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The Games Of Christmas’ 10: Day 21

There are always sequels. Always. But there aren't many sequels in a year that are as significant as this. What could it be? You already know, don't you?

It's... Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty!

^____^ gl hf

Jim: I haven't even played the single-player. That's what I'll be doing when RPS closes up shop for the year, three days from now. You might think I would be making Christmas cheer with my family, but no. I will be embarking on a the solitary bombast of the Terrans. And I will love it.

But there's little chance that I will love it as much as the multiplayer because, in truth, this is why this game was forged in the steam ludo-pits of Castle Blizzard. The code goblins down there really do care about making their mark on the great RTS campaigns of history, so much so that the game is to be spread like luscious golden game honey over the next two years. But what they are best at, where their art and their science sings with precision and relevance, is in the multiplayer. That's what I have been playing.

It's telling that one of the smartest pieces of design in Starcraft II is the match-making via Battlenet. It knows what you have been playing, it knows what you have achieved, who you beat, and how easy you found it. The chances of you ending up playing someone whose skill is grossly different to your own are low. It does happen, but not often enough for me to doubt the prowess of whoever it was that put this stuff together. It's masterful.

Of course it helps that the game itself is like a Kung Fu of micromanagement. It's one of those learned processes, of course. And the maths of the perfect build orders are frightening. But it allows you to play at your own pace, slowly ramping up the intensity until you are flickering robot of tactical trickery. Pushing yourself upward into the endgames, where you deal the final blow to an opponent, are one of the most satisfying things in competitive gaming.

I ended up playing more RUSE than I did Starcraft 2, but I have little doubt about which was the better versus game. It was this.

Quinns: I thought I had what it takes. I did. When StarCraft 2 came out, I decided I’d put in the hours and get good at it. Why not? Here was a game that I liked, that was polished to an unheard-of degree and that had top-quality stat-tracking and matchmaking. Plus, I could play a side with the ability to squirt its troops directly into an enemy base via an enormous
subterranean worm
. The time was ripe. I was going to learn how to squirt my lads into enemy bases the world over.

For a couple of months, I was a contender. I watched replays like a hawk, learned hotkey combos and spent hours shaving seconds off my build queues. A little kernel of skill was developing inside me, and every successive victory felt like I'd earned it. Then one afternoon Rich McCormick pinged a message at me.

Let me explain- Rich McCormick works for PC Gamer, and back in the StarCraft 2 beta he was the star of this video of Kieron and myself beating PCG at SC2, which I obviously posted on this very site. The afternoon when he sent me a message was months later, and well into the release of StarCraft 2. It was a link to his SC2 profile, showing that he’d reached the Silver league, or something. I noticed something else on his profile, though. Here’s the transcript of our conversation after that.

Rich: sup.
me: Well. I mean. Let's say they take 15 minutes each, which is a conservative estimate.
Rich: very conservative. very very.
me: You've spent some 80 hours playing SC2 since it came out 7 weeks ago. That means you’re averaging 90 minutes every single day. I hope you realise this means I'll never be playing you, ever.
Rich: unfortunately, I have called you out already. I'll even take a handicap and do a 2v2 with Tim [editor of PC Gamer UK].
me: For a start, I have no partner. For a second thing, in what universe is it where if a blatantly superior player calls out an amateur the amateur has to take time out of his day to get stomped.
Rich: but ahah! the amateur made his own bed when he posted a video to youtube and then relinked it when his opponent grew into his horrible carapace.
me: You made your own bed when you lost! Tell you what. I can see this is important to you. Therefore, I will not post the video again.

Rich: but I want to wiiiiiiin. and I want to wangle you into plaaaaaying.
me: Ha. Tempted as I am, I'm going to have to return to my busy life of being busy and not playing SC2
/me twiddles thumbs
Rich: won't one of the RPS chaps back you up? you could have John! he'd
moral support?
me: I'll give you moral support in a minute

And that was that. The whole conversation left me crushed, but this crushing took its time. It was like my will to train had been placed in some kind of slow-motion trash compactor. Rich had unintentionally shown me that in 100 hours time I’d be in exactly the same position I was now, only with some different numbers on my player profile. More importantly, he’d also proved that I wasn’t a contender. I was just playing.

I suppose what I was interested in, really, was the mystique surrounding high-level StarCraft play. It’s like Eve Online- I see this intense, inspired community that’s built up around a game, and I read some of their stories, and I want in. In Eve’s case, I’ll read an article about a player who pulled off some twenty thousand dollar heist after six months undercover. For SC2, it was watching commentaries on high-level matches.

But when I play these games I always find that the same sad reality is waiting for me like a pervert in a bush. The truth is, just to /get/ to that level of involvement is going to take more time than I’m willing to give, not to mention all the games I won’t be able to play because I’ll be spending however many hundreds of hours playing this one. It’s just not worth it. Yet the richness of play that I could be experiencing still sucks me in every single time.

