Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A Shotgun, A Zerg And You

A little while ago I quipped that "Blizzard got Firefly in my Starcraft  and I couldn't be happier." The truth though, is that you can always be happier, especially if you're both cynical and optimistic, and while Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is an excellent title, it could do even more with it's country-western mash-in. But before I start in on the narrative, I want to repeat, the first installment of Starcraft II is an excellent piece of videogame. Even if you don't plan on partaking of the game's robust multi-player component, the single-player campaign is a parade of finely crafted, uniquely challenging missions that boasts surprising replay value. 

Each mission in the campaign has a unique hook that prevents it from being a typical game of Starcraft. Waves of fire or tides of lava will force you to move your base from point A to point B. Swarms of zombified marines will besiege your base come eventide, forcing you to hunt their lairs during the day. In one mission, you must intercept shipping routes and rob trains (which, to my eye, is the pinnacle of this sci-fi western strategy concoction, but more on that later). These variations keep the campaign fresh and many of them beg second playthroughs.

To further replay value, you accumulate limited funds and research points throughout the campaign which can be allocated to purchase and upgrade troops in various ways. There are also several points in the narrative when you are forced to take sides in disputes between two opposing characters, resulting in two unique missions and two unique narrative outcomes. One decision determines which special unit you will have access to, and another affects which enemies you will face in a later mission. At long last, a strategy videogame that let's you make meaningful tactical decisions in your virtual crusade This is a feature that could stand to be played up a lot more in Heart of the Swarm, though I have to wonder how that sort of diplomacy will translate to the Zerg campaign.

I assume the multiplayer is good because people treat it like a fucking sport, but I can't really comment on it because I haven't touched it yet. WoW aside, the prospect of PVP in Blizzard games kind of terrifies me. I don't have the lightning quick reflexes, or the patience to memorize hotkeys and stats for each unit in the Terran, Zerg and Protoss hierarchies. I would not last five minutes in a campaign. Or worse, I would provide my opponent with just enough interest for him to bat m around the map for twenty minutes while an audience of thousands looks on with scornful cackling. Yeah. That's how it works right? Maybe I'm making it worse. An old penny-arcade comic comes to mind, but I can't seem to find it. I might take a stab at it provided I find a friend to tutor me, but harsh memories of DotA (admittedly, not a real Blizzard game) and Warcraft III are enough to steer me clear for now. I'm not here for the bloodsport anyway.

No sir, I enlisted to follow the trials and travails of James Raynor and his raiders. That said, I haven't read any of the extraneous fiction available to flesh out the game's universe. I didn't even pay particularly close attention to the narrative of the first game. I did however, develop considerable respect for Blizzard as storyteller during my tenure as a WoW-addict, specifically when I was taking hits of Litch, and I wanted to see where they were gonna go with their return to the RTS format. 

In brief, the storyline for the first installment of a planned trilogy is good, and the smartest move Blizz makes is tapping into the same creative leylines that Joss Whedon channeled to create Firefly. It's a space-western right down to the twangy soundtrack and cowboy dialog, and it helps Starcraft II curb it's harshest artistic criticism; that it's nothing more than a Warhammer clone. That said, it accomplishes this feet via another imitation. James Raynor is conflicted, moody and lovable, but not as compelling as Malcolm Reynolds. Despite his folksy phrases, Jim lacks the humble and at times bumbling, charm that made Mal so fresh. Raynor comes off as a bit too heroic, and heroically flat. The supporting cast is similarly likable-but-bland, lacking the complicated relationships that made Serenity's crew so damn exciting to be around. One of the problems is that the plot is a bit too grand for it's own good. Raynor's civil war baggage and lady problems, two tried-and-true staples of the western genre, are handled quite well, but the practical aspects of his revolution, the down-to-earth, everyday concerns that Firefly made so damn compelling, are shortchanged.

Among the supporting cast, Tychus Findlay easily steals the show. 

Desperation, particularly as precipitated by scarcity of resources, is an essential theme of The Western. That seems like it would make a natural fit with the resource obsessed strategy genre, yet I never got the sense that Raynor and his crew were ever scraping. Yeah, they plunder tech from The Dominion, but I never got the sense that they were worried about having a warm meal, or that they wouldn't have enough minerals to fuel their flagship. You have to make some hard calls when it comes deciding between that last mercenary contract or upgrading your infantry, but the fact is, you've got extra money to spend. The train job mission is a step toward scarcity, in spirit and aesthetic, but most of the other missions, fun as they are to play, provide players with a glut of resources that diminish The Western's characteristic leanness

And leanness isn't the only thing lost. For a game obsessed with details by play-style, the narrative seems to gloss over a lot of logistics that have a lot of dramatic (and game-play) potential. How does Raynor hide his raiders from The Dominion? How do the mercenary troops get along with the raiders? The funny thing is, Blizzard has proven themselves brilliant at filling in these world-building gaps, time and again through the tiny quests in World of Warcraft. I can't help but wonder how they might have more effectively translated that world-building to Starcraft II.

I'm not saying that Starcraft II should aspire to be Firefly: The Game, or that it should be World of Starcraft. It shouldn't. I'm not even saying that Starcraft II fails as a story-telling game. It doesn't. As game narratives go, it's a real winner. But it could be even better, and I hope Blizzard continues to push the envelope in the next two installments. 

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