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.