Tag Archives: Starcraft 2

Opinion – Organization in RTS Strategy

Sun Tzu’s Art of Zergling

Real Time Strategy games will oftentimes explain their strategy in terms of mechanics.  Their tutorials lay out how one unit counters another or how a researched technology grants benefits against unupgraded foes.  Explaining the mechanics gets to the unique part of a game and teaches experienced players about the new concepts they will need to succeed.  Unfortunately, it leaves out a very key aspect of RTS strategy: organization.

Organization is how players position their units and buildings to achieve victory. It covers everything from unit formations to building strategy and plays a key role in increasing the value of a player’s units while putting his opponent’s units in sub optimal roles.  Despite what your average tutorial says, organization is often more important than straight technology and unit counters.  Though developers often intend for units to fulfill certain roles, they program units to achieve those goals within certain confines.  Units attack range, rate of fire, hit points, area of effect, etc all impact their ability to perform their function.  Organization can enhance those strengths or, alternatively, diminish the strengths and enhance the weaknesses.   Consider the following example.

In one of the most memorable games of Starcraft 2 I’ve ever seen, the Zerg player attacked his Terran opponent with zerglings.  His opponent, knowing of the coming attack, rushed out to meet him with the Terran counter unit, the hellion.  According to Blizzard, the hellions should have destroyed the zerglings without much trouble.  According to the Zerg player, zerglings do just fine against hellions, thank you very much.  Not only did the Zerg player defeat the hellion counter, but he went on to crush his opponent with that same attack.  All thanks to organization.

Zerglings are tiny units that do little damage and so succeed by overwhelming their opponents with numbers and chipping away at them from all sides.  Hellions are fast attack units that send out a stream of fire that washes over a collection of units roasting them all.  In theory, the Terran player should fend off zerglings by constantly pulling his hellions back only to stop briefly to fire.  After a few volleys, the zergling mass dies leaving the hellions relatively unscathed.  Aware of this, the Zerg player decided to minimize the hellion’s strengths while enhancing the zerlings’ own positive attributes.  The Zerg player kept his zerglings hidden, waiting to catch the hellions unaware.  He pounced and quickly surrounded the hellions thereby achieving two important things: immobility and diffusion.

Firstly, the zerglings pinned the hellions down so that they couldn’t retreat and fire.  This allowed the Zerg units to constantly damage the hellions without having to catch up every time they drove away.  Immobility maximized the zergling damage while minimizing the hellion speed.  Secondly, the diffusion of the zerglings provided both additional damage output and greater defense while undermining the hellions attack.  By surrounding the enemy, the zerglings could attack from all angles allowing them to do damage collectively rather than individually.  10 zerglings doing 2 damage a hit is much stronger than 10 zerglings with only 2 attacking at a time.  As it turns out, diffusion bolstered the zergling’s defense by minimizing the effect of the hellion’s weapons.  The hellions fire in a straight line doing serious damage to units caught in the blast.  If the zerglings chase after the hellions as intended, then they’re damaged at the same time.  If they surround the hellions, then the attack hits them one at a time thereby weakening the effect.

This is just one of many examples of how organization impacts gameplay.  Many of these lessons carry over to other games and are used in a similar fashion.  While the average RTS game teaches players about the game mechanics, it behooves those players to look beyond the basic lessons and learn how organization, and other strategic aspects, can improve their play.


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Opinion – So you want to make an e-sports game – part 2

We’re back!  Now to conclude my evaluation of esports games.

Visual beauty is nice.  Visual clarity is mandatory.

