Update 3 Dec, 2015: We've updated our review with our thoughts on Legacy of the Void's multiplayer components, which you can read below. Over on page two you'll find our Legacy of the Void campaign review.
What I think of playing StarCraft 2’s main competitive multiplayer component is irrelevant. In fact, what you think of it is likely irrelevant too - there are around 200 people, worldwide, that have the authority to give opinion on how it is to play and most of them, if not all, have a direct line to Blizzard. Usually, Blizzard Korea.
Which units are too strong, which build orders are too weak, who is favoured against who, where, when, how and why. I’m not expert enough to judge these things and I’ve long been aware that I never will be. It is a game for the elite, custom designed for single individuals to practice and iterate and practice and iterate until they’ve eked out every possible advantage, every timing window, every piece of trickery - only to discover their opponents have one-upped them anyway and they’re a game down.
It’s not a formula that Legacy of the Void redesigns, but it does provide the largest shake-ups in its history through the changes to how economies operate. Games now begin a little further down the road, with the first six workers that were produced in 99.99% of all matches played before now sat ready and mining minerals when you load in. That means you’re making meaningful decisions more quickly, and also shortens the average game length by a couple of minutes.
Like I said, I am not an expert at playing StarCraft. But vitally, these changes make the game infinitely more fun to watch. There’s less dead air for commentators to fill at the start of a match. Games progress more quickly to tests of skill and moments of interaction. I’ve seen them as short as two minutes, rush strategies that are now actually quick rather than watching foregone conclusions play out slowly.
It’s brilliant, and exactly what the game needed to remain relevant even as it flags to the bottom of the e-sports pile on. Backing that up are alterations to how many resources are available per base, each reduced drastically in the total it will provide and the number of workers needed to efficiently gather from it. This means it’s less viable to stay on a single base, but each expansion isn’t as valuable. It pushes players towards conflict quicker as they consume areas of the map to fund their war effort.
This can’t be overstated: that’s a desperately needed change. Professional StarCraft in Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm had a habit of devolving into macro-fests of players never attacking each other’s maxed out army while they banked resources to create reinforcements when the engagement did happen. Games would lull as deathballs of forces danced around each other for minutes at a time. With mid-game attacks now more incentivised and late-game turtling a recipe for disaster with dwindling resources, there’s a lot more getting in there and a lot less sieging up.
This push to make games more exciting is present across the board. Every new unit is equipped with micro-heavy abilities that prove devastatingly powerful when used properly, but have specific ways to counter with good play, rather than unit choice. In general, they reward aggressive control and smart engagement at key moments rather than turtling. Even the Liberator - a new Terran flyer that is basically a Siege Tank with wings, a design so ludicrous I’m fairly sure I came up with it on a school notebook in 2003 without a single thought for balance - wants you to use its fields of fire as support zones while pushing forward.
The Protoss Disruptor has been the pro-game all-star so far, firing off directed energy balls that explode for incredible damage after a short time. Microing the ball towards an enemy force while controlling your other units is a challenge, as is splitting forces to avoid it for the opponent. The satisfying pay-off of a decent disruptor hit taking out twenty stacked units makes for a great spectacle, be it for players or watchers.
Part of this enjoyment, clearly, is coming just from the fact these things are new. That’s not a problem as much as it once was. In the past, Heart of the Swarm brought a massive influx of players and viewers back to the game, but things died down as new strategies became standard and innovation was lacking. With Blizzard’s commitment to regular updates, they can stunt that decline with annual major patches, restarting the cycle.
This isn’t something to decry. Street Fighter, Dota and League of Legends all make major events out of their yearly updates, revitalizing the professional scene for another season and bringing players flooding back. It’s just not possible to keep people interested in the same game, played in the same ways for an extended period any more - even Counter-Strike has been patched this year, and will need to continue to be to maintain its glory.
Some things, however, can’t be fixed. It’s still possible for games to devolve into 200/200 population armies that don’t want to go near each other. If you’ll excuse an old Brood War fan’s ranting, I’m not sure that’s something an RTS made with modern UI and quality of life design could ever prevent. The path of least resistance is always to continue to efficiently produce units and command them as one. Armies move too smoothly around the battlefield, group up too nicely, special abilities are too easy to use compared to the days of single-building selection, maximum group sizes and no tabbing between units of different types. Even the pathing AI plays its part, no longer locking units in formation for unknown reasons, or unable to navigate simple ramps with large units as it was in the late ‘90s. Without these very basic usability barriers - which, let’s be clear, you cannot put in a modern game - it’s simply inevitable that stalemates will be more common between players trying to find small openings.
Traditional multiplayer is supported by a pair of new modes, Archon and Co-op. Both feel like attempts to bridge the gap between single-player and multiplayer that have spun off into their own things, but remain oddly tied to those original intentions. It’s plausible to me that two-people-one-base Archon mode could replace 1v1 as the defacto competitive way to play if a big enough community grew around it. It’s unlikely it will ever usurp the throne, but the things that are possible with two highly-skilled players at the helm of one hyper-efficient, super-mobile army are impressive. Forget the pitch that it could be a teaching tool for newer players - this is as cutthroat a competitive mode as any, and you’ll find little quarter from opposing pairs if you’re trying to advise a friend on how to play. I’m looking forward to how it develops, and the influence seeing the technically possible from duos will have on solo players attempting total mastery.
Co-op, or Allied Commanders as it was originally known (the name having stuck as only quickly-revised but nevertheless already-announced names can), is an entirely different beast. It is a literal halfway point between the campaign’s structured mission design with overpowered forces and multiplayer’s timing-based build orders from identical starting positions, influenced by whatever individual map this game happens to be on. However, it functions neither as a satisfying team-based version of the former nor an acceptable way to take steps towards the latter - it’s something new.
That’s great, even though it leaves multiplayer StarCraft as impossible to learn as ever. Each of the commanders have a suite of special abilities that modify the faction they’re playing, and only have access to a subset of units, letting you focus in. As you play more missions with them they level up, getting access to more powerful abilities, both active and passive, and more units, further diversifying them from the regular factions. It’s a fun thing to work through, but with only five missions and six commanders with linear progression, even the easy joys of partnering with a friend over waiting for a random companion aren’t going to maintain your attention for long.
Difficulty has also been a sticking point. I am not a particularly adept player, but was managing to win missions on Hard despite playing a race I’m unfamiliar with that had nothing unlocked. A quick glance at recent community feedback will tell you this is true for at least a vocal portion of the fanbase too, especially once you’re operating as a coordinated team that complements itself.
It is an area of the game I’m excited to see grow, adding in many more missions, perhaps some sort of connecting storyline despite Blizzard’s initial resistance to the idea, even if it ends up making about as much sense as Heroes of the Storm. More Commanders, perhaps controlling units that don’t belong to any faction in either half of the game like Hybrids, Primal Zerg and other neutral forces. Give me customisation options akin to talent trees, letting me change how I approach different missions, and make that necessary with an additional difficulty level that will push a pair of reasonable players to really coordinate.
Both new modes fill a niche and are a lot of fun, however, and the game would be one of the best out there and my personal favourite of the year even without them. The RTS genre will live on in StarCraft II for a long, long time and while it would have been impossible to have the knowledge to do so at the time, if it had launched as it is now, the e-sports landscape would likely be very different. For fans of strategy, professional play, space opera or just good games alike, it’s essential.
Some images taken from the Dreamhack Winter 2015 Legacy of the Void championship stream.
On page two: our Legacy of the Void review of the campaign, story, and the end of an era.