The original Starcraft is praised in many circles for its intricate worldbuilding and storytelling, as well as becoming something like the national sport of South Korea. The sequel was a long time coming, and while the gameplay was widely praised (lack of LAN support aside), the storyline of the first installment, Wings of Liberty, left people awkwardly shifting their feet and clearing their throats. “Well, what do you expect,” you might say, “it’s video game writing.” Still, even for the genre, the writing was pretty bad, and it lacked focus.
Then came the second installment, Heart of the Swarm, and that one was better, although still pretty heavy on the clichés. In fact it basically dealt with the transformation of an evil orange space monster into slightly less evil purple space monster, but there were some cool setpieces and wasn’t terrible.
Someone at Blizzard has been thinking carefully about all this stuff, because now we have the third installment and it’s actually pretty good! I wouldn’t say it’s original, exactly, because it isn’t. And it’s not deep. In fact, to go on in detail would be to damn with faint praise, and that’s not really my intention. Instead, they’ve gone to the well of one of the oldest battle tropes – the idea that it’s you versus a horde of enemies, and you’re going to stand there and fight all the guys. You get to be Horatius, or Leonidas, or the Viking at Stamford Bridge – you get the picture. And you even get to win, since it’s that kind of party.
I’m not really going to go into the multiplayer aspect here, partially because I’m not good enough to have a real opinion on it and partially because it exists outside of the single-player game, really. I watch the occasional pro game, and they’re playing such at such a different level than my usual Tuesday-night scrap fests that it’s hardly even the same thing. Suffice to say, if they were trying to speed up the game and add more micro twitchery, they have achieved it.
Spoilers from here, if you care.
Anyway, I have read that the original draft of LotV was going to have Zeratul try to join the scattered Protoss tribes, but that is not what they ended up going with. Instead, Artanis is the hero here; you may remember him as the guy from Brood War who used to work for the mighty Tassadar and had a shoulderpad and a loincloth. He has now upgraded to a big fancy gold armor suit and is the ultimate authority figure in the united Protoss nation composed of the survivors of the Zerg’s attack on the Protoss homeworld and the shadowy Nerazim faction.
(Incidentally, what is up with Blizzard and hostility to democracy? Okay, the Zerg are a bunch of semi-feral monsters under the absolute control of a couple of powerful psychics, which you can understand. But the question about the humans is whether they’ll have a good emperor or a bad one, and the Protoss apparently couldn’t get along without an absolute dictator ultimately in charge of everything. Well, at least he means well.)
Artanis has assembled a mighty fleet with the intention of reclaiming the Protoss home planet of Aiur from the Zerg which are still encamped there, but just as he’s about to launch the invasion, his old friend Zeratul pops in (literally) and says not to. Everyone’s pretty upset at Zeratul, considering that he was instrumental in saving the life of and then repowering Sarah Kerrigan, the greatest known living enemy of the Protoss, but Artanis hears out his concerns before ordering him to be arrested and the invasion to commence.
Naturally it all goes pear-shaped right from the start, and the evil god Amon takes control of the psionic link between Protoss in order to gain himself a huge force of slaves and a powerful fleet. Artanis himself only avoids this fate by Zeratul embracing the fate of all mentors, and he is forced to escape Aiur in a mothballed Protoss relic ship which fortunately enough contains within itself a bunch of powerful weapons of war.
The narrative here is greatly helped by the simplicity. Amon is evil, he wants to kill all the life in the galaxy besides himself and a couple of his minions, so you have to stop him doing that. It’s really not ever explained precisely why Amon wants to do this, but the writers do occasionally drop a few hints. There’s probably not really a satisfying explanation which would make sense, so it’s just as well that they avoid it. In some ways the lack of a particular plan besides aggressive nihilism pares it down, since you've probably seen a bunch of other space operas with this plot and can use your own experience to fill in something satisfying for you.
The first couple of installments of Starcraft II suffered from lack of narrative focus. In Jim Raynor’s story, you were sort of aimlessly tooling around the galaxy, taking various commissions for money but not having a particular plan in mind. In Kerrigan’s, there were a number of elements that didn’t make sense, but overall you wanted revenge against a particular guy and ended up getting it. However, you took the circuitous path towards getting it. Here, every mission is structured around either getting something to help you fight Amon, preventing Amon from carrying out parts of his evil scheme, or just plain fighting Amon.
Sacrificed in this simplicity is some of the complexity involved in prior Starcraft games. Everyone who is not Amon’s slave decides to help you out, since otherwise Amon is going to kill them. Amon has slaves from all three of the playable races who serve him without question and allow you to have matchups against all sorts of opposition (and can create phantoms of any game unit, so he can have any unit mix whether it would make sense or not). That’s pretty much it, with the exception of the Tal’darim faction of Protoss. They’ve been introduced as antagonists before and they did serve Amon willingly, but one of their leaders figures out that they’re on the “eventually kill” list and decides to join up with you. This leader, voiced by John De Lancie, is absolutely the comic highlight of the game. But even he does not betray you – at least for now. This also neatly elides moral concerns, since regardless of what your other allies have been up to before, at least they’re not omnicidal maniacs.
Well, except maybe Kerrigan, who is forgiven by Artanis with more ease than you might think. But no, her reform from the previous game is legitimate, so she’s not just screwing everyone over like she has been known to do from time to time. Actually all decisions are made pretty easily; at one point you arrive at and then almost casually blow up the planet you came to evacuate. And you are going around freeing all the old Protoss doomsday weapons and forbidden projects, under the assumption that not doing so is the worst option. Fortunately this works out well for you.
The missions themselves appeared to my mind to be harder than those in the previous single-player campaigns, particularly on the hardest difficulty setting. This is allayed somewhat by the fact that you can get powerful void rays in the later missions which have such an absurd damage output that it almost doesn’t matter what gets thrown at you. The last mission is a doozy anyway, though, especially for an average player like myself. There’s a distinct lack of the traditional RTS mission where you start out with one base and six peons and have to grind out the map – most of the time you are single or at most double-basing it and racing against a clock of some sort, although sometimes the “clock” is just increasingly powerful enemy waves that will eventually overwhelm you, and sometimes it’s an actual clock.
There are choices to be made, but unlike the prior two chapters, none of them are permanent. Unlike WoL which had consumable money and research and HotS which had the irreversible mutations, you have the power to mess around without repercussions. You have up to three choices of unit in each of ten categories, but you can swap them out every mission if you want to and there’s a master archive where you can do it again differently if you so desire. The units are basically familiar if you've played the Protoss before, but there are some new (and classic) ones, and typically they have one or more special powers that would be way unbalanced in multiplayer. Your ship also has a set of hilariously overpowered special abilities you can mix and match as you choose and upgrade over the course of the missions.
Then at the end there’s sort of a ham-handed attempt to bring closure to the story through a three-mission epilogue, one for each of the playable races. This is brief and not entirely satisfying, but it does at least indicate that someone at Blizzard has been thinking about story just a little, since it basically re-retcons some of the more questionable story elements from the prior two games. It’s probably good that Zeratul died before he learned that all those prophecies he was so keen about were just made up to trick him, or he would have been pissed.
Anyhow, if you’ve played the prior two chapters in Starcraft II and are sitting on the fence about this one, don’t be, it’s probably the best of the three. On the other hand, while I’ve had a lot of fun with it, I don’t know if I could recommend the entirety of the game as a groundbreaking impressive effort like the first one was. Then again, what is?