …so?

        • Xocrates says:

          The campaigns already differed from multiplayer on nearly all those aspects. Like I said, the campaigns had nothing to do with multiplayer, so I don’t get how multiplayer changes affect the previous campaigns.

          If you’re asking how the campaign for this particular game will be… then the Beta (which the article is based on) usually don’t include any of it.

        • Blad the impaler says:

          No. Think of multiplayer and campaign as two entirely separate universes. Units in WoL and HoTS have different stats and abilities in multiplayer. Blizzard will balance the campaign – but multiplayer is continually adjusted based on how much zergs whine about not having free units all the time.

        • ThomasHL says:

          The units available in a SC2 campaign are different from the units available in multiplayer. The single player actually tends to have _more_ units than the multiplayer anyway, presumably because whats fun in a campaign isn’t necessarily fun against a person

  2. Fumarole says:

    I cannot decide whether or not to buy this: it’s Terran me apart.

    • protorp says:

      The lady doth Protos too much, methinks…

      • SMGreer says:

        Well, there’s no need to Zerg rush into a purchase…

        • Xocrates says:

          Yeah, no need to be a zealot about it

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            artrexdenthur says:

            Definitely! Even with the series’ great legacy, it’d be wise to a-void a hasty decision

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            Skabooga says:

            “I don’t know, this newest Starcraft release looks pretty lame-” “Archontraire! It is quite amazing!”

        • eljueta says:

          I’m sure it’ll be worth the wraith!

  3. skalpadda says:

    I expect I’ll play this much as I’ve played every other Blizzard RTS – I’ll go through the campaign once and in some future period of boredom I might go through it again on hard. StarCraft is among the very few games I find enjoyment in watching others play competitively, but the time investment and the sheer amount of stuff to learn puts me off even considering playing it against other humans.

  4. Sardonic says:

    I can’t wait to see how apocalyptically bad the story is.

  5. rocketman71 says:

    Still no LAN support?.

    You know the drill then. Fuck Blizz.

  6. lowprices says:

    Ack, Starcraft always looks so tempting in previews and reviews, but I’m just no good at the micro-management required to be a good RTS player. Could anyone recommend a good “Baby’s-first-RTS” to ease me in?

    • Xocrates says:

      Let’s see,

      If you truly want something that’s “Baby’s-first-RTS” I would point you towards Eufloria, if you want something a bit more along the lines of all the fat removed Multiwinia is good quick RTS fix which manages to be fairly straighfoward while still allowing for some more complex tactics (the multiplayer is dead, and there’s no campaign, so you’d have to settle with AI skirmirshes).

      Going into “Big Boy” territory, Dawn of War 2 is probably my suggestion, all the macro is out and it’s all about micro-ing a small number of troops. Additional advantage in that the Campaign is not super RTS-y so you can grasp the mechanics without going too deep.

      And finally, the original Dawn of War for a good balance macro-micro balance without being too demanding on either.

      • BooleanBob says:

        These are all great suggestions, but another direction you could consider going in is that of the lane-pushing games. You have a lot of the same strategic decisions to make both on the micro and macro levels – where should I go, what do I think the enemy is up to, what should I prioritise if it comes to a fight, how can I accrue resources and what should I invest them in – but the need to only control one unit obviates a lot of the UI-provoked pressure that makes many RTSs so inaccessible. It’s a similar sort of experience, but there’s (arguably) less friction between knowing what you want to do and actually being able to execute it.

        Of course, these games have their own problems with accessibility, but if you’re willing to put up with the burden of knowledge that Starcraft demands then I’d say the likes of Dota or Smite shouldn’t be any harder, at least.

        • Banyan says:

          I read this preview thinking, “I’ll probably play the singleplayer and then go back to Dota for multiplayer.” It has all of the depth I used to get from RTS but without your success being entirely dependent on ctrl-group management, though you can certainly find heroes in Dota who play that way if you choose. However, it’s nice that Blizzard has removed the five minutes at the start of each game where your only decision is either abiding by the strict build order or going 2 pool rush and winning or losing in the next five minutes.

    • GiantPotato says:

      I have the same problem, but in addition to being bad at microing I also get no satisfaction out of it. Is there any RTS out there that focuses completely on the macro aspect and doesn’t reward fast clicking?

      • honuk says:

        people way over estimate the importance of micro in starcraft. micro only matters when you’re good. before you get good, macro is the only thing that matters.

      • WiggumEsquilax says:

        The Wargame series from Eugen are heavily about the macro. The only time you have to micro your units are to resupply, to call in artillery, and to order units to hold fire for the purposes of concealment/ambush.

        Your units will automatically use the best weapon available to them against a given enemy. Repair and resupply units will automatically service any friendlies within range. Anyone in foliage will automatically conceal themselves. Artillery will automatically switch to direct fire mode in self defense. Your forces will generally behave like soldiers that want to win and live, rather than as Templars that can’t auto-cast psionic storm even with a gun literally held to their head.

      • Noimydne says:

        It’s kind of old but Kohan is very macro focused. I think it’s a pity more games haven’t tried to copy the way it did things.

    • BooleanBob says:

      If you’re talking about single-player, I’d recommend Rymdkapsel. It’s an extremely stripped down RTS that gives you an economy to manage, a base to design, a map to explore and an army to marshal – one that runs to the single digits rather than the hundreds. The pacing is gentle and the enemies you face behave predictably enough not to provoke panic while still posing a credible challenge.

