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Starcraft 2: Some Thoughts

August 4th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 27 Comments · Blizzard, RTS

A full review of Starcraft 2 will be written and published and elaborated on later. It is also the topic of next week’s podcast. I think that the commercial success of Starcraft and Blizzard’s ability to sell ice to Inuit has some lessons for the strategy game market.

I’ve been avoiding reading other people’s reviews, but it’s hard not to miss the scores that fill my Twitter feed, and the general (but not unanimous opinion) is that this is a great game.

I still need to invest more time in skirmish and multiplayer to be sure, but for now, I don’t see greatness. I see a developer that is playing it safe, probably for some very good reasons. While it is refreshing to see an old school economy centered RTS with such great polish, this is not a game design that will breathe life into to the genre and any company that sees the amazing sales Blizzard is scoring as evidence that the real time strategy game as it used to be is back as a major market is sorely mistaken.

It is possible that as a genre wonk, who has played almost every major and most minor PC RTSes in the last decade, that I see missed opportunities where people who have left the genre for a while see old familiar mechanics they like.

It is also possible that I am crazy. A colleague whose work and opinions I greatly respect called the campaign “revolutionary”, referring primarily to its high level of audio-visual quality. I think he’s nuts, but the guy plays Dawn of War 2, so he’s not a rube.

(I understand that Tom Chick is catching some hell for his review over at Gameshark. This is not my review, only some words so that you all can get a hint of where I am coming from. Still, keep the comments civil.)


27 Comments so far ↓

  • Ashelia

    I love Starcraft 2 to some degree and hate it to another. It plays it too safe and it makes quite a few errors by doing this. This is seen especially in the singleplayer experience via the campaign, which is a mix of greatness and cheap thrills–making the entire thing somewhat muted and undesirable. That said, its multiplayer is a solid experience and it is very strategic in that regard; it is exciting to play and it is tense. It is the essence of pro-gaming and even strategy in some moments.

    In other moments, though, much like people have written who dared to be critical, it falls short. I have high hopes for the remaining expansions (the zerg and toss) and I would like to see what Blizzard does. But as it is, it is just a prettier version of the original–which was an excellent game, but I expect and to some degree demand that sequels with a decade of difference reinvent themselves rather than just upgrade.

  • Punning Pundit

    It seems that Blizzard did _exactly_ what they set out to do, but that most RTS fans wish Blizzard had wanted to do more. As a game of mass combat, Sins of a Solar Empire does a better job. As a game of tactical combat and maneuvering, Dawn of War 2 is better. When it comes to base building, I’d rather be playing Dawn of Discovery.

    Nonetheless, there’s something very satisfying about the game. I know I’ll be dumping at least 60 or so hours into the game. There’s something about it’s Alchemy that works for me. I think it deserves it’s B rating, it’s good, but not great…

  • MikeO

    I’d say the campaign is pretty good for what it is, since I completed it. The last time I finished the campaign in an RTS game was probably Command & Conquer. The best thing about the game in my view is the Battlenet/ multiplayer matching implementation. I generally dislike RTS games, and SC is more unforgiving than most, so I doubt I’ll be playing multiplayer much.

    For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like.

  • HeruFeanor

    The original Warcraft was just building on Dune and Command & Conquer, and every RTS they’ve done since then has been an incremental improvement on the last one. Diablo was just a continuation of Moria and Angband, taken properly graphical. World of Warcraft was a heavily polished, incremental improvement on Everquest.

    Blizzard, I think, did precisely what they always do, and anybody who expected otherwise hasn’t paid attention to their record. What Blizzard does is take tried-and-true gameplay styles and mechanics, give them a few small, incremental improvements, and then polish the hell out of them.

    So I don’t expect innovation from Blizzard. I just expect really well made games. It’s a pity they can’t apply that level of polish and refinement to more innovative gameplay, but honestly, I’m not sure it would work. I believe a big part of the reason they are so polished and refined is that they’re building so closely on top of past works.

  • Tim James

    Troy, perhaps for the podcast you could work in the concept of niche markets. This is obviously big in online business where the division of labor can be high — it’s better to specialize on one thing and get rabid customers than trying to create the end-all website or business. Does that apply to games? There is a sentiment among gamers that developers should throw “hardcore” fans under the bus because their extreme views don’t create playable games for the masses. Obviously the sales numbers here are obliterating that idea, but it might not work for every developer since cost of development is still high. Perhaps as gaming expands and middleware improves, it will be more profitable to satisfy a dedicated niche.

  • James Allen

    I think anything other than what StarCraft 2 is (a true sequel with most of the same elements) would alienate far too many people. If they truly wanted to revolutionize the RTS genre, which they could, they would need a new IP. I suspect with the Blizzard name behind it, it would still sell.

