Review by Steerpike
Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty
Released June 27, 2010
Available for PC (version played), Macintosh
Time Played Finished (single player) – about 20 hours
“Perhaps the most important question: will I buy the next game? I will not. And neither, I suspect, will the vast and quiet majority of gamers out there who have no interest whatsoever in Starcraft 2’s multiplayer. The single player game… it is what it is. A study in mediocrity, and a shameful display from a company once revered for its storytelling.”
I was recently ridiculed by two friends for saying this:
“It’d be irresponsible not to buy it. I mean, it’s like part of gaming history. Not buying it would be the same as denying our very geekdom, it would be like not buying DOOM 3.”
The “it” in question was Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the first of three sequels originally planned as one, twelve years in the offing. Sequels to what’s considered the… not the forefather, of course, Dune 2 was the forefather… more like the… well, let’s put it this way: there were other real time strategy games before Starcraft, many others. Many good, even great ones. But it was Starcraft that, in a way, defined the genre, despite the existence of predecessors. In the future when archaeologists mull over the ruins of video gaming, the one that will be the definition of real time strategy will be Starcraft.
So it would be irresponsible not to buy the sequel. It’d be like, I don’t know, not buying something else that’s the sequel to something really important. Thus I bought it. (one of those who mocked me, whose name will go unmentioned but whose initials are JASON DOBRY, also bought it).
Before we get started, a postamble to the above preamble: I could give a shit about multiplayer. I didn’t even log on to Battle.net, aside from the requirements for validation. I don’t want to be Zerg-rushed by eleven year old Koreans. I want story, I want characters. I want games that make me feel. I wanted to know what happened in the beautifully tragic tale of two lovers caught up in a war they couldn’t control; one taken from the other and turned into a monster, her soul ripped from her and twisted, while her man broke his own heart to pieces in guilt and shame despite the fact that there was nothing he could do or could have done to save her, that it had always been too late.
That’s what I wanted. I did not get it. I got an okay game with shamefully bad writing – and, of course, an invitation to spend $60 two more times in order to see the “rest” of the story. What shocks me is not that trifectification of the game – Wings of Liberty is LONG, and only a couple of missions seem tacked on. No, what shocks me is that Blizzard used to have good writers. What happened to them?
So perhaps the most important question: will I buy the next game? I will not. And neither, I suspect, will the vast and quiet majority of gamers out there who have no interest whatsoever in Starcraft 2’s multiplayer. The single player game… it is what it is. A study in mediocrity, and a shameful display from a company once revered for its storytelling.
Gun’ Go-awt Back an’ Ger-in Kill Me a Varmint, uh-huh
I never fully understood the Starcraft fiction. The original game had like a freakin’ novel in the instruction manual detailing a whole bunch of stuff that was really boring, about prisoners and terrorists and whatever. As I grasp it, the Earth got rid of a contingent of its population by shipping them off to the equivalent of Space Australia: sort of a planetary penal colony for crooks. And then ships crashed, and like a thousand years went by, and these “Terrans,” which have never heard of Earth, have become civilized.
It would appear – based on my observations – that in Starcraft fiction, Earth finally got smart. While the manual claims that it was all the criminals they sent out into space, judging from what I’ve seen in the game, it wasn’t criminals at all. It was Southerners. And by “Southerners” I mean the American-centric view of all things: i.e., our “South” is the only south there really is. Oh yeah, I’m talking about Busch Lite-drinking, NASCAR-watching, “y’all”-saying, gator-wrastling, car-on-blocks owning, sister-fucking, no-tooth having, cross-burning, doublewide-living, tabackey-chewing, dumb-as-roaches good ole hillbillies. You know, like our previous President.
Imagine if the very worst stereotype of the American South settled an entire clump of star systems, developed FTL travel, and became a legitimate part of galactic civilization. That’s the Terrans in Starcraft. And Wings of Liberty, the first in the Starcraft 2 trilogy, tells the Terran story.
Now, in Starcraft, this was intentionally hilarious. Oh, the stupid! It was glorious. “Thank gawd fer cold fusion,” says one, as he takes a sixer of beer out of a cooler filled with ice (and a cold-fusion generator). The Terrans were creatures you loved to be ashamed to be related to, with their hoedown manner o’ talkin’ and their “you cin take m’gun outa m’cold dead hand, uh-huh,” and their casual bigotry. Blizzard’s writers mocked them with surgical deftness, even creating game logic around cracker techology – Terran buildings, once damaged, would degrade slowly until they blew up. But in return, Terran ingenuity with duct tape and old carburetors allowed their buildings to fly, so clever commanders could lift ’em off when enemies threatened. It was the car-on-blocks of the future. Oh sure, act offended at that, like the people who claim I’m arrogant because I went to nice schools, or because I have read Shakespeare. It’s not arrogance when you actually are superior. That’s what made the Terrans of Starcraft so lovable.