One of the major components of esports is watching the action.  Having a pretty game can make the experience more enjoyable over a blander counterpart, but pretty visuals are unnecessary.  Fans who stick around for any length of time will become used to the appearance of a game to the point where it won’t matter much.  Instead, the most important visual aspect of an esports game is visual clarity.  At a glance, viewers should have a good idea about what is happening onscreen and how the broader game is playing out.  This allows them to follow the action and understand just how their favorite players are performing.  A perfect example of this principle is Starcraft 2. The game isn’t pretty, but all of the necessary information is clearly displayed on screen.  When two armies fight, the viewer can see their composition, the moves they’re making, and their success or failure.  The display also shows player army size, resource pools, and ongoing upgrades.  Compare that to an unmoded FPS where the viewer can only see the game from the viewpoint of a single player.  They can only ever understand the game from a single, limited perspective and so will miss out on the broader progress of the game and interesting events not viewed by that player.  It would be like watching a football game from the helmet of a single player.

Limit downtime

Speaking of Starcraft 2, it showed the importance of getting into the action quickly.  Before the most recent expansion, most games started with major dead time until the players could develop their economies and armies and start engaging.  That period was, to be blunt, boring.  Time that isn’t showing something entertaining is time the viewer might disengage.  Some downtime is require in games, but long stretches of it should be avoided at all costs.  Esports games are fundamentally an entertainment product.  They should strive to be as entertaining as possible across the most time as possible.

Balance Intelligently

One of the things every developer learns about every game they make is that their audience will inevitably do something unexpected with their game.  Players will run into bugs, sneak into areas they shouldn’t, and apply unforeseen tactics.  For an esports game, the developer must accept that they will a) never anticipate all the strategic permutations of their game, and b) regularly balance those tactics throughout the life of the game.   The first point necessitates the second.  Invariably, competitive players will pick apart your game and discover an abusive strategy that will dominate the field.  Without balancing, that’s all fans will see and they’ll get bored.  Even beyond preventing single method victories, intelligent balancing helps keep the game fresh.  By subtlety tweaking different aspects of gameplay, the developer can encourage pros to innovate new strategies giving fans something new to see.  With all this being said, I included “intelligent” for a reason.  Balancing can fundamentally alter how the game is played.  Without applying intelligence, care, and precision, the developer can create new dominant strategies or prioritize less entertaining ones.  Balancing is incredibly difficult to do right.


Production values for viewing

With increasing production values across the many developing esports games, it’s no longer enough to have a scruffy fan shout out what’s happening in a game.  From the casters, to the environment, to the game overlay, esports need strong production values to appeal to new audiences.  Appearing jumbled or confused will only push potential fans to better organized options.  Furthermore, the back end needs to strongly support the whole operation.  Lag, computer crashes, and event disorganization only add dull downtime that will turn off fans.  They want to see the game, not watch casters try to fill time while techies figure out the latest failure.

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Opinion – So you want to make an esports game?

Instant success in just a few easy steps!

The incredible rise of esports has encouraged imitators to develop the next great game.  If they succeed, they could follow in the steps of Riot Games resulting in massive, stable profits for years to come in an ever changing industry.  Fail and the game joins the scrap heap of imitators which are doomed to be forgotten except by a few devoted souls.  That being said, successful esports games seem to range across a number of different genres making it hard to know why they succeed or fail.  What follows is a collection of commonalities I have noticed in popular esports games.  As I wrote this, I discovered this article is really a two parter.


They’re accessible

Think of the most successful esports games.  DOTA, League of Legends, Hearthstone, etc.  The one thing they all have in common is that they’re free to start.  In theory, every player can get to the top of the rankings without spending a dime.  In reality, successful players probably spend some money, but the games only ask for payment after the player is hooked.  They also don’t require a super expensive computer to run.  These two factors dramatically reduce the cost of trying the game which significantly broadens the player pool.  One of the most important aspects of a high level competitive scene is having a group of fans large enough to both play the game at a high level and to enjoy watching it.  The lower the barrier to entry, the easier it is for players to join, and the more likely the game will reach a critical mass.

The skill ceiling is sky high….

The competitive players that make up the competitive scene in a game want to feel rewarded for the considerable time and energy they invest in the game.  They want to know that improving their skill will result in greater success on the battlefield and leaderboard.  A high skill ceiling ensures that devoted players will always have another step to climb and that the best players will rise to the top.  With a low ceiling, the best players will ultimately settle at the same level thereby stagnating their progress and turning competitive matches into either a crap shoot or a foregone conclusion*, depending on how the skills are capped.  This both frustrates fans who want to see diverse strategies and prevents the development of a skilled cadre of players.  Individual players and teams can’t stand out if everyone performs the same at a particular level.  This prevents the creation of reputations and brands that fans identify with and which invest the fans more into the game.

