The single player campaign of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a great product in its own right, but once it’s been completed, and all the achievements unlocked, the online multiplayer is where the true longevity of the game lies. An entire generation of gamers has been raised on the original StarCraft and its expansion, Brood War – for many it may have been their first true RTS love; fondly remembered and occupying a special place in hearts and hard drives. These titles launched a veritable zergling rush across the RTS world, and even catalysed an entire e-sport movement (as evidenced by the StarCraft crazy South Koreans).
An immense legacy to live up to – has Blizzard pulled it off with StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty? Perhaps we should start with a quick overview for those unfamiliar with the series: StarCraft II features three playable races – a familiar human race, the Terrans, and two vastly different alien species, the Zerg and Protoss.
The Zerg are a destructive bunch who assimilate DNA from other species to create new and superior hybrids. The Protoss are a noble and ancient race with superior technology and an affinity with the latent energies of the universe. Caught in between are the Terran, who use their technology to help them survive, and are driven by familiar human motives. The gameplay is typical of a modern RTS: gather resources, build an army, and engage in battles.
Upon firing up the game players will be introduced to the new Battle.net portal, which does a neat job of keeping gamers and their StarCraft II playing pals connected, regardless of which modes they are individually enjoying.
A notable feature is the Instant Messenger style friends list. Aside from keeping track of in-game friends, Blizzard has also introduced the (contentious) Real ID system and Facebook integration. Basically, through Battle.net one can scan their Facebook friends for any playing recent Blizzard games (StarCraft II, WoW and the upcoming Diablo III) and add them to the list. The Real ID system will also link all of your Blizzard games to a single account. Concerns have arisen regarding the privacy of this system, but these discussions warrant their own article. Suffice to say, the service is there for those who wish to use it, and is not forced on those who don’t.
Blizzard has presented a sleek and intuitive Battle.net menu system which makes joining the action a breeze. Under the Multiplayer portion of the menu, players are shown Quick Match options. It’s a simple matter of selecting your preferred race, game mode (1v1 through to 4v4 and Free-For-All), and perhaps editing some preferences (such as excluding a certain map from rotation) and then clicking ‘Find Match.’ Battle.net takes care of the rest and matches up players of similar skill level. Cooperative games versus AI and custom maps can be hosted and joined through this menu screen as well.
The launch pad to multiplayer mayhem
There are a number of sub-menus which provide access to features such as the ‘Profile’ where one can get an overview of their progress, customise their portrait, showcase achievement trophies, and review match history statistics. ‘Achievements’ displays information on the multitude of achievements, intelligently broken down into categories. ‘Leagues & Ladders’ provides a detailed breakdown of the player’s current standing within the competitive community.
‘Replays’ provides access to, and control of, recent replays, which can be flagged for permanent storage. Rounding off the menus are ‘News & Community’ and ‘StarCraft II Help’ which provide links to Websites full of whatever may be required by a player in need. Despite the array of information and options available, Blizzard has done a sterling job of keeping things streamlined, intuitive and easy to use.
Review and showcase your recent achievements
For the boastful and proud, Web based versions of their profiles can be found hosted through the StarCraft II community site – useful for showing off to friends whilst not in-game. On the subject of achievements, the multiplayer mode has more than enough to keep the most compulsive gamers occupied. Some will require a titanic amount of gaming to obtain, such as 4000 1v1 victories – 1000 wins with each race, and 1000 wins with a random race.
Placement Matches, Divisions, and Leagues
When starting out on the road to multiplayer league and ladder glory, gamers will have the option to play up to 50 practice matches in a
‘Practice League.’ This is a great way to ease in those gamers slightly intimidated by StarCraft’s competitive reputation. The Practice League can also be skipped entirely by those confident enough.
Players will then have to compete in five ‘Placement Matches’ for each of the competitive modes – 1v1 through to 4v4. FFA is not a ranked mode (but sure is a lot of chaotic fun). On completion of the placement matches, based on a calculation of their skill level, gamers will be slotted into a league, and a division within the that league.
The four standard leagues begin with Bronze, moving up through Silver, Gold, and Platinum. The Diamond League cannot be obtained through placement. Beyond diamond, is the Pro League for which one must earn an invitation. There are no divisions in the Pro League.
The divisions within the leagues each have a unique name, such as ‘Moratun Psi,’ and comprise of 100 similarly skilled players. These players must earn points to move up in their division, and this is done by winning games. There is also a ‘Bonus Pool’ of points, which slowly accumulate for players whom have not competed for a while. Upon winning a match, players will receive a share of the available bonus points equal to the points earned for winning the match.
When the matchmaking is taking place, gamers will frequently come up against players from different leagues and divisions in order to test and assess their skill. The leagues will go through regular seasons of play, at the end of which the top eight ranked players in each division will have earned the right to compete in a tournament.
Terran air units engage a Zerg land assault
It would be nice to break down the exact mathematics behind player movement through the leagues, but Blizzard has not yet disclosed the information. Without delving into too much speculation, it would appear that movement up through a league is based on a combination of league points and victories over highly skilled opponents.