  • Punning Pundit

    @HeruFeanor I think much of the disappointment stems from the fact that Blizzard is building on top of SC1– a 12 year old game. They’re ignoring basically everything that’s happened to the industry since then. Thus the game feels like a sort of backwards step.

  • Clay

    Personally, I see Starcraft 2 as the Iowa-class battleship of RTS games: sure it’s got an excellent blend of speed (rush), firepower (boom), and armor (turtle), but nobody builds or even uses battleships any more.

  • Aon

    @Punningpundit But at the same time, they’re not ignoring everything that’s happened in the last decade, during which Starcraft has become a major presence in Korea and succeeded as a “mainstream” e-sport, unlike any of the more “advanced” games which have been released since.

    It’s a bit of a shame to see them constrained like this though.

  • Troy

    Starcraft’s success in Korea is a one off thing, though. Big certainly, but competitive RTS play in non-Korean leagues is not usually Starcraft.

    The original game blew up huge at the same time that South Korea became heavily wired – it’s a fluke that it tapped into the culture so widely. No new game can really do that – the FPS analog is Counterstrike. It is still widely played in competitions because everyone in the competitive FPS world knows it.

    Starcraft has not been succeeded by other RTSes in Korea for reasons that have more to do with early and heavy investment in it as a sport.

    (btw, this gives me a another chance to plug Jim Rossignol’s Gaming Life, which has a great chapter on gaming in Seoul.)

  • Aon

    I must have worded my previous thing badly, because that is precisely what I was referring to. Because it is an institution in Korea as is, in order for the country to successfully transition into the sequel and thus make more money for Blizzard, it had to essentially be more of the same thing in the same way that while a rule may occasionally be changed in football, no one adds a third post. Although Starcraft may not be as big other territories e-sports scenes, those scenes pale in comparison to the strength of the Korean one.

    This is the same with Counter Strike and the minute changes to the mechanics in Source, which helped to successfully transfer much of 1.6’s competitive scene. They don’t have to replicate the 1999 zeitgeist but rather transition their existing success into further profit.

    I shall second the recommendation of Rossignol’s book however, great stuff and now free to read online (http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=dcbooks;;idno=5682627.0001.001).

    I wasn’t gaming back around the time of the first game, but were RTSes for the next year or two fairly derivative or Starcraft? I’m suddenly worried the genre might fall into a dark age…

  • James Allen

    I think the PC market is inundated enough by digital distribution that we won’t see an onslaught of StarCraft clones again, since indie studios can still put out thoughtful strategy games without having to worry about a retail presence.

  • Naum

    You here are hardcore, and SCII might be the equivalent of checkers or backgammon…

    But Blizzard gets it — they release quality games, and do simultaneous Mac release (as they always have, important for me, as I rarely venture in Windows land these days, aside from VM apps @ work… …and ~100M Mac users nothing to scoff over, especially when I wager that disposable income for that crew greater than average Windows user) . And they sell a hell of a lot of games…

    Am enjoying SC2 though my click-fu is definitely not what it used to be… …playing through campaigns, and probably will putter around with editor too…

    But it’s no Dominions 3, that’s for sure ;)

  • frags

    I’ve been thinking if the harsh thoughts on SC2(which btw I agree, it’s nothing to shout about) are more to do with it being ‘SC2’ and ‘Blizzard’ or thats how we feel about it compared to other RTS games.

    Are we being overly harsh because of higher expectations. I mean SC2 is way better compared to any of EA’s C&C games(by a mile). I think the branching research, upgrade mechanic is something new(but not revolutionary) for Single Player RTS games. But the mission design doesn’t do it for me.

  • Destrin

    Why does greatness have to be revolutionary?

    I completely agree that Blizzard has played it very safe with Starcraft II and this isn’t going to utter in a new era of strategy gaming. But it is a game that’s really well put together and highly polished. It’s not the second coming of a new dawn but that doesn’t stop it being a great game

  • i saw dasein

    I’m interested in your review Troy as I was Chick’s, as I follow the podcast pretty closely. One thing I hope you keep in mind when considering the multiplayer is that many “missed opportunities” may in fact be deliberate design choices. Just as adding auto-aim or regenerating health would not improve some shooters (ie, Counter Strike), many UI improvements would not necessarily improve Starcraft.

  • Tim McDonald

    Troy, I agree and disagree with your thoughts here in equal measure, I think. StarCraft 2 isn’t going to breathe new life into the RTS genre, and it’s certainly not the most adventurous of game designs, but I never expected it to do either of these things.