…, but the bottom end is fun too.

Let’s face it, most of esports game players suck.  They aren’t reaching incredible levels of mastery.  Hell, they probably aren’t getting out of the single player campaign or fighting bots on stupid mode.  Even so, these are the people who an esports developer need to watch games, root for players, and buy merchandise. To encourage old players to return to the game and new players to join in, the game can’t be so difficult that only the masters can play.   They also serve as the foundation from which eventual pro players arise.  Low skill players won’t just fill in the bottom rung of the competitive pyramid, they’ll also fill in every successive rung thereby providing aspirants with a path to the top.  The fewer people who enjoy a game, the fewer people who will pick it up and the lower quality the eventual pros will be. Finally, having fun at the low end makes the high end more relatable.  Fans have a hard time appreciating the skill of a player unless they’ve tried to accomplish the same thing.  By making the low skill end of a game entertaining, the developer is also allowing fans to discover what they love about their favorite game.


And that ends part 1.  See you next week in part 2.


*If the game relies heavily on random outcomes, then the winner of a match between equally skilled players is usually the player with the luckiest roles (think poker).  When the game has a low skill ceiling and little randomness, then both players know the outcome and can predict every move (tic tac toe).

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Opinion – 2015 Year in Review

Because it’s an easy article to write.

We’ve gotten to the end of the year and, once again, I’m not overwhelmed by the amazing games we’ve seen this year.  Perhaps it’s because of a poor crop …though the fact that I haven’t played two of the most critically acclaimed games of this year.  Still, looking back over the year need not be just a celebration.  Consider this the official list of the good, the bad, and the confusing of the games I played this year.

Most Disappointing Game – Rebuild 3: Gangs of Deadsville

Most sites put Fallout 4 in this category, and I can’t blame them.  The game feels like Bethesda Softworks failed to develop all the mechanics that made the game stand out from Bethesda’s other open world games.  Still, for me, the greatest disappointment was Rebuild 3.  This nontraditional take on the tired zombie genre showed that restoring human civilization after an apocalypse could be just as fun as running from the zombies themselves.  Rather than improve on that idea, developer Sarah Northway doubled down on the siege aspects of the game with little understanding of the importance of scarcity to her game.  What could have been an experience of clawing back from the brink of extinction became a micromanagement snore that ended well after the result was decided. That’s a shame as there’s a ton of potential in the concept.  Let’s hope Rebuild 4 works on that.

Best Surprise – Renowned Explorers: International Society

An indie game with a unique idea?  They’re a dime a dozen.  An indie game with incredible ambition and style that also retains a high level of accessibility?  That’s a surprise.  The ambition of RE:IS combined with the developer’s knowledge of their limits makes this an exciting and fresh entry into a field of games with a lot of high concept critical darlings and dumb-as-rocks triple A shooters.  Whereas many small developers collapse under the weight of their own ideas or go for safe approaches, this game hits the sweet spot of indie gaming.  The fact that people knew about it from its Kickstarter doesn’t make RE:IS’s strong execution and great ideas any less surprising.  Well done!

Most Innovative – The Beginner’s Guide

This would also win the “Strangest” category.  In terms of game mechanics, The Beginner’s Guide is no different than Gone Home, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, or even the developer’s own The Stanley Parable.  Focus on the storytelling techniques and the level design and The Beginner’s Guide is bursting with new ideas.  Levels in particular feel otherworldly yet they clearly serve the story as the narrator brings the entire setup together for the player.  Part of what makes The Beginner’s Guide innovation so compelling is its ability to bring the player along yet still leave them with questions.

