Hey, it’s Starcraft 2! My brother and I went to a midnight opening last night (the whole affair was incredibly creepy, as one would expect things to be when one mixes Best Buy and the eager, bedraggled young Starcraft devotees of Connecticut), figuring we’d get it out of our system overnight, and be able to get back to work the next day. Of course, it’s 4pm here, and we’ve only now stopped playing. It’s basically the same game, but fancier (in many ways). I’m still awful at it, and the late game especially is opaque to me, as the super units are so rarely used that when I do buy one, I’m paralyzed by indecision. What is a giant walking robot good for? Apparently, dying in a hail of gunfire.
It looks very pretty, even close up. The single player storyline is massively stupid, just as you’d expect. Jim Raynor spends most of his screen time trying to decide whether to ape Mal, Han, or (awfully) Marcus Fenix. He’s not interesting or convincing, no matter which hat he’s wearing. That’s entirely irrelevant. Starcraft 2 is the same game as Starcraft in many ways, but it’s designed with more than one kind of gamer in mind, and it’s designed (often) with me in mind: I’m completely useless at remembering build tress, stats, potential build orders, and the best responses to sudden assaults.
In Starcraft, whenever I ventured online to stick my neck out for a stranger’s ax, the reasons for my inevitable loss were mostly opaque to me. Starcraft 2 takes everything about every match and makes it transparent and accessible (after the fact, via graphs and replay). I can watch every click, every decision my enemy made, and hopefully learn from them. The game’s still mind-bogglingly hard, for a gamer like me. I’m not smart enough, adaptable enough, and creative enough to win all but the most simple of skirmishes (with the least capable of opponents).
I do enjoy playing it, mostly because it’s pretty, the campaign and achievements are distracting, and it feels “new” again, something Starcraft hasn’t felt like in ages. The heart of the game, the multiplayer is still fast and fun and often impossible to follow. The only other RTS’s I’ll allow myself to play are those made by Relic. They’re more measured, meticulous affairs, for me, at least. Those games allow me to turtle a bit more, they allow me to build up my strength as I might in an RPG. It’s nice to come back to a game that is more about mastering an intricate set of tools, even if I’m incapable of mastering said tools.
There is, oddly, a bolted-on bit of a progression/upgrade mechanic in Starcraft 2. Raynor can visit his lab, armory, and bar (on-board his ship) and buy upgrades for his troops. These are mostly small things (increased health, say), but they’re also upgrades that used to be purchasable in the first game. Your marines won’t have stimpacks until you buy those stimpacks in the armory, for instance. This means that as you progress through the campaign, your armies gain in strength and breadth of ability. It also encourages retroactive mastery of particularly hard single player missions. If you can’t get all of the achievements for one mission, you can always go back when your medics are stronger, more powerful healers. It adds a little something to the straight-up Starcraft gameplay, but it feels a bit off. It’s as if different abilities and items could have been ingame, once-a-match upgrades, but were slotted into the meta/upgrade mechanic because it gave the game a more “full” or RPG-like feel. It’s much less enticing, much less immediately effective and exciting, than the progression mechanics available in Warcraft 3, Blizzard’s last RTS.
In Warcraft 3, items and skills leveled up over the course of each mission: items and skills were all optional; I upgraded what I could, what I wanted, but it felt like I was making interesting decisions for my character, making him or her change in exciting, powerful ways. Starcraft 2‘s upgrade mechanics just feels as if they were carted over from the single player campaign proper, refashioned to look like some kind of persistent mechanic, when they’re nothing of the sort. None of these abilities are game-changers: as I mentioned before, they’re the same powers you used to be able to upgrade at the machine shop. There aren’t any trees, paths, or upgrade decisions (you’ll never cut off one avenue of progression because you followed another, as far as I can tell). There’s no choice, no loss or equivalent gain, not yet. It’s almost entirely meaningless. It’s an excuse for Raynor to wander around talking to people (which might have been neat if they weren’t all boring and silly), and sway back and forth, idling in bars, on bridges, and in cargo bays.
Obviously Blizzard didn’t want to turn Starcraft 2 into an RPG. They’re taking Warcraft in that direction, and it’s an interesting direction, to be sure. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t continue to make Starcraft the deep building/combat strategy game that it is. It’s just strange that they excised these bits and pieces of the game (for the single player campaign, that is) and tacked them back on in such an obviously, unfortunately ineffectual fashion. I still like leveling things up, but I can tell when I’m making choices and when I’m unlocking the next node on my “upgrade” tree, following the path laid out for me. This isn’t an RPG, it isn’t even whatever Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have become. It’s Starcraft mark 2. Were they worried that might not be enough? At least the menu, web/game interface, and learning tools attached to Starcraft 2 feel like organic extensions of the original game’s powerful Battle.net interface and mod tools. They work, and they make the game immensely fun (much more fun than it would be if it were delivered by the bare-bones Starcraft menu and UI). I’m looking forward to the next two portions of Starcraft 2 (although I’m not happy about what a huge, obvious scam this all is… I just paid 60$ for 1/3 of a game), but sure as hell hope I’m not upgrading my Zerglings in the Spwaning Pool research bay, or buying new armor for my Zealots at the Sexy Protoss Night Club. That would be even sillier than Jim Raynor’s bulging muscles and Sexy, Sexy facial hair.
[PS: In Starcraft 2, the media is controlling things. It doesn’t want the public to know things! The douchey newscaster totally cuts off the reporter in the field who’s a real human being! I half expected The Voice of the Agency to appear and tell me that Bangers were headed my way. It’s incredibly juvenile. There aren’t any hawt chicks yet, but there have to be, right? Otherwise the game would implode.]
[PPS: Also, SWEET Soft Outer Space Rock is still the name of the game in the Starcraft 2 universe. That, along with the game’s constant cribbing from 80’s Sci Fi and action movies (along with the painfully uncreative theft of almost all of Firefly’s tone and setting) makes for a depressing, 80’s vibe that never lets. Really, they just needed Tom Cruise to star as Jim Raynor, and the effect would be complete.]