Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review - Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty


This is pretty late, but I've taken some time off from writing my games to produce a quick review of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. I'm only reviewing the single-player portion, as playing the game on multiplayer for more than 15 seconds makes me feel like I'm going to have a stroke. I'm still trying to remember which button makes me build a barracks, and when fifty laser ninjas are crashing through my perimeter. It makes me hate myself.

TL;DR Summary: Really fun game. Really dopey story, but it doesn't matter, because in games like this all the story has to be is a placeholder, a floppy useless thing that hangs off the side and is ignored by everyone. Also, computer games can be art, but, secretly, nobody really wants them to be.


So. The Starcraft 2 campaign. Very interesting stuff. There's really two parts of it. The story and the missions.

1. The Story

But, you might ask, why bother to review a story in a game like this? I mean, sure, games like this and Halo and Gears of War have goofy storylines. Everyone knows they're goofy. They will always be goofy. So why bother saying it?

Well, to answer your hypothetical question, imaginary reader, whenever a game makes you spend time experiencing something, it is fair to evaluate that experience. If you take my time up with something, it's worthwhile to ask whether said time was worth spending. Also, Blizzard spent a ton of money making that story, with the cutscenes and the voice acting and whatnot, so it's fun to ask whether they got their money's worth. A few comments are entirely justified.

The story to Starcraft 2 is what you would get if the stories of Firefly and Gears of War had a drunken hookup. I swear, the writers of Starcraft 2 wanted to be making a lost episode of Firefly so bad that it was almost poignant. The western theme, the mood, the accents, the train-robbery mission, even the dang music cues.

But the story itself is pretty painful. Cheesy dialogue. Bland characters. Aimless storytelling where very little interesting happens. And, considering that this is the story of how an endless horde of bug-creatures eats nine-tenths of humanity, making it kind of dull is a real achievement.

There are two things I would do to fix a storyline like this. If one real game writer working for a real company reads what I write and thinks, "Hmmm. He might have a point," I can die happily knowing I made the world a better place.

War Is Interesting. Don't Neglect the War.

The whole game is basically about a war between people and bug creatures. War is one of the most fascinating things you can tell a story about. The cunning generals. The terrified soldiers. The major battles. The tactics and turnabouts. There is limitless drama in the story of a war.

But, in the story of Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the war itself is usually only seen in cutscenes or on the news show you can watch on the TV in the bar. Most of the stuff you do in the game has nothing to do with the war. You're learning about some Protoss prophecy. You're gathering parts of some crystal artifacts. You are gathering supplies for some crazy guy so he can do some thing. You don't engage the bug creatures in a big, meaningful way until like 90% of the way into the game.

It's like if I was telling the story of World War 2 and never mentioned anything about D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. Instead, it's the story of how a bunch of guys went to Madagascar to find the three parts of a magic laser that would win the war by killing Hitler. I'm sorry, but this is not the best use of your dramatic material.

Make What You Do Have a Point

So this is what happened. In the story, some crazy guy has me spend two missions gathering materials for some super space gun or something. Then a pretty space girl with psychic space powers comes to me and tells me I need to kill him. I choose to believe her, so I spend a whole mission laboriously destroying the supplies I spend the earlier missions gathering.

So that was four whole missions (two to gather supplies, two potential missions for what happens to them), a whole seventh of the game, getting stuff and then destroying it, achieving exactly nothing. What a waste of precious storytelling space.

One of the best things to do with the story in a video game is to make the player feel all badass. Killing fifty space mans with your space gun is already awesome. Knowing you are doing this to save the space princess from the space bugs gives the power fantasy a nice little kick. Players like knowing that their actions are making a difference. Maybe completing the mission has a good effect. Maybe a bad effect. But you should make sure that the mission the player just spent time and effort completing makes a difference. Doing otherwise is unwise. Never invite the player to think his or her actions in the game are meaningless.

2. The Level Design

There was some angst online when it was announced that the storyline for Starcraft 2 was going to be split into three full games, of which Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty was the first. Understandably, there were complaints about having to pay for three games instead of one for the same story. Now that I've played the first game, I can say this. If the superb level design of the first game continues through the next two, splitting the thing into three games is great news. The story is a bit blah, but the game itself is a huge amount of fun.

First off, the designers saw that the core gameplay of Starcraft 2 is really fun. You build a base, make it stronger, make badass troops, and send them out to kill things. So that is the main structure of most of the missions, but with the added kindness of usually making sure the core elements of your base have been built, to save you the tedium of mining a bunch of unobtanium and building a barracks for the eighty thousandth time.

However, while the spine of the gameplay is the same, every mission is different, with the variety coming in what you fight or what your goals are. One mission requires you to blow up trains as they speed quickly across the level. Another mission takes place on a planet being scoured by fire, so you need to quickly leapfrog your base to the right, fighting foes as you go.