Best Game of the Year – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void

Having not played either Undertale or The Witcher 3, it’s hard for me to get excited over this year’s offerings.  Among the many disappointing games, Blizzard’s solid execution of the final Starcraft 2 entry stands out.  The story may suffer, but the tight missions, clever new units, and quality multiplayer upgrades make Legacy of the Void one of the most compelling experiences of the year.  Longtime fans will love the return of classic units while newcomers will appreciate the tutorials and fair enemy matching.  Blizzard may be the last major player in the RTS game, but with Legacy of the Void, they prove why the genre deserves to survive.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void – PC

Writing this for a second time. Thanks Word!

Blizzard is an evolutionary developer. Occasionally they take great leaps forward, but those are rare when compared to their measured steps towards something better. Even with their long history, rarely has Blizzard made a series of games clearly heading to something specific. The Starcraft series is different. The story, gameplay, and infrastructure all lead to one point: Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void. The game is still recognizable from the Wings of Liberty days (or even Starcraft 1), but Blizzard learned so much from its past that this feels like the definitive experience.

Well, most of it does. While much of the game stands above its predecessors, the story is still clearly shackled to an unevolved version of the model set out at the beginning. The player takes control of the Protoss hero Artanis as he attempts to retake his homeworld of Aiur. The attack falters when the evil god Amon takes control of the Protoss army and Artanis is forced to collect the remaining independent forces of the Protoss to beat back Amon. The characters and plot of the Protoss story are compelling enough and even manage to evoke the occasional moment of awe at the epic scale of the conflict, but it’s hard not to feel like the single race model of the expansion packs works poorly here. Legacy of the Void should tie the disparate story lines together, but the Terran and Zerg characters only get a fraction of the screen time. It’s enough to convince the player that there is a broader conflict, but not enough to draw the player in. Amon, the link between all three games, is the flat evil god of evil stereotype and does not sufficiently tie the experience together. Blizzard understandably felt obligated to give Protoss players their due, but dedicating the final game in the series to one race undermined the overarching, multi-race narrative. If Blizzard had incorporated the other plotlines, the story would have been all the better for it.

Beyond the story, the campaign shines. Campaign missions drop the timing heavy levels of Heart of the Swarm in favor of the greater mission variety of Wings of Liberty. The upgrade system also receives an overhaul by injecting substantial flexibility. Rather than select a specific form of a unit, Legacy of the Void allows the player to switch between three forms, each with their own unique power set. The forms combine to create an impressive number of strategies and should complement whatever approach the player wants. On top of the unit forms, Blizzard included universal upgrades and powers that effect the whole level. Old standbys like automated vespane harvesters return with new friends such as teleporting in a pylon. The player can reallocate a new resource, solarite, to change the universal buffs based on their strategy. The new flexibility of the upgrade systems allow for numerous adaptations…and confusion. Legacy of the Void never explains the virtue of any one upgrade and leaves it to the player to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, this only means the player will miss out on the potential of their builds, not be confused.

The game really shines in the multiplayer. The biggest change is the addition of six extra harvester units at the beginning of each match. The additional units increase resource production and prevent the often slow beginning of most competitive Starcraft 2 matches. They also allow for a number of new strategies by getting players to the resources they need quicker. Of course, Blizzard also adds the requisite new units of which the Terran Liberator and the Zerg Ravager stand out. All the new units promote smart play by being incredibly powerful, but only when used correctly. This produces more dynamic games where even the strongest army compositions can fail if mishandled.

Legacy of the Void also adds two new modes. Archon mode lets two players control one race. Designed as a trainer mode for new players, the real fun of Archon mode is letting two friends split up the substantial control burden of the game. There’s substantial professional competitive potential in Archon mode, though there haven’t been any major tournaments yet. The other option is cooperative where players ally to take on 7 missions based on campaign missions across Starcraft 2. Players choose heroes with limited access to their race’s units and buildings, but who have special powers which expand and improve as the hero gains levels. There isn’t a lot of depth to this mode, but it’s hard to deny the fun of playing with a friend.

Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void is the finest expression of the RTS genre in a long time. If you have any interest in this kind of game, you owe it to yourself to buy this game.

