Tuesday, December 1, 2015

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void Review!

                More than 15 years ago Starcraft gave a new spin to RTS games both in singleplayer and multiplayer giving birth to a competitive scene that didn’t die even today. With a story driven campaign that has presented some of the most interesting characters in video games and a micromanagement multiplayer which made it to the home screens in South Korea, Starcraft and Brood Wars became legends that nobody can’t deny.
More than 15 years later part of that legend is about to end, but was this ending worth waiting for?

                Legacy of the Void is a standalone expansion and the last installment of Starcraft II which was split in three different campaigns (because economics).
The story takes off just after the action in Whispers of Oblivion with the players taking control of the protoss race which wait aboard the Golden Armada the orders from the Hierarch Artanis to warp in on Aiur and take back their home planet from the zerg. A bold move from a young leader and maybe an unnecessary war for a dying race, but honor and tradition force the protoss into making mistakes and despite the last minute warning from Zeratul, the invasion doesn’t stop.
Aiur turns once again into a huge battlefield as the yellow armored warriors pour in charging the zerg and holding them back while they are being toasted by the lasers of the advanced cybernetic units. A victory it seems, a long waited victory, but in the fashion of cliché twists the intrigue of the game kicks in turning the protoss tactical advantage upside down and proving that Zeratul was right. The protoss were reminded that in their tunnel vision moment of taking back Aiur the galaxy is on fire and they are not immune to the impending doom. With losses that will probably haunt Artanis forever, the remaining protoss activate the Spear of Adun, an ark from ancient times, board it and warp deep into space to reflect on the situation and plan their next move, because Amon lives and while he does nobody else should.
                Artanis is not alone in his mission to reclaim Aiur and subsequently fight the Dark God Amon. Both Khalai and Nerazim fight alongside him and important characters from these factions are gathered on the Spear of Adun to help and guide the young Hierarch in what seems to be the darkest time for the protoss race since the civil war. Artanis is assisted by the Phase-smith Karax which is responsible for the Spear of Adun maintenance and scientific research. The Matriarch of Shakuras, Vorazun, joins in a desperate hour lending her Nerazim forces to fight their enemies. As a ship from a time long gone designed to help the protoss in a time of need, Spear of Adun holds a few secrets and tricks but also provides the information needed through the preserver Rohana which struggles to understand the changes that have come into place.
Wandering through the galaxy in search for allies more factions will join Artanis in his just cause of unifying the protoss and leading them to battle and an age of change.
Like a true leader!

                The Legacy of the Void singleplayer campaign plays in a similar fashion with the previous campaigns of Starcraft II. With the intrigue established, the narrative dictates the gameplay’s progression not only through increasing difficulty but through available units and upgrades. The Spear of Adun serves as a mobile base like Hyperion and the Leviathan did. The base is also a campaign interface where the players can select between available missions, choose new units and upgrade the technology of the ship and the army.
They are back!
Going for orbital purging!

But this time there is a difference, Legacy of the Void combines old with new in an attempt to rekindle the melancholia and nostalgia of different times. The missions debrief has been changed to look similar to those in Starcraft and Brood Wars where the main characters talked through small screens about the mission details. It’s a nice tribute to great games and combined with returning units like dragoons, dark archons or reavers it surely brings back memories.
Not exactly the same, but still brings back memories.

                The campaign missions are heavily scripted and narrative driven with multiple primary and secondary objectives that tie in with the upgrading system on the Spear of Adun. The main mission’s objectives vary a lot from escorting AI controlled units, searching the map for important devices or fighting your way through using the heroes to the classic destruction of the enemy bases or the last stand type where you defend objectives against uneven odds.
The difficulty level ranges from Easy to Brutal and there is everything for everybody in that range. Some of the missions are pretty challenging on their own and the optional achievements attached to them spice things up even more.
Protoss deathball!
Like a true completist!

