Friday, July 10, 2009 – Perfect Strangers

perfect_strangers_tv_show_image_bronson_pinchot__3_ When I play games online, part of my brain always fantasizes about clicking with my teammates Ender’s Game-style.  My new cohorts and I, strangers save for our call signs, would execute carefully orchestrated simultaneous assaults on our opponents, constantly updating one another on enemy troop movements and reveling in the power of teamwork.  Unfortunately, most of my Starcraft allies refuse to waste time chatting about coordinated strikes.  Everyone is simply expected to know what to do.  And if you don’t, you might as well be a gay computer.

So imagine my surprise when I joined forces with not one but two worthwhile allies.  

We talked to one another.  We synchronized our efforts.  But could we win?

Let me give a little context for this match.  I was playing in a room labeled “3v3 noobs only.”  While my years of Starcraft experience might make me look like Gary Sheffield or Jamie Moyer asking to play Little League, I think my subpar win/loss record certainly qualifies me to participate.  I could tell people hadn’t been around the block because of what I saw filling the pregame lobby: chatter.  People were joking about their last effort to launch a game getting timed out.  Two members of the opposing team were clearly friends; they shared a clan designator in their handle.  I don’t know what their tag [dG] stood for (Dolce & Gabbana Hello?), but it seemed more significant than a pair I recently saw on Xbox Live: Crumppy and Stumppy Johnson.  If you’ve ever stumbled across a halfway-decent, capable-of-conversing-normally human in an online arena, you know what I’m talking about.  It’s an oasis in a desert of Dew-fueled cybersports.

All of this set me extremely at ease as the match began.  I immediately checked all prior-defeated-related baggage at the door and settled in for a good time.  The computer deals me and my Yellow ally the Zerg, while our buddy Red gets saddled with the Terrans.  I’m holed up in the northwest corner of the map – fine by me, since that eliminates 270° of potential enemy attacks.  Within the first minute, I’ve begun production on a Spawning Pool for expected Zerg Rush and used my Overlord to scout to the south.  Just over an impassable ridge lies one of my opponents, the Purple Terran army.  Yellow also scouts, locating an Orange Protoss base to his north.  Ah, the joys of shared vision.

My drones circle the wagons on an enemy SCV. A minute later a Purple SCV waltzes into my base, obviously on some ill-founded recon mission.  Purple can’t have expect to get him back.  So the little guy runs circles through my base, poking at my structures and annoying the hell out of my drones.  I sic two of my drones on him, hoping they’ll eradicate this infestation.  Nope, Purple’s just fast enough at microing his SCV that he manages to keep avoiding my attacks.  Eventually, I halt all mineral harvesting and target him with my entire workforce, swiftly removing the thorn from my side.  Meanwhile, Yellow’s calling for an attack on the Orange Protoss and this stupid SCV has made me late for the party.  I quickly order some larvae to metamorphose into zerglings (the process of Zerg reproduction never ceases to amaze me/gross me out).  We three hurl our collective squads of infantry at the enemy and watch his buildings explode into the galactic ether.  One of his surviving probes scurries away, a roach under fluorescents, and seeks refuge behind Purple’s dense borders.

Yellow, again playing the role of General in this picture, suggests capitalizing on the intelligence I’d gathered earlier and striking Purple while we’ve got the momentum.  Unfortunately, our communication breaks down.  Red misunderstands the order “attack the Terran up top” and instead stumbles upon the Purple's a bitch.  The pool of blood on the right is mine.Blue Protoss base.  A flurry of photon blasts from Blue’s defenses instantly vaporize Red’s marines while my zerglings, following Yellows initial orders, die unsupported on Purple’s doorstep.  You see, Purple was being a bit of a turtling bitch.  He’d walled the single entrance to his base with a durable Barracks, placed an SCV nearby for constant repairs, and followed it up with a bunker of marines ready and willing to slaughter any attackers.  My zerglings were Greeks besieging Troy, Mongols attacking China, Stormtroopers shooting at Han Solo.  I watch them die as Purple effortlessly repairs his structure.  Thanks a lot, Red.

