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Friday, August 13, 2010

Starcraft II - Extended Review

Preamble: This game was difficult enough to review that we developed a specific method of reviewing games entirely for the purpose of Starcraft II.  I bought the game with the intention of reviewing it, and so I have much to say about it.  I'll have to scrap some of the explanation I've prepared in order to present as many of the positives and negatives as possible; my paragraphs may therefore seem full of non sequiturs at times.  We can discuss the points as much as we like once this review is published.  Let's get started!

Note: a rating given as (9/10, 6/10) implies that the game's intra-game rating is 9/10, and its extra-game rating is 6/10.  That is, its intra-gaming rating simply as a measure of how good/enjoyable the game is, and its extra-game rating is a measure of quality in comparison to the quality of other games.
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StarCraft II Overall Rating - 75/100

My overall impression of this game is that it was exactly what I expected it to be.  There's nothing new here, and it feels a lot like, say, the Command & Conquer games of the last 10 years.  In fact, it feels remarkably similar to StarCraft I from 12 years ago, which I can't say is a compliment given the amount of time that has passed.  Regardless, it's a fun game to play, with some strategic and tactical depth, and there's enough competition for anyone's needs (if it's good enough for professionals, it's good enough for me).  I can safely say that Blizzard does not mess around when it comes to general game polish and a beautifully easy to use multiplayer service in Battle.net.  I wished it would include a decent zoom feature, and it would be nice if the graphics were a little more fluid and immersive.  But we'll get to that later.

Single Player - (9/10, 9/10)
Let's begin by talking about the single player modes, starting with the good.  Each campaign level feels quite different from the last, and much of this is due to the fact that one unit is brought to the forefront in each mission, which is usually the new unit that has just been unlocked.  There are 26 missions to play, and the difficulty scales enough that it should challenge just about every gamer on the right setting.  Players earn cash and research points which are used to purchase persistent upgrades for units and unlock mercenaries to hire in missions.  I found myself deciding which mission to do based on which unit I wanted, which is a good sign.  There are a few achievements for every level so players can master each level and brag to their friends.  There is also a challenge mode which is intended to develop skills required for playing Starcraft on Battle.net.  Players can click around on different characters and objects in between missions to help fill in the story and the mood of the campaign.

The good stops here, however.  The story, which Blizzard claimed that they needed three game releases to cover, is quite bad (and empty), and many of the campaign missions are centered around Jim Raynor trying to get money to increase his forces.  They become repetitive in that whatever he does, Zerg or Protoss (obviously) show up to fight him for his goal.  I have to cut some slack on this point, however, since RTS games usually have it rough in terms of creating a story which comes across in the actual gameplay.  The characters are stereotyped and the dialog is cheesy.  While I selected missions based on which unit I wanted, this became mostly irrelevant, since each mission mostly focuses on one unit anyway.  The units that appear in the campaign are not all in the multiplayer portion of the game, which is silly in that I ended up doing quite a bit of practising with marines and medics only to discover that there are no medics in the multiplayer.  Either I had to restrict what I used, or practice with irrelevant units.  This also makes me suspicious as to Blizzard's intentions with the upcoming releases (forcing us to buy them by including those units in multiplayer?), but I'll not deduct points for suspicions.

All in all, I enjoyed the campaign quite a bit, and comparing it to the campaigns in other RTS games, it really is quite good.

Multiplayer - (9.5/10, 10/10)
Here is a game that shines with its multiplayer play.  Firstly, Battle.net is an excellent service, and it provides a quality service in matchmaking.  This is helped by the fact that there are often over 1 million users online at any given time on Battle.net (at the date of this review), and so there always people to play against.  The game requires players to play five matchmaking games which slot a person into one of five leagues.  This is to ensure that players within each league are of comparable skill level, and the system seems to be working so far.