                With a ton of units to choose from, various upgrades that can dictate the way you play and 22 (real) missions of different intensity, the Legacy of the Void campaign doesn’t come short in terms of content. Adding to this the refined gameplay of Starcraft II and things could only get better, but sadly they don’t.
                The campaign in this expansion doesn’t escape the curse of being just a glorified tutorial and for that reason players are treated like newcomers (it could easily be read imbeciles) for the most of it. The hand holding is there and I tend to believe that it is worse than ever as now it follows the players even in the last missions of the game. Strategy games have always been part of a niche that is getting more and more abrupt as the years are passing by and this kind of player treatment only makes it worse for the players that have been dedicated to the genre. I do understand the need of teaching the new players the ways of the game, but this used to be done with a tutorial at the start of the game and maybe hints spread through loading screens and popup bubbles. It wouldn’t have been a problem if this feature could be disabled but it’s incorporated in the game’s story having a negative impact on the immersion when the leader of the protoss receives newbie information about how to use certain units (…). Even so the missions are engaging and playing the game on hard was a satisfying experience, but that experience is diminished to a great extent when the story comes into play.

                I’ve always had a difficult time coping with the story of Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, not because their presentation had changed, that’s a change for the better, but because of the worsening narrative. It’s not nostalgia that is taking control over my brain and fingers as I type this down, I went back and checked some of the crucial moments in the original Starcraft campaigns and they are holding even today and are as breath taking as always. It’s a dark but compelling story where the emotional parts don’t take the hold of the best of it. Instead, the story unfolds in an intelligent fashion presenting the relationship between characters that have different goals shaping up the action as they show their true interests. It’s political to a degree and more importantly, it doesn’t really care if the players want that to happen or not, because if the writing gets to a point where it desperately tries to please its audience than things are lost (keep up the good work George R.R. Martin). And that’s what happened with the previous installments of Starcraft II. The story went off from its original course presenting an American hero stereotype and a villain on the path of redemption almost ignoring everything that went on in the previous games. It was filled with cheesy writing and moments that hardly made any sense (that General Warfield mission…), all of these just for the sake of making the players feel better.
                Knowing this I dived into Legacy of the Void with much skepticism, but as a long time player of Starcraft, a protoss fan (my life for Aiur!) and a guy that read most of the books and theorized a lot about the lore, I had to see it to its end and now I’m not so happy I did.
Not a great day to be a terran.

                First of all, I want to put it out there so I don’t have to come back and say it multiple times, the story of Legacy of the Void is not horrible, but neither good. There are things at which the story stands out they mostly have to do with the high production value that comes with any Blizzard game. Cinematics with over the top action moments and impressive battles can be seen often during missions or in between them pumping the presentation value to a movie-like level. But the moments when the writing and storytelling shine are few and rapidly swallowed by the shallow and cliché plot and its hauntingly bad ending.
                Presenting the races is where Starcraft II excels, mostly because the technological limitations of late 90s didn’t allow for more in the previous games, nevertheless, is great looking at the three playable races of this universe through a magnifying glass.
                The main focus of this expansion, the protoss, is a conservatory race split in multiple factions, each valuing its own traditions and not taking change lightly. This leads to a great struggle as things change faster than they can even accommodate with, an atmosphere captured by the game’s narrative.
It takes a great leader to stand up for the task ahead and Artanis proves to be that leader. By not being reluctant to change, Artanis has the wisdom to slowly guide his race to the future. He shows great honor and loyalty without looking down upon the other races as he tries to understand everyone’s culture and traditions. This time around it is hard to pinpoint the main character into a stereotypical behavior. Artanis is tormented by many of his decisions, struggling to do what’s right for his race and accommodating them to a forced but welcomed change. Yet, he stands tall and doesn’t show weakness even when he’s outnumbered and is willing to sacrifice if necessary. It’s an interesting written character that comes in an antithesis with those around him, but the other characters help Artanis strengthen his motivation and make the right choices.
                All the characters present on the Spear of Adun have savory dialogues depicting a clash of multiple layers of Protoss society that come to terms with each other to form an unified force, the Daelaam. But none of these characters come even close to the original cast in writing quality. Artanis doesn’t match the character level of the protagonists in the original Starcraft games, but he has more depth than those seen in Starcraft II but the story doesn’t help him as much as it did with Sarah Kerrigan, Jim Raynor and especially Arcturus Mengsk back in the day. But from the Starcraft II perspective he’s one of those who stood out the most, alongside with Tychus and two other characters from Legacy of the Void which I won’t mention for spoiler reasons.
This Aiur obsession is going to get you and your people killed!

