It was almost a decade ago when I got my first taste of real competitive gaming. Living 45 minutes outside Canberra meant that online gaming was usually out of my reach, except for that one precious weekend that came around every month or so when ACTGN was on. Coming into this world was slightly alien for me, having been a computer shut in most of my life with no one to share the experience with. The idea then that people would compete against each other for prizes was also rather foreign, but I happily competed even though I was sure I’d never be good enough to actually win anything (although in a team I eventually did, but that’s another story).
After a while I started to hear about tournaments on a more grander scale than just the local events I was accustomed to. The first one I can ever remember hearing about was the World Cyber Games which is in essence the Olympics for video games. It was amazing to think that games had reached that level where international competitors would face off against each other and I can remember catching fleeting glimpses of TV coverage of the events, fantasizing about what it would be like to be there. Then as ACTGN died a slow and painful death so did my interest in the competitive gaming scene and I hadn’t really paid much attention to it since then.
However my recent obsession with StarCraft II started to draw me back to this intriguing world. I had known that the tournament scene had grown considerably since I was last obsessed with it (I had heard rumours of 2 Korean TV channels dedicated to eSports broadcasting, amongst other things) but I really had no feel for how popular eSports was. One weekend though a friend sent me a link to the MLG Pro Circuit site where there was going to be a live broadcast of a StarCraft 2 tournament over the weekend. After tuning in and watching it for all of 5 minutes I was hooked and I’ve been deeply engrossed in the eSports circuit ever since.
Initially though I still thought it of somewhat of a niche phenomena, something that was isolated to StarCraft thanks to its insane popularity in Korean. However as time went on some really interesting statistics started to cross my path that started to change my mind. One of my friends and work colleagues is a big player of the free to play hero defence game, League of Legends. Just recently one of the tournaments, which was broadcast online, pulled in a whopping 1.7 million viewers with a peak concurrent viewership of 210,000. MLG is no slouch either shattering previous eSports viewership records with an astonishing 22.5 million stream viewers and 16,000 people in attendance at the actual event. When compared to traditional sports and TV shows those numbers are extremely impressive and shows just how big the eSports circuit has become.
And that’s when I realised what had awoken in me: my inner sports fan.
Being a stereotypical nerd I had never really been one for sports. There were ones that I enjoyed (I played basketball competitively for a good year or two) but I could never bring myself to watch more than 5 minutes of a game of anything before I became completely bored and wandered off to do something else. Even amongst my fellow geek friends that makes me something of an oddity as the vast majority of them enjoy sports in one form or another. There is one exception to this rule that I discovered back in 2004 and that is the Olympics, which I could watch for hours on end without getting bored in the slightest. I’d hardly call myself a fan of it though (since I rarely follow similar events outside of the actual Olympics) especially once I knew what being a real fan actually felt like.
eSports on the other hand captivates me in a much more holistic sense, seeing me seek out all the information I can get my grubby little hands on. For me the enjoyment is two fold: firstly I believe in doing so will make me a better player of the games that I so enjoy. From my own view it has as well with my StarCraft II game improving dramatically and a short stint of watching some of the Black Ops coverage on MLG had me changing my loadout and promptly kicking some serious ass. Secondly it’s just so damn enjoyable to watch other people play which is, I believe, what attracts sports fans to traditional sports.
Seeing games go from a simple distraction, to an underground culture and now to a mature medium that has a wildly successful competitive scene has been one of the most amazing things for me to behold. It seems that the passion of the gaming community is strong enough to bring what was once a fantastical idea into a reality, and one that’s not just a niche for the dedicated few. I’ve only just begun to tumble down this rabbit hole and I can see myself doing so for a long time to come as my inner eSports awakes from his near decade long slumber.
What can I say about Starcraft that hasn’t already been said? The game was released over a decade ago and is still the definitive standard for what a real time strategy game should be. I can remember my times with it fondly, playing through the campaign as it was laid out before me, savouring every mission and becoming wholly engrossed in the story. Years later I would return to the game to play it online with a friend of mine, my first taste of real competitive online gaming. I became hooked on custom maps, playing everything from RPGs to the first versions of tower defense. As the years went on Starcraft remained on my hard drive and nearly every LAN I would attend saw it copied around and played for at least a couple games. Truly Starcraft was the game that just would not die and it’s sequel has been the talk of my friends for the past couple weeks. Its legacy is undeniable and a lesser game development company would struggle to keep to meet such expectations. Blizzard however is not one to disappoint.
Starcraft 2 takes place 4 years after the events of Starcraft: Broodwar. You play as Jim Raynor, former Vulture pilot turned revolutionary after his former leader Arcturus Mengsk wiped out an entire planet using the Zerg. The plot initially focuses around Raynor’s desire to overthrow Mengsk, who he now believes to be worse than the confederate leaders that came before him. This sets the scene for the initial set of missions as you set about building your army by gathering resources, completing missions for credits and finding new units with which to proceed forward. Each mission is given to you by one of your crew mates and they serve to build the characters as the story progresses.
The mission delivery format is completely different from the usual affair you might be familiar with in the RTS genre. Whilst most would simply limit you to certain units until after a number of missions were complete Starcraft 2 instead gives you the opportunity to choose which units you receive next as well as the upgrades that they receive. This can be both a blessing and a curse as some missions are trivialized by certain units whilst others require a certain unit to be able to complete some objectives. Additionally the game includes a Zerg and Protoss research tree which you can unlock by finding items or killing a particular unit during a mission. The upgrades unlocked from this tree are game altering and depending on your choices can make the difference between a mission being a breeze and it being nigh on impossible.
