If you didn’t know, game developer Blizzard Entertainment released a real-time strategy computer game called StarCraft in 1998.
In gaming, this is widely regarded as A Big Deal.
Twelve years later, StarCraft has sold more than 11 millions units worldwide (1). It still has a thriving casual and competitive base, especially in South Korea (where taunts that it is the national sport might be incorrect, but only barely).
Blizzard never rested on its laurels, really, but it took its sweet time developing the sequel after being sidelined by another strategy game, WarCraft III, and then the immensely popular online role-playing game spinoff World of Warcraft. But eventually, Blizzard confirmed the sequels’ development at the Blizzard Worldwide Invitational in May 2007 (2). Delays dragged into delays, and the game’s release date was publicly pushed back on occasion. Hardcore fans sated their appetite by buying their way into the multiplayer component’s beta period. But finally, finally, the first of three installments in the sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, was released on July 27, 2010.
In an unusual move, Blizzard did not give out review copies of the game for pre-screens, meaning that the gaming press got to play the game at the same time as every one else. When the reviews did come in, however, the response was overwhelmingly adulatory; the game has of writing a 93/100 score on review aggregate web site Metacritic, every single one on balance positive (3).
Sadly, game journalism has fallen a long way (or perhaps it never had a lofty perch from which to fall). Unless a game is truly egregious, a score lower than a 5 or 6 is rarely given. The equivalent of grade inflation has taken hold, and 9’s and even 10’s now mean very little from most publications as they are handed out like candy for almost every triple-A title. StarCraft II, being the perceived Great Last Hope of PC gaming, is no exception.
That isn’t to say StarCraft II isn’t a good game, or that I don’t like it. It is, and I do. But in the back of my skull, a massive nagging feeling emerged as I plowed through the game’s story mode and retraced my steps in the days after. A nagging feeling that something was horribly wrong, that some aspect of the game wasn’t what I had waited for more than a decade for.
That something was the story, or maybe even the soul.
Most reviews didn’t touch on the story in anything beyond the basic plot outline. Those that went a little further generally had the same praise to bestow upon it. Giant Bomb’s Brad Shoemaker outlined the story mode this way: “The events in Wings of Liberty are momentous enough to completely change the landscape of the series’ fiction, and I have no idea how Blizzard intends to continue the story arc. But the storytelling here is good enough that I can’t wait to find out” (4).
Sadly, Brad, I have to disagree.
The original StarCraft, I posit, had a good core story that was inherently butchered by the medium and times. In 1998, Blizzard made a splash with the then-fancy prerendered cinematics that told large heaps of the story or just gave you a closer look at the battles you were watching and waging from way overhead, but they were far and few between, more bookends and flavor-enhancers than a serious storytelling device. This isn’t exactly Blizzard’s fault, I should add; real-time strategy games are frankly one of the worst ways to tell video game stories. The problems are multifold, as perhaps best explained by HellMode’s “Ashelia”. Blizzard did an excellent job of weaving together an interesting backstory and fiction for StarCraft, but because much of it remained confined to the manuals, players who read the guides and the spinoff novels could have a completely different idea about the game than those who played the game alone. The two alien races of the game, the mechanized Protoss and insectoid Zerg, for example, share a common ancestry, their evolution driven and manipulated by a powerful ancient race called the Xel’Naga. The Zerg, planning for an inevitable conflict with the psionic Protoss, decided to infest and consume a band of human exiles in a distant backwater star system, absorbing their latent psionic potential to create new Zerg strains. The Protoss decided to burn out the infestation outright, obliterating the hapless humans at the same time, but the fleet commander Tassadar decided to instead ally with the humans and the exiled Protoss pariahs, the “Dark Templar”.
But almost none of this context is available in-game. Forcing in story through scripted cinematics isn’t an effective method of story engagement, and since so many of the missions were the exact same meta-arc (build a base, take out an enemy, rinse, repeat) there wasn’t really any interest in the gameplay to mate to the plot. As Ashelia rightly points out, a plot summary of StarCraft is a lot clearer and interesting than the actually execution (5).
