Impressions: StarCraft II – Whispers Of Oblivion

The final expansion for StarCraft II, Legacy Of The Void [official site], is expected to appear before the end of 2015. But in the meantime, those who pre-order the game (don’t pre-order – Ed) can gain immediate access to the beta for prologue missions, Whispers Of Oblivion. We sent Rob Zacny in to take a look at both that short campaign, and the multiplayer for the expansion.

Perhaps it was unfair to expect too much from Whispers Of Oblivion. It’s a Legacy Of The Void pre-order bonus that will be free for everyone when the game launches later this year. It’s the StarCraft equivalent of a Happy Meal toy. I might have enjoyed it more, except that I started replaying the Wings of Liberty campaign, and thinking about all the places StarCraft 2 has gone — and hasn’t gone — in the last five years.

Whispers Of Oblivion

It’s easy, after all this time, to forget how good the Wings of Liberty campaign is. Mostly what I remembered is the way that the Terran campaign worked so hard at emulating and evoking shows like Firefly by way of Cool Hand Luke. It was probably the most lavishly produced RTS campaign ever made, with three or four cutscenes between every mission, and tons of choices that would affect how the campaign played out in significant ways.

Those missions were consistently excellent: they were atmospheric and full of custom models and art that gave a sense of place to these battles across StarCraft’s star-crossed Koprulu Sector. Each one posed a different, unique tactical dilemma. Your first hold-out mission during the evacuation of Mar Sara wasn’t just about building bunkers and digging in. If you moved out onto the map to rescue extra colonial troops, you discovered you could keep the Zerg numbers from getting too overwhelming if you launched quick, well-timed counterattacks.

Shortly thereafter, there’s an escort mission where you have to protect convoys moving across a long, perilous highway, attacked at every turn. Or there’s the “dusk-til-dawn” mission on Meinhoff, where waves of mutants attack at night, and you can only move during daylight hours. The list of great missions could go on all day.

By contrast, Whispers of Oblivion has a mission where you build a small army and race through a Terran installation to rescue captured Protoss, fighting one small set-piece skirmish after another. Then there’s the mission where you build a large army and smash through a series of Evil Protoss bases… in one set-piece skirmish after another. Then you lead a small force through a forbidden temple, trying to stay stealthy …while fighting one set-piece skirmish after another. It’s all using RTS mission design templates that were stale before the credits rolled on Command & Conquer: Red Alert.

There are nods in the direction of Wings of Liberty-style twists. The second mission, which lets you build an entire Protoss army, takes place on a world with no Vespene geysers. It’s an interesting challenge at first, as you hustle around the map grabbing little piles of Vespene gas to build a few precious few advanced units. But a few minutes into the mission, you open up Vespene vents that provide you with an endless stream of free Vespene. At that point, you can just build a giant army and walk across the map.

More ominously, it seems like the Protoss themselves encourage the worst, most ponderous Blizzard writing. At the end of the first mission, one of the Protoss you’ve rescued says, “Zeratul, you have aided me on my quest. I am honor-bound to aid you on yours.” There are Silmarillion characters who would roll their eyes at this stuff.

Whispers of Oblivion also serves notice that, as the StarCraft 2 saga nears its end, much of its plot has been circular. We find Kerrigan exactly as she was before Wings of Liberty: an unrepentant Zerg queen, seething with anger and taking it out on what’s left of the Terran Dominion. The Protoss are still keeping an eye on the big picture, as Zeratul runs around trying to prevent the return of an “evil alien precursor”. Jim Raynor is on the run with a band of freedom fighters. For the last five years, all of these characters have been racing to stay in the exact same place Brood War left them.

These are worrying signs from Whispers of Oblivion, and hopefully the quality of this mini-campaign is not indicative of the overall direction of Legacy of the Void’s campaign. We’ve been waiting almost twenty years for this particular götterdämmerung, and I will be pretty disappointed if it ends with a series of phoned-in missions and plot contortions to get every major character on the same side of a conflict that absolutely no one has ever been invested in.

Multiplayer

Yet even if Whispers of Oblivion hints that Blizzard’s narrative team have lost the plot, Legacy of the Void’s evolving multiplayer is still the most fun I’ve had playing StarCraft since early Wings of Liberty.

The missteps of Heart of the Swarm have been corrected, while the changes and new additions in Legacy of the Void allow each race is at last the most exciting version of itself.

