In this week’s Breaking Down the Backlog, I took charge of a group rebels and fought back against two corrupt leaders.
I don’t think I have played a Real-time Strategy game in an exceedingly long time. The last one I remember finishing is perhaps Dawn of War 2 and it’s expansion pack Chaos Rising almost a decade ago. Sadly, my RTS fix has been sated by the indomitable DOTA 2. So, it was very refreshing to play Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty. I didn’t expect to have as much fun as I did. Turns out, Blizzard still know (or knew at the time of writing) how to make a damn fine RTS.
It is difficult to describe how well designed the game is because the mechanics of an RTS are pretty abstract when compared to, say, a first person shooter. What I will say is that the units are all fun to experiment with and each have their own tactical pros and cons that the campaign really takes advantage of in the missions. You can’t just go through building an absolute ton of the basic marines and “attack move” your way through the game. You actually have to consider things the enemies are building and make the most of the resources available. Your enemy building hundreds of tiny things to overwhelm your defences? Build flamethrowers. Lots of armour? Lasers. Lots of air-based vehicles? Anti-air aircraft and units with machine guns. Every unit has their situational usefulness and, tactically speaking, the game is way deeper than the typical “Rock-Paper-Scissors” mechanics one usually sees in RTSs.
Outside of the mechanical polish the game-play has, the real highlight of the Starcraft 2 campaign is the mission design. There is tons of variety throughout the half-dozen missions and I was never bored. When I started playing, I was worried most of the missions would be slight-variations of more traditional base-building and going up the technology tree until you just mow down the enemy. But my worries were unfounded, you do so many different things that the campaign is incredibly engaging. At one point you have to fend off a zombie invasion, at another rob trains, there are also missions where you control one or more elite units and don’t build a base at all. Hell, there is mini-Protoss (think, magical space elves) campaign within the main campaign itself. I especially appreciated the secondary objectives that would happen mid-mission. It allowed me to explore the maps a bit more and added an extra layer of challenge. Sure there are plenty of typical RTS mechanics, but they are used in interesting ways (the most difficult mission was where you had to fight the Protoss and out-run an oncoming wall of fire).There is almost too much variety in a way, it felt like the game was lacking structure. But that is such a minor criticism that it is barely worth mentioning.
The overall story was a bit cliché, but was very well told. It begins with Jim Raynor meeting up with an old friend straight out of prison and going about sticking it to the main antagonist Mengsk, the emperor of the Terrans. This old friend, Tychus, tells Raynor about a money-making scheme involving recovering “Xel’Naga’ relics and selling them to a shady organisation. This gets the interest of both the Zerg (think, Xenomoprhs from ‘Alien’ mixed with the worms from ‘Dune’) and the Protoss. There are multiple run-ins with both races as well as Mengsk’s forces. There is also a shoe-horned appearance by well a wizened old Protoss friend of Raynor’s who essenitally comes to warn him of the Xel’Naga and lay-out the over-arching story. I never played the first Starcraft but I really didn’t feel like I was missing out on much as the game organically lays out the relationships between each of the characters, all of whom are excellent. Tychus is a special highlight with his mixture of brutality and loyalty to Raynor. He is clearly not a good man, but he has a great deal of depth to him. Overall, it is a solid story that gets you from mission to mission with aplomb and never wears out its welcome. Oh, and the cinematics are incredible.
There were other touches to the overall game that I appreciated. I enjoyed the upgrading mechanics in-between each mission and how permanent (by locking out the alternatives) they were. This lead to some genuinely hard choices. Also, going back to the ship to talk to the supporting cast and receiving new dialogue each time was a genuine pleasure and it fleshed out each character much more than would’ve been possible in a more traditionally structured campaign. The graphics are simple but very effective. Like all good games that rely on quick reactions, you can immediately differentiate one unit from another at a glance. And, to top it all off, it didn’t feel like a game that had split into three. Wings of Liberty felt like a fully fleshed out release. I look forward to playing the second part sometime in the future.
Next time on Breaking Down the Backlog: Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception