Saturday, August 14, 2010

Starcraft II - Wings of Liberty

I have been waiting for this game for 12 years, just like everybody else, but not for the usual reasons. I like the Blizzard stories. I liked the Starcraft tales of the first game and I absolutely loved the Warcraft III plot. I was expecting something glorious this time. Well... I was kind of disappointed. The story is pretty linear, with cowboy characters and dialogues seemingly stolen directly from the propaganda in Starship Troopers.

But first, a word from our sponsors :). The campaign has a secret mission. Read about it before starting the single player game. So even if you have a Queen of Blades nagging you talking a walk around the base and buying her Xel'Naga artifacts, don't rush the Media Blitz mission. ;)

I have this old Sempron 2500+ with 1Gb of RAM. The game, at the lowest possible settings, was snail paced. One needs memory for this baby. I am not blaming Blizzard for my laziness in buying a computer, but it seemed to me that all the slowness came from reasons that could have been addressed. For example the game (as it should) remembers correctly every keystroke and mouse click in battle. However, in the HUD or in the game menu, one has to wait for the buttons to light up before clicking, and then keep pressing until the button lights up the second time. In game, the greatest slowness came from special effects that were not related to the game play. I understand a suspended nuke over a flowing lava fountain might exert the CPU of a computer, but the animation itself could have been scaled down to an animated GIF for crying out loud. The cinematic animations were pretty nice, and I loved how when I ran out of resources the film would not freeze, instead the characters would wait for the next part of the dialogue, breathing and moving their eyes. But still, since there is no interaction whatsoever from the user, can't you precache it into a movie? One that can be played on any computer and has the video in sync with the audio?
So yes, the game is running slow on my computer, but I feel that it could have worked a lot better with only some minor tweaks of the in game interface.

The in game interface is pretty nice, completely 3D and the map itself is 3D and some units (a precious few) can take advantage of that, like hopping jet packed soldiers or air-ground transforming machines called the Vikings). However, the game play is almost identical to the first game, so the 3D feels kind of pointless. There are camera zoom and rotation abilities, but the zoom out is limited to a pretty low setting and the zoom in is kind of pointless unless you have female units to properly look at :)

The units of the game are interesting enough. The old units have been morphed, replaced, removed, and new units were added. For the humans are multiple types of turrets, including machineguns on the bunkers, air units dropping turrets and a special mind control tower that permanently captures zerg units. The Goliaths are still there, but also a more heavy, ground focused Thor unit is available. There are multiple soldier units other than the Marines and Firebats, like hopping and grenade launching units. It is funny though, most human soldiers and vehicles are focused on attacking only ground units. The air units have been reinvented. There are small troop carriers that can heal units, really big Hercules troop carriers, the Battlecruisers have an upgrade that allows them to attack air units with missiles, the Valkirie is gone, but it was replaced by the Viking, a sort of transformer unit that can fly and attack air units or transform into a walking robot that attacks ground units. There are two types of science vessels and they repair mechanical units instead of firing EMP pulses. There are two types of ghosts, too.

The Zerg have been transformed, too, as well as the Protoss, but I can't really address this issue until I play some multiplayer games to see it from all perspectives. And yes, I guess you already know by now, but I will tell you anyway: after 12 years of waiting, you only get the human campaign. The Zerg follows, then the Protoss, probably in expansions to the game.

There is a mini campaign with the protoss, where any two templars (dark or light) can be morphed into an Archon, but I have seen no trace of the Dark Achon. I really loved that unit. I hope they didn't remove it. Also the zerg overlords need to transform into Overseers in order to be observers; they lose the ability to transport and to pour creep from the air (yeah, really cool) and instead have the ability to spawn banelings, creatures that attack ground units and transform into the same low level unit they encounter, like a zealot or marine or something like that. I know this because, while missing the Dark Archon, I really loved the human zerg capturing beacon tower :) I haven't seen any lurkers, either. I liked them, too. Instead there are some walking buildings that burrow in the creep and become normal ground turrets. Maybe that's the only way to build ground turrets now.

