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.
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.