Blizzard's über-RTS, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty is finally here, with its sprawling single player, imposing multiplayer and grand narrative aspirations. Where does it succeed? Where does it stumble? Does it really need the two additional parts currently in development? Alec and Quinns met in the RPS saloon for a chat.
Alec: Right, let's put our cocks on the table. How much have you played of Crafting The Stars Chapter The Second?
Quinns: I have completed eight missions. Which sounds like a lot, doesn't it? But I've probably unlocked barely a third of the Terran's armoury, and if the achievement list is anything to go by I'm about a fifth of the way through.
Alec: I'd guess I'm on about ten missions in, and yes, there any many robots yet to come. I've also been playing on Normal, not Hard. So you are more of a man than me.
Quinns: I've actually started brushing up against my skill limit already. I tried the last mission twice, failing both times. Briefly though: It's good, innit?
Alec: Totally. I'm playing missions to play the missions, not to see the next cutscene , and that's astonishgly rare in singleplayer RTS.
Quinns: As you mentioned in the chatroom, it's hard to think of an RTS that's transparently spent so much money on the single player.
Quinns: Let's get this out of the way. Those cutscenes. That dialogue! These goddamn characters!
Alec: Bloody awful. They're every scifi and western cliche compressed into one slightly haggard looking man. At the same time, I suspect that's almost the point. They don't want to get in the way of the game too much.
Alec: It's the Blizzard slickness thing - Jim Blandor and chums are there simply to progress things on, not to be genuinely compelling narrative creations. I suspect they're happy to leave that to people more veteran in it. It's a series of excuses to make something else happen in the game. But Raynor is a terrible, terrible character and I'm amazed they hung so much of the game's presentation and marketing around him.
Quinns: Raynor's fine on paper, as are the rest of his crew. The haggard rebel, the criminal, the nerdy scientist, the by-the-book spit-and-polish captain and his antagonism with the criminal. But in execution it's boring. I couldn't believe it when I heard Tychus refer to some colonists as "Damn dirt-farmers!" as if it was space slang. Like, dirt-huggers, yeah. Dirty dirt people. Whatever. But dirt-farmers? Where else do you expect them to farm, dude? [Edit: I have since discovered this is a real-life phrase, and I am thick. --Quinns]
Alec: Raynor's "everyone's a critic" after one of the news reports made me turn the game off for the rest of the day.
Quinns: Yeah. Fortunately the mission design and between-mission development of your forces is completely engaging. I can't believe how much you get to play with that's not in the multiplayer.
Alec: Robot panthers!
Quinns: Exactly. The single-player Terran forces are some 200% more varied than their multiplayer kin.
Alec: The unlock and upgrade systems are great - it's dialled down and rewarding rather than screen-spamming handicapping. You have to wonder what Blizzard's plans are in that regard. Microtransaction units, perhaps?
Quinns: Impossible. No way. Not after they spent this much time on balancing. Maybe they'll be the new Terran units when the next two instalments of StarCraft 2 arrive. But even that seems unlikely. Most of the extra units in the singleplayer double-up on some other unit's role.
Alec: Or simply for terran vs terran matches? It seems a lot to effectively abandon.
Quinns: Maaaaaybe. Really though, what they've got going on here is a whole other world to the multiplayer. Which is one of the stranger things about SC2. This is absolutely two games.
Alec: It has to be. It's the smartest thing about it. While they would never admit to it, they know they painted themselves into a corner with the multiplayer. They know they're not really going to win a new audience there. What they'll do to keep singleplayers singleplaying will be very interesting.
Quinns: And God, they're doing just everything. I can't get over the mission design. Every level is unique. Every level has some twist that bends the game mechanics in some unforeseen way.
Alec: Yes, every one is its own adventure. All killer, no filler. Even the old "keep the hero unit alive" level involves the hero being inside a Taj Mahal-sized robot suit.
Quinns: The zombie defense! Let's talk about the zombie defense.
Alec: Oh, that's brilliant. Waves of attackers by night, going and burning their crypts by day. But it's the additional challenges, the achievement and unlock poitns that make it - coaxing you into going out at night, leaving safety even though it's suicidal. Just so you can hunt some beast that only emerges at night.
Quinns: On Hard the night raids of zombies were great. They must be absurd on Hardcore, the setting above Hard. I had SCVs parked behind whole walls of bunkers, perpetually repairing, knowing that at dawn my Hellion attack force would be able to leave the base through the gaps torn in my defense.