But Starcraft was not a jokey game; it was actually really dark. It just had that one sliver of humor. And, like in even stereotyped reality, there were smart, kind, openminded, generous, brave souls amongst the morons. People for whom the concept of “hospitality” meant something other than cornholing visitors in the barn. People of learning. Good people. People like Jim Raynor, a classic white-hat marshall in a lawless region of space. Unfortunately it always seems to be people like that who wind up in the worst situations. In Starcraft, Raynor inadvertently hooks up with a rebellious organization seeking to bring down the autocratic Terran government, falls in love with a beautiful and fearless covert agent of this group named Sarah Kerrigan, helplessly sees her get betrayed by her father figure and apparently die, splits with the rebels only for them succeed in harnessing authority, is branded a terrorist himself, watches Kerrigan – not dead after all – be resurrected as the hideous queen of a hiveminded insect race, loses all reason to live, keeps living all the same, and thus winds up a miserable husk of a man, leading (but not wanting to lead) a ragtag band of opposition forces.
All Raynor wants is Kerrigan back, but she’s not Sarah Kerrigan any more, she’s the Queen of Blades, lordette of the Zerg. And not only are the Zerg incredibly disgusting, they’re really mean. What’s a man to do?
Become an alcoholic, obviously. And so we begin Starcraft 2.
Oh, and there’s a third race called the Protoss, who have glowing blue eyes and a superior demeanor because they actually are superior. Ironically they annoy me. They created the Zerg (it was an accident), and it’s them the Zerg are after. The Terran systems are just in the way.
All this seems okay, but in Starcraft 2, Blizzard’s good writers were either all involved in accidents that caused serious head injuries or they were replaced by 14-year old boys, because what had been tragic and dark and heartbreaking and (very occasionally) funny has become… well, it’s crap, people. Let’s not put too fine a point on it. It’s crap. It’s hokey and obnoxious and just plain clumsy. An idiot could have written a better script for Wings of Liberty, and by “idiot” I mean a real honest to God idiot, a person who slobbers and isn’t allowed to play with LEGOs because he’d eat them. The story’s attempts at drama – so scintillating in the original – are contrived and melo-. Its attempts at humor – so well-placed and sharp in the original – are either appallingly bad or plain offensive. Its attempts at suspense – so pulsey and unpredictable in the original – are obvious and silly. The hillbilly writing is just plain grating (and would be offensive to most southerners), while all the characters lack nuance or sophistication of any kind.
The story tries to do far too much with far too shallow characters: a political drama about Raynor trying to bring down the Emperor of the Terran sector – a man Raynor helped to power, until he sacrificed Kerrigan to further his aims. Most cutscenes include clumsy attempts to mirror the manipulation of the news during the Bush presidency. There’s also a major xeno element, with Raynor and his so-obviously-going-to-betray-him buddy Tychus Findlay searching for alien artifacts all over the galaxy. There’s the ongoing tortured love story (the Queen of Blades regularly toys with Raynor’s emotions, knowing that he still sees Kerrigan in her), which doesn’t come together until the very end, and then does so rather dissatisfyingly. There’s even a Protoss mini-campaign in there, connecting the alien artifacts to the downfall of the Zerg.
Nothing is made of Raynor’s alcoholism, which could have been a major story point; nothing is made of the occasional conflicts among his band, which could have been used for tension; nothing is made of the new Emperor’s tyranny beyond the usual soldiers-shooting-civilians schtick.
All in all Wings of Liberty – which does have a conclusive end, by the way, so no need to buy the next game to learn Raynor’s and Kerrigan’s fates – had the potential to be as sensitive and complex as Starcraft, but the writers just didn’t pull it off.
But Wait, there’s More!
Of course, story is only part of a game – even a story-driven one – and as a game, Starcraft 2 isn’t that bad, all things considered. It’s not a waste of sixty bucks, not a game you’ll kick to the curb after an hour of play. Though most of the voice actors try heroically to improve upon the quality of lines they’re given, the script is abysmal. It’s really terrible. So for a person who bought the game because he wanted to see more of the story, that’s hard to get over. But the flat fair fact is this: if you disregard the appalling writing, Wings of Liberty is a reasonably fun, solid game.
Mission to mission you build bases, gather resources, manage them, and construct a military force capable of achieving your objectives. Between these missions you endure horrifically bad cutscenes and spend money or research points to improve your overall capabilities. And with something like 30 single-player missions, the claims that Wings of Liberty is “a third of a game” are simply untrue. This is a full-on game, and I assume the next two, which will tell the Protoss and Zerg stories respectively, will be the same. Wings is the Terran story, as I mentioned, so you spend most of your time working with Terran technology. A few missions, for story reasons, put you in charge of Protoss bases, giving players a taste of the next game.