BNet allows players to add their friends into a party, and the party leader can enter both ranked and non-ranked games, keeping the party together.  This is a fun and easy way to play with a group of friends, and a speedy way to hammer through 3v3 ranked games.  There are leagues and ranks for each size of game, too, and for each specific group of players on a given team.  That is, Scott and I have a rank for 2v2 play, while my mom and I have a much better 2v2 rank.  Given the amount of competition in each of the leagues, no player will ever feel unchallenged, especially given the fact that there are professional StarCraft II players already.


There are still a few drawbacks to multiplayer.  Blizzard has decided that LAN play is a thing of the past.  Having to log in to Battle.net doesn't seem to bad, but consider also that there is no multiplayer spawn, and suddenly LAN parties require every participant to have forked out $60 for this game.  You can't even play the single player campaign without first logging in!  (**I'm away from my SC2 computer; can someone confirm or deny this?**)  You'll have to play checkers if your internet is down.  Lastly, the game doesn't feel right in games with more than two players.  I'm not sure about the balance of play (I'm not a top player) in 2v2 games, but given that it is a game of intense micromanagement, this doesn't seem to lend itself well to playing with friends.  Nevertheless, it's a good way to mix it up, and I'd rather be able to play with my dear mother than not. Who else is going to be a reliable teammate?


Gameplay/Interface - (8/10, 5/10)
This one is more difficult, and I'm a bit torn about my choice of ratings.  The game's interface is nice, and it doesn't invade the screen.  You can do just about everything with hotkeys, which is of course required for professional play.  Multiple buildings can be selected, and when a unit is clicked to queue, the game intelligently picks which building to queue it in, depending on how much those buildings already have to produce.  Players can do a fair amount of shift-clicking orders, ie. giving units a sequence of orders in advance.  One example of this that I like is being able to tell a siege tank to move to point B, and to enter siege mode when it gets there.  This removes some micromanagement, which is a relief.  The game feels very 'complete', in the sense that Blizzard has picked which options they'd like to have in the game, and filled them in for every unit, and polished the look and feel to a shine.


Notice, however, that none of these features are all that spectacular, unique, or progressive in any way.  They are useful, indeed, but in modern RTS games, they are required.  These are all advances from the previous version of StarCraft, but without these sort of improvements, I'd be spitting on the game instead of buying it.  Games do not get points for removing tediousness; they lose less.


Where to start on little things about this game that annoy me?  I'll just list things in no particular order.
1) First, why can't there be a zoom out feature?  I'm tired of spotting single pixels on a mini-map.  Such a feature also helps to get a sense of the strategic situation of the game.
2) Clicking-and-dragging selects both combat units and workers, so if one wants to send workers into combat to repair vehicles, one needs to use a precious hotkey for them which could be otherwise avoided.
3) Units take their resource cost as soon as they're queued, which means that the most efficient way is to keep the minimum number of units queued as possible.  I call this forced micromanagement, and it detracts from the game.  Why?  Because there are ways around it, and its presence in the game means that I have to often spend time queuing up new units every 17 seconds (in the case of SCVs) instead of managing a battle properly; getting behind on building troops is an easy way to lose the game!  It makes more sense to just set a cycle to constantly produce SCVs without clicking anymore, which could be paused at any time later.
4) Units overlap, and because of the lack of dynamic movement (especially with aircraft; I'll get to this later), it can be difficult to select ground units. Similarly, if a massive unit is in front of a regular unit, have fun targeting the unit in the back.  Also, workers don't take up space if they're harvesting, and so 20 of them can look like just one.
5) Hiding workers.  Workers sometimes finish buildings and hide behind the building.  I press F1 to select idle workers, but because the worker is "on the screen", it doesn't bother to center on it.  How do I know which SCV to send to build a 'nearby' bunker if I don't know what is nearby?  This problem extends to units in general, because it's not always easy to see the green circle around a unit when your screen is full of information.
6) Unit pathing.  Unit pathing!  In most games, problems with pathing would be inexcusable.  What they've done with StarCraft II is allow troops to move through one another by pushing the stationary unit aside.  Sounds fine, right?  But units actually plan their shortest path through your own troops.  If your stationary unit is beside a building, and pushing him aside will be impossible or cause chaos, the movement unit still tries to walk right through.  And because units can't generally move through each other, units form a circle around an enemy unit when told to attack (or attack move), and don't let other units into the battle.  Sometimes these other units bumble around in the back, not knowing what to do.  The annoying implications of this are obvious and tedious, and I won't get into them.