As if Red weren’t already ruining my day, he then tells me that he thinks Blue is advancing on my base.  The recently discovered Protoss threat pounces on my failed assault and marches up with as many zealots as I have zerglings remaining.  Keep in mind the disparity here: it’s like a gang of plasma-shielded Riddicks tangling with a pack of ferocious Martian dogs.  Sure, two or three dogs could probably bring Vin down.  But when it’s one-to-one, he wins easily.  Just as the fracas begins, Red calls out ever-so-helpfully “comin for you Teal.”  The enemy zealots tear through my meager defense, rending alien canine limb from alien canine limb with freakish ease – so quickly as to elicit an “omg” from Yellow.

Zerg workers of the galaxy unite!  You've nothing to lose but your original DNA strain! (PS those clouds of blue-white are my enemies exploding.) I’ve no choice but to yet again mobilize my workforce.  Buying time for another batch of zerglings, I conscript all of my drones and focus them on one zealot at a time.  Their numbers overwhelm the melee-attacking zealots, separating them while my short-range spines pick them off one by one.  Confident that I’ve got things under control, Yellow redirects his reinforcements to join up with Red and mobilize on the Blue base.  He doesn’t last long.  Red’s siege tanks lay waste to Blue’s defenses while Yellow’s troops obliterate his pylon power grid.  Somehow we’ve turned Red’s miscalculation into a winning strategy: use me to bait Blue and swoop in after I’ve repelled the attack.  If only the next fifteen minutes were to go so smoothly.

It’s not that they went poorly.  It would take a lot for a 3v1 situation to actually go poorly.  But it certainly didn’t go well.  Purple’s Great Wall of Barracks proves far more impregnable than previously imagined.  When Yellow moves in Lurkers to try and attack in undetected, Purple counters with Battlecruisers and a cloak-revealing Science Vessel.  My Mutalisks can’t even make a dent before Blue’s missile turrets pop them like so many soap bubbles.  Red tries to solve the problem by throwing Goliaths it, but those become more of a hindrance when their atrocious AI pathfinding causes them to get in the way of Yellow’s reinforcements.  Honestly, I laughed out loud the third time Yellow, nagging like Edith Bunker, cried out “dude ur goliaths!” as he struggled to navigate around Red in the map’s narrow pathways. 

Purple must have been laughing his head off, too.  Here we were, three of us, unable to mount a successful attack on his base.  Yellow, clearly frustrated, starts hurling Ultralisks (as useless in multiplayer as a dial-up modem) at the front line, while I airlift a strike force over the ridge separating my base from Purple’s.  (Airlifting Zerg units consists of stuffing troops into an Overlord’s “ventral sacs.”  Seriously, grossest race ever.)  Red, hopefully a little embarrassed by his stupid Goliaths, resigns himself to anti-air duty, amassing a fleet of missile-equipped Valkyries to neutralize Purple’s cruisers.  What finally does it is a combined airlift strike from Yellow and I at Purple’s southern border, which was not reachable by land and thus significantly less defended.

Yellow and I scour the ruins of Purple's base for any remaining hostiles. With Red patrolling the skies, Yellow and I ravage Purple’s base, which he’d exhausted of resources and couldn’t have defended much longer.  The four of us watch as scores of zerglings and hydralisks reduce each factory and depot to rubble.  We chat with Purple, who is in surprisingly good spirits for someone watching his city burn.  He tells us how he’d made the map himself, and we kindly offer our critiques: “Too many chokepoints!”  “Not enough room to walk around.”  Yellow talks about how much he’s improved since picking up the game only a week ago, no doubt spurred on by the buzz surrounding the sequel.  But the match doesn’t end like it’s supposed to, and then we realize that Purple has a minor expansion base in the northeast spawn point.

We don’t bother hunting it down, however.  It would’ve felt wrong after our blaze-side chat.  One at a time we ally with Purple, giving him a de facto shared victory.  I don’t know that we were friends at the end.  But we certainly weren’t strangers.