The Terran mech armies now have a variety of ways to be faster and more maneuverable than ever before, which solves Terrans’ biggest problem: half their lines of play were boring to watch and fussy to execute.

The Cyclone is not only useful as a ranged support unit in a mech composition, but its sheer speed makes it deadly as a roaming harassment unit and scout. The awesome new Liberator gunship can either help shoot down flocks of enemy aircraft, or it can take a fixed position and lay waste to ground units. That not only gives the Terrans exciting new offensive and defensive plays, but forces both sides to battle for control of the air. The Terrans now have a series of exciting options that make them feel like the versatile, firepower-obsessed engineers that they are.

I’m not sure the Zerg are quite as fortunate. The new Ravager just ends up playing like a Super Roach (thought its mortar-like Corrupting Bile attack gives it some very intriguing skillshot possibilities). The Lurker, meanwhile, still seems tricky to employ effectively. StarCraft games are not won by defensive play, which is where the Lurker is easiest to employ. But finding the right position for Lurkers during an offensive push is pretty hard.

But the much larger issue for the Zerg is that, with the changes to the economy in Legacy of the Void, the Zerg have to expand faster and run greater risks that they have in the past. In Legacy of the Void, the feeling of playing Zerg is one of constant jeopardy.

The Protoss, on the other hand, have a lot going for them. As a race, they’ve received a general tune-up. The Colossus has been nerfed, which is a relief simply because the unit itself was not very interesting and its design forced Protoss players to use uninteresting tactics in the late game. The Oracle receives a valuable tool in the Stasis Ward, which can paralyze and trap enemy units that trigger it, granting Oracles a valuable role to play beyond early-game harassment. Everything adds up to make the Protoss even more like tricky, deceptive space wizards.

Looking at multiplayer more broadly, I love how much of the game is now about controlling and manipulating geographic space. It’s not just a matter of having a better economy or a better unit composition. Every race now has ways to reshape the battlefield. The Zerg Lurker renders the ground itself a death trap. The Protoss Disruptor… disrupts. It breaks up formations and forces opponents to engage from less-than-ideal positions, or risk a massive explosion. The Liberator creates deadly kill-zones that deny positions and shut-down attack angles.

Playing Legacy of the Void right now, I come away feeling like StarCraft II is a much better multiplayer RTS game than it’s been in the past. The action starts faster, the choices you make are a little more intelligible, and they’re all a little more satisfying. The races’ fictional identities now guide and inform play, freed from the crude rock-beats-scissors that made Heart of the Swarm so unsatisfying at first.

When it came out, I felt that StarCraft II was too conservative, too old-fashioned, to stand alongside classics like Company of Heroes, or Supreme Commander, or even Warcraft 3. Over the last few years, it could be exasperating or enraging to watch Blizzard make miniscule adjustments to fix balance rather than try big new ideas (though given how the daringly novel Swarm Host worked out, I’m more sympathetic). But with Legacy of the Void, that inherent conservatism and reflection seems to be paying off. It’s taken five years, but I feel like I finally know what Blizzard want StarCraft 2 to be, even if they don’t always seem to know how to conclude the story.

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47 Comments

  1. EhexT says:

    The idea that Blizzard has a Narrative team at all, or that ever had the plot in order to lose it in the first place is laughable.

    • FireStorm1010 says:

      Totally disagree. I loved the story and character developement of Starcraft since Stacraft 1. The ending of Wings of Libery and Heart of the Swarm was pretty emotional for me. The whole Stukov/Dugalle relationship in Brood Wars was brillant , as was the shokcing visious powerful “Im the queen bitch of the universe” Kerrigan ending

      • Catweasel says:

        I felt like they ruined literally all the characters I liked in 1/BW with 2. There was literally nothing for me in the campaign at all.

      • XhomeB says:

        StarCraft was my favourite Blizzard game, loved, loved Brood War, loved how well-realised, Alien-like, atmospheric that universe was. I loved the masterfully done cutscenes. I loved that it was a plot about the WAR, you could feel how grand that conflict was, with characters supporting that vision instead of stealing the show. It was a game which treated people playing it as adults.

        And then StarCraft 2 came out and totally ruined it all. What was once a gritty, dirty universe about politics and backstabbing between races turned into a cartoony, fantasy ponyland about prophecies, ancient evils, love between the two main characters, PATHETIC AS ALL HELL writing and unnecessary retcons. Not to mention that voice-acting & music took a noise-dive. It was a game which treated people playing it as edgy, emo teenagers.