Fortunately for SC2, the unit pathing problems are, I feel, usually minor.  The game is still FUN, regardless of pathing; it just gets annoying.  Thus I've given the game an 8/10, because there is still something very worthwhile here in the gameplay.  But how does this game compare to other games?

StarCraft II is an RTS, but it is also very tactical due to its intense micromanagement.  How does in compare to other RTS games?  Simply put, it doesn't measure up.  Supreme Commander had a vast scale and features to support this, and yet still scaled very nicely to small SC sized maps.  It's hard to play RTS games that don't include zoom out features after seeing it mastered in SupCom.  It was full of features to remove micromanagement, such as (to name a very tiny fraction of the list) the ability to edit patrol commands after-the-fact, set cycles of queues so that units keep producing until you cancel or pause, units that shoot and move (by no means a unique feature) so that they need not be babysat.  SupCom also possessed a true 3D physics simulation, such that every projectile passes through space and hits an enemy (or a friendly) unit only if it physically makes contact.  Thus a fast and high flying aircraft is harder to hit, literally because missiles can't catch up to it.  If you slow it down or make a turn above a turret, be prepared to take damage.  Units left wreckage when they died, which not only changes battlefields, but allows the better player to take advantage of these reclaimable resources and control the battle.  All in all, a much more advanced game three years ago.  More importantly, a game that attempted to focus on the grand-strategic element of battle, and succeeded in doing so.

Company of Heroes, a much more tactical game on a similar level of scale to SC and SC2, still had the ability to hit a button and bring the mini-map to the full size of the screen, and allow users to command units just the same way as if they were zoomed in as normal.  What does it have, tactically, the SC2 doesn't?  Units can get in buildings, or take cover behind objects if they are in danger, without being asked to.  This means that you can put a little bit of trust into that nicely balanced group of units that you have set up in a strategic area.  Buildings could be physically and aesthetically damaged, tanks could have trouble moving through craters, etc.  The graphics knocked me on my backside when I first saw them.  All in all, a game that focused on the tactical element of battle, and most definitely succeeded.

As a final comparison, let's look outside of the RTS genre at genres with more micromanagement.  FPS and TPS games are excellent examples of this: if you fail to check to your left and right before going through a doorway, you risk getting shot in the side.  If your click is off by a few pixels, it might be the difference between a one-hit kill and a miss.  Thus, while being a different genre, there is surely some sort of overlap in the form of transferable skills.  The difference, however, is that SC2 has none of the features that make the modern versions of these games cool.  You can't hide behind that box in the street/building in your base.  It's a combat comes in the form of a couple cases.  1) Player A out-ranges or outmatches the player B, and so player B will take a few hits and try to run away.  2) Player A and player B line up and blast the crap out of each other.  There's really no middle ground here.  Hit and run attacks involve running straight at the enemy, shooting, taking a hit, and running back to where you came from, stopping every second or so to get another shot off.  It's tedious, and it's not dynamic.

Where exactly does StarCraft II lie?  It's a game where units pick their target and hit it every time they shoot at it.  There's no physics simulation to be found here, and therefore none of the cool implications of that system.  Nevertheless, it's a well balanced game that holds up at the professional level.  And, for Jebus' sake, it's still fun!  For these reasons, I give the game itself an 8/10 for being a worthwhile game, and a 6/10 in comparison to other games for lacking so much of what makes other RTS games tactical and strategic.