                Considering the great presentation of its main race and the overall cinematic level, Legacy of the Void was in need of a well written story to secure its place alongside the original games in the series.
The story starts great setting a desperate and dark tone leaving the feeling that every important character could die at any moment. But the game doesn’t keep up with that switching instead to the narrative style of its predecessors and rarely letting that go.
                Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm had a great problem with pacing, the former having the players go through 18 or more missions before important things started to happen and the latter tried to change that but lost itself through evolution missions and a story arc about the origins of the Zerg.
Legacy of the Void is set on doing things differently and from a story unfolding slowly it switched to warp speed (or zergling rush if you are a zergs fan). One would argue that because the galaxy is coming to an end the story rushing through events is justifiable, but this leads to awkward moments of poor writing where longtime enemies become friends on the spot without even a “how do you do”. The glue that should hold many of these relationships together is nowhere to be found and alliances happen just for the sake of it.
                To pile up on the sketchy writing is the inconsistency between games, Heart of the Swarm denied the action of Wings of Liberty and now Legacy of the Void does little effort to acknowledge things from its predecessor. Niadra, a zerg broodmother which lost contact with Kerrigan and was set on following her last order: destroy the protoss, is a character I theorized a lot about after Heart of the Swarm and I thought it was going to play an extremely important role in Legacy of the Void. But I didn’t even remember seeing her in the game and while the zerg presence is felt on Shakuras, her story that could have strained the relationship between races leading to further complications serves nothing more than a reason for why the zerg were there. This leaves a feeling of abandoned or undeveloped story and cumulated with some of the plot holes which aren’t so hard to spot leaves an even bitter taste.

                It’s obvious from the things I’ve mentioned above that Legacy of the Void doesn’t manage to capture the twisted atmosphere of Brood War or maybe just doesn’t want to.  The narrative is never as dramatic and dark as the main plot set it to be, maybe because hope keeps showing up leading the protoss on a track that brings them more and more chances of victory without any real setbacks. There’s a rather cheerful vibe that I felt for the most part of the campaign which made it hard for me to take everything seriously. People die like crazy sometimes because that’s how some missions work, but nobody seems to care and considering the number of protoss has diminished drastically maybe the main characters should have a reaction to that. For crying out loud, I got killed hundreds if not thousands of units attempting to get some of the achievements to a point where I was wondering if there should even be any protoss available for warping. Maybe I’m nitpicking, but for me the immersion didn’t peak much as the severity of the situation wasn’t always reflected like being so.
                Then there’s the part about the xel’naga mystery that has always been a subject for debates on forums and bulletin boards, but that will stop now because the questions have been answered. What people will probably discuss now is if the quality of those answers really rose up to the expectations and more than 15 years of waiting. The entire xel’naga and Amon story gave me the impression that this has never been thought through until just now and this chapter of the story was only written for the last part of the series. The majority of the questions have been answered mostly by empty cliché giving closure by addressing the mysterious plot and not necessarily to make the story more exciting.
The xel’naga arc was hard to bear, it was presented in a rushed and cheesy manner that wasn’t suitable for such an important part of the story, but when I thought things couldn’t go worse, the finale came a finale not worthy for the series.
                The ending was disappointing to say the least. Yes, it grabbed a smile from me because over more than a decade of playing these games and reading the books I came to care about the characters. But it fell flat like once again it was written only to please that majority of people that can’t stand when things go wrong. I won’t go into details because of spoiler’s reasons and maybe I’m too pretentious about this because I had higher expectations, but I sure wasn’t pleased.
                Overall, the story in Legacy of the Void is appealing through great presentation, high production value and a good exposition of its main characters (En taro Artanis!). To be fair, the series was lead to an awkward point where clichés were unavoidable and while the writing in Legacy of the Void was supposed to redeem the past mistakes it doesn’t even save itself. If you liked the story in the previous installments of Starcraft II you will probably end up enjoying this one as well (more or less), on the other hand, if you are urging for the dark Sci-Fi narrative that made Starcraft and Brood War so great, you might find this to be nothing more than a galactic soap opera. The story clearly has its moments and playing as a protoss was a pleasure for me, but at the end of an era not only for Starcraft but for the RTS genre as well, this trilogy story and especially its finale are not one of Blizzard’s best works (after Diablo 3 I guess I shouldn’t have expected more).
Are they going to fight?!