Alec: Random point: this is the only RTS I can think of where bunkers aren't boring. They're a splendid little sub-game all to themselves, once you factor in the upgrades - guns on top, increased troop capacity, using bunkers as walls in front of other bunkers...
Quinns: You see some great bunker play at the start of pro StarCraft matches. Players sprinting a lone marine at the lone bunker wedging the entrance of their base closed, trying to get him inside it as a couple of Zerglings just manage to set it on fire.
Quinns: The level design in StarCraft 2 is actually so good it makes me a little speechless that other RTS games never bothered getting this creative. Or is that me being a terrible person? Is StarCraft 2 just more suited to curious missions?
Alec: StarCraft 2 has all the money in the world. Ten times as many groats and ten times as many people have worked on every single level. We must not forget this. It's not because Blizzard have cracked open some magic potion, it's because they have the resourcest to do what every RTS dev would love to do. But underneath that, it is a very conventional RTS. An impeccably-polished one, but it doesn't take the risks that other devs do.
Quinns: Mm. Then let's be glad that at least they didn't screw it up. I can't imagine the desk-biting fury if I was an RTS developer watching Blizzard waste all these resources.
Alec: Heh. I mean, God knows how much they scrapped during the last 12 years. They were never going to release it if anything was wrong. The time also means they've packed so much detail in - the news reports, the jukebox, the curious animals... and the incredible optimisation of the character close-ups in the in-engine cutscene. Some of that stuff is flabbergasting. If you peer closely, you can see the backgrounds are totalyl static, they've poured every single polygon into slowly-moving faces. It could have looked like a shitty animatronic theme park ride, but they've absolutely nailed it, you just don't notice the trickery
Quinns: I certainly didn't. That's amazing.
Quinns: So here's what I'm curious about. This slice of golden single player- this glittering thing. Do you think after you're done with it you'll want to get involved in the multiplayer?
Alec: Basically, no, bar some journalistic poking. I know what it is, I know it's not really for me, and I know it won't scratch anything like the same itches as the campaign. I presume you're chomping at the bit to climb those ladders?
Quinns: A little. But it's not really about climbing ladders, beating people down, anything like that. I just love how hopelessly deep the game is. I want to see myself get better. I want to sink my psyche into it like you would a scalding-hot bath.
Alec: I respect that urge. I've always been one to explore all the surface of a game rather than plunge into particular depths. This is because I am lazy and very easily distracted.
Alec: A look, a pigeon!
Quinns: In closing: To anyone who's curious or cynical about why they'd release this game in three parts, it's for people like me. It lets me know that if I want to take this game seriously, I'll be rewarded. In time there'll be an expansion, with more units and map elements. And then another!
Alec: There is absolutely no sense that this is just a third of a game. Definitely more akin to, say, the Lord of the Rings movies. The first massive part of a ludicrously massive saga.
Quinns: Right. And that's a saga I kinda wanna be involved in. In five years I want to have fond memories of when they introduced the Zerg Bumlisk and the Protoss Taciturnitoss, and I had to reinvent my whole strategy.
Alec: It's about being a game as a service, a place we live in for the next half-decade. It's not an MMO, but it's totally designed to be like WoW
Quinns: I never thought of it like that. Aren't Blizzard making a StarCraft MMO, too?
Alec: It's supposed to be a new IP. I don't believe we'll have any other StarCraft project until all chapters of this are done, and I don't believe we'll see the new MMO until 2013 or something.
Quinns: Hey. Holy shit. I just had a thought. Are Blizzard giving WarCraft 4 this treatment right now?
Alec: They could well be. I just don't think they're into having multiple products off one IP active at any one time though. WC3 is still fairly active, they'll give it a few years yet. But they're almost certainly working on a crapload of projects we don't know about for release within the next decade.
Quinns: Dammit, Blizzard.
Alec: Anyway, let's go back to our achievements. We must reconvene for full-Verdict next week, and give Jim and Kieron time to play some of it and add whatever obtuse and 100% wrong comments they have upon it.
Quinns: Yeah. And if they're not interested, maybe I'll finish that World War Three feature myself.
Quinns: Until next time!
Alec: For the confenderacy!
Alec: Are they the good guys? I don't know. I wasn't really paying attention.
Quinns: Sorry? I was busy reformulating my build queue.