I think one of my favourite things about seeing a game jump genre is what it means for the ground-level stuff. An Ultralisk is never going to be scary, viewed from top-down, with a small army at your disposal. Leering down at you, with so many hit-points that the mission is more about distracting it, it becomes a very different matter.
Ever since World of Warcraft landed, Blizzard fans have longed, nay, demanded the chance to go on similar RPG adventures in the company’s other beloved series – The Lost Vikings. Sadly, today is not that day. However, a few days ago one of the most exciting fan-projects to remind people that the Starcraft II arcade exists hit a pretty big milestone – Starcraft Universe: Beyond Koprulu went into open beta, with the full game due in a couple of weeks. While I’m sure we’ll have some more on it then, not least because ‘open beta’ turned out to consist of a lot less content than I was expecting after playing through the three extremely long ‘prologues’, I went to take a peek.
What Starcraft Universe isn’t is World of Starcraft. For one thing, it’s more of its own game than that. At the same time though, Blizzard’s Starcraft Arcade isn’t set up for MMO servers where thousands of people join forces against the world. Instead, it’s for teams of one to five, using persistent characters, to head in, upgrade, and kick assorted Zerg and other alien arses and arse-equivalents, log-off, perhaps regroup, and head back into a new instance for the duration. That’s its big limitation, with the other thing to get out of the way up front that as impressive as it is, to play does demand a certain lee-way in terms of how characters feel to control, the latency of instructions, and a general sense that your keyboard might be full of jam.
With that out of the way though, this is another great time to wheel out the old “Most Impressive Mod You’ve Seen In Ages” sticker, because Starcraft Universe really is a thing. It’s been in development since 2013, and is free to play. If you’re willing to throw a little money at its IndieGogo campaign though, you can Star Citizen your way to lots of freebies on a budget – $5 for bonus minerals for every hero, up to $10,000 to create a boss and get a load of rare relics to help fight it. The success of the IndieGogo campaign, and from the looks of it, a Patreon one after release will determine how many updates it gets, including a mode where one player gets to be the Zerg taking over a ship – more on that later – and a year’s worth of new planets, missions and other such stuff like that. The actual game though is done, ready to go, and as said, due out in a couple of weeks plus change, and with a lot more stuff than this one.
To play it now, you need a copy of Starcraft II – the free Starter Edition will do. Blizzard’s given it a nice prominent position at the moment, though I found that I had to search for ‘universe’ manually before it would start up a game. There’s three prologue chapters and the Open Beta itself, and it’s suggested you run through them in that order. They set up the story as well as demoing the systems, which are quite a bit more complex and ambitious than even ‘Make a Starcraft RPG’ already seemed.
The RPG element kicks off immediately with character selection. Both Terran and Protoss are available, with sub-classes like Firebat and Dark Templar, three different weapons and three ‘relic aspects’ to pick from. Then, it’s out into space. Prologue 1 is a pretty simple demonstration of the controls and how things play, with your team heading out onto a Zerg infested planet. Prologue 2 kicks it up a notch as you end up on the spaceship Void Seeker (complete with a back-and-forth sway that’s both a cute addition and an advert for space-dramamine) and go hunting for resources on a planet of aggressive dodo birds. And then Zerglings, obviously. Finally, Prologue 3 gives you a ship that I was expecting the main game to let me cut loose on, but… didn’t. Still, there’s still quite a chunk of game to get the feel of, and it’s impressive stuff, especially an all-out Zerg assault on a docking station. Zero to screwed in roughly 30 seconds.
The basic feel, at least in these chapters, is more World of Warcraft dungeon/raid than overworld, at least in these bits – running around after hero characters like Zeratul replacement Zerash and human medic Arley Sims from encounter to encounter. The enemies being Zerglings mean quite a few of them to handle, springing up out of nowhere and ready to be cut up and cleaved open, with bonuses for doing things like destroying a particularly big one before Zerash is done with it. Missions also have difficulty levels, unlocked by rank, raising the rewards in tune with how hard the various people punch. But really, you probably don’t need too much description when the goal is to emulate the feel of one of the most played games on the planet. It’d be like taking a moment out to explain how to play Myst, give or take just saying “Don’t.” Likewise, if you know Starcraft well enough to care, you’ll know the character types. Playing as a Dark Templar you start out with cool knife attacks, cloaking, and blinking to the other side of an enemy to stab them. The Terran units follow suit for classes like Firebat and Ghost and Medic, with boy and girl options for all… as much as it matters for characters permanently stuck inside great big heavy metal suits.
Where things get surprising is aboard the main base ship, which is called the Jumayrah, but I’m just going to concede to my fingers and call the Jambalaya. It’s the base from which in the full game you’ll get to travel around the sector and have adventures, but at the moment, not really. There’s a couple of locations, but that’s all. What’s interesting though – if not entirely successful at the moment – is that the ship isn’t just a base, but a fully functional set of tools. You can run around putting forcefields up and down, teleport around, set courses, dispatch ships on missions and all kinds of other captainy things, with all of them coming to a head when the thing gets attacked and turns into, basically, FTL. You’ve got to run around putting out fires and killing intruders as they show up and destroy systems and cause damage, spreading Zerg creep across the floor as they go, as well as handle hostile invaders on the outside of the ship by jumping behind gun-turrets or sending the Void Seeker out to handle them.
It’s a really impressive amount of detail and almost as ambitious a jump as the whole MMO side on top of the strategy layer. Certainly it’s far more than anyone like Bioware has done in the past. What it isn’t though is, well, much fun. After doing it in Prologue 3 only to run right into it again in the main beta… let’s just say it wasn’t welcome. As an occasional thing to do – a random event, or result of attacking a well-fortified station or similar, it’d be pretty cool. Again and again and again, it’s going to wear out it’s welcome pretty damn fast. But I do still like the concept, in much the same way as something like an X-COM base defense feels more important simply for the fact that it’s Your Thing you’re defending, and the way the problems spread when left unchecked – starting with teleporters going down, meaning you have to take the long way around – is a really clever addition that takes it beyond just smacking aliens in the same setting. I can imagine it being more fun with multiple players, especially if having to jump between things like taking out ships with turrets and literally putting out the fires. Playing solo – admittedly, not ideal – it was a drag where every new incursion or additional set-back became a chore rather than an exciting back and forth.
And there’s not really much more than that in this open beta. The full version is adding around 20 new worlds and the full game’s story and content, with as said, more on the way depending on how its current funding campaign goes. If you’re interested in checking it out, now isn’t a bad time, if only because the prologues take quite a while to push through and a quick gasp of fresh air between them and jumping into the main game feels like it’s going to be pretty wise. Overall, I doubt it’s a game I’m personally going to rush back to, and not least because as the official Worst RTS Player In The World, I’m not really supposed to get within 10 parsecs of Starcraft II. (The good players think the incompetence might be contagious, and are probably right.) Also, the general feel of it is just a little too uncomfortable for my tastes, and the whole Starcraft universe just not one I have a real attachment to compared to Azeroth.
But, if you’re into your Starcraft, it’s definitely worth a look just to check out. I don’t think you’re going to find a more impressive mod this side of the New Year, or one that shows this well just what a team can do with a dream, some decent editing tools, and a company willing to let people play instead of throwing out Cease And Desist orders like they’re manning a giant Ebeneezer Scrooge float at the Christmas parade. If only others would follow that example, and also make more of their own cool merchandise instead of licensing more of those hateful Funko Pops. I know that’s not really connected, but I just thought I’d squeeze it in while we’re wishing. Hate those bloody things…