Starcraft II is the finest RTS ever made. As someone who has played the highlights of the genre from the past 15 years I feel qualified to make this statement. Funnily enough, the only benchmark game I missed was the original Starcraft, a critical omission considering by all accounts it was a paragon of the genre.
It would be redundant to discuss the virtues of the game; my previous articles cover this thoroughly. Instead, I want to refute some of the criticisms of the game that have arisen online. There are two significant ones: that the game is merely a graphical update of the original Starcraft, and that the game ignores the evolution of the genre over the past decade. As I will discuss below, these arguments are without merit.
Ooh Shiny Graphics!
‘Starcraft II is just Starcraft with updated graphics!’
I have heard something along those lines so many times since the beta was released that it is becoming tiresome. This line of criticism stems from the misconception that gameplay is what makes a good game and graphics don’t matter. I would argue that gameplay is the foundation of a good game, but to relate to today’s gaming audience a game has to have the right interface and visual trappings.
Graphical technology accentuates visual media
Think about classic films: they have great stories when you break them down to their component parts, and the characters are multi-dimensional and interesting. What holds back most current film consumers from appreciating classic film, however, is both the antiquated style of the film and its technical limitations.
It’s easy to point to today’s low popularity of black and white film as revealing of the shallowness of today’s film audience. This just isn’t the case. Films are a visual medium, and much of what is conveyed in a film that is critical to the story is done visually – not merely by pantomime, but by color, clarity and effects. If the film were entirely about story, it would be equally well executed in book form. What makes a great film great is that it uses visual storytelling methods to accentuate the story, and today’s technology allows for a much greater range of visual storytelling.
There are so many more stories that can be told through today’s technology that creativity is at all time highs. While in the wrong hands much of this technology can obscure the critical story elements of a film, in the right hands they can enhance the total experience. Much the same can be said about graphics and gameplay.
Style differences alienate the player
Beyond mere visual limitations, the style of speech, clothing and architecture in classic film is hugely different from what we’re used to today. This adds a layer of separation between the characters on screen and the viewers, which makes it harder to participate in the story. When viewing a classic film, we’re constantly reminded that this is something out of the past, and that frequently adds an element to the experience that wasn’t intended by the director.
Today’s technology isn’t just there to add CGI monsters, or to obscure the weakness of the story. It gives the viewer something to hold onto that is familiar, and allows a director to tell a story with which the viewer is able to associate. Updated graphics in videogames are much the same.
The original Starcraft has a strong gameplay foundation, but the viewer is constantly reminded that they’re playing something out of the past when experiencing it. When playing Starcraft, the interface is clunky, the graphics are poorly detailed, online interface is virtually non-existent, and all of these things serve to distract the player from the game’s strengths.
A critic will frequently point to chess as a classic game that didn’t need updating, and Starcraft II is like a developer making your pieces into giant robots so that there are incredible special effects and awesome explosions during the game. I would argue that the original Starcraft was more like playing chess encased in a cardboard box, where you only have a tiny hole to look through to move your pieces. The incredible core gameplay in Starcraft was obscured by all these artificial interface hindrances, while Starcraft II removes the box. There is no longer anything separating you from all that gameplay that makes the classic style of RTS games appealing.
Two Steps Back
The second criticism of Starcraft II is that it ignores the innovations made in the RTS genre over the past ten years. This argument uses as its foundation the fallacy that all things that are new are better.
It helps right off the bat to use a sports example: let’s say it’s 2020 and the military finally perfects robotic exoskeletons. The NFL is considering whether to add them to the game. Would this be a good addition? Wouldn’t it make things even more exciting? The hits would be harder, the game would be faster and the private sector could add jobs building various sport skeletons for the consumer! Also – isn’t there some rule that more robot exoskeletons are always a good thing?
Isn’t smaller better?
Since Starcraft, the RTS genre moved away from an economy-based large-scale game, to something with no base building, squad based combat, hero units and a cover system. The Company of Heroes and Dawn of War games were a refreshing shift away from the boring micromanagement of Starcraft! Even Warcraft III went small scale and added heroes. That must mean it’s better, right?
