Sunday, 1 August 2010

Starcraft II: A half review of disappointment

A day after release, I picked up the Starcraft II collector's edition. Last night I completed the single player campaign. These are my thoughts about the game. Spoilers indicated.

Mac Land / Performance

[No spoliers]
As usual, Blizzard remain committed to the Mac platform like no other major developer. The standard release of Starcraft II contains native versions of the game for both Windows and Mac on a single disc. Even as more stores are stocking Mac games because of increasing market share, it's still rare for a company to develop their own port and release it in the same package. Witness the two games I've played recently: The Witcher was never ported to Mac at all, and Dragon Age: Origins was fobbed off with a prompt, performance-challenged, and seemingly unsupported Cider port. But despite this, all is not well in Starcraft II Mac land.

First of all, a niggling issue that bugged me. The collector's edition contains a somewhat heavy usb flash disc which replicates the dog-tags seen in the game. It come with both the original Starcraft and the Broodwar expansion pre-installed; but only for Windows. Thankfully, the registration key can be used on the site to register the game and you can then download a Mac version in whatever language you like. Unfortunately, you need to launch the Windows installer to find out what that key is.
Much more important is the performance of the game, which is terrible. My Macbook is pretty new (late 2009) even if it is not the most powerful. But it easily meets the requirements for the Starcraft II. Nevertheless, the game has to be set to the lowest possible settings to be playable; and then it looks little better than Warcraft III. On the same machine under Windows 7, I can boot the settings up on everything at least a notch, which makes a considerable difference. And it seems from the forums that this is more-or-less a universal problem for Macs of all capabilities, because of drivers and broken shaders / lighting. Hopefully this will be fixed soon (and knowing Blizzard it probably will be), but at the moment Starcraft II is only just playable on Macs, if at all. / DRM

[No spoliers]
Next up is integration. To register Starcraft II, you have to log on to; after that, whenever you boot up the game you'll be asked to sign on with you account. This allows a number of cool features, such as achievements and online saves. This latter is quite sweet: when I installed the game on Windows today and logged on for the first time, I was able to pick up my single player game from where I left it. However, the implementation is a little clunky: Starcraft II will remember my account name but not my password (Dragon Age remembers both), meaning I had to change my password to something a lot simpler and less secure so I could type it in every time I boot the game.

If this sounds suspiciously like a form of DRM which requires you to have an internet connection at all times, you wouldn't be far wrong. Starcraft II does have an offline mode, which means that if no internet connection is detected you should be informed and can play anyway (so long as you've registered once). Sounds fine; except for many people it isn't working, and anything you do during this offline phase will not be recorded or synced with next time you reconnect.

This is what happened to me. I was playing along, completing missions and picking up achievements, when all of a sudden all my save games had gone. It turns out that I had been disconnected from while playing, and so everything I did after this was automatically saved as a new, unidentified user. I no longer had access the the old files. But with no huge pop-up explaining the problem I had no idea what was going on and soldiered on. In fact, several hours later, I completed the game, let the credits role, and only then was notified that I'd been disconnected. The problem is that when I reconnected, all of that recent gameplay vanished – as it belonged to an unidentified user rather than my account. As far as Starcraft II was concerned, I hadn't completed any of those missions, nor the game as a whole. I'm sure that if I disconnected again, those saves and missions would be available – but none of the preceding ones the would be. And there is currently no way to merge the two sets of files.

To put it simply, this sucks. Being set back several hours because of a weak internet connection is dreadful service. And what if, for example, I want to visit my girlfriend's parent's, where I don't have access to the internet. If I'm lucky I can play, I can even continue the game, but it won't be acknowledged in anyway.

Many games require an internet connection nowadays – Dragon Age does. But not having one will not negatively affect gameplay. I remind you that this concerns the single player campaign, not multiplayer: I'm playing against the computer. The internet is not required at all for this. But Blizzard have integrated the save game system into in such a way that it is easier for me to carry on from where I left of when I install the game on a new computer, than when the internet drops out for a couple of minutes. That's crazy.

Knowing that I have to replay those final missions just to get an achievement to say that I've done so put a serious dampener on my enthusiasm for the game.