There are several defense missions and a handful of "Tiny number of units sneaking through a big fort" missions, enough to add variety but not enough to distract from the main mode gameplay. Also, there are a million different units you can build, most of which you will forget and never use again. However, each unit has one mission designed to use its particular strengths, so all of that work making new graphics models won't go to waste.

So, yeah, once I figured out that the Escape key would bump me past most of the plot, I had lots and lots of fun playing Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty.

So What Does This Mean?

That all the time they spent making the story and all of the time I spent writing about it and all of the time you spent reading it was kind of a waste. The story didn't matter. The game was a lot of fun, and it would have been even if all of the cutscenes depicted my protagonist sitting on the couch or yelling at space elves.

Games in stories are usually a vestigial limb. Every once in a while, I play a game that is improved by its story. (Most of these titles are by Bioware.) A story can provide excellent context. On the other hand, who cares about context? Most of the time, people just want to melt faces. While it can be nice to know whose faces they are and for what reason said melting is occurring, it's not necessary.

While I do believe that games can sometimes be art, they really, really don't need to be. It gives me a lot of sympathy for the people who say they can't be art. The "artistic content" part usually has nothing to do with the "fun" part, and the "fun" part was really all I cared about. Zap! Zap! Pew! Pew!

It's like I've said for quite a while, "Players will forgive you for making a good story, as long as you allow them to ignore it." It's a weird thing for someone like me to say, since the stories in my games are one of the main selling points. But, at some point, I can't ignore what people actually go out and play. Myself included.

32 comments:

  1. I was one of those who complained about Blizzard selling a third of a game at a time. And I stuck to it and didn't buy it. Looks like I was about the only one.

    Now, when the box set ships in 2014 where the whole thing is $40, then I'll probably get it, and have fun playing through the single player campaign. Not until then though.

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  2. Not that I care one wit about the story, but one of my friends is always talking about the starcraft universe and its story, and how detailed and good it is.

    I do not know much about it, but it might not be nearly as goofy if you read some of the back story.

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  3. The story is a lot better if you played the first game and saw the story from that prospective. If you jump right on into Star craft 2 you get a bit lost.

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  4. "It's like if I was telling the story of World War 2 and never mentioned anything about D-Day or the Battle of the Bulge. "

    Which is quite easy to do, seeing as how those particular battles were pretty much insignificant. So yeah, good thought - bad example.

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  5. Very interesting read. Most of them are valid. Most of the story telling are boring, EXCEPT some excellent cut senses (i.e. Zeratu fighing Queen of blade) just made the game movie like (almost like enjoying an action movie).

    That said, I hate most of the cut senses with western styles. And I don't like the defense style missions (not that many, not the last one). I like to take a challenge (or at least make me feel like it is a challenge) and destroy stuff.

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  6. The same thing goes for fiction; you get the fun books which you enjoy but are reluctant to admit you read, and the artistic books which you'd like to claim you've read but really don't want to actually read, but then, just occasionally occasionally you get the fun artistic books that you read happily without feeling embarrassed about having read.

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  7. If its fun, it is not art?

    Where the hell did that attitude come from?

    I think you may be a little bit confused between good art and what poodle-intellectual hipster wankers claim is good art.

    I am disappoint.

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  8. Its funny, I really wanted to like the story. It has some good moments with appropriate drama and action, and yet overall it mostly feels... aimless. Too bad. The first Starcraft did it better.

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  9. Crazy, I feel like the gameplay is "meh". But I quite enjoyed the story, it sounds to me, like you skipped through the most important parts. You don't gather the rare minerals for the laser drill; you gather them because it enhances his spec ops soldiers' abilities.

    The thing is, you are correct that pushing the war aspect would be more enthralling. But the three games are not about factions, they are about champions of said factions. It's their story developing through a war.

    It would be impossible to give a single user control of all bases/forces/capital that the Terrans posses. Besides, it wouldn't go with the first game.

    Granted, (with the ballooning in infrastructure inside Blizzard) they could have done better with their resources, I am happy but not satisfied.

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  10. I found the story quite compelling, myself. But that's the thing about a story: quality is all too often subjective.

    To each his (or her) own.

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  12. In the far, far future where there is a Starcraft II Battlechest (I anticipate perhaps 2025, as it will take until 2020 for the complete Starcraft II to come out and Blizzard will have no incentive to cut into sales with a bundle for some time thereafter), it will probably weigh in at around $120, not $40. You may as well just buy it now when it's current and exciting.