The upgrade and non-linear missions ensures that everyone’s play through of Starcraft 2 will be quite different, ensuring that even if you only play the campaign you’ll have a good few replays before the game is done. Whilst there’s always a strategy that trivilizes a mission the infinite amount of possibilities for completing an objective had lead to quite a few entertaining stories with my Starcraft playing friends. I think most of my missions past a certain point can be summed up by the quote: “Siege tanks are like violence, if they don’t solve the problem use more”.
Starcraft 2’s non-combat experience really draws the game together. Whilst you only have 4 places to visit most of the time the interactions between they never seem to get stale as their landscape changes as you progress through the campaign. The interactions with various members of your crew between missions helps to flesh out the characters and their motivations and nearly all of the decision moments in the game were influenced by these short bits of dialogue with my crew members. There’s nothing to lose by not interacting with them but if you’re a lore sponge like myself you’ll be clicking on every crew member after every mission, eagerly awaiting what they have to hear.
All of this would be for naught if the game play itself was nothing special. In the beginning the differences between Starcraft 2 and its predecessor are almost all graphical which is no small feat in itself. Each and every map is deliciously detailed in true Blizzard fashion, using every polygon to create a stylized but highly engrossing world. All the controls you’re familiar with from Starcraft work as expected in the sequel with many augmentations to make handling large groups of units far easier. All the units and buildings will be instantly recognizable as well with the new units and augmentations giving you enough variety to feel like you’re playing Starcraft but not one that’s just a revamp of its predecessor.
What really seals the deal for the single player campaign of Starcraft 2 is the absolute uniqueness of every mission. Throughout the 26 missions that you’ll play through each of them has something different that will force you to rethink the usual “build big army, attack move to enemy” strategy that got you through other RTSs. From avoiding a rising lava tide to robbing a train to preventing (or not) Terran colonies from being purged by the Protoss you’ll always be trying to figure out the optimal strategy for taking out your opponent. Taking the last mission as a great example of this the list of strategies I have for finishing it are probably the most varied of any game I’ve seen before. It really is a testament to Blizzard’s ability to build a complex and intriguing game.
I initially lamented the idea of including achievements in the game as I viewed them as just something that “has to be done” these days, rather than something that enhanced game play. For most games this still rings true with many achievements being quite pointless and merely serve to try and increase the replayability of the title. Whilst achievements weren’t my foucs whilst playing through the missions initially I’ve found myself going back to get the achievements simply because they make you a better player for doing them. Many of them require careful force management or using carefully planned out strategies to accomplish the goal. I’m still under half of the achievements done but I can see myself coming back to finish them off for a long time to come as a single mission can be done inside 30 mins.
If there’s one thing we can attribute the original Starcraft’s longevitiy to it’s the multiplayer. Blizzard spent years tweaking and refining the multiplayer and it shows as it was one of the few games that anyone could call truly balanced. Starcraft 2 is no exception as whilst I’ve only just dipped my toes into the revamped Battle.net I quickly lost 4 hours on a saturday night playing 10 matches with one of my long timefriends. The party system and new socially focused interface made connecting with fellow Starcraft players extremely easy. Whilst I lament that they’ve removed LAN play I can see the reasoning behind it since the interface is so heavily integrated with Battle.net. Still they’ve thought of nearly everything from keeping the last 10 replays (since you never always remember to save the ones you need to) to make getting into a match no harder than a couple clicks and waiting for the match to begin.
What really binds this entire game together though is the story that Blizzard has masterfully crafted into an epic tale of redemption, love and loss. Each and every character is exteremely believable, all having their own motivations for being involved with Raynor’s quest. The interactions between the characters are real and there’s distinct growth for all of the major players as the story unfolds. I can’t really talk about it much more without spoiling any points that I feel you must experience on your own but rest assured Blizzards reputation of telling great stories with amazing games is not let down by the first installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
I must also commend Blizzard for their 3D artists and animators. I’m a stickler for motion capture as the technology is at a point where it shouldn’t be hard to get it right. Starcraft 2 stanmds out as an example of not only getting it right but doing it so well that I didn’t even notice how well it was done until I took a step back to analyze it critically. The movements of the characters and units are fluid and most importantly they get the lip syncing spot on with the dialogue. After the disaster that was Alan Wake’suse of motion capture I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of Blizzard’s work. Additionally the full cinematic sequences are tear inducingly good with the attention to detail surpassing that of what I’ve come to expect even from 3D film production houses. I don’t think I’d be able to contain myself should Blizzard ever state they were going to make a full length movie of any of their franchises.
Starcraft 2 is one of those shining examples of a game where everything about it stands out as an example of how things ought to be done. The story and gameplay make for an extremely enjoyable single player experience that will provide you many hours of enjoyment even after you’ve completed it once. The multiplayer just plain works and once you’ve had your first taste of victory you’ll never be able to look at the shortcut on your desktop again without thinking about diving in for “one quick match”. Overall I can’t recommend the game enough for those who enjoyed the first Starcraft and wholeheartedly recommend anyone who considers themselves a gamer to play the game through at least once. 12 years is a long time to go between releasing a game but Blizzard has managed to make something that justifies the long wait and I can’t wait to see the next installment in the Starcraft 2 trilogy.
Starcraft 2 is available right now exclusively on PC for $79. Game was played on the Hard difficulty for all missions with approximately 30% of the achievements acquired in the first playthrough and around 18 hours of play time.