Graphics - (8/10, 4/10)
Okay, we're almost done the bulk of this review.  SC2 is a reasonably pretty game.  Take a look at a screenshot of a game played on ultra graphical settings, and you'll see what I mean.  The game allows for a high resolution and some nice particle effects if your monitor and graphics card and handle it.  The graphics are by no means cutting edge, but they look pretty enough.

...And that's all that's nice that I have to say about that!  I have a hard time reviewing the graphics of a game without comparing it to other games, and so I'll be giving the game an 8/10 on this score, simply because the graphics are adequate for the game's needs, I certainly wasn't blown away, and for reasons I'll get to below.

Here is where I want to compare StarCraft II to other games, and talk about the dynamic movement of units.  People who have only played SC and SC2 will no doubt have no idea what I'm talking about, because it literally doesn't exist in those games (except in one or two cases in SC2).  I'm talking about units moving and shooting at the same time.  Aircraft dropping bombs on a target and flying by as fast as possible.  Aircraft swooping around above a battle, where you can see the AI in action, trying to change directions in order to avoid missile fire.  These are things present in 2007's SupCom, yes, but they have been around since 1997's Total Annihilation.  The fact is that these effects look absolutely gorgeous.  Calling them effects is selling them short, since they affect game mechanics.  They immerse a player in the game, make them feel like a real battle is going on.  These things aren't strictly necessary, but visually they would impose a drastic improvement on SC2.

A newer feature of RTS games, although one that has long been present in the sub-genre of space-RTS, is a sense of scale.  In Homeworld II, a fighter spacecraft compared to a capital ship is like a fly to a human.  In Supreme Commander, the ability to zoom out allowed Gas Powered Games to create massive units that would normally take up too much of the screen.  This also allowed the use of units with vastly different attack ranges; one can zoom out to watch an artillery piece shoot a distance of 5 'screens' such that it fits easily onto one.

What do we get in SC2?  We see ranged units shooting through buildings.  We see workers repairing the shadows of aircraft.  Battlecruisers, which are displayed as a mere 10 times the size of a human Marine, line up and blast other aircraft in head-to-head battles.  The battles feel so stationary, so static.  And with the lack of scale, the battles fail to immerse me in the way that other, more realistically scaled games have succeeded.  I feel more like I'm playing a game where I move a bunch of pieces on a 2-layered 2D map, where each of those pieces have a bunch of stats that affect the stats of opposing pieces when they're nearby or when abilities are activated.  And all Blizzard did was tack on animations to each of these objects, and what we got was Starcraft II.  Now, this is a colossal exaggeration; I never feel like I'm moving theoretical objects around on a map.  But I also don't feel like I'm really commanding a battle.  And because of this lack of immersion, the extra-game graphics score suffers significantly.  I'd be pretty surprised if anybody disagreed with me on this one.

Music - (9/10, 9/10)
To be perfectly honest, I'm not the best person to be reviewing a game for its music.  I don't always notice it.  I do know that the music in certain games has blown me away, eg. anything done by Jeremy Soule.  Starcraft's music seems nice enough, although I did eventually turn it off to avoid distraction.  The Terran's music shifts between a few eclectic styles, including some sort of folk music; this seems odd, especially when I'm building a base (or doing anything you do in an RTS?), but I'll let it go.  I'm going to give it a safe 9/10 on both accounts and just not let it affect my overall ratings very much.

Corporate Shenanigans
It's not clear why Blizzard is cracking down so heavily on DRM, Electronic Arts-style.  Clearly they were going to sell millions of copies of SC2 anyway.  Why force us to log in for single player?  Why remove LAN?  It's a simple enough feature, and there are times where it's not very easy to have 8 people in a room connected to the internet.  According to this (http://www.starcraft-source.com/article/news/view/?id=261) interview, Blizzard thinks that the only place we won't have internet is when we're on planes.  Okay, that's maybe stretching what he said a little bit, but not by much.  LAN is not much to ask for, and it's an RTS.  What happened to multiplayer spawns?

I'm sorry that this section turned into a rant.

