The Game Design Forum

First Impressions: Starcraft 2

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty. Blizzard Entertainment: July 28, 2010.

Released in 1998, StarCraft and its later expansion Brood War shaped the landscape of real time strategy games so thoroughly that it’s difficult to play their successors without thinking, “Ah, that’s just like StarCraft.” What the original StarCraft did best was to allow fast, easy multiplayer matchups that were new each time. Sure, many players simply built huge fleets of the same expensive starships to hurl at you, but if you encountered a clever player—and you would—you found yourself in a game that allowed for an enormous amount of creativity and depth of skill. Ten years after its release, StarCraft still found ways to keep multiplayer seeming fresh.

If you played original StarCraft, then you should know the differences—or rather refinements. The changes include, but are not limited to

-Everything is faster (games are shorter, consequently)

-Nearly every kind of unit can be used effectively until the end of the game

-Special abilities are useful but not game-breaking

-Massing one type of unit is no longer as effective as it once was

Of course, to understand these changes players will have to see it for themselves online. But dont worry: for every gaming genius on Blizzard's multiplayer service,, there are just as many clueless players. The matchmaking system needs work, but it functions fairly well overall, so don’t quit before you’ve played more than a few games. Chances are you’ll face a few StarCraft grandmasters along the way. They aren’t the norm.

Essential Game Concept: Rock-Paper-Scissors

Disregard everything you think you know about rock-paper-scissors strategy games. Many RTS fans will have played a few of them; Total War springs to mind, as does Age of Mythology. The nice thing about StarCraft 2’s RPS system is that it’s loose; two equally sized armies will rarely engage in a completely one-sided battle because they picked the wrong unit. Moreover there’s more than one rock for every scissors, especially with the three-race balance in the protoss, terran, and zerg. Add to this that every race has, at each tier-level of technology, about twice as many units to pick from as they did in the original game and rock-paper-scissors quickly becomes rock-paper-scissors-crowbar-fire, so to speak

The most radical idea in the RPS scheme of StarCraft 2 is the way that unit balance can be changed in-game by upgrades and tactical abilities. Upgrades are an important part of this balance, as many of them drastically change the tactical effect of the upgraded unit. Banelings are a force when they get the speed upgrade; they switch from front-line splashers to blitzkrieg units great at getting in behind the enemy and blowing up their supply line. Adding medivacs and stim packs to marauders changes the way they function significantly--sometimes mid-battle. Stalkers might not work so well against swarms of cheaper marines, but they do a lot better with even one sentry casting guardian shield. It would be easy to go on like this, but the point is that while there is a denoted counter-unit for everything, the relationships are complex and change over the course of each match.

Essential Game Concept: Macro / Micro

Those who played the original Starcraft will remember that it breaks down into two skills:

-Managing your base where your economy is generated and your army is built (macro)

-Maneuvering your combat units so that you can have strategic advantages in combat (micro)

And if you can do these two things well, you’re going to win quite a few games. Most people focus more intently on macro, but the advanced rock-paper-scissors combat and game-changing abilities make sure that if you know how to micro manage your combat untis, you might sometimes be better off. Micromanagement in combat can sometimes win you the game before your opponent, a macro master, can get their act in gear. Never before has that been so clear. Especially with the enhanced variety in tier 1 and 1.5 units (banelings, roaches, marauders, reapers, stalkers, sentries) it is possible to do some fancy tactical maneuvers pretty early on.

Perhaps the freshest ability-based idea in the game is that every race now has a way to help speed up their macro. Protoss have a time warp, Terrans have temporary super-workers called MULES, and Zerg Queens can spawn extra larvae. The use of these abilities is, I’m tempted to say, revolutionary, and can change the balance of micro / macro contests drastically. I’m very glad that Blizzard recognized and embellished this, because it enlivens the macro side enormously; RTS games subsequent should really take note. You now have to micro your macro; it sounds confusing but it works well.

Essential Game Concept: Tactical Abilities

Perhaps the biggest difference I notice from the original StarCraft is the much wider, and deeper, array of tactical abilities. By wider I mean that there are perhaps twice as many abilities as before. By deeper, I mean that no ability is as overpowered as some in the last game used to be, and in that sense they are more ‘tactical’ the way players have to use them. In SC1 there were, more or less, the Protoss Psi Storm and Stasis Field, and the Terran EMP. Zerg abilities were not used terribly often outside of professional play. (I personally loved Defiler’s Plague ability, and used it all the time. But I rarely met anyone else who did.)

This time around the combat abilities are much more numerous, and much more specialized. Psi Storm is back, but it’s a true tactical ability for the right situation, not a nuke-in-a-bottle. Plague is gone, but the Zerg get Infestors, who have the ability to move underground and spawn units inside an enemy base; this is clearly much more of a tactical support maneuver than it is a finishing move. Additionally the Zerg now have abilities to spawn Creep, the foundation for their structures, away from their base, another obvious tactical flair. Terran nukes are much easier to make and somewhat harder to anticipate, and the Raven’s abilities are much more to-the-point than the science vessel that it replaced, even if the unit itself is too vulnerable. Burrowing and cloaking, two of StarCraft’s original breakthrough ideas, return. Terrans now have a cloaking unit—the Banshee—that can actually kill an opponent's base. That said, it too is definitely tactical in use because although it packs a punch, it is fragile and expensive.

The Bottom Line

It is not the number of great game elements (although there are many of them) that make StarCraft 2 a masterpiece. Rather, it is how solid each gameplay element is. Every idea in StarCraft 2 is refined into its purest form. There’s an highly admirable kind of integrity in the game design ofStarCraft 2; it is a game about strategy and tactics (both in the videogame-specific senses of the words), and every element in game reflects a focus on these things. Much more than its predecessor it is possible to outthink your opponents, instead of having to out-click them in an adrenaline frenzy that is much more suited to the FPS genre. Even if you have never played real time strategy before, you should try the demo. StarCraft 2 is going to be played for a long, long time.

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