        Come to think of it, Diablo 3 suffered the exact same fate. The “new” Blizzard is but a shadow of it former self.

        • Asurmen says:

          Well, considering the affection between the two was present in Starcraft, that the prophecy/bigger picture was already present in Starcraft, that the voice actors for returning characters are the same except Kerrigan, I’m not sure how those points don’t apply to Starcraft as well as its sequel.

          Not sure on ret cons though as my memory fails me. What major ones happened?

          Music wasn’t as good although there was a few good pieces.

          • Zekiel says:

            I don’t think there was any prophecy angle in the original SC or BW. None that I can remember anyway. It’s a fairly annoying plot device.

            On the other hand I don’t think the writing in the original was necessarily stellar either – it was just more sparing. I think that plus a sense of nostalgia (here I’m speaking just for myself) gives the original more weight than the sequel.

          • Asurmen says:

            There was two hints, both in Brood War. One was in the hidden mission, the other the end of game dialogue.

        • Vayra says:

          I think what ruined the Starcraft 2 campaign (as compared to SC1/BW) is that it was shaped around developing the race you played. WHY o why did they have to build in this progression thing and choice in mission order? Especially because they employed racial strengths that would never make it into the multiplayer or skirmish aspect of the game, I never understood why they did this. These things detracted from a focus on the actual story and writing. I liked the Wings of Liberty campaign much better than HotS, but they both pale in comparison to the excellent Starcraft 1 and Brood War. The darkness had gone, the mystery evaporated, when Starcraft 2 came out. Starcraft 1 had a completely different and much more interesting ‘tone of voice’; every race was clearly a choice of evils. Starcraft 2 doesn’t have that.

        • Jane Doe says:

          Umm, excuse me? Tricia Helfer practically became the Queen of Blades the moment she got close to a microphone!

    • Yglorba says:

      The idea that this was ever going to go anywhere but “everyone is on the same side against the Big Ultimate Space Evil” is silly, though. That’s the only reason to focus on the Big Ultimate Space Evil in the first place; the moment it was introduced, it was obvious how hackneyed the end of the series would be.

  2. Punning Pundit says:

    I remember the first Protoss mission from Brood War, and thinking that it was short on the base-building I like in StarCraft, and long on the aRPG style of combat that I’ve never enjoyed. It sounds like Whispers might be moving back in this direction.

    Thinking about it, I wonder if that simply isn’t something that Blizzard thinks is a way to rein in what they think should be the “Protoss OP” feeling they think should be indicative of an Eldar style race.

    Is there any possibility that the Whispers campaign is set somewhere before Wings of Liberty? It would remove the narrative moebius strip you’re describing. Having not played the Whispers campaign, I have no idea how plausible it is.

    Since the Campaign and Multiplayer aspects are almost entirely separate, I wish Blizzard would release a few mini-campaigns every year. Just a few missions long, maybe. It would let us enjoy with the full playground Blizzard has developed (Like Warhounds!) which would be kind of terrible for Multiplayer, but can be great fun in single player.

  3. elmuerte says:

    The development of StarCraft II was announced on May 19, 2007
    8 years later, the final part might be released.

    • Vayra says:

      Well you can’t say they don’t provide long-lasting support on their products.

      Blizzards’ track record is almost better than Microsoft in that regard.

  4. Ejia says:

    I know Skyrim had shouts, but I never knew Oblivion had whispers.

  5. Robbie Clark says:

    I don’t think I’ll ever forgive the Blizzard writers for Heart of the Swarm or Diablo 3. Yeah Wings of Liberty was cheesy, but it was quite compelling and satisfying. Then they completely undid nearly all of what you worked toward 33% of the way through Heart of the Swarm! Such a blunder and so uninteresting.

    And of course Diablo 3 is hilariously bad story-wise.

    • SirBryghtside says:

      Spoilers ahead~

      “Then they completely undid nearly all of what you worked toward 33% of the way through Heart of the Swarm!”

      I’ve heard this criticism a lot, and I’ll be honest – I don’t understand it at all. Yes, the ‘goal’ in Wings of Liberty was to cure Kerrigan of her zerginess, and Swarm has her change herself back, but that’s not a criticism in and of itself. It’s just a plot point, and one that has plenty of reason to exist.