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (from now on, just Wings of Liberty to distinguish it from the two impending installments in the StarCraft II trilogy) improved on most of these issues to some degree. While there are a significant number of prerendered cinematics, the lion’s share of interstitial sequences use the game’s rendering engine, meaning there are far more storytelling opportunities. Scripted sequences in-mission are far more polished than they were in StarCraft, drawing from the advances made in WarCraft III.
The entire narrative arc of Wings of Liberty is far different from StarCraft as well. Instead of a set of linear missions, players shoot off into space aboard protagonist Jim Raynor’s battlecruiser after the first few ground-based tasks. From there, players can explore rooms of the ship, chat up main characters, and pick which missions they want to play. There are four or five threads that the missions explore, aligning with certain characters, and there are also “choice” missions–that is, at the conclusion of the arc, players can make a command decision that affects the next mission and the conclusion of certain character arcs. Some missions may never be played, if you rush through the game to the end. The customization of the missions is compounded by special units and upgrades. By buying mercenary contracts and maxing out customizations, you can adapt your play style and have a different experience on repeat playthroughs, even if you played through the missions in the same order. These are all good advances, and while there’s still a disconnect between the prerendered cinematics, the realtime cinematic, and the gameplay, it’s greatly lessened.
While this interesting, role-playing game-like aspect makes steps to helping us get inside the heads of the characters, it actually ends up undermining it on the whole. Because missions can be completed in any order and character responses from non-player characters afterwards are all scripted the same way, it’s possible to have everyone on the ship complimenting Raynor on how awesome he is, and the next mission doubting him entirely. Likewise, in my playthrough Raynor went from an inspiring, charged and motivated soldier to a slobbering drunk in the next cutscene.
The next set of problems are less a matter of presentation and more of critical mass and substance. StarCraft had a deep and engrossing lore, so it’s unfortunate that Wings of Liberty essentially rewrote much of it with some serious retroactive continuity (for an explanation of “retcons”, see “Video Games, Retcons, and Canon in the World of Fluid Interactivity”.)
The problems range from great to small, but they all undermine the integrity of the story. In the original game’s manuals, it was stressed that the appearance of the Zerg surprised the Protoss, but in Wings of Liberty their coming is treated as a biblical plague foretold with those pesky ancient prophecies. The entire motivations, backstory and aims of the Zerg are rewritten to be manipulated by a shadowy unknown force that wants to destroy all life (yawn). In virtually every respect, the writers have trashed what came before-odd, considering that the main writer from StarCraft remained for its sequel. (A comprehensive list of fan issues can be found at Blizzard’s forums, and such threads are common as rabbits there; more specific concerns would be utterly meaningless without having a deep knowledge of the game’s lore.)
To make a long story short: while Blizzard might have taken twelve years to polish its gameplay to a shine, in key aspects its story is a step backwards, both in terms of creating engaging plots and characters and in not learning from the lessons of previous games. The only hope I can see is that the ending has not yet been written, or at least set in stone. The two coming StarCraft II expansions, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void, can-if not erase-at least ease some of the deficiencies. I can’t say Blizzard has anything to lose; if they don’t change the problems, I’ll still buy the game, if only for the gameplay. But it won’t be a game I’ll cherish like the original, and that’s a shame.
* (1) Graft, Kris (February 2, 2009). “Blizzard Confirms One ‘Frontline Release’ for 2009”. Next-Gen.biz. Retrieved August 28, 2010.
* (2) Onyett, Charles (May 18, 2007). “Blizzard’s Worldwide Invitational – The StarCraft 2 announcement”. IGN. Retrieved August 29, 2010.
* (3) “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty: PC Reviews”. MetaCritic. Retrieved August 28, 2010.
* (4) Shoemaker, Brad (July 31, 2010). “StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Review”. Giant Bomb. Retrieved August 20, 2010.
* (5) Ashelia (July 24, 2010). “There’s Narrative in my RTS”. Hellmode. Retrieved August 26, 2010.