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Hands On: StarCraft II - Legacy Of The Void

Into 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.

On the other hand, a lot of the new units seem to fill hard-counter roles (where they are a devastating rock to another unit's scissor) demand a lot more attention and micro-control from both players. The Protoss Disruptor gives the Protoss their own version of the Baneling (the Zerg's roly-poly suicide bomber), with the added wrinkle that it is reusable and invulnerable as it prepares to detonate. Set aside whether that can possibly be balanced (I suspect patches are going to hit a lot of Legacy of the Void units rather hard), and the Disruptor is yet another thing that opponents must frantically micro their army to avoid. Except that they probably can't even kill it before it goes off.

Likewise, the Terran Cyclone lives up to its name by being a mechanical whirlwind of death. It locks onto targets at an impossibly long range, but it can then maneuver freely while continuing to fire at its target. It's a nightmarish harassment unit, because it can literally run rings around most of its pursuers while steadily whittling them down. The catch is that the Cyclone has to use a "lock-on" ability to be effective. While there is an auto-cast option on it, it doesn't seems nearly as effective as when I'm manually casting it on targets. So Cyclones are a unit that must be painstakingly handled (and just as painstakingly herded and pursued). And that seems to be the way a lot of the new units, and changes to existing units, seem to function.

The Zerg, at least, seem to have been spared micro-heavy units, although that's a bit deceptive. The Lurker makes a very welcome return, and as you remember from Brood War, a handful of Lurkers can send spikes lancing through lines of enemy units from a pretty good range. But because the spikes only travel in a straight line, the Lurker is another unit that benefits from meticulous positioning. If a line of Lurkers are sending spikes out and only hitting one or two units at a time, they're being wasted a bit. But if they are in a flank position and firing spikes down rows of enemy units, then they can break up an offensive push before it can make any headway.

The Ravager is a straightforward mortar unit that fills some of the siege role that the Swarm Host rather unsuccessfully occupied in Heart of the Swarm. The devastating area-of-effect shots will break Protoss force fields and hit any air units they encounter on their way to the ground. They're another unit that forces a lot of quick-reflex micro play on opponents.

Perhaps even more interesting are the changes to existing units. The Battlecruiser's new Tactical Jump ability lets it warp across the map, meaning that the slowest, least mobile unit in the Terran arsenal now has pretty scary harassment or flanking potential. Their Siege Tanks can be lifted via Medivac while in siege mode, which lets fast-fingered players flip them between high ground and low ground expansions, firing almost continuously.

All of this makes me wonder about how playable Legacy of the Void will be for people like me, who've never had time to make StarCraft more than an occasional hobby, and who find it too demanding to be enjoyable on a casual basis. My best games of Legacy have come when I keep my gameplans as simple as possible, using armies that can attack-move to good effect while minimising my use of units that require a lot of attention splitting. With a lot of the new units, I start to feel the familiar anxiety that the game is simply setting me up to fail.

The new aspect of Legacy of the Void that's supposed to help players like me is Archon Mode, a throwback to Brood War where two players could share control over a single side. It's as good an idea now as it was then, and perhaps even better.

StarCraft's two biggest problems are its difficulty and its loneliness, and Archon helps with the former and eliminates the latter. It lets players focus on different aspects of the game while offloading other responsibilities onto their partner. It makes the workload manageable, although it also seems like a tacit admission that there's far more happening in a game of StarCraft than one average player can handle. But the real importance of Archon mode is that it gives you a partner.

StarCraft can be an airless game. You sit down, you hit "find match" and you wait. You play a quick game with a stranger, and then you are back to finding another match.

It's not really satisfying, and it's not built to be satisfying. In the messages on loading screens, in between game tips, it warns you repeatedly that you'll win some, you'll lose some, and it will all come out in the wash. But saying you should have a 50% win-rate over time elides a lot of losing streaks that make you feel like helpless, incompetent garbage. The victories feel amazing, of course, and I get a high from winning a game of StarCraft that I get from few other games. But it's a fleeting rush, and then you're back into matchmaking, chasing that feeling to the ends of your ability. Your ranking improves and declines, and through it all you are alone.

Archon gives you someone to talk with and play with, as well as taking the pressure off your shoulders. It's not just that one person can be helping manage one group of units while you look after another, or that you can focus on your build-orders while your friend runs the army. It's also the way Archon Mode can turn into a comedy of errors as you and your partner both panic and start trying to control the same units, or bankrupt yourselves because you panicked and started crash-building reinforcements at the same time. It makes playing StarCraft feel like play, rather than one of those dreams where you're back at school and taking a surprise final exam.

But really, what StarCraft needs the most, by any means necessary, is more people playing, and more people doing it with friends. As I played an Archon game with a friend the other night, he asked, "Do you think you're going to stick with this game after you're done writing about it?" I could already hear, in his voice, that he wasn't back on board with StarCraft. He was checking out the beta because he could, and then he was going to leave it behind.

I worry that's not going to be unusual. By the end of the first week with the beta, Archon matches were incredibly hard to find. Outside of peak hours, I had some long, long waits for 1v1 matches. The burst of excited activity that surrounded the first beta keys seemed to die off. People went back to Heroes, back to Hearthstone… and there I was, playing Legacy of the Void alone, with strangers.

StarCraft 2 has always been able to get people to show up at the start. It remains to be seen whether Legacy of the Void can keep them there.

You can sign up for the Legacy of the Void beta now.

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