  7. EhexT says:

    “But really, what StarCraft needs the most, by any means necessary, is more people playing, and more people doing it with friends.”

    Well then they should maybe start by taking the oceans out of their Battle.net 2.0. The 1.0 Battle.net didn’t have oceans. It’s pretty rich lamenting not enough people playing and doing it with friends – ONLINE – in a game that requires people from different continents to buy the entire game, and each expansion, for each continent each continent starting the entire account from scratch.

    • Xocrates says:

      They actually removed the requirement to buy the game for each region quite some time ago.

      You still have a different account per region though, but that’s unlikely to change.

      • Hmm-Hmm. says:

        Not that Blizzard couldn’t easily get rid of that, should they choose to.

    • jrodman says:

      My opinion was the unreasonable custom maps legalese meant that serious modders were likely to look elsewhere, and that the majority of StarCraft players over time were not actually playing “melee” but weird custom modes.

  8. dolgion1 says:

    I don’t see how Archon mode can really help in the long run. It’s a fun, novel way to play the game I guess, but 1v1 will as always be the vastly dominant mode of play.

    My ballsy suggestion would be to make a non-competitive matchmaking (if there isn’t, implement it) mode, where playing as a single player or as two in Archon mode is considered equal. You’d have 1v1, 2v2, 1v2 in one mode. Teaming up against a single guy and winning will feel like great team work, beating two players by yourself you’ll feel like a badass, and I’m not sure that two players in Archon mode truly have an advantage, because communication will be an added requirement.

  9. Czrly says:

    I played StarCraft II for a while, a bit before HotS was released, and I found the single-player campaign to be a lot of fun but the multi-player was far more trouble than it was worth. With a huge amount of effort, playing every day, I made it into the “gold” league but I really resented the amount of time I had to spend studying units and maps and learning every possible “cheese” on every map, how to spot it, when and where to scout for it and how to counter it. “Cheese doesn’t work,” the saying went, and that was true if you diligently kept up your vigilance. Quite simply, though, scouting for cheese was not my idea of fun and, even though I would win more than I lost if the game actually became a real game, this happened so infrequently that I stopped bothering.

    • Czrly says:

      (Where’s the edit button?) I should add that I was not playing to win. I was playing to have a real game, not a cheesy coin flip. Also, I really resented being told “oh, you see, you obviously lost because that pylon was half a second too late and one grid-square to the left – DUH!”

  10. Steven Hutton says:

    Does it still have larva injection?

  11. Nevard says:

    Starcraft is sort of the last bastion of “Hardcore” gaming in Blizzard’s bag of franchises, and I think it’s not unlikely that its successes and failures have fed a lot into how its newer games are essentially produced for all audiences.
    WoW was designed to be baby’s first MMO from the beginning, Diablo 3 is far more streamlined than any of its predecessors, and now Hearthstone and HotS are heavily branded as the “casual” games of their respective markets… but massively popular as a result (even though HotS is made in the same engine as the game this article is about!).

    Starcraft is the only game they have left with an extremely high skill cap and ceiling on entry, and what they can see from that is that this model isn’t actually all that good for maintaining a long-term player base. If in decades future we ever get a Starcraft 3, I’d bet money on it looking significantly different, stripping out staple features in a similar fashion to how HotS treated the traditional concepts of the moba genre.

  12. Neutrino says:

    “StarCraft 2 openings were both finicky and drawn-out.”

    I’m confused as to how someone who just mentioned the extent to which Supreme Commander expanded the genre could come also have this viewpoint. There isn’t much about SC2 that is drawn out, openings are extremely quick and formulaic and the mid game starts between 5-10 minutes in, (assuming you even get to the mid game since games ending in under 10 minutes are also very common).

    To get from the starting 6 workers in HOTS to 10 only takes a couple of minutes and that’s the time when scouting and early harass can have an input on shaping the strategy for the mid game. If the game is now going to start without that preamble then isn’t that going to reduce the potential for useful scouting and early harass? Surely that’s just going to make it even more one dimensional? I expect the resource reduction even further encouraging early aggression will also serve to further marginalize any alternative strategy.

    It all sounds pretty horrible to me. Sounds like they’ve taken a game that was already very short, very formulaic, very focused on micro, early aggression and hard counters… and made it even more so.

    What SC2 needs is for Blizzard to make an effort to return some of the three race’s original flavour. Zerg should be Zergy with massed, cheap, fast aggressive units that are particularly dangerous in the early game. Terran should be tanky and slow moving on the ground but with decent mid/late game mech and air. Protoss should be well balanced throughout with good mobility and standoff potential.

    Currently though Zerg are highly mobile _and_ highly defensible, have flexible production and tech switching, and deadly late game with Swarm Host and Viper combos that are damn near uncounterable. Terran in comparison are absolute shit. The only mobile AA they have is marines (that are fragile) and Thors (which are hardly mobile at all), their mech is nearly useless and their air power not much better. Protoss I’m not too familiar with but they seem somewhere in the middle.

  13. Burningvillage says:

    On a side note, I really miss Multiplayer games of battle for Middle Earth. I had 1 on1 games last almost 45 minutes with intense fighting from start to finish. I wish EA would have put it on origin instead of just shutting the multiplayer severs down…..sigh

  14. vdmgc says:

    If it has LAN, I will pay attention. Otherwise I wont even bother. Blizzard…. who was that again? Ohhh yes… they killed StarCraft…