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Opinion – Welcome to the Jungle

Introductions are in order.

Fallout 4 doesn’t care if you know how to play it.  Really, it’s just not interested in telling you what’s going on.  Sure, there are half-hearted attempts to give some information, but they aren’t serious.  Like the uncaring fast food cashier who vaguely recalls the item you’re ordering “might have peanuts in it”, Fallout 4 only puts up a semblance of a tutorial because it kinda feels like it has to.  Joining the Food Court of the Unhelpful are several games I’ve recently played including Starcraft 2: Legacy of the Void, Sonic: Lost World, and Bloodborne.  What gives?

For one thing, tutorials suck.  They are the antithesis of gaming and practically impossible to pull off well.  The whole purpose of a tutorial is to tell the player how to play the game that they want to already be playing while they’re being told.  At their best, tutorial’s take advantage of gaming’s inherent learning capacity to work in concepts organically.  They present challenges that are overcome by previously taught skills which are combined in new ways or joined by a similar, but new, skill.  Sadly, these kinds of tutorial are rare.  More common are their unwanted brethren that throttle the player’s abilities and then explain all the wonderful game mechanics while the frustrated player watches the game play itself.  Too many games spend their opening hour by telling the player how to play rather than letting them actually do it.  In an all too often occurrence, games will completely forget about interactivity and literally type out what needs to be done.  For the impatient player who booted up a game with the hopes of actually playing it, they are unlikely to expend the necessary time and focus to grok the giant wall of text in front of them.  They are far more likely to click through and get stumped.

Let’s compare and contrast.  Consider the first level in Super Mario Brothers.  The player is present with Mario, a floor, a controller, and a pipe.  The game gives the player plenty of time to press buttons to discover that Mario moves and can jump over pipes.  After they surmount the pipe, the player meets enemies which are defeated by the previously taught jump mechanic.  The player’s skill set builds from there.  Super Mario Brothers is a classic example of a game teaching the player through playing the game.  The player jumps (teehee) right into the action and probably never realizes that they’re in Shigeru Miyamoto’s classroom.

If Super Mario Brothers is an example of a good tutorial, Bloodborne is the opposite.  The player starts off in a room.  They’re quickly massacred and sent to a hub world where all the instructions are written in ghostly images on the floor.  The instructions don’t appear to have any particular order and they’re often snippets of larger explanations.  In short, the developers decided to replace the written manual with an in game version that lacked cohesion or a table of contents.  To use the tutorial, the player must voluntarily stop playing to approach each instruction which won’t make any sense without understanding the game.  If they player decides they want to go back to an instruction, they must test each one until they find the information they’re looking for.  Gud jorbs!

Bloodborne and the other games mentioned above get away with terrible or non-existent tutorials because they are games that don’t care about new players. Each has a longstanding fan base that are expected to know how to play the game and therefore require little additional assistance.  The lack of a solid tutorial is still a shame.  Early game instruction provides new players with an entry point and reminds older players of mechanics.  Tutorials also help introduce new game concepts, something that Fallout 4 fails completely at.  The difficulty of crafting quality tutorials does not mean the developer should ignore them, rather, that they should focus more on them.  Otherwise, it’s the players that must fill in the gap.

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Opinion – Crossing the River the Second Time was Better

You can’t go home again….but that’s okay.

Over the past two months, I’ve played through the entire Starcraft series, beaten Elder Scrolls: Oblivion, and am now working on Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. In short, I’ve recently spend a lot of time playing games of the past. Interestingly, the last two (Oblivion and Skyrim) were games that I didn’t really like, yet the second playthrough turned me around on them. I still have the same issues with the games, but now I have information.