      Kerrigan’s plot arc through Heart of the Swarm is redemption. The events of SC1 and WoL have her become a literal monster, and in spite of that, she still has unfinished business – so she’s left with anger, but with only a fraction of the power she used to have to direct it. So she does the typical thing, and turns back to the dark side. Then the person in charge of all the events in Wings of Liberty – Jim Raynor – hates her for doing it, in the same way that you do. Because the game knows how painful it was to have Kerrigan turn again after all that work. However, in the ending, Raynor forgives her – and that’s because he accepts that while Kerrigan is now a zerg, and likely more comfortable in that form, she’s regained her humanity. The fix in Wings didn’t stop her from being zerg, but it did keep her from being a hate-fueled monster that killed billions of innocents.

      I get that most people don’t like how Blizzard handle writing – I know I owe a large part of my love for the StarCraft campaigns to nostalgia – and maybe that’s why you don’t consider it worth even a base-level analysis, but that specific criticism really feels like it comes from the same place that people getting annoyed at Toad for telling you that ‘your princess is in another castle’ does. Most of them are power fantasies, sure, but game narratives have no inherent reason to respect your personal achievements.

      • Asurmen says:

        A clarification is that she doesn’t turn back to the dark side. She’s still her human self in spirit, just not in body after her second conversion.

        • bleeters says:

          She sure does love infesting people regardless, though.

        • Zekiel says:

          I never felt that was made clear enough. Apparently in her first infestation she was under the control of the Dark Presence (or whatever its called)? But I’m sure I remember the Overmind rambling about her having free will, so that seems to be a contradiction. In her reinfestation she is apparently free willed and retains her “soul” or something, but she seems to act basically exactly the same as she did in Brood War so… um….

          • Asurmen says:

            Both Kerrigan and the Overmind were under the control of the Dark Xel’naga. Also seems to me there there is a distinct difference in her actions and goals during her second conversion, namely that before she was seeking genocide and power for their own sake because of the previously mentioned influence. Now she wants to use the power she has for her own goals, which was revenge for Jim, something she wouldn’t have done before. She doesn’t want to fight everyone in her way, just Mengst. We’ll have to see what she’ll do now, now that’s she completely free.

          • Zekiel says:

            @Asurmen
            Yes I suppose so. I’m just remembering that at the end of Brood War, when she was powerful enough to have wiped out the remnants of the Dominion, Raynor and presumably the Protoss too, she said she was tired of slaughter and then sat and brooded for several years instead. Which felt to me like the actions of someone with difficult emotions to process, NOT like someone being mind-controlled by the Big Bad. I don’t think there was anything at all in SC or BW that hinted at her being mind controlled.

            However it is entirely possible that this is all explained in tie-in novels that I haven’t read.

  6. shagen454 says:

    I know it’s off topic from Blizzard now (casual, competitive – I like it though!) but Warcraft III still has one of the best narratives along with level design, I love that game.

    • hennedo says:

      Yeah, I replay that one from time to time like I reread favorite books.

      • shagen454 says:

        Yes, it’s totally re-playable even now and still great It really irks me that Blizzard will not include it on their Battlenet app.

    • Zekiel says:

      Yikes, really? I loved the game but I was incredibly irritated with Arthas as character (before and after his undead-ifying) which really harmed my enjoyment of the narrative since he’s your POV character for 50% of the time.

      Thrall and Grom on the other hand were awesome.

  7. Phranx says:

    Any elaboration on “don’t pre-order – Ed” or is it just an opinion?

    • Punning Pundit says:

      Every game you preorder is actually Aliens: Colonial Marines.

    • jrodman says:

      RPS has written at length about this in the past. Not to dismiss you, but to say it’s probably not worth going over all of it again.

      Basically the short version is it’s a way to manipulate game buyers to be less critical, which ultimately leads to worse purchases and poorer games.

    • rmsgrey says:

      The problem with pre-ordering is that you’re paying for a vague set of promises rather than for an actual product – it used to be that you could pretty much rely on at least getting a decent game at the end, even if it wasn’t quite what was advertised (Peter Molyneux…). Over the last few years, there have been a number of games from big publishers with solid track records that have sold well in pre-order then been rubbish when they actually released.