Game Decisions (for lack of a better term for old-fashioned in-game issues inherited from SC1)
These are just a few points that show how few risks Blizzard took in making StarCraft II, and how few things they changed.  Firstly, why is it that siege tanks require an upgrade?  They're practically useless without it, and everyone gets them.  Why not just make them slightly harder to get and balance the game accordingly?  Next, it's not clear why Blizzard RTS games require so much supply (farms, supply depots, whatever).  We spend a lot of time bothering to remember to get workers to spend their precious time making supply depots every minute or so.  But what is this adding to the game, other than more things to remember?  Finally (for now), why force Terrans to place the building add-ons in the same spot?  Why even have an add-on that takes up space?  Surely the building could just be upgraded, or in the case of the buildings taking off and leaving an add-on which takes up space, it could just lie in the same place (and shape) as the building used to.

These are the tiniest of details that confuse me when I analyze the design of the game.  Blizzard was so hesitant to change anything that fans might find beloved, or might be thrown off by, that they left in poorly designed game mechanics.  This is more of a commentary on the game than it is an official part of the review which would affect the ratings.

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Summary
Blizzard has a quality game on their hands in StarCraft II, but it's one that suffers from a lack of ingenuity.  There's not much new to see here in this game.  There certainly are changes, however, and given the competition level of the game, this is certainly a game worthy of anyone's time.  SC2 has a single player mode that is fun and brings some interesting new level mechanics to the table.  Its multiplayer is masterfully and painstakingly designed to be as user-friendly as possible, and it certainly shows that this is Blizzard's main area of interest.  On the whole, however, while the gameplay is certainly tight and polished, it lacks what we have come to expect from successful modern RTS games.  It is here (in the largest and most important category, gameplay) that Starcraft II loses the most points.  Following that, the visuals are also not up to par with today's (or even the past few year's) standards.  The music is decent enough that I haven't noticed it so much as to be able to write more than a few sentences about it.  In general, the game is so polished that it wraps up everything that the game offers into a tight, enjoyable little package.  I just wish the package offered as much as some other RTS games.

Intra-Game Rating: 90/100
Extra-Game Rating: 60/100
Overall (average): 75/100

Recommendation
If you love RTS games in general, StarCraft II is a must have.  The multiplayer is surely something worth experiencing.  If you're a colossal fan of some of the more progressive games in the genre, eg. you're a Company of Heroes junky, you might be a little disappointed with what SC2 brings to the table.  Anyone with a computer more than a couple years old should be wary: the game's graphics do not scale well!  Load times can be horrendous, and the graphics on low settings look worse than games from years ago on the same computer.  If you're a casual gamer, Battle.net might not be set up in a way that you enjoy, given how much it angles towards competitive play.  Nonetheless, there is an enjoyable single player campaign to be had, and some challenges (and a newbie league) exist for helping players become competitive at the lower level of play.  Whatever you do, don't purchase this game and expect to be wowed by anything except the reflection of your own face off of this piece of polished software.  Starcraft II is a good game, but it certainly isn't anything special.

 - DR Moniz

3 comments:

  1. Great review!

    I think I had a lot more qualms with the story than you did, or at least than you wrote down. Am I really supposed to believe Raynor loves Kerrigan that much? They knew each other for like what, two weeks?

    Aslo, just FYI you can play the single player campaign offline, however you need to have logged into battle.net at least once to verify your game. DRM hell indeed.

    I also really just hate the layout of the SC2 menu screen. There is so much pointless and wasted space, it could have been immensely condensed in my opinion.

    Finally, it just frustrates me how many advancements in RTS games Blizzard ignored here. Hell, they even ignored things that Warcraft 3 popularized. The game is still really fun, but it just did not have that "WOW!" factor that Company of Heroes or Supreme Commander had on me when I first played them.

    I look forward to the next post!

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  2. You're opinons r obfuscatedly baised. Any -real- man would have judged the game relative to the original.

    ReplyDelete