                Starcraft and Brood Wars not only excelled in storytelling, but in gameplay and multiplayer as well and while Starcraft II couldn’t carry on the great writing of its predecessors it managed to adjust perfectly their gameplay mechanics to a new era of gaming and technology.
                For a slightly arcade strategy with a lot of micro and macro management, Starcraft II has an almost flawless gameplay. The game’s focus on three races with different play style has kept the gameplay engaging for years and it will probably continue to be so for years to come, after all Brood Wars is played at a competitive level even today.
It’s surely not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s understandable, Starcraft II has a hardcore gameplay where good decision making, high actions per minute and a thorough understanding of its mechanics are required to reach a satisfying level of play. But even at a casual level, Starcraft II will have your heart racing and your fingers trembling leading to some of the sweetest victories or some of the most frustrating losses. It’s a great way to get an adrenaline rush without doing anything too extreme, but an ever present danger for your peripherals if you put too much emotion into it.
                The two gameplay related flaws of Starcraft II has been battling with have carried on with Legacy of the Void, but not because of Blizzard’s lack of trying to fix them, but because they are almost impossible to fix.
One of the problems stands in the balance, which for a competitive game where the meta changes with each new Korean breakthrough tactic it’s extremely hard to keep the three races on a foot of equality. Protoss has dominated Heart of the Swarm (sOs!!), but no one knows what will happen in Legacy of the Void. The game will continue to evolve and change based on the necessity as Blizzard will keep supporting it as an e-sports. And here comes in play the second problem.
While the game is continuously adjusted and balanced for e-sport purposes, it’s getting harder and harder for the casual and untrained players to get into it or keep up. Starcraft II is a hard game by definition and the newer and inexperienced players always had problems getting into it because the learning curve is extreme. Reaching a level of understanding and control that could make a player competitive enough to stay on the average of the ladder could take quite some time. The achievement based tutorials, AI skirmishes and the singleplayer campaigns did what they could to accommodate the players into the game, but that was never enough and more often than not players end up abandoning the game.
Legacy of the Void has some new features that should keep the casual players interested for a longer period of time and help them better handle the game in the hopes of moving to the next level.
One base all in, old school style!

                First of all let’s talk about the Co-op mode which serves as a multiplayer campaign where two players can choose between six heroes, two for each race, and play together a bunch of scripted scenarios with adjustable difficulty. Each hero has its own unique abilities that can be used during matches and a preset build of units from its respective race. The Co-op play is engaging and fun but only for a while, mostly because it lacks in content quantity. The heroes are great and leveling them unlocks new units, upgrades and abilities, but the mode has only five maps and exhausting everything that can be seen on these maps doesn’t take long. Blizzard has promised updates in the future that will bring more heroes and maps to the Co-op mode, but as it stands now it’s just a good way to have fun and maybe train a little for the more important features of the game.
Joint forces.

                The next big thing that comes with Legacy of the Void is Archon mode, an innovative way to play skirmish or competitive matches with friends. In Archon mode two players take control of one race facing another Archon. Playing in a team is much more tactical and given the ability to spread the work between two players makes it more fun, but players shouldn’t be deceived, as this doesn’t lower the work load during a competitive match.
The introduction of Archon mode doesn’t reduce the micromanagement or simplify the game, because playing against the cumulated micro of two players requires as much effort as possible. What Archon mode does and does it rather well is allowing teams to play competitively in a much more balanced environment, 1v1, because everyone who played team ranked knows is an unbalanced cheese fest.
                Last but not least is the feature designed for those players who are extremely competitive: Automated Tournaments. I’ve been waiting to see this in Starcraft II for a while and it is finally here. These tournament sessions take between 3 and 4 hours with the matches being limited to 25 minutes after which the player with the highest score will win and move forward. The players taking part in the Automated Tournaments are matched equivalently to their league and winning a tournament awards 3D trophies which will last for the entire season. This feature is extremely welcomed as it will greatly increase the competitive play at any level extending the lifespan of Starcraft II.