    That said, the single-player campaign has sufficient innovation in terms of mission structure and replayability through both the upgrades and achievements systems that I’m probably going to go back to it repeatedly over the next few weeks, and now I’ve started to get my head around the multiplayer, that’s probably going to occupy more free time than I’d like.

    It doesn’t do enough to ease new players into multiplayer, certainly – there’s basic information that really should be in there. The Skirmish AI is incredibly disappointing, too, particularly as a few tweaks could make it serve as a much better introduction to multiplayer. That aside, I haven’t *enjoyed* a game this much in awhile. It’s incredibly well-polished fun, and that, really, was what I was looking for from this.

  • Rythe

    Basically what Destrin said. It should also be noted that the intricacies and depth that StarCraft 2 does espouse don’t generally gell with most core strategy gamers.

    StarCraft 2 is a simple design that’s been fleshed out and refined to an impressive degree. That said, the core of this game is time management. It’s not about base building, owning more of the map, or having a stronger economy, although those certainly help. The biggest thing to StarCraft 2 is outplaying your opponent. It’s evident in the unit abilities, the limited build queue, how microing your army offers such huge advantages, how many ways you can pull off a back door attack and cripple your opponent in one daring strike.

    It’s the FPS of RTS games, what Mass Effect did to RPGs.

    And StarCraft 2 *had to* be a straight squeal to StarCraft 1. On those merits, it’s an amazing, brilliant game.

    It’s just not the next step on the path to a newer, better RTS. It took what we liked about the Dune 2/Warcraft model and made so many of us remember why it was an awesome experience all those years ago, updated and refined in a way that only Blizzard attempts to do. And you can’t say that StarCraft 2’s UI isn’t pretty damn impressive.

    In short, StarCraft 2 basically managed to make a huge number of people want to play the equivalent of Monopoly again and *enjoy it*. If that’s not an accomplishment, I don’t know what is.

    I haven’t played harder skirmish modes yet, but it should be noted that Starcraft 2’s AI does not cheat in any way, shape, or form. It must scout to know what you’re up to and set priorities for itself. A major component of the AI difficulty levels is setting a limit to how many actions the AI can perform in a given time period.

    That said, AI set to medium difficulty is pretty dumb and slow.

  • Rythe

    Oh right. I also agree with your friend that the campaign is revolutionary. There’s a little bit of everything in there: from squad tactical type setups, to final stand of the Alamo, to demigod, to escorts, to ROFLStomping around, to ye ol’ RTS campaign maps. How they advanced you through the campaign and allowed you to improve your army as you picked your path through the missions was the revolutionary part for me. And yeah, Audio/Video is top notch.

    I was amazed by some of the nuances in character expression they managed to pull between missions. A few segments felt flat, but overall, the visual deliveries made Dragon Age’s characters seem like wooden dolls.

  • Ginger Yellow

    “While it is refreshing to see an old school economy centered RTS with such great polish, this is not a game design that will breathe life into to the genre and any company that sees the amazing sales Blizzard is scoring as evidence that the real time strategy game as it used to be is back as a major market is sorely mistaken.”

    I agree, but at the same time this is one occasion where I’m actually hoping publishers blindly hop on the bandwagon. Not just so I can play more RTSes, but so I can play more traditional (though maybe not quite as traditional as SCII) RTSes. While I appreciate the innovations in the likes of DoW2 and C&C4, I’m still at heart an economy min/maxer when it comes to RTSes. I like my base building and I like my resource gathering. I just wish SCII had taken just a little from the likes of Rise of Nations or Company of Heroes. Cover is good. Directional armour is good. Attrition is good. There’s no reason you can’t have things like that in a fairly old school RTS.

    I entirely understand why Blizzard go down that route, and it’s their prerogative, but I’ve got no desire to get good at SCII multiplayer (I did enjoy the campaign).

  • Jared H.

    I’m one of the people who complained about Sins and Demigod not having a campaign, I don’t play strategy games online even though I really enjoy them so I don’t particuarlly care about Battlenet 2.0 or balance issues. I enjoyed the SC2 campaign, it told a story that makes me want to play the Zerg game, but from a buisness perspective it doesn’t make much sense. SC1 was self contained, you didn’t really need Brood War, yet you are going to need the next two games. Sure it will appeal to fans of the first game, but as far as bring in new players? I would think most people will get annoyed that the game is missing two campaigns and that half the units they learned how to use in the Terran campaign are unavailable in multiplayer when they give it a try.