There is one moment that defined Oblivion for me. After repeatedly scraping by in fights, I came across a Will-o-Wisp blocking a cave. I survived up until that point by running through doors and sleeping off my grievous wounds which, foolishly, the game wouldn’t let me do if a monster was inflicting said wounds at the time. In short, I needed to kill the Will-o-Wisp to secure a safe sleeping area so I had a chance at the dungeon. After repeated failures, I set the difficultly down and killed the now super nerfed enemy. It felt like failure. Sure, the developer included the difficulty slider for just that purpose, but that loss both showed I was incapable of beating the game as intended and condemned me to futzing with the challenge. Oblivion lost its hold on me and I moved on to other games.

In my most recent playthrough, I ran across the same dungeon. If I were being dramatic, I might say I was on a quest for revenge, but really I was just waltzing through the countryside. I came upon the monster, fought it a few times, and finally felled the beast. What was different? I now know how to play the game. The player inevitably first plays through a game suboptimally. They misallocate skill points, don’t understand puzzles, or expend resources before they need to. Oblivion punished that via its approach to challenge (see here) where if the player made a few bad choices, they were dramatically weaker than their opponents. Understanding how that mechanic worked made the game easier and more enjoyable. I could address weaknesses early and prevent the pitfalls that plagued my first game. I knew what to expect which made it easier for me to get what I wanted from my time.

Speaking of expectations, having previous experience with the game allowed me to set my general expectations beyond difficulty. Oftentimes you’ll see the above phrase, or one like it, mentioned in terms of the hype a game receives before it launches. Marketing materials and games journalists (not to mention friends) set unreasonable expectations that no game could meet. I’m not talking about that. Instead, I’m talking about a solid understanding of what the game has to offer and an acceptance of any flaws as an inherent part of the experience. Case and point: the reason I didn’t like Skyrim. After climbing to the top of the mage faction and defeating a hellish Dragon Priest, Bethesda thought the appropriate reward was to give me an infinite number of fetch quests and repeatedly have the town guard ask if I was new in town. The game didn’t recognize my achievements and that bothered me greatly. I can’t really get annoyed about that during my second playthrough, because I knew about it going in. That’s baseline knowledge. Me picking up the game is an acknowledgement that, despite how frustrated I felt, I accept that part of the game. That understanding and acceptance made it easier to play.

When the gaming community talks about going back to a game, the conversation typically centers on whether or not the game holds up. I’m certainly guilty of that. We should take a step back and realize that the second playthrough is not like the first. It has certain benefits (and negatives) that can change the experience dramatically. Perhaps we should even question if our conception of a game “holding up” isn’t effected by the fact that we’ve played it before. We’re not testing the game as if it were brand new, rather, we’re approaching it with experienced eyes. As you see above, that can change our view of a game in substantial ways.

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Review – Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty – PC

A totally original tale of space marines fighting aliens.

The thing about calling a game a “classic” is that you have to measure it against the established standard of the day. Classic games aren’t a reflection of the time they’re created, but rather of how they compare to current games. With that in mind, the reason Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War aren’t undisputed classics is because developer Blizzard reentered the RTS genre again and gave us Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is one of those rare games that evolves the formula so much that it’s practically a revolution.

The game picks up after the events of Brood War. Jim Raynor leads a revolutionary group against Emperor Megnsk while the Zerg and Protoss remain quiet in their respective territories. The calm is shattered when Kerrigan launches another invasion of the Terran Dominion. The player takes control of Raynor as he tries to protect humanity against the Zerg while still prosecuting his war against Megnsk. There’s a lot of back story here, but Blizzard chose a solid starting point so that newcomers won’t feel too lost. The introduction of a few new characters (I’m a big fan of Tychus) keeps the story from being a retread and provides much needed outside perspective to characters who are absorbed by their own drama. The focus is squarely on the Terrans (they’re they only ones with a solid campaign), though Protoss and Kerrigan play roles as well. Overall, the story is a solid space opera that sacrifices a bit to the needs of the campaign, but remains compelling in its own right.