                Legacy of the Void didn’t bring only new modes to play the game, but newer units to play with as well. Each race has received two new units for skirmish and multiplayer purposes. I won’t go into detail about them, but what I will say about these units is that most of them are extremely micro focused and clearly designed for e-sports and highly competitive plays and not so much for the beginners.
In addition, all races have received notable adjustments for balance purposes, including new abilities for older units and some interesting modifications that will change the meta gameplay of Starcraft II. It’s probably too early now into the expansion to see the full potential of each race, but with the start of WCS 2016 I expect that new ingenious tactics will flow and hopefully Starcraft II e-sports scene will be revitalized.
I foresee an expansion of cheesy tactics!

                Wings of Liberty was launched in 2010 and since then I didn’t notice many improvements in the graphics of this series. Legacy of the Void is still a CPU centric game with crisp and colorful graphics that hold on even today, but don’t stand out aside of physics courtesy of Havok engine. But the technical graphics isn’t where the visuals of this game shine the most, the beautiful and unique design of the protoss or xel’naga civilization remains show that Blizzard’s artists still got what it takes to make impressive architectures.
                Legacy of the Void runs smoothly up to a point. The engine was designed to be flexible and work on a wide variety of hardware configuration and while it does that quite well, it does have problems on ultra settings even on high end rigs. When the screen is filled with units shooting at each other that’s when the frame rate starts to drop to critical levels not only affecting the visuals but the gameplay experience itself as it’s extremely hard to micro units as the fps fluctuates.
                Despite their age, the graphics serve the cinematic presentation of the story very well (thought their quality is not the greatest), showing up close characters with reasonable details for an engine designed for strategy games. But the main goal of this engine is to make everything look as sharp as possible so they don’t affect the micromanagement gameplay in any way and this feature is put to good use in Starcraft II.
Remaking the Golden Armada!

                While when talking about the graphics I can criticize the technology lagging behind considering we are in 2015. When it comes to sound design and music, Blizzard is spot on in every game and Legacy of the Void makes no exception.
The unit’s sound effects might be the same as in previous games with the exception of the newer ones, but the soundtrack has received some new epic songs which fit perfectly with the protoss thematic of the game. The voice acting is also impeccable giving life to the protoss characters with their electrical and booming voices.
                It’s a great treat for the ears to listen to the music and sounds of this game and is gladdening that even strategy games are getting to a point where little complaints can be made about sound design.

The menacing Spear of Adun!
Goodbye StarCraft...

                It has been a long journey and to be perfectly honest I’m somewhat relieved that it’s coming to an end even if that end was completely unsatisfactory. Starcraft II was always in a permanent conflict between its amazing gameplay and its average story up to the end. The story’s conclusion doesn’t come near to its origins quality, but does put the last pieces of the puzzle together in a matter that favors closure above narrative quality having much of the fans reconciled. And as before, Legacy of the Void makes up for a lot of its sins through great production value that only a few AAA studios can and want to pull off.
The story is just a part of Starcraft (how big is that part is up for you to decide), the other component is what made this series so popular, the multiplayer, which is now as good and competitive as ever but freshened up by this expansion release and ready for new tournaments and e-sports madness.
                Real time strategies are a dying breed and their final moment might be getting closer with Starcraft II reaching its end. The future is uncertain for this genre, but maybe learning from mistakes while still using this clearly successful recipe, Blizzard Entertainment will listen to the fans and revive one of this genre’s glorious franchises that is now astray between a movie and MMO expansions: Warcraft (4)!

+ A cinematic and lengthy enough campaign with a lot of unique mechanics and units
+ The protoss characters
+ High quality sound design and voice acting
+ The same almost flawless gameplay updated and balanced
+ The multiplayer is as competitive as always
+ Co-op (for some)
+ Automated tournaments
+ Overall high production value

- The campaign has some extremely poorly written moments and the overall story is a letdown
- The third campaign of Starcraft II and it still has handholding
- The ending is beyond cheesy
- The new units make the multiplayer learning curve even more abrupt
- The cinematics video quality is questionable
- The same old performance issues of this engine
- (Upcoming DLCs?!)


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