I would suggest an alternative: maybe developers couldn’t beat Starcraft at its own game. Much in the same way that nobody wants to make a fantasy-themed MMORPG, or even bring up the phrase ‘WoW killer’ anymore, was it really possible to improve upon the Starcraft formula? It made commercial sense to move away from that, at least for the first few years after release, in order for a developer to carve out their own niche. The fact remains, however, that even given its crippling technical limitations and antiquated gameplay, Starcraft was still the most played RTS game globally before the release of Starcraft II.
Could it really be that those squad tactics and cover systems weren’t different from classic RTS elements and therefore better, but instead were merely different?
Ignoring bad genre developments is a characteristic of a visionary developer
The worst review of Starcraft II on Metacritic believes that Starcraft II is a bad game because Blizzard requires micromanagement from the player. Tom Chick (who happens to be a critic I hugely respect for always speaking his mind) says Starcraft II ‘rewards the harder core who can wrangle reinforcements, use hotkeys to pop off targeted spell powers, carefully place buildings at a particular choke point, and calculate intricate timing puzzles about when to use how many drones to gather how many minerals for how long.’
Blizzard was very specific about what they wanted the player to manage. Workers automatically mine resources or repair buildings. Units use their spells in an intelligent way so as not to waste energy. Siege tanks even aim at different targets so as to spread their splash damage across an army and not waste it all on a single unit. There are so many automated procedures that some of the ‘hardcore’ Starcraft players criticize the game for being too automated. The fact that there are criticisms from both sides implies Blizzard struck exactly the right balance.
I can’t think of what the point of this game is if it’s not managing the position of your army, using spells and abilities at the correct time to turn the tide of a battle your way, or deciding how you want to use your precious resources. Someone should tell Tom there’s a way to get these functions to automate themselves: let the AI play itself. Without the elements he listed there’s no game.
Many lament the fact that there is no cover system in Starcraft II. One of the great innovations of the Relic RTS games were that if your forces were hiding in trees, or behind a small wall, they would take less damage and dominate a similar force trapped out in the open. This is all well and good because you were using squad tactics and were only controlling a handful of units.
In Starcraft II, on the other hand, you are controlling vast armies. Control over a battlefield, angles of attack, supply lines and battlefield information are the key strategic elements in a game of Starcraft II. A game falls apart if a developer uses the kitchen sink design philosophy and throws everything haphazardly at a game just so it can be included in the feature list. A cover system in a game that focuses on huge armies and fighting force mobility would be crippling and would detract from the dynamic and fast paced gameplay that makes Starcraft II so appealing.
Tom Chick is essentially saying he wants a different kind of game: one that is smaller in scale. In a hero-unit RTS with squad tactics and a cover system, there are very few strategic decisions to be made. Tom likes tactics and enjoys real time tactics simulations. When you have no base and only one squad there’s never really a question of whether you want to sacrifice a squad in a diversionary tactic, or abandon part of your base to the enemy because it will allow you to catch him out of position and crush him from behind. Starcraft II is a real time strategy game, and maintaining an informational advantage, and countering your opponent’s positioning and unit selection are the critical tasks in front of any budding general.
I could criticize Madden 2010 for not being a futuristic racing game, but is that really a valid criticism considering I have unreasonable expectations? Starcraft II is very clear about what it is: an RTS in the classic style, where base building, economy management and strategic combat decisions are paramount. Much of the game has been automated and streamlined, and the elements that haven’t are what comprise the gameplay. You might not like it, but don’t claim that Blizzard was cowardly or ignored developments in the genre just because they didn’t change their formula. Starcraft II was many years in the making and Blizzard was not unaware of these developments made in modern RTS games. They merely determined that this was not a positive evolution but instead detracted from the core strategic fun.
The success of Starcraft II shows that gamers agree. There’s a reason Starcraft II sold half as many full price copies in its first 24 hours as Dawn of War sold in its entire lifetime. It’s not the hype machine, or the slick advertising. I can think of another Activision game that had similarly slick advertising: Mirror’s Edge.
Starcraft II and its two sequels will be the RTS benchmark for the next decade the same way Starcraft was for the past decade because Blizzard moved back to the core elements of the RTS genre. They had the courage to ignore the foolish gameplay evolution that took place in their absence.
Hell, it’s about time.