Story mode

[Minor spoilers]
On to the starship environment which forms you base of operations. Starcraft II definitely boasts a much improved 'story mode'. Where the original game simply loaded the next mission, Starcraft II allows you move to four different locations on your ship (armoury, bridge, canteen, lab) and talk to various crew members about the last mission, or buy upgrades for units. There's far more interaction with NPCs than ever before, and it looks much better than the cut-scenes in Warcraft III, for example. But improved as it is, I wanted more. The locations you can visit are static, with an occasional NPC wandering about. So you get one view of the bridge, and that's it. Interaction with NPCs and objects is just as limited: click on an object, trigger the cut-scene, move on. There's no scope for dialogue options at all.

An example: at one point you pick up a female scientist whose planet is under attack. You evacuate her colonists, relocate them, and kick her off the ship. All well and good. While she's on board, you have a handful of brief dialogues, and as she leaves, she kisses you on the cheek having developed some feelings for you. All well and good. But because of the limited interaction, she's utterly undeveloped as a character. Just take a look on her character profile on – obviously enough, she's got an entire life history. Can you find out any of this in the game? No. Is there any indication of any of it in the game? No. On, she's a fully fleshed out character. In the game, she's more-or-less a hitch-hiker. You pick her up and take her to her destination. That's it.

True, I may have been spoilt by games like Dragon Age, in which you can actually talk to your group of NPCs and they will either grow to like you or hate you depending on what you say to them. In the end, these starship sequences are good, but feel so much like a missed opportunity. There's only three members of the crew who have anything like realised characters, and that's Jim Raynor (your character), Tychus Findlay (more on him below), and arguably Matt Horner (ship's captain).

Part one of three

[Minor spoilers]
Now we come to the hub of the problem with Starcraft II: the story. The first thing to mention is that the game I've been calling Starcraft II is really Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. It's the first part of a trilogy of games, and single player campaign has 29 missions focussed on the Terran (human) forces. There's a brief section in which you can play Protoss, and at no point do you play as Zerg. Where the original game (and Warcraft III) had three 'chapters' – one for each race – of some 10 missions each, Blizzard decided this time to spend almost the same amount on one race at a time. We'll get round to campaigns focussed on the other races in the sequels.

I have, in principle, no problem with this. Twenty-nine missions allows greater involvement with the Terrans than before. Theoretically it allows for a more gradual build-up of the story-line; and indeed, for the first few missions you really are just bumming around raiding and pirating. But... Many of the missions are really side quests (I'm curious how many could be avoided altogether). The afore-mentioned scientist has a series of missions which have absolutely no bearing on the main 'plot'. There's a renegade wraith (an enhanced ghost) whose missions are exactly the same.

Now, the advertising for Starcraft II boasts that your actions will affect the development of the game, and indeed they do, but strictly speaking only in three cases are you actually given a choice. Once is at the end of the game, when you can choose to cripple either the ground forces or their air forces of the Zerg before the final battle. The other two cases are in the side quests mentioned above: you may choose to support the renegade wraith, or betray him; and you may choose to support or abandon the scientist when her colonists are about the be purged for Zerg infestation by the Protoss. The choices have an impact on the individual story-lines, but since these story-lines are effectively isolated from the main plot, so are the choices. In the end, the only real choices which have any effect on the campaign are the order in you complete the missions, which determines what units you have available at a given point, and what upgrades to research or purchase. That's fine, but given the extent to which recent RPG games (again taking Dragon Age and The Witcher as examples) allow you to affect scenarios, this has to be chalked up as another missed opportunity.

The Betrayal

[Major spoilers]
On to the story proper. I have to say, this was the first time I've been disappointed with a Blizzard story (I haven't played the first two Warcraft games, nor World of Warcraft). First of all, we have Tychus Findlay, an old buddy of Raynor's who's being blackmailed into betraying him. That's the plot twist. The problem is that from the very start of the game it is clear that Tychus is going to betray Raynor in some way. From the fact it's his face on the cover, to the opening cinematic, to his unwillingness to discuss his escape from prison, to hints dropped by all and sundry. The only thing we don't really know is how he'll betray Raynor, and who he's working for.

Who is obvious enough, in fact: Arcturus Mengsk, who betrayed Raynor in the first game by sacrificing an entire planet in order to take power in the region. Mengsk has been the villain since the end of the first chapter (of six, counting the expansion) of the original game. So no surprise there. What is surprising is that, while working undercover for Mengsk, Tychus enthusiastically works against Mengsk, along with Raynor. At no point is there any indication that he's trying to sabotage Raynor's operations, even when Raynor gets hold of a recording of Mengsk issuing the order to lure the Zerg to that planet in order to take control in the ensuing chaos. Needless to say, broadcasting that recording is devastating: imagine a recording of George Bush from before the Iraq War admitting he knew there were no WMDs and going ahead anyway. And multiply it by a thousand. But the mission in which you take over the UNN to broadcast the recording is the one in which Tychus in most directly involved.