While still recognizable, nearly every aspect of the campaign has evolved. This is most apparent in the missions where Blizzard figured out how to move beyond the glorified skirmishes of the original Starcraft. Missions now focus on taking advantage of the traits of individual units and they encourage the player to experiment with all the unique abilities. Blizzard has crafted clever set ups (such as a moving wall of fire forcing the player to lift their base) and cleverly includes units too unbalanced for multiplayer. The unit based focus forces some unnecessary plot diversions in the story, but is a solid edition to the gameplay. Outside the missions, the player has access to a ship based hub where they can purchase upgrades, talk to team members, and replay old missions for achievements. The whole package, plus the ridiculous polish, makes for a compelling experience that is worth returning to.

Like the campaign, the multiplayer received a major overhaul. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t touch the basic gameplay. Starcraft’s tight balance between the three races carries over to the sequel with a few new units and stat changes to vary the experience. Instead, the biggest shifts come from match matching.   Blizzard established a tiered ranking system based on player success. The player plays five evaluation matches which then places them into the appropriate rank. This system does a couple of neat things. It ensures players are matched against opponents of a similar skill and provides clear feedback on player success. It’s easy to tell how good of a Starcraft 2 player you are based on your ranking. Playing matches also provides experience which goes towards acquiring minor rewards like portraits and unit animations. The only flaw in the multiplayer is that Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is out. Many of the best players have migrated over to the next iteration of the game.

Rounding out the Starcraft 2 experience is a clean, compelling presentation that shows off Blizzard’s technical capacity and movie making. Units are distinctive, colorful, and animate smoothly. The environments move beyond the original Starcraft’s bland grays and browns to more vibrant jungles and ruins. The cutscenes make impressive use of detail and scale to create the feel of a living world. It’s telling that one of the opening cutscenes was the first time I really felt the size and majesty of the battlecruiser. Still, the movies growing grandeur feel discordant with the scale of the gameplay. While cutscenes include massive battles between huge armies, the missions and skirmishes have no more than 400 units on screen with space ships the size of 10 marines. It’s a necessary conceit to the genre, but it’s jolting to switch between the two.

There are a few flaws in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, but they are small. The incredible amount of polish and creativity in the game makes it compelling and one of the true greats of the genre and gaming in general. For players with even a passing interest in RTS games, this is a must buy.

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Review – Starcraft – PC

You can never go home again…oh wait!  You can!

Starcraft is a game that needs no introduction, but it is a game that might need revaluation.  Given its regular inclusion on many “best games of all time” lists and the upcoming release of the final expansion to Starcraft 2, it’s important to revisit the genre titan to see if it still holds up.  The short version is, yeah, it kinda does.  While not the juggernaut it once was, the original Starcraft remains a fun, challenging game that remains fun, even when compared to its modern descendants.

The gameplay is the heart of the whole enterprise.  The basics are familiar to any player of the RTS genre.  The player starts off with a small base and a few workers and must build an economy and an army to defeat his foes.  The tension in the game comes in balancing the development of an economy, maintaining an army for defense, and punishing the opponent for their mistakes.  Players must adapt their styles and strategies to three different races (Terran, Protoss, or Zerg), each with unique units and buildings.  The three race balance still stands out as one of the finest executions of the concept.  Each race feels radically different, yet balances well with its counterparts.  Much of the praise for the original game remains true, but the gameplay does suffer a bit from age.  The player can only select 12 units at a time, skirmishes start with too few harvester units, and the unit pathfinding is atrocious.  Fortunately, the player can adapt to most of these allowing for the strong mechanics to shine through.

For the campaign, the player takes control of a nameless commander for each race following a continuing plot from each perspective.  The story has some interesting twists which the game oddly does not incorporate into the mission structure.  For example, rather than play out a mission where one of the lead Protoss characters defies his superiors and defends humanity, the game only tells the player about it.  This is even odder given that some of the campaign missions feel like filler and could easily be replaced.  Still, the overall story is solid with strong characters, pivotal moments, and a few intriguing plot twists.  Given that most RTS games push the story to the side, it’s nice to see a tale with a bit more meat.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the campaign mission design.  Almost every mission feels like a basic skirmish with only a few variations tossed in the mix.  Neither the mission parameters nor the level design change up the feel and the strategy of a basic skirmish.  What worked on mission 3 carries over to mission 10 with little variation.

