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*This* week at the Green Dragon Inn

January 2, 2011

Starcraft. Love it or hate it, most of you will know what I’m talking about when I mention it’s name. Starcraft, Blizzard’s first behemoth of a game, where the Terran, Protoss and Zerg armies clash with one another, fighting for galactic supremacy. Starcraft, the game that, after twenty-some years, is still one of the most popular computer games, ever. It had its own unique gameplay style, demanding strategic prowess, near-inhuman hand-eye coordination, and even an assertive, aggressive attitude from its players. Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty doesn’t stray far from its predecessor. It tries to do the same things the original Starcraft did, just better. For the most part, Starcraft II succeeds in matching the standards set in the original, while updating the game as a whole, rather than improving it outright.

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is actually the first in three games that Blizzard plans to release under the Starcraft II title, with each game focusing on one of the three races. Wings of Liberty told the Terran story, using the same cinematic cutscenes with the incredibly high production values Blizzard is famous for. Here, you guide Jim Raynor and his forces in yet another struggle to save the human race and the galaxy from total annihilation. To be perfectly honest, the storyline and the dialogue are just not the strong points of the game. It’s perplexing to think that, after what was rumored to be a decade-long production cycle, Starcaft II’s dialogue reads like an unpolished first draft. It’s especially noticeable when Raynor and Tychus interact, which is unfortunately quite often. Nevertheless, that’s all glossed over by the extremely high quality of every other of the game’s facets. The game is just too good to be brought down by that one blemish.

There is one special aspect about Starcraft, and now Starcraft II, which sets it apart from other games of its kind.

Starcraft II, like the original Starcraft, can be a brutal game to play. Both the single-player campaign and online through the Battlenet service can be extremely challenging, even if Blizzard has gone to great lengths to tune the game so that anyone could play it. This is one of the improvements they aimed to make in regards to the original game, and with good reason.

Starcraft’s online community is legendary for how merciless and confusing it can be for a new player. The reason for that is rooted in the mechanics of the game itself. Starcraft’s mechanics are built on some basic fundamentals and interactions, which can be boiled down to this: Each of the three races has a type of rock, a type of paper, and a type of scissors.

Each player mines resources on a map so they can build a base that will produce the units that will be their rocks, papers or scissors. What makes a unit a rock of another unit’s scissors? Each unit has a few numbers attached to it, such as its damage, its life, its speed and its range.  However, and I wouldn’t speculate whether this was intentional or not, the way the basic mechanics work, they add a nearly infinite depth and subtlety to the game.

What does the fact that Starcraft was so deceptively simple yet overwhelming  mean, exactly? It means that, perplexingly, scissors can beat rock under certain circumstances that players can engineer during a game. It means that there are endless possibilities of strategies and tactics you can use, where apparently ridiculous ideas can lead to an equally preposterous victory. A single unit at the right place and time, even if it’s just a lonely marine with his rifle, can make more of a difference and a hundred could in the right place, but at the wrong time.

It’s not only about what units are where and when, either. Starcraft, being a fast-paced game that is just as much about action as it is about strategy, also manages to emphasize how each unit is used in the field. Usually, strategy games deal with squadrons, battalions, entire armies. Starcraft’s scale isn’t as grand, but that means that every last zergling and probe can be difference between a glorious win and  an ignominious defeat. It’s not so in other strategy games.

The collusion between the mechanics and the pace work differently when the players are at different skill levels. Two new players will play a completely different game than two pros, as long as the opponents are equally matched. In the old Battlenet service, that wasn’t always the case, but once two evenly matched opponents go at it, there’s a kind of magic that happens where the game becomes a place where the player is truly the deciding factor. Somehow, Blizzard really captured lightning in a bottle with Starcraft, and it’s why Starcraft is seen as the pinnacle of professional eSports.

There comes a point when two opponents are evenly matched where the action, the tension and the surprises are non-stop. It has all the drama of a football game between two bitter rivals, of a high-stakes poker game where every eyebrow twitch is significant as they play mind-games with one another, feinting to invite their opponent into a blunder. It’s a genuine form of competition, where players match far more than just their reflexes or rote knowledge of the mechanics. It might be presumptuous to say so, but the closest analogy you’ll find for Starcraft would be chess – only faster.

Starcraft II is based on the same fundamentals; every unit has its numbers, just like before, and the depth of the game’s potential strategies remains just as confounding. This time around there’s a greater variety of units and abilities, and a matchmaking service with some kind of voodoo where you always get the right opponent for your skill level – not too easy or too hard, but the goldilocks of matches, just right.

Starcraft games were the most fun to watch, once you’ve tried your own hand at playing the game, just so you can understand what’s going on, and properly appreciate the tremendous skill the higher-echelon players display. It’s very unusual for games to be this ‘watchable’. Watching a replay of a Halo or Call of Duty game is nowhere near as interesting, and that’s just one of the many reasons that makes Starcraft so unique. With Starcraft II, the games are more spectacular while still being every bit as intricate. Indeed, it’s a worthy sequel to a timeless videogaming masterpiece

From → Videogames

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