There were some real innovations to the game. The units that can hop to high ground is one of them. The way SCVs are repairing nearby structures and mechanical units without someone having to tell them to do it is something that I really liked. Also you can place a building over ground covered by your own units and they will just move out of the way. You also get useful alerts, like idle SCVs. I liked that as well. There is a special human building where one can call mercenaries, specialized unit squadrons that have extra health and deal extra damage. Also, in the story, there are research points that you earn and use them to select one of two choices in a list of pairs of technologies. For example you can choose to slow zerg units instead of capturing them with the beacon, you can choose stronger bunkers instead of machine gun equipped, etc.

That being said, there are still ridiculous ways in which groups of units interact. You can't easily tell a group of medics to accompany and repair a marine unit. If you select them all and attack, the medics will heal the marines, but if you tell them to move, they won't! If you select multiple air and ground units, there is no way to tell them to clump together. The air units will just go over and die, while the ground units use the scenic route. Units do move out of the way of other moving units, but only for a while, sometimes getting into infinite loops. As in the previous game, the forward line of an attack group doesn't know to move a little forward to let the back like be in attack range and heavily hit units don't really have any way to retreat while others are covering.

So yes, I guess one can enjoy the game as the one before, but I am the kind of guy who likes automatic transmission, cars that park themselves and, hopefully in the near future, drive themselves. I would have created an entire option panel that described how units ought to behave.

Now for the story. Spoilers alert! If you want to play the game and see the story unfold, stop reading!.

The sector is mostly occupied by humans. Mengsk has overthrown the government and became emperor, one that is even more brutal and oppressive than the one before. In the process he betrayed his partners: Jim Raynor and Sarah Kerrigan. Raynor is now the leader of the resistance, while Sarah Kerrigan was abducted by the Zerg, transformed into an infested version of herself and has since taken over as the leader of the Zerg, after the Protoss have destroyed the Overmind.

So Raynor is doing mischief trying to get to Mengsk, while the Zerg appear in the sector and start taking over human worlds. The Protoss couldn't care less. They occasionally purge worlds of Zerg (by destroying the entire planet, inhabited or not) or hold up in sacred locations, bent on stopping anyone from taking their precious holy artifacts.

You see, the Protoss are believers in the Xel'Naga, their creator gods. Well, what do you know? The Xel'Naga actually exist, they created the Protoss and the Zerg and now they are returning. Looking like hybrids of Protoss and Zerg, they have shields, they can heal really fast and can corrupt zerg units into becoming their slaves. Probably tired of waiting 12 years to get the second Starcraft game, they are pretty pissed and want to corrupt all the Zerg into destroying all life in the sector, then commanding them to kill themselves, thus ending all life.

Raynor is here to save the world so, with a little premonitory help from his friends Zeratul and Tassadar, he sees what the Xel'Naga plan and sees that the entire future depends on him NOT KILLING Kerrigan. She alone can do something against the Xel'Naga. We also learn that the Overmind was under the control of the Xel'Naga all the time and it created the Queen of Blades from Kerrigan as a solution to its enslavement, thus proving great courage. Poor Overmind :'(

Therefore, the purpose of this campaign is to get to the Queen of Blades and use an ancient Xel'Naga artifact to purge the Zerg out of her. Badly enough, Infested Kerrigan is not the sexy babe she was in the first franchise, instead she is some afro-mongoloid with bad skin and shiny eyes, so I was highly motivated to see her brought back to normal.

The story has three choice points, which can slightly alter the plotline. One is when the world where you relocated some humans you saved gets infested. Protoss units come to purge the world and you can have the choice of purging the world yourself or fighting the Protoss to stop them. Later on, one can choose whether to use Ghosts or Specters. Specters are a slightly insane version of the Ghost created by one of Mengsk's secret programs. Then, on Charr, you can choose to destroy the Zerg Nydus worms or their air units. I was also mentioning a secret mission, found if destroying a conspicuous building in the Media Blitz mission.

Obviously, I purged the humans and kept the spectres. I killed the Nydus worms, too, but I think that's clearly the more sensible solution when you have the capture beacons.

!!! Uberspoilers !!!

The campaign ends with Raynor untransforming Kerrigan, killing Tychus who has been sent to kill her, probably by some Xel'Naga influenced human group (I dare say it would have been stupid for Mengsk to ally with the Xel'Naga, but he is a likely culprit) and purging Charr of all Zerg.

Ok, there are also some cheats that can help you end the game faster. You won't get any achievements if you use them, but then again, you need to play the uncracked version to use achievements, so the hell with them.