Critique: Starcraft 2

Hello and welcome back to Laserbeams and Broadswords, the prime location for Stuff You Can Probably Find Somewhere Else! Tonight we’ll be critiquing the hit RTS by Blizzard Entertainment, Starcraft 2. I’d highly suggest that  you beat the campaign, maybe a couple of challenges and achievements, and take the matchmaking system for a whirl. By reading critiques, you essentially forfeit a large portion of what you can learn from a game by playing it (unless you’re good at such things. Then, by all means, read and play in whatever order you please.) Similarly, a ‘critique’ does not tell you whether to buy the game or not, just what can be learned from it. If you really can’t be bothered to play it (it is not only informative and educational, but fun too!) then you can read on.

Having done a little research on the subject of this game, I’ll level us off on the same footing below. (If you have more reviewers or critiquers to share, post ’em – I’ll be sure to look into such places in the future.)

The folks over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun (RPS) really hate the writing in this game. I mean like, really, really loathe it. Yet, as that last link shows, they believe that a wonderful little masquerade is pulled over your eyes as you watch it – no matter how you play, you play a righteous noble hero! Heralding it as a fascinating and well used technique, they proclaim the game is great, and makes you believe it is great, yet truly it is as shallow as the writing of most games get. Another negative piece often heard was that the game was simply a ‘re-done rehash of 10 year out of date content’. Gameshark has a good review in this vein.

Over at A.V. club, they’re calling it the greatest game since sliced Pong. But not just them – Joystiq, The Escapist… Just take a quick jaunt down Starcraft 2’s metacritic page and get blasted with a chorus of voices heralding inbound happiness and unicorns and rainbows (well, as long as you buy Diablo 3) if you buy this game. This is what distinguishes a game review and a game critique – the first is supposed to give you a measure whether or not to spend your money on a game, and the latter gives you a measure of what you should put into the next one. They are not mutually exclusive in their writing, which is why they are of use to you and I here – however, they are mutually exclusive in their reading.

So, now that our feet are well lined up, I think it’s time to reevaluate (I know you’ve got a lot of food upon your plate – brains are quite high in cholesterol) our perspective upon the golden harbinger of peace that is Starcraft 2.

First, what didn’t work in the game. This list is much shorter than the other, so it’s a great place to begin. Lets start with RPS’s unnatural obsession with Starcraft 2’s weak writing. I would hazard a guess that this is because RPS spends a huge amount of its time reviewing indie and generally un-reviewed games (yes, I understand more than one person is at RPS, but its a generalization that I think is at least somewhat true). They are used to seeing all sorts of unique and new ideas, full of irony and dark storylines, new ways of telling stories. Starcraft 2, however, tells stories in a very old way – using well founded characters in a manner that makes them easier to connect to, delivered through a standard story telling format. For more, see Jeff Spock’s ‘Short Games, Long Stories’ – just taken from an indie perspective and put in a AAA title. For a few more interesting thoughts on stories in video games, see Ian Fisch and Josh Foreman‘s viewpoints on story, which I can contrive to be very different viewpoints on the state (and necessity) of Story in Starcraft 2.

The other negative bit – that it’s a rehash of a previous game – I would decry as fallacious. Sure, there are some previous units – as well as some new ones – but by no means is this game a reskin of Starcraft. New strategies, an entire game’s worth of single player content, coupled with the robustness of the original pairs up to make this game an extremely potent game. People who say such things, I would feel, have not played the game. Or have not played it much, or played it with too heavy set expectations in mind. Or, of course, perhaps they are not a fan of the older multiple-resources collection aspect of the game, and are happier with their more modern RTSes. Lo que.

What the game does right… Where to begin? This game proves that having a strong online multiplayer is brilliant – something Wii devs could pick up on – and yet, such an online multiplayer with no friends is no good at all, and whereas in WoW or other massively multiplayer static world games you can make new friends, it is much harder in a competitive setting where everyone is your enemy. Realizing this, they implemented Facebook integration, taking a nod to social games and proving AAA titles can have social support and not be discounted because of it. The ridiculously good looking cinematics are  just one more step towards the movie-ization of the industry Josh Foreman predicts and forewarns – yet this moviegame is really fun, works well, and is highly popular. Perhaps a split in the industry needs to form? Lengthy voice acting and matching lip movements is now a necessity in AAA titles (if Dragon Age/Mass Effect didn’t already make this a necessity), the extensive and addiction-forming upgrade systems shows that Upgrade Complete satirized not only Armor Games titles, and the challenge system acknowledges the fact that there is a definite gap between single and multiplayer content, and other games would do well to take that into consideration too.

All in all – there are many things to take from this game, but I think the most potent piece (the TL:DR if you will) is that it does not hurt to look back at things that have worked and reimplement them. Starcraft 2 looks back, and re-implements them well, in a new and scrutinized light.

For more information, look at Ian Bogost’s Gamasutra column about a similar topic.

Disclaimer: I know it’s a bit cheap to critique a game as strong, well built and popular as Starcraft 2. However, in order to truly understand what works in game design, I am learning that you cannot just learn from the industry’s mistakes, but their successes too.

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