Though the gameplay and story have held up well over time, the graphics do not.  Starcraft is filled with chunky pixels on top of bland backgrounds that measures up poorly against its modern competitors.  Starcraft feels ugly in a way that speaks both to its age and questionable art design.  Even if gaming hadn’t gone through an extended “brown plus gray equals awesome!” phase, it’s hard to imagine Starcraft’s bland aesthetic holding up.  Surprisingly, the cut scenes do.  While they are indisputably ugly compared to the current crop of games, the screen direction and stories depicted remain compelling to watch.  I looked forward to each new video and was happy with most.

Starcraft definitely has its flaws.  Considering it a classic really depends on how much the player appreciates the still compelling tight gameplay.  Still, that debate misses the more important argument that Starcraft remains fun to play and costs very little ($15 gets you Starcraft and the Brood War Expansion).  Whether you’re looking to relive the series before Legacy of the Void drops or just want a fun game to play, Starcraft is a fine purchase.

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Opinion – Evaluating the Past

Adjusting my rose colored glasses.

When approaching a retro review, it’s important to recognize the baggage that comes with it.  Unlike a current review, retro reviews evaluate beloved games of old to see if they hold up to their more modern descendants.  As a result, retro reviews are sometimes colored by happy memories of the past or differing criteria based on the time they were made.  In this article, I address some of the flaws I see in retro reviews and the flaws I hope to avoid in my upcoming review of Starcraft.

One of the most common flaws in retro reviews is the idea that some aspect of a game is “good for its time.”  This most often comes up in the context of outdated graphics, but can also apply to story, controls, or any other mechanic.  The idea is that problems in a game are somehow mitigated because they weren’t so bad when the game came out.  The issue with this argument is that it excuses unfavorable comparisons while ignoring the fundamental fact that some aspects of older games don’t age well.  It assumes the player is operating under the prevailing standard of the game’s origin year rather than the present.  This is obviously false.  For a game to be good, it ought not require that gamers forget all that came out between the game’s launch date and today.  If an older game truly is to claim the title “classic” (or even just “good”), then it must compete against the current standards.

In addition to creating outdated standards, the “good for its time“ argument suffers from the fact that the reviewer is never in “its time.”  While most retro reviewers were alive during the launch of these games, they are still years, if not decades, removed from the gaming scene that existed during the release date.  Unless the reviewer is going to replay games from that era, it is difficult to recollect what the prevailing standards of the time were.  “Good for its time” relies on understanding enough of the period to compare the game to.  Without actually having those games on hand, the reviewer is relying on old memories likely colored by happy recollections.

Alternatively, it’s important to recognize that lacking modernity does not mean lacking quality.  While some concepts and mechanics are no longer used in current games, they still may represent sources of fun and entertainment. The game Painkiller is a perfect example.  Lacking a strong story or RPG elements, Painkiller was a throwback to the simpler run-and-gun style FPS game that faded with the rise of System Shock and Half Life.  Despite focusing on an out of favor style of FPS, Painkiller was rightly lauded for its fun, arcade gameplay with clever settings and weaponry.  Developers move away from game mechanics for any number of reasons besides the fun derived from the mechanic.  The fact that they aren’t using a particular mechanic now does not necessarily reflect the quality of the mechanic.

The opposite is also true.  Nostalgia is real and many gamers have fond memories of older games played in a different time.  Some reviewers have a tendency to favor games from an earlier period precisely because that was a time when they really connected with the games.  While there is nothing wrong with enjoying, or even preferring, old games, reviewers should be wary of approving of games simply because of their age and associated memories.  A game should be reviewed based on the current experience it provides rather than the happy memories it recalls.  Readers of a retro review cannot download old memories, only old games.

The key with a retro review is to remember that the reviewer should evaluate the game as if it were released today.  Understand that many players are coming to the game fresh without the attending memories and knowledge that older players may have.  While all reviews are ultimately a reflection of the reviewer, reviews should only address what the player can access.

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