      The publishing model seems to have shifted from producing a finished game that has as few bugs as possible, and then releasing it to setting a release date and shipping the game to release then, with a day zero patch that might make it playable if you’re lucky, then spending the next 6 months patching it into something approaching a finished product, with pre-orders having shifted from a way for retailers to gauge demand and for customers to avoid the game selling out before they can get a copy to a way for the publisher to fund the last 3-6 months of pre-release development…

  8. hennedo says:

    I haven’t played any of the SC 2 games because of the three game model (I find it to be a bit of a distasteful grab). I’m not sure if I’m being stupid about that.

    • jrodman says:

      I sort of agree and disagree. Each game has a lot of content, but there’s definitely a “feeling” that you have to buy all three for some buyers. For those of whom the game IS the multiplayer, this is kind of true, though theoretically you were getting 5 years of it or whatever, probably spending less than you would on an equivalent free-to-play game.

      Personally, I found the way it requires online to be odious, and the game to be more demanding than Starcraft 1 in a way that I didn’t enjoy. Thus, I stopped at Wings of Liberty.

    • vlonk says:

      The SP campaign levels are well done in SC2 and its gameplay did not suffer from the split into 3 parts. But the rapid speed and meaningful development of the storyline basically got stopped in its tracks. From those missions only a handful “matter” and you go on wild goose chases and resource collection missions, classic filler content which does not serve relevant plotlines or character progression. You could cram the whole SC2 plotlines from all 3 games into one game. SC2 and its released 2 parts suffers from the same “emptiness” as say the 3 hobbit movies compared to the 3 LotR movies. On top of that they lost the spirit of what made the SC universe interesting, but thats another topic alltogether.

      • cakeisalie says:

        Definitely a lot of filler in the SC2 games. Overall, I enjoyed Wings of Liberty despite it’s cheesiness, but I found Heart of the Swarm campaign a real chore and had to force myself to complete it (and some of the dialogue and voice acting is awful). I’m not really interested in the multiplayer, I find it too demanding to be fun.

    • Neutrino says:

      Not only do you have to buy all three, you have to buy a separate copy of each of them for each person in your household who might want to play it, since each copy of the game only has a single save game slot (which they now call an ‘account’).

      It’s an appalling scam.

  9. Punning Pundit says:

    Each of those games is big enough to stand on its own as a full game, though. At the very least, it’s true that each part of SC2 has- so far- contained as many missions as SC1 did.

    I won’t say you’re stupid, but I will say that if you are concerned about the number of single player missions, you’re in for a treat.

  10. MacGuffin says:

    Each of the three SC2 campaigns is as long as the original SC1 campaign, but it’s a little frustrating to only get the complete story if you shell out for all the expansions. I wouldn’t say you’re being stupid, but the WoL campaign is definitely worth playing, imo, as long as you can get past the cheesy writing.

  11. Vesperan says:

    I found the 3 Moves Ahead episode on Whispers of Oblivion interesting, especially the discussion around what this mean for Starcraft 2’s accessibility and its continued (?) success as an e-sport, and what drives success. In fact, it was that episode that meant I read about 2 sentences of this article and realised I knew much of this already – and that Rob had written. Keep up the good work Rob!

  12. Munin says:

    Sounds to me like the the plot is going into the standard long running soap opera or comic book series of status quo is king and we need to reset everything after every major *shocking* crisis/event/twist so that the series can go on forever. Well, with comic books goes on until they decide to reboot it after a decade or so.

  13. Wetcoaster says:

    The missions in Wings of Liberty might have been great, but the writing was appallingly cliched, especially compared to the original and I wasn’t a huge fan of the cartoonish terran character proportions from the art design either. It was like WoW or WC3 characters were re-dressed in space opera garb instead of keeping the IPs distinctive with their own art styles.

    • MacGuffin says:

      I played through the original SC1 and BW missions a few weeks ago and there are plot holes you could drive a battlecruiser through. The writing in Starcraft has never been good.

      • jrodman says:

        I’d agree SC1 was hokey and clunkey in the story, plot and writing departments, but yet there was something compelling about it all the same. Maybe our expectations (my expectations?) were just different then? Maybe it sort of succeeds despite all its problems?

        I’m not a huge fan of the Starcraft 1 play experience, as like Starcraft 2 it’s too frantic and fussy. But I did feel like the unfolding of the campaign kept me interested. By contrast, in Wings of Liberty I found myself skipping scenes and then turning on god mode to skip missions and eventually just giving up.