Over its 17-year run, the Starcraft series has become a cultural touchstone for the gaming public. The new expansion, Legacy of the Void, is the fifth release overall and the third in Starcraft II's sub-trilogy. With that mantle comes an extraordinary amount of pressure. The stories of Raynor's Raiders, Sarah Kerrigan, Zeratul, and countless other characters from this massive series await concrete resolution. Furthermore, Blizzard's stuck in the unenviable position of trying to update Starcraft's competitive foundation without overburdening a system that's largely been unchanged for almost two decades. We've seen the stage, we know the cast, and we've read the scripts. All that remains is to see it all come together as we ask one final question: Is this what we've all been waiting for? The answer is: absolutely.
Everything starts with the campaign, which is intended to tie up the bulky story of the game's three races: the human-inspired Terrans, the insectoid Zerg, and the hyper-advanced Protoss. These three factions have been at odds in an almost-constant war for quite some time. But as these things go, a new, more potent threat has emerged: Amon. He comes from an ancient race of beings that created both the Zerg and Protoss. He wants to unite all life by morphing them into chimeric hybrids through cross-breeding and extreme genetic engineering. His experiments and the corrupted minds of many of his followers are the focus of Legacy of the Void's story mode. With the help of old guard Protoss heroes Zeratul and Artanis, your goal is to dismantle Amon's massive armies and prevent his twisted vision of “perfection” from taking over the galaxy.
The whole adventure is riddled with familiar scenarios and, at times, is pretty goofy, but the game's voice cast sells their roles with such gravitas and conviction that it comes off as admirable camp instead a long list of eye-rolling clichés. Massive strategic battles often end with grand speeches about fighting for a cause, and Artanis and Zeratul consistently stand against teeming hordes of foes only to conquer them through braggadocio and strength of will. Their continued success and eventual victory is always assured, but it comes with such bombast that the adventure is endearing more often than not.
Structurally, the campaign also helps reinforce the idea that you're fighting a losing war against an overwhelming force. In many missions, you are outnumbered by enormous margins, and each mission plays faster than those in previous games in the series. After fights, you're often treated to beautiful, well-acted (albeit not terribly well-written) cut scenes that give detailed form to game's battlefields.
While most of the single-player missions are excellent, they're not quite as diverse as they were in 2010's Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. Most still come down to conquering specific points, protecting key areas, or holding out against an onslaught of foes for a set amount of time. What's included here is still more interesting than the missions from the last Starcraft II release, Heart of the Swarm. But it is disappointing that Blizzard, for all its tenacious attention to detail, didn't change up the proceedings a bit more. Where the characteristic Blizzard craftsmanship does come into play, though, is the revamped multiplayer modes.
What's included here is still more interesting than the missions from the last Starcraft II release, Heart of the Swarm.
Anyone who's been playing strategy games for a while can often provide a pretty consistent list of grievances against the genre. In games with others, the first two or three minutes (or longer) are very important, but they're largely the same match to match. That, combined with longer skirmishes in general, leads to frustrations about openers for lots of people. If Legacy of the Void makes one critical change, it is that players now start with many more resource gatherers, and the abilities of each race's starting base have been tweaked slightly to smooth out that opening and help people get to the meat of the game faster.
This makes the game a bit less forgiving for new players, but it evens out a problem that has plagued the series and strategy games in general for decades. To balance out the abrasiveness-for-new-players problem, Legacy of the Void adds a new mode named after one of the game's most iconic units: Archon.
Archon mode puts two players together and has them share one base, one pool of resources, e.t.c. The hope here is twofold. Those not familiar with Starcraft's hulking and often merciless competitive multiplayer modes can have an experienced player show off different pieces of the game and guide them through a match. On the higher level, though, it opens up two elements of play: macro- and micromanagement. Hypothetically, this should allow two experienced players to handle a lot more than they normally could. One can focus on maintaining the economy, gathering resources, and keeping up with upgrades and research, while the other can focus on the minute, precise movements necessary for optimal troop management. This lowers the total skill ceiling for multiplayer matches in general and helps players specialize.
In my experience, Archon handily succeeds at both. I've helped guide newbies to keep them from feeling lost or overwhelmed by the nuance and complexity inherent in competitive Starcraft, and I've worked with friends to take on much better players than any of us could handle otherwise. I've always been great at keeping supplies running smoothly, but I'm rubbish when it comes to directing individual soldiers, so having someone else take up that load helped me focus on not only what I was good at but also the parts of the game I enjoy most.
New units and subtler changes to the multiplayer game are also surprisingly valuable additions to Starcraft's stable of warriors. The Protoss get Adepts, ranged masters who can teleport, bypassing stationary defenses. Like the Terrans' Reaper--added previously in Wings of Liberty--the Adept are intended to harass fortified positions and disrupt your opponents' plans. Disruptors fill another key role in the grand Protoss line-up. They are walking bombs for clearing tight clusters of foes--much like the Zerg Baneling.
Those looking for some resolution to the conflicts that started way back in 1998 will almost certainly come away satisfied.
Terrans, for their part, get Cyclones and Liberators, new medium-armored ground and air units with automated turrets to target foes. Zerg get the Ravager, an evolution of the Roach. They are slow but effective artillery. Finally, the Zerg Lurker from Starcraft: Brood War also makes its long-awaited return. Each of these units has held up over months of beta play-testing, and they offer valuable additions to new strategies or new threats that players will need to cope with. The only problem I've seen so far is that after steadily adding new units and features for the past 17 years, Starcraft is getting a little big for itself, and there's often too much to manage--a complaint Blizzard seems to have predicted with the Archon mode. Surely, plenty of people can handle the new, larger game, but I struggled with higher-level play when I didn't have a friend along to help.
It's hard to say whether this suite of changes will help keep Starcraft II abreast of more popular eSports competitors, such as League of Legends or Dota 2, but it's clear that Blizzard's trying to offer something to everyone. High-end players get the additional challenge of managing or adapting to six new units and compensating for one of the biggest changes competitive play has yet seen--faster match openings and splitting macro- and micromanagement with Archon mode. Newbies have plenty of new ways to acclimate themselves to the most refined version of Blizzard's classic strategy series yet.
Those looking for some resolution to the conflicts that started way back in 1998 will almost certainly come away satisfied, even if Starcraft's writing has become comically weighty in recent years. Legacy of the Void doesn't quite manage the brilliance of Wings of Liberty, but it's a worthy note to leave the franchise on.