Sunday, October 29, 2000

Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty | 10

I've watched the Starcraft 2 Amazon reviews come in with great sadness. Sadness because this game deserves so much more than 3 stars, but also sadness because most of the points the negative reviews make are completely legitimate.

Starcraft 2 is a great game. I got it the day it came out and haven't touched another game since. Like the original Starcraft, it's an almost perfectly balanced RTS with three unique races. The Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss each have many new units and tricks up their sleeves, and as with the original, the game takes mere hours to learn but a lifetime to master. Each and every last unit has its perfect situation where it can be used to turn the tide of a game. The production values are phenomenal all around. The sounds and voice acting are fantastic, the attention to detail is amazing, and if you've got a computer that can handle them, the visuals on max settings are absolutely gorgeous. And it doesn't just look and sound good; it plays good, too. A bunch of little technical issues from the original have been fixed: you can issue commands to multiple hotkeyed groups at light speed without some commands being lost, your own units will actually move out of the way when you're trying to construct a building, rally points are more efficient and separate ones can be set for worker units, etc. It's all the fun of the original, but it's now sleeker, sexier and handles better. It is faster paced than the original, and the multi-player automatic match-making system is Blizzard's best yet. As a bonus, it (like Starcraft and Warcraft III before it) ships with a map editor that lets you customize nearly any aspect of the game; skilled map-makers will be making new maps, missions and mini-games for years to come.

So when does a game like this get a 3-star rating? When its own creators unwittingly do almost everything in their power to sabotage it, that's when. Thanks to some miscalculations by Blizzard, there will be entire sections of the fan base that will find this game either unplayable or unappealing. Though the gripes have been listed many times on here, I'll summarize them once more and give my take on just how much they're really likely to annoy you:

1. You need an Internet connection to play, even in single-player mode. Obviously, if you have no or sporadic Internet, this will be a deal-breaker. You can technically play a single player version offline, but it comes with limited features and privileges.
2. You need to make a account to be able to play at all. For some, the very idea of having to go online and sign up to use a product you just shelled out $[...] for is a slap in the face. Also, this account will be your one and only Starcraft II account; no more starting over with a new name or record.
3. No LAN. I guess maybe Blizzard thought nobody actually LANs anymore? Clearly, the people have spoken, and Blizzard thought wrong. If your fondest Starcraft memories are of playing the game on a LAN with friends, this might be a deal-breaker for you.
4. The region lock. In Blizzard's previous games, you could freely switch between regions. Now, if you're an American and you want to play with your European friends, you need a European copy of the game. It's hard to see what good this does besides making Blizzard more money.
5. No chat rooms. The game's automatic matchmaking system is beautiful, but let's say you want to chat with other players in a chat room for a while before migrating over to a game. No longer possible. Just about the only way to make new Starcraft 2 friends and partners online is to privately message people you were randomly paired with after a game, or to privately message random players in your (or a friend's) league division (hint: if you do this, people will think you're weird). Blizzard has promised to add chat rooms in a patch, but for now, this is the issue annoying me the most.
6. Your and RealID friends are practically invited to stalk you. I don't think I've seen a game where adding someone you're "iffy" about to your friends list could end up more detrimental. Not only are you always online while playing this game, you always show as online to everyone on your friend's list. You can choose to show as "busy," but there's no option to hide.
7. The campaign is Terran only, and a multi-player RTS plus one race's campaign might not be worth $[...]. In Blizzard's defense, there are 29 missions, strung together to form an amazing story with cut-scenes and cinematics between each. Each mission can be completed on 4 difficulty levels, all featuring optional objectives and achievements. But for all that, an RTS veteran could blitz through the entire campaign in a matter of hours (on normal mode, at least). If you're one of the players for whom the campaign is the main draw, paying $[...] for a game it only takes hours to beat would be a bad deal.
8. There's no global ladder. If you play league games online competitively, you get ranked in a league, but aside from the top league (so I'm told; I'm not in it), you have no way to tell where you stand relative to everyone else in your league. You can only tell where you stand relative to the others in your 100 person division, and the divisions themselves are not ranked. I much preferred Warcraft III's system, where you could see where you stood relative to everyone.

The funny thing is, some of these new features people are griping about aren't inherently bad ideas. For instance, it's actually very cool to be able to chat and share your achievements with friends while playing the campaign...unless, of course, you just want to strategize and be left alone. Which brings me to what I think is the heart of Blizzard's mistake: they should have made a whole lot more settings OPTIONAL. You should have the OPTION to play single player online or offline, the OPTION to show as visible or invisible to your friends, the OPTION to play LAN, the OPTION to switch regions. But instead, Blizzard's "my way or the highway" approach will leave all of those who can't get past any of the above eight things out in the cold. So please, Blizzard, save your fans, yourselves, and your game a lot of trouble, and make more features optional in future patches.

I'll close by addressing what I think are the three groups of people holding off on buying the game: if you're dismayed by all the negative publicity, but none of the above problems are deal-breakers for you (and there's no reason why any of them have to be), go ahead and buy it. It really is a great game, and you'll have a lot of fun. If you absolutely can't get past one or more of the problems and know they would make the game cease to be a fun experience, then you have my sympathy and you get to keep your [...] bucks. And finally, to those for whom the issues really aren't deal-breakers but who are refusing to buy the game on matters of principle: you have my respect, and even my admiration. But man, you're missing out on a good one.

Update (4/19/11): Since I wrote this review, chat rooms have been patched into the game, though they aren't used nearly as much as the chat rooms in Blizzard's previous games. On other positive notes, the game is frequently patched, balance issues are addressed and taken seriously, the game has very active forums where players talk strategy in detail, and Blizzard is continuing to make new maps and scenarios and integrate them into online play. On the negative side, it's becoming more and more apparent that most of the bigger complaints against the game (like the lack of LAN, online requirement, and region lock) aren't going to be patched away. Overall, I'm still playing the game pretty regularly and having fun, but there's still plenty I'm gritting my teeth about.

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