Okay, you might say, but any subterfuge on Tychus's part would risk giving the game away. Yet the game has already been given away to all but Raynor, who will brook no criticism of his buddy. Any villain worth his or her salt would take steps to avoid the kind of damage which Raynor causes: after all, if Tychus is there to assassinate Raynor, it should be done before Raynor manages to undermine the whole regime.

But Tychus isn't there to assassinate Raynor. He's there to assassinate the Queen of Blades, the ruler of the Zerg created from Raynor's old flame Sarah Kerrigan who was betrayed and left behind by Mengsk when the planet was sacrificed. It seems that Mengsk, in an amazing feat of premonition, knows that Raynor will ultimately succeed in battling through swarms of Zerg forces to Kerrgian in the hope that she can be deinfested and redeemed; and that Raynor's mercy will mean that Tychus will have to step in and take her out.

I don't buy this at all.

To begin with, at the start of the game when we meet Tychus for the first time, there is no indication that Kerrigan could become deinfested and so weakened to a point where she could be easily killed (other than Mengsk's fabulous skills of prediction). Secondly, everybody has been running circles around Mengsk throughout the game. Raynor has been making significant progress in his war of liberation; the disenfranchised on planets everywhere are in uproar; and even Mengsk's son Valerian has been vying for a position of strength. He's been secretly funding the recovery of an ancient artefact of immense power (which Raynor has been collecting the in fragments), and ultimately snatches away half of the imperial fleet and allies himself with Raynor for an assault on the Zerg homewold. So: the only time in the entire game in which Mengsk seems to  be on the ball is at the moment of Tychus' betrayal, and by that time it is barely plausible. In comparison, imagine it had been Valerian who was behind Tychus' betrayal. Valerian is funding the Möbius company to search for the artefact, and Tychus originally says that it was this company who paid his bail. Likewise, Valerian knows exactly what the artefact does, or at least suspects at the start of the game. He's also trying to step out from under his father's shadow, and bears no personal grudge again Raynor. It's more than plausible that he would want to achieve something big (such as defeating the Queen of Blades) and would be more than happy to use Raynor to achieve that goal, which would double as rude gesture to his father as well.

In the end, it seems to me that the decision to have Mengsk himself behind Tychus' betrayal was motivated by an awareness that Mengsk seems to be complacent to the point of incompetence throughout the game; and that does not a good arch-villain make. The fact that it makes the whole betrayal preposterous seemingly slipped under the radar.

Finally, let's talk about the artefact. It's totally a deus ex machina. It effectively comes out of nowhere and saves the world. All of a sudden, the Zerg are (seemingly) completely defeated and Raynor has his girl back, and carries her off into the sunset. The only thing which keeps me from thinking that this is completely lame is knowing that there will be two sequels: the Protoss mini-campaign hints at a cataclysmic battle to come, although to be honest it didn't seem to add anything beyond what was already hinted at in the original game. And I know that it isn't fair  to compare the end of Wings of Liberty to the end of Starcraft I (which was apparently voted the best end of a game in 2003). The artefact can't begin to compare to Tassadar's ramming a battle ship into the Zerg Overmind and (seemingly) loosing his life in the process. But if the end of this instalment brings us a third of the way through Starcraft II, then it may be fair to compare it to the end of the first chapter of the original game. Yet against Mengsk's sacrifice of an entire planet, and the betrayal of Kerrigan which sets in motion so many events to come, Tychus' betray just doesn't cut it.


There is plenty to like about Starcraft II. The graphics, when they work, are very good. The single player missions are well designed. The cinematics are excellent, as are the 'story-mode' animations. The variations brought into the campaign allow for interesting replays. And of course, this is no more than a half review, as I'm not touching on multiplayer at all. Ultimately, it may be no more than a quarter review, or even a sixth, if the sequels bring more to the multiplayer table. But my feelings remain the same: for the first time, I'm underwhelmed by a Blizzard game. And most surprising of all is that the story is its greatest disappointment.