Friday, August 20, 2010

Battle.blog – The Triumphant Return

dig-for-victory-allotment-gardens For those of you who missed the television spots, the lines around your local GameStop, or the instant dip in South Korean GDP, let me inform you that Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty has arrived.

It took twelve years for the first third of Blizzard’s planned sequel-trilogy (is that even a thing?) to hit stores, and within a month it’s already become one of the biggest PC launches in recent history.  How does a game over a decade removed from its predecessor move over a million units on launch day?  Nostalgia and brand recognition.  People, myself included, have beyond-fond memories of the first Starcraft.  Gamers less familiar with the franchise may be fans of that other game Blizzard makes.  Combine those two gargantuan forces with a successful beta earlier this year and Starcraft II’s early success should be no surprise.

I’ll spare you any more language about the game’s meteoric rise in popularity – and whether or not it’s justified –as this is not a review (there may be one in the pipe somewhere).  Those who’ve been with Charge Shot!!! from the beginning may remember a little column called Battle.blog, in which I recorded my attempts to secure victory in the murky depths of the original’s then-ten-year-old multiplayer.  The sequel’s launch now affords me the opportunity to test my mettle against an even larger pool of players.

As my record is public to any reader who cares to dig up such information, I won’t be aiming for a particular number of victories or anything like that.  The revived Battle.blog will be me exploring what has always interested me about Starcraft’s multiplayer: the experience, the strategy, the community.  What about this game has catapulted it beyond being yet another PC strategy title? 

One possibility: the thrill of victory.

Battle.net’s new matchmaking service has streamlined much of the, well, matchmaking process.  After slogging/cruising through a handful of placement matches, you’re dumped in a hundred-person division in one of the game’s five skill brackets: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, or Diamond.  Using the new Quick Match option will then swiftly find you an opponent of (supposedly) similar skill.  It’s a blast being able to roll from melee to melee with such ease, but I do miss the quaintness of the pregame lobby.  Being able to chitchat with your opponent beforehand gave the whole enterprise the feeling of feudal lords having tea whilst their peons do battle in their names.

I choose Terran.  The game’s single-player is almost entirely focused on the human race, and I want to come to the plate with my most trusted bat in hand.  I know bits and pieces of various Terran strategies, too - “Build three barracks” or “1/1/1” – but I know none of them completely.  Imagine going to war having read the first four chapters of Sun Tzu, a few coffee-stained pages of a US Army Field Manual, and the Reader’s Digest version of Clausewitz’s On War.  That’s my shallow level of expertise.

My Red opponent chooses Zerg.  This creepy-crawly race of Tyranids Buggers intergalactic bugs has only gotten grosser in Starcraft II.  Hovering overlords can now excrete creep on the battlefield, literally pooping out a living freeway that increases Zerg movement speed.  A reinvented queen unit spits extra eggs onto hatcheries to speed up larvae production.  When fighting the Zerg, it’s either fight quickly or die quickly.

Unfortunately, battle never seems to start quickly in Starcraft.  Each match starts with at least a minute of nothing but “dirt farming,” a quasi-pejorative applied to real-time strategy games that still require micromanagement of resource gathering – and it’s accurate to say that Starcraft II has acres of dirt to farm.  I quickly dispatch my space construction vehicles (SCVs for short) to a patch of minerals, stockpiling their harvest until I can construct my first barracks.  I’m too breaking ground on my first barracks that I almost miss my opponent’s missive: “glhf.”  Knowing that he’s simply trying to wish me good luck and implore me to have fun, I fire off a quick reply: “u2.”  Hopefully he understands I’m not a big Bono freak or anything.

And don't come back now, ya hear? Within four minutes I’ve completely walled the entryway to my base with barracks.  Why would a general construct walls out of the very buildings he needs to train troops?  The dreaded zergling rush.  Slathering insectoid monstrosities could besiege my base at any moment.  And at five minutes into the match, it occurs: First Contact.  Six zerglings  clamber up to my barricaded doorstep, rapping at the doors to my barracks like so many torturous ravens.  My two marines, rookies quaking in their boots, fire from behind the structures and obliterate the zerglings.  Infestation repelled.

The money starts to pour in, so I begin raising an army in earnest.  My third barracks, built with the reactor attachment, pumps out marines two at a time.  (How does a reactor cause this to happen?  Does it put their clothes on quicker like some crazy Wallace and Gromit machine?)  My tech lab enables the training of marauders, hulking jocks that fire concussive rounds.  They revel in their bulk; I can just see them engaging in pissing contests over gun barrel size with the average marines.  And my newly-constructed factory churns out hellions.  Gone are the boring vulture bikes of yore; hellions are flame-throwing dune buggies.  And who said there are no more original ideas?

Five more minutes go by.  The boys are getting antsy.  I lift my barracks into the air to let the troops out (in the future even buildings can fly!), and send them marching toward the enemy’s western entrance.  My satellites scan ahead, revealing a small brood of zerglings.  Nothing my men can’t handle.  The fire buggies zoom ahead onto the fleshy Zerg highway, and two of them fall to zerglings before my infantry can even back them up.  Roaches, disgusting four-legged, acid-spitting Zerg, reinforce the critters but are quickly incinerated by my remaining hellions.  Four mutalisks zoom overhead, hurling glave wurms from their dangling orifices.  My marines, wiping alien saliva from their visors, open fire on the flying beasts and cut them to ribbons.

It burns it burns!  The goggles do nothing! I bypass Red’s natural expansion and march on his headquarters, aiming to lop off the biggest branches from his burgeoning tech tree.  A hydralisk den explodes in a hail of gunfire, as does his pulsing flyer nest of a spire.  One new disgusting thing about the Zerg that I keep forgetting: any time a building is destroyed, a little team of baby bugs attacks.  Think Alien face-huggers.  It’s awful.  My marines exterminate them with the prejudice and skill of suped-up Orkin Men.  Red’s main hatchery falls to their guns, as well, but a new swarm of roaches hatches and melts the last of my troops.

Fourteen minutes in now.  This match has gone longer than either of us expected.  Red’s expanded quickly but hasn’t had time to muster much in the way of forces.  I’m now opening a second base, and air support has finally arrived.  Medivacs, transport ships armed with a sort of magical healing gun (a conflation of sci-fi hocus pocus like laser scalpels and auto-sutures – like that’s possible), mend my ailing infantry from the sky.  Vikings are Starcraft’s Transformers – powerful planes that can shift into robot form.  The Zerg are struggling to mount an offensive; I’m buying new toys.

Poppin overlords! My increasingly versatile army now moves on Red’s eastern expansion.  Vikings and medivacs fall to the spiny projectiles hurled by enemy hydralisks.  My marines avenge their allies before turning their crosshairs to the buildings.  Blood spews Kurosawa-style from the bullet-peppered organic structures until they finally collapse.  What vikings remain take to the skies and lay into a flotilla of overlords with their lanzer torpedoes, crippling Red’s supply infrastructure.  More marines spill out of my barracks and march south to the battlefield, only to find the repulsive creep dissipating beneath their feet. 

I watch, barely able to contain my excitement, as my forces revisit Red’s dilapidated headquarters.  Roaches spawn and perish, their first and last breath choked by the pungent cocktail of gunpowder and death.  As his final buildings burst in all their bulbous glory, Red sends a final message: “gg.”  I respond in kind: “gg.”

Good game, indeed.