The downside to this system is that without much data on the skill of new players, Blizzard will have a bit of a hit-and-miss approach to placing newcomers in the correct skill bracket. Of course, as players rack up more game time, their skill level will be more accurately gauged, and they will be placed in the correct leagues and divisions, and newcomers will also be ranked accordingly.
It’s about time
So what of the actual gameplay?
After a few matches it will become apparent to players of the original that the cornerstones of the game have remained firmly in place, and things have just been tweaked and updated for a new generation. The gameplay still involves the same frantic pacing as the original – harvesting resources, building up an army, upgrading technology, and micromanaging the various aspects of each are key to success.
Superior Protoss air units decimate a Terran base
The familiar races of Terran, Zerg and Protoss retain their unique gameplay personalities, but each has also been tweaked and improved for StarCraft II. Some classic units are not available, instead replaced by new and interesting alternatives. Missing classic units, such as the Firebat, may be unlocked for use in multiplayer as Blizzard releases the expansion sets, but for now they are excluded for balancing purposes.
The intricacies of strategy begin to present themselves early on. From the opening seconds of the match, decisions need to be made on the best approach to defeating an enemy. Scouting plays an important role, as it reveals what the enemy may be planning and gives time to counter. The new Xel’naga towers, which provide a large radius of sight, are a nice strategic element to battle over, and prove useful in the early stages of a match.
Controlling a Xel’naga tower reveals large areas of the map
A number of improvements have been made to the original mechanics, such as smart harvesting and ability casting, new line of sight and elevation rules, and many more tweaks too numerous to list here. There are more than enough well-designed maps catering to all game modes, and judging by historical precedent, Blizzard will be frequently adding more to the pool.
Old school StarCraft players will find themselves right at home, with many old strategies still viable alongside those yet to be devised. New players will find they have a steep learning curve ahead of them before they can begin to play in the higher ranked league matches.
Hopefully the matchmaking system will eventually prevent experienced pros from stomping all over those still learning the ropes, but with the system running for less than two weeks at the time of publication, it is understandable that the matchmaking still comes off as a little unfocused. Currently, in one instance a player may find themselves partnered with and facing off against a number of experienced players, and in another, joining players whom are just beginning to find their feet.
A large Zerg force assaults a Protoss base
The longevity of the leagues and ladder multiplayer experience may only exist for gamers willing to endeavour for improvement. Only the exposure of numerous matches will prepare gamers against the various early game rush strategies, some of which can end a match within 10 minutes. Learning to counter these sorts of attacks is only the beginning – the mid to late game stages steadily become more intense and complex. Although I’m no expert on the fine details of game balancing, I can say that the three races appear to be generally evenly matched, whilst each retaining their unique style.
Don’t be put off by the competitive nature of the leagues. StarCraft II adequately caters for those who simply wish to play a relaxing multiplayer game every now and then. Players can team up against the AI, or host their own unranked versus matches. Many custom maps are already beginning to emerge, offering completely different gameplay modes and experiences.
The included map editor tool is rather powerful and for those dedicated enough to learn the intricacies, it could even prove profitable, as Blizzard intends to implement a system allowing map developers to sell their work online via Battle.net. The custom map scene will definitely be one to watch, and may be one of the major attractions for some players. WarCraft III maps such as Defense of the Ancients prove that an entirely new genre and community can emerge from a well produced custom map.
A well organised force of Archons and Templars eradicate a Zerg base
In terms of bandwidth, StarCraft II multiplayer consumes a relatively small amount of data. Data usage will of course depend on the number of players in a game, but it is unlikely to reach more than 10mb per hour, and that’s at a push. Good news for those using expensive 3G and HSDPA connections – the game plays adequately over these types of wireless connections.
South Africa falls under the EU region for Battle.net servers, and using my personal 3G connection, I have only occasionally encountered lag issues – but so did all other players in the game. The cause of these laggy games remains unclear to me, as subsequent games will play smoothly. Despite the vast distances involved, the game plays remarkably smoothly with minimal delay – DSL users should have no complaints.
One of the complaints that has been cropping up regarding the region specific Battle.net implementation, is that players aren’t able to enjoy a game with a friend in a different region, nor carry their account into a different region. This is something to bear in mind if you intend to game with friends in America or Asia, or trot around the globe, playing StarCraft II in various global regions.
In summary, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty multiplayer is chock full of original StarCraft goodness, dressed up with great visuals and audio, and wrapped in a highly polished and modern online interface. It probably hasn’t broken the RTS mould in any way, but Blizzard near perfected the mould 12 years ago, and why mess with near perfection? The new units provide enough variety to enhance the original’s gameplay style, and the promise of even more units being unlocked as expansions are released should certainly help keep it alive for many years to come. Only time will tell if StarCraft II will usurp StarCraft as the RTS king, but from where I stand, it appears to be well on its way.
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