Well do I remember the first time I met Ben. I’d written an article semi-attacking Roger Ebert for, you know, being Roger Ebert. And Ben, who’d apparently been a fan of my column, forwarded it to the great man, who in turn wrote me directly, politely agreed to disagree, and CC’d Ben on the missive. Then Ben and I got into email and we had a chance to grab some breakfast together at that year’s Game Developer’s Conference. Since then we’ve made a point to get together at any conferences we’re collectively at; I at least have about 450 pounds of fun when we hang out. Ben started at High Voltage Software, (where he produced Duel Masters), and then to EA (where he served as design director for Def Jam: Icon) to Emergent (where he launched demos showcasing the company’s famous engine GameBryo) to Paramount (where he tried desperately to get Hollywood morons to understand the gaming business), finally to 47Games, where he belongs – which is to say, his own company, a consultancy that will soon hire me focused on maximizing the synergy between games and movies.
I mentioned Ben a couple posts ago, when I wrote about Deadly Premonition. And I meant what I said: never have I known anyone who can disassemble a game experience better. To put it another way, Ben knows what the fuck he is talking about. And while we don’t always agree, one of the many things I love about him is that we both share the slack-jawed glee of loving games, even when we hate them. Ben and I have never had the opportunity to do this, but we could sit at a table, drinking and eating, and talk about games for… hell, 20 hours at least before we lost interest. He’s a good friend and a kindred spirit. You should definitely check out his blog .
Today, he’d like to share with you his thoughts on Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, a game some of you might have heard of. Take it away, Ben!
This should be pretty spoiler-free. I picked up my copy of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty Collector’s Edition on Tuesday, at Target and have spent a pretty considerable amount of time with it since then.
There’s a lot of value in that big $99 box, particularly from the exclusive Battle.net assets, the inclusion of Starcraft and Brood War on a 2GB USB replica dog tag, a gorgeous and large art book, and an exclusive WoW pet. The game soundtrack, Episode Zero comic book, and behind-the scenes DVD are nice but not as important to me. My biggest complaint is that there wasn’t a way to get the Collector’s Edition (or some sort of equivalent Digital Collector’s Edition) directly from Blizzard via Battle.Net. I looked for this option and would have taken it, had it been available. Instead, I spent about an hour calling all over LA to find a Target that had a spare copy.
With regards to the game itself, I’m very impressed and would say that Blizzard’s perfect record of creating top-quality video games remains untarnished. So far, I have spent most of my time (about 15 hours) playing the single-player campaign and am really enjoying it. From a gameplay perspective, Blizzard made the wise decision to make the single-player experience very different from the multiplayer experience. By this, I mean that one does not play the single-player missions as one would a multiplayer match. The missions are much more scripted and frequently catered to a specific unit. Similarly, many missions have unique circumstances, such as time limits, shifting day/night sequences, optional objectives, unique units, and more. I also really appreciate that there are so many more units available in the single-player campaign. This makes sense, considering that these missions don’t really have to be balanced like they would for multiplayer. I particularly liked that units from the original game (such as Vultures, Goliaths, and Firebats) that have been dropped from multiplayer are still playable here.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Starcraft II and previous Blizzard RTS games is the inclusion of “RPG-Lite” mechanics in between missions. In particular, the ability to contract various mercenary units, spend credits on upgrades for basic units, and use research points to unlock new bonuses and units are all very cool. While these are not fundamentally revolutionary concepts (having clearly been borrowed from Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II), as usual, Blizzard has taken a good idea and refined it to near-perfection.
Blizzard has also given the player a greater sense of control and agency in between missions. In addition to the standard (and gorgeous) Blizzard cut-scenes, the player can now explore four different sections of the main character (Jim Raynor)’s flagship, the Hyperion. These four areas are the Armory, Bridge, Cantina, and Laboratory. In these places the player can watch News broadcasts, initiate conversations with other characters, spend credits/research points, and explore the ship. Finally, in another apparent nod to Relic’s RTS games, the player is given a limited set of choices with regards to the order in which they choose to pursue the various missions. Admittedly, these implementations are rather “lightweight,” but they certainly offer more depth and sense of immersion than was available in previous Blizzard RTS games.
The single-player campaign, of course, centers around a story that picks up where the Brood War expansion left off. The story is solid, but presumes a pretty significant amount of knowledge of the earlier events. The included manual does a decent job of summarizing these, but a replay of the original games (which can be easily accomplished considering that they are included on a USB flash drive with the Collector’s Edition of the game) is not a bad idea.
My primary narrative-related complaint has to do with the Raynor character. At times there is a disconnect between his performance and the way that the other characters in the game treat and speak about him. He seems to be a reasonably upbeat guy with a wry sense of humor most of the time, but he’s also supposed to be this pathologically depressed alcoholic who is pining away for his lost love. Unfortunately, the game struggles to make these two personalities feel natural for the character, leaving him seeming somewhat schizophrenic. However, to even be having this conversation in the context of a video game is pretty unusual/impressive, and it is definitely a story that has kept me engaged.
I have a love-hate relationship with the moments in the campaign where I’m forced to make big decisions (Tosh vs. Nova; Hansen vs. Protoss). Similarly, with regards to making the research decisions as you progress up the research tree. On the one hand, I hate having to worry about whether or not I’m making the “wrong” decision, but I also respect that the game acknowledges that you can’t always have your cake and eat it too. I have really agonized over some of these and am considering replaying the game to see what happens if I make different choices. This added replay value is nice.
Of course, Starcraft is probably more well-known as a multiplayer game than a single-player one. I have not played very many multiplayer matches yet, but I spent a lot of time playing the multiplayer beta, and I’m assuming that it hasn’t changed much. If that’s the case, I know that I’m going to spend a lot more time with it after I’m done with the campaign. As always, Blizzard has done an amazing job of balancing the 3 factions. I’m also really pleased with the improvements that have been made to Battle.net, including the RealID system, built-in voice chat, achievements, improved matchmaking, etc. Again, nothing revolutionary here, but all very welcome and well-executed.
Visually, I think that the game is stunning. The level of detail is incredible, the characters (particularly the faces) are remarkably well-exeucted, and even playing on “Medium” visual settings (for the most part) on my laptop, I’m struck by how great the game looks. I just wish that I could play it on a machine that could handle all the Ultra settings.
One of the chief complaints that i’ve heard leveled at the game (and I can understand why) is that it’s very similar to the original Starcraft. I think that this is particularly true in multiplayer, where many of the games conventions actually seem a little bit out-of-date. Still, for people like me (and most of Korea) who loved the first Starcraft game, this will not be a huge negative. And I really think that the game has a much more ambitious single-player experience than I had expected, and certainly one that improves significantly on the original game.
In summary, Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is a blast. As is to be expected from Blizzard, it is a highly-polished experience that pefects many of the genre’s best ideas, without taking any major risks. If you’re a fan of RTS games in general, or this game’s predecessor in particular, you will not be disappointed.
Ben will be hanging around for the next several days to respond to any comments. Thanks for the editorial, my friend – drinks are on me at GDC Austin.