The one real fault in Starcraft 2 is its dependence on the past. While Starcraft was surely a milestone game, a definer of the real time strategy genre, it was eleven years ago. And though well into 2001 we saw dozens of Starcraft clones, eventually other developers moved beyond its basic mechanics. Since 1998 we’ve had Dawn of War, we’ve had World in Conflict, we’ve had Battle for Middle Earth, we’ve had Company of Heroes, we’ve had Homeworld; we’ve had games that have innovated drastically beyond Starcraft. Hell, even Blizzard’s own Warcraft 3, which came out like six years ago, innovated beyond its immediate predecessor.
Starcraft 2 does not do this. At all.
The game IS its predecessor. There are essentially no new play mechanics, no control optimizations, no nuances added to the strategic elements. It looks exactly the same (with a slight polish that eleven years of technology allows), it plays exactly the same. The tween-mission cutscenes, which used to be just odd sci-fi video conferences, have been replaced by anachronistic Wing Commander-esque set pieces, wherein you move from room to room, talking to highlighted characters.
Beyond that the only real addition are a few new units and structures, some characters from Brood War, the Starcraft expansion pack, and… um… that’s it.
Now, as I’ve said elsewhere, this sameness doesn’t impact the experience quite as much as it might in other games. The fundamentals of Starcraft: build and defend bases, collect and manage resources, perform research, develop a force, and fight your enemies – it all still works. It lacks the sophistication of more modern RTS games, but that’s not a huge deal. All in all it feels tight, tested, and polished, like Starcraft did.
And let’s be honest, the RTS is in a twilight phase right now. The genre has been in decline for some time, evolving in some ways and simply vanishing in others. In 1999 you could walk into an EB and pick out 20 or more RTS games, all of which endeavored to be the next Starcraft. These days you’ll see just a handful, and many of those focus on tactics over strategy, eliminating many of the core concepts – like base building – altogether. Wings of Liberty is, in some ways, a little like some well-known director making his or her next film in black and white, as if to remind us that color isn’t everything in cinema.
But I think that despite the stampede to buy this game (Wings of Liberty had among the strongest opening weekends of any game in history, and is officially the best-selling strategy game ever in most nations), we’ll see a precipitous drop-off in purchases of the next one. I mean, the complete multiplayer segment is included in this installment, so I think the next two will only have new maps. You can already play online as the Terrans, the Protoss, or the Zerg. Wings of Liberty also includes the level editor, which is so powerful some people have already LittleBigPlanet-ed it, creating checkers and turn-based RPGs and even first person shooters.
An Identity Crisis
Ultimately Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is “not bad.” I give it a Middlin’ score for two reasons: the hideous writing, and the fact that I was getting pretty bored with it by the time it ended. It’s mechanically tight and there’s little to genuinely hate, especially in the gameplay.
But oh, the opportunities they let go by. Oh, the carelessness – or laziness – or arrogance, knowing everyone would buy it – that they showed in making this game. Even the cinematics, which clearly had huge budgets and effort put into them, are paltry, watery, limpid compared to those of Starcraft. I mean, who can forget the cinematic genius that was the Zerg invasion of Aiur, the Protoss homeworld?
I’m sure some of its potency is lost if you haven’t just played up to it, if you haven’t spent the last dozen hours struggling with all your diminishing strength to prevent the Zerg from reaching Aiur, the last bastion of Protoss civilization, the last hope for the galaxy. Failing, watching them take it, watching that proud planet fall, and then the final second – when the mighty Zerg Overmind implants itself in that sacred soil and rears up in triumph… well, there’s nothing like that in Starcraft 2. It’s mostly southerners arguing in bars. There are higher production values and better animation, but in the end it’s flash over substance.
Most of the comments I’ve gotten regarding Starcraft 2 mirror my own: “I’m liking it.” But the enthusiasm peters off dramatically as you approach the end, as the missions begin to drag a little, as the characters – always grating and terribly written – finally lose whatever minimal appeal they once had.
I liked it.
I also uninstalled it the instant the final credits rolled, and I don’t see myself ever installing it again. For those who cherish the multiplayer of Starcraft, and who don’t mind that even in multiplay it will feel like a game that’s eleven years old, Wings of Liberty is a wise investment. And for students of electroludology, lovers of video games… yeah, it would be irresponsible not to buy it. It is Starcraft 2, after all.
But nothing says you have to buy it today, or tomorrow, or next year. It would be irresponsible to never buy it, but that irresponsibility could be averted in 2014 with a $0.34 purchase on eBay. Plus shipping, of course. They always kill you on shipping.
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Minimum System Requirements (PC): 2.6 GHz Pentium IV or equivalent; 128MB graphics (PCIe GeForce 6600, Radeon 9800 Pro or better); 1GB RAM; 12 GB hard drive space; broadband internet
Minimum System Requirements (Mac): OS X 10.5.8; Intel processor; GeForce 8600M or Radeon X1600 or better; 2GB RAM; 12 GB hard drive space; broadband internet
Reviewer’s System: Core 2 Quad Q9450; 512MB Radeon 4870; 4GB RAM; Windows 7 64-bit