  • Panzeh

    Cover and directional armor would introduce elements that would make SC2 a micromanagement nightmare. For example, you have to watch vehicles in CoH like a hawk to make sure they aren’t getting side-shotted, and generally their damage and destruction is arbitrary and random which makes it less competitive. Certainly, facing and cohesion can be a part of a game(Sid Meier’s Gettysburg does this well), but it really doesn’t fit in SC2. Nor does cover or attrition, really, especially when you want to reward a player for pushing deep into enemy territory, not try to inflate the game length.

  • Ginger Yellow

    Like I say, I totally understand why they did what they did, and I’m not really criticising them. It just means it’s not a game that appeals to me in multiplayer. I like a good balance between a deep economy, eg SupCom 1, and micro-ing small scale skirmishes, eg CoH.

    I’ll admit it, what I really want is CoH 2.

  • Storm

    I’ll be skipping Starcraft 2 for Elemental: War of Magic!

  • Lupin

    I find it refreshing going back to how RTSs used to be. RTSs that do away with base building and resource gathering while promoting it as a new innovation really annoy me as I love this part of older games. The gameplay feels very balanced and the SP campaign actually hooked me for 6 missions (I only finished 1 in AOE3) before I dived into multiplayer is enough for me. Maybe some people want something that appears all new and fancy but I kind of like that the innovations arent affecting the core gameplay.

  • Mauricio

    “I’ll be skipping Starcraft 2 for Elemental: War of Magic!”

    Now you may not care about SC2 specifically, but Tom makes a compelling argument for what it represents. With the sales and attention it has been getting, it will have a profound impact on what RTS games look like in the future. It also means a lot for PC games in general: with this, WoW, and (soon) Diablo 3, Blizzard by itself has an enormous influence on the future of PC games. For better or worse, we are looking at a PC future that is a combination of casual games, MMOs, console ports, and indie titles. I am actually most excited about the latter.

  • Chris

    I agree with you Troy, but Blizzard have always been conservative in this way so I’m very used to it by this point.

    I followed the development of Diablo 2 and Warcraft 3 as closely as I could over the years and both of those were delivered as backwards steps from what was originally planned. Blizzard always starts with more ambitious concepts and then sands them away over years of development until the result is extremely polished and smooth but simultaneously very conservative and not particularly surprising.

    SC1 simply caught Blizzard at a time when they had not yet become religiously obsessed with “balance”. It managed to be fairly balanced while still maintaining personality, which is something I think Blizzard have struggled with since then.

    In the case of SC2 I think the sense of ultra-conservatism is increased by the lack of the Zerg and Protoss campaigns. Not that I think the game is lacking content, it’s absolutely a full product, but the Terrans were always my least favourite part of SC1. They were always the “beginners” team with the least interesting characters and design. Now they feel like the central element of the whole game rather than a third of it. That will change with the expansions.

    My hope is that the SC2 expansions will be significantly different from the base product in the way that Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King greatly expand upon and improve the base game of WOW. At this point WOW is fairly unrecognisable as a play experience, to the point that Blizzard are swapping out the old world for a new one just to keep up with the newer content. My hope is that the Zerg and Protoss campaigns make the Terran campaign feel old and simplistic in a similar way. Certainly I don’t think the storytelling techniques presented in the Terran campaign fit the Zerg or Protoss very well.


    As for the gameplay, I don’t think it’s a bad thing to return to the way strategy games “used to be”. It seems to me that SC2 is very well thought out. It’s not a mistake that the player has to manually mine resources and build the same buildings every game. These decisions are core to the gameplay in SC2. Where alot of RTS games have pushed the player to be more aggressive and to focus on smaller numbers of units out in the field I think it’s a conscious part of SC2’s design to make the player flit between the field and their back base.

    I agree that there have been alot of advancements in the RTS genre, but most of those seem to be about player covenience. SC2 on the other hand is deliberately not convenient. The game is challenging you to manage at speed but that doesn’t mean that there’s no fun if you can’t keep up. No one can. The point (as I see it) is to manage your time. If you spend too much time managing your base maybe you lose a battle in the field or vice versa.

    The reason I feel this way is because there are definitely places where it expands upon what was available in SC1. It’s not a matter of this game existing in a complete time warp. There are areas where it’s stream lined. For example:

    – You can set two waypoints at a Zerg Hatchery, one for Drones, one for units. If you just right click on minerals it assumes you want to set the Drone waypoint, if you click on the ground it sets the unit waypoint.

    – You can hotkey groups of similar buildings and use the hotkey to build units. If you build multiple units it will evenly distribute the units between the buildings.

    – Almost every ability can be set to autocast or added to a queue of actions with colour coded lines drawn.

    My point is not that SC2 is a trendsetter, just that it’s gameplay is a result of design decisions and not massive oversights.

    Anyway that’s enough :)