    Also, that particular storyline has a fairly different conclusion if you trust the guy you were working with to begin with. Just saying. I do agree that Starcraft II's story delivery could use some work, though... I think part of the issue is simply the level of freedom you have to pick between missions. You essentially have something like 6 or 7 mostly parallel subplots that you can mix and match as you choose, which makes it tough to get invested in any given one of them, compared to the fairly high intensity, straight ahead nature of the original Starcraft narrative. Also, while I found Raynor reasonably appealing as a hero, if a bit inconsistent, most of the supporting characters are just kind of there. I'm not even sure I'd remember Tychus particularly if he weren't in the opening cutscene.

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  13. @ Jonathon Wisnoski - That is true about the StarCraft universe, but it does not apply to StarCraft II. StarCraft 1 had a far more immense and detailed story line. It didn't have any massive cut scenes but it did take the story and characters very seriously.

    Also the storyline of Starcraft II completely Retcons out many key parts of the previous game. Like how the BroodWar kind of never happened, and how it only gets two sentences of recognition from the second game, even though it is the most important part of the original game.

    I started playing Blizzard games back in 94, And all of their RTS games had really delved into the story telling and making the plot for the game as interesting as the gameplay. Sadly the last game that had an epic plot was WarCraft 3: the Frozen Throne.

    StarCraft 2 plot wise isn't even a very coherent sequel. In fact, anyone who has played the original and Brood War should have been scratching their head the whole game trying to rationalize the character changes, and events.

    Overall I have to Agree with Jeff'

    And the game play is pretty nifty and fun =D

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  16. "StarCraft 2 plot wise isn't even a very coherent sequel. In fact, anyone who has played the original and Brood War should have been scratching their head the whole game trying to rationalize the character changes, and events."

    Exactly. Where the hell is earth in all this? And now the Overmind was a brave creature? I loved the game play, but I feel like there is a massive disconnect between the first game and the second.

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  17. After seeing the world war 2 movie it is going to be my third movie in cinema. Previous one, I saw around year ago.

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  18. I think you hit the nail on the head here. You should try to imagine it from the perspective of someone who grew up with the original. Despite the various improvements, this game almost hurt to play.

    After replaying the original, I can safely say that it's far more engaging than SC2, in both story and gameplay. I just want to know what compels a company to spend a boat-load of money on a game without a proper story to tell. Obviously, making money is their prime concern, but don't they have any pride in their work? It seems to me that the story should always come first, but I grew up in the 90s in a golden age of PC and console gaming, so what would I know?

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  19. In regards to the gameplay, the unit control, etc. is MUCH IMPROVED. Being able to set rally points on one of your own guys is sweet.

    I am disappointed with many of the decisions they made however. Especially for the multiplayer (mostly terran). No medics! No goliaths! (Vultures, Science Vessels, Firebats, Wraiths...).

    There is no anti air unit from the factory!!!! (No cost effective one, why you would build thors for aa is beyond me.) Oh, and how would you make a chopper stealth? Makes little sense to me.

    I do enjoy being able to select more than 12 units at a time, tab through unit types in a selection (similar to warcraft), tell ghosts to hold their fire. These were excellent decisions. Rally points for workers (separate for workers and soldiers as zerg).

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  21. I like its story, because I have similar kind of life experience.
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  23. I'll probably get it labatterie and have fun playing through the single player campaign.

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  25. I was both awed and disappointed by StarCraft 2. I've been a big fan of the StarCraft universe since I was 9 and first played StarCraft. Jump forward eight years after much waiting and drooling and starcraft.org lurking (which was remodeled and purged of everything that made it amazing when sc2 came out btw) and also a rather annoying StarCraft:Ghost loss, SC2 came out.

    I bought it even though I was nearly broke and spent the week camped out at my computer. It's an amazing game, true... But the Story made me bash my head against a wall. When I first saw Raynor and Arcturus and having Mengsk mind-controlling people or whatever they were doing then I just had to facepalm. Raynor is NOT a cowboy, he is one of the most epic and noble characters ever from Mar Sara. And another thing... Mar Sara... They seriously overran it with Zerg EXACTLY like they did in the first one? And now it doesn't even make sense! I wanted some amazing brood war action, but no!

    Kerrigan had controlled everything, in the most epic battle that I couldn't beat without cheats. (Last mission of Brood War was AMAZING) It focused on Raynor way too much. In SC1, there was drama and infestation and war and the awesome protoss storylines. Here they made Kerrigan an idiotic emoish person who doesn't attack people for four years. Also, wtf happened to duran? Dr. Narud was obviously duran in disguise, but why did he look and sound so different? What happened to the almighty hybrids Zeratul went looking for and completely ignored. Wai is Tassadar not dead, and nothing worked how it was supposed to!

    sorry for ranting, but the SC storyline was amazing, better than any I've come across since and butchering it like this was like tearing my childhood away... Which is rather sad, I know. Anyway, En Taro Tassadar.

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