I don’t play StarCraft 2 anymore, but I do still love the Zerg. I love that I got so much better at playing them when I adopted a hive mentality of MAXIMUM REPRODUCTION and MINIMUM VALUE OF LIFE. On a simpler level, I love that they’re different, disgusting and make up for weakness with speed, making them the Kieron Gillen of the RTS world.

I should also mention that I don't regret my time spent training, even if I didn't get where I wanted it to. It was all worth it for the few half-decent Nydus Worm plays I managed in my last matches before Rich got in touch. The beauty of it- assembling your assault team, scouting the spot for the worm, and then suffering the agonising countdown as your worm takes its time burrowing into place before bursting out of the Earth and spewing out your forces at the touch of your button. This is a wonderful game. It is. And when Heart of the Swarm in 2012, I know I'll be lured right back in.

Kieron: While I'll remember it for the short, intense few weeks where Quinns and me were at each others' throats (him Zerg, me Protoss), I'm one of the members of RPS who did actually persist into the single player game right to its conclusion. And while I'm with Alec in thinking it more than a little bland, it did manage to do a few clever things in removing "choice" from "failure" in its branching area. And in its own little way, it was nifty. It was hyper traditional, but I didn't play another entirely traditional RTS this year, so making it somewhat fresh. It was a blockbuster RTS in the best way - as in, it did everything you could reasonably ask. Nothing impossible or reaching, but for a reasonable lovely time, it'll give you it. And, as I argued elsewhere, it's fascinating how Blizzard's success fundamentally fossilised the design. It's the one RTS who really, in its heart of hearts, believes its peer is Street Fighter or Virtua Fighter rather than - say - Call of Duty, Jim's little WW2 men game or Ruse. And it's not wrong, and for that, I'm very glad it exists.

Alec: The Blizzard effect is forever an extraordinary thing. This is a developer able to resist the entropy that blights its peers - their subscription-only MMO only grows even as the rest close up or turn hungrily to the unsure future of free to play, their ancient 2D space RTS has an entire nation at its disposal even as one-time rival Command & Conquer is driven into the ground by its publisher... And StarCraft II? A traditional RTS through and through, but instantly a global phenomenon despite every other RTS disappearing into a niche or being forcibly stuffed inside an RPG.

The singleplayer was my main experience of StarCraft II. I despised the narrative and characterisation, couldn't understand why a company with so much time, money and resource would burn it on such hokiness, but somehow that didn't really get in the way of feeling like I was having my own, tailored galactic adventure. The silent illusion of choice and the impeccably scripted mission/map design was enough to have me convinced I was carving my own heroic path across a universe in peril. I picked my units, I picked my priorities, I came up with plans I was convinced derived solely from my own wits and derring-do: but all along I was doing exactly what the game knew I was going to do. It knew how to make me feel good, and it offered me all the signposts and all the self-indulgence I needed to achieve that.

While I'd ultimately rather slow-dance with DOW2: Chaos Rising for its mood, tone and fiction, I can't for one second pretend StarCraft II isn't the finest art singleplayer RTS design has yet seen. I'd rather read a Wikipedia summary of all 50 years' worth of Coronation Street episodes than of Starcraft's backstory, but I'll be playing Heart of the Swarm on launch day just for the grand toybox it will surely boast.

The multiplayer isn't for me. I'm just too lazy. It's exercise, essentially: endless training in the name of self-betterment. I've never managed so much as an hour at the gym. I'm just too god-damned lazy. I'm glad it's there for those who need that thrill, who need to master a game rather than simply beat it. I am glad, even though there's a few games journalists I'm going to have to unfollow on Twitter because all they ever bloody talk about is arranging and playing SC2 matches. (Though I'm grateful even for that - as other PC journos increasingly spend all their time and enthusiasm playing and writing about only this or WoW, RPS is left free to explore and celebrate the grand variety of PC gaming.)

Thanks to years of experience and billions of words of player feedback, Blizzard have worked out the precise scientific formula for competitive RTS. I'll eat my cat if anyone manages to outdo 'em. Blizzard's surely the richest developer in the world. They can't be beaten. That is absolutely terrifying: so much power in the hands of one company. But hell, let's reap the rewards.

The pay-off of StarCraft II simultaneously reviving and destroying (for everyone else, at least) the RTS genre is it leaves the floor clear for strategy games that aren't slavishly chasing the traditional multiplayer audience. Aware that there's no point in fighting SC2's sheer polish, the rivals have mostly disappeared, which means those interested in the furtherance of strategy can wade into the smart and inventive likes of Blight of the Immortals. The future of strategy, now unbound from build'n'bash, is incredibly bright.

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