Friday, August 27, 2010

Well Butter My Biscuit: Starcraft II Multiplayer Review

Even non-gamers have heard of World of Warcraft, that online game popular among alleged shut-ins and slackers who live with their parents. It stands to reason, then, that even some non-gamers have heard of WoW's developer, Blizzard Entertainment.

Blizzard is a PC game developer from way back - they've been in business since years before 3D games invaded the living room, and they've got a reputation for quality which is richly deserved. Though gamers are sometimes frustrated by the amount of time it takes the company to release games, the amount of effort Blizzard expends to polish its products until they glow is both readily apparent and much appreciated.

About a month ago, Blizzard released another game: Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, the anticipated follow-up to the original 1998 blockbuster, has gotten rave reviews and torn up the sales charts, becoming the best-selling PC game of the year in a matter of weeks. The game is the first in a planned trilogy of games that will further expand and define the Starcraft universe.

Rob, Craig and myself have spent a lot of the last month immersed in the game, and I think it's just now that we are really familiar enough with everything that's there to give it a fair shake. After the jump you can find our review of the game's multiplayer mode. You can also check out yesterday's review of the single-player mode if you'd like!

Casual gamers need not apply
Andrew: I'll say this about Starcraft II's multiplayer - shit can be punishing.

Those who are new to or otherwise not overly familiar with the game need not apply to the multiplayer arenas for awhile - even the low-level Bronze league is populated with folks who are ready to kick your ass. The game's matchmaking system tries valiantly to pair you with players of the same skill level (a job at which it is only okay), but unless you have some basic idea of what you're doing you're going to lose a lot, and you're going to get frustrated.

If you stick with it long enough, though, you'll start learning enough to win games, and that's an addictive feeling. Almost every match gives you the opportunity to learn something, either about the nuts and bolts of the game (oh, so that's the hotkey you use to do that), or about fundamental strategies you need to use to win (I can't just stand around amassing resources and units until I feel confident, I guess), or about the dickish things that other dicks use to dickishly win the game (people love to sneak behind your walls in the first minute of the game and build stuff that doesn't belong there). Pretty soon, you'll be talking about cannon rushes and your "naturals" and your build order just like a Korean kid on a forum. The next learning process is to reconcile yourself with that fact that you know what all of that shit is.

Falling down the rabbit hole

Craig: I thought I liked Starcraft, but my interest in Starcraft II is a different beast entirely. I've fallen down the rabbit hole. I'm watching replays. I'm ruthlessly clawing at the next rung on the ranking ladder.

Much credit is due to Starcraft II's Quick Match system. It can occasionally pit you against opponents who could defeat you hitting hotkeys with their tongue, but that may also be the leagues still shaking themselves out just a month after the game's release. What I'm most impressed with is the ease with which I can join a cooperative game in which to battle computer-controlled opponents. In seconds I can practice my build order, learn how best to expand, and polish my transition into the midgame - all with the support of actual human beings in a match that won't affect anyone's ladder ranking. A deep achievement pool encourages this kind of team play, as well. The game's coaxing you away from diving throatfirst into the 1v1 arena. Blizzard even said as much prior to launch. They don't want you to get frustrated and give up. They want you to play until you improve and to enjoy doing so.

It's a good thing, then, that they've packed Starcraft II with extensive post-game breakdowns. No tactic is a secret in Starcraft. Did an opponent rush you super early? You can check out his timestamped build order. Did he have a seemingly endless pool of resources? Find out when he expanded by watching the replay. Some will find doing this kind of legwork tiresome, perhaps a bit too sport-like for those accustomed to role-playing power fantasies. The reward of sweet sweet victory, however, is often well worth the effort.

Punishing, but addictive

Rob: Call it a rabbit hole, call it a Rubicon: once you're looking up structure and unit build-orders online, you've crossed a line. I'm not there. But it might only be a matter of time. Andrew's right - hammering your opponent with waves of bloodthirsty marines is addictive. I've had some bag-eyed mornings at work lately, thanks to marathon 3v3 matches with my fellow bloggers.

At best, a matchmaking service provides the shortest, least complicated route between wanting to play with others and actually playing with others. In, Blizzard has created a truly great multiplayer service. The matchmaking does misfire, occasionally - once, after searching for opponents for minutes, placed us against a top-ranked, Gold-league Terran player. We had assault mechs knocking on our door within minutes.

Good matchmaking would be useless if Starcraft II weren't incredibly, exhilaratingly fun to play with your friends. Riding into battle with Andrew and Craig, I have unashamedly cried for reinforcements, browbeat my worker units (I will not, and will never, butter your biscuit, tiny SCV) and barked orders about nothing in particular. Pulling off a winning round of Starcraft II fills you with a sense of accomplishment - you've bested a clever opponent who devoted his every second to gaining an edge, keeping it and using it to cut your throat.

And rest assured, they're always clever. As Andrew said, even the Bronze league is full of some truly lethal hombres. Don't be discouraged when they turn your first three or four matches into bloodbaths. Soon, you too will be refining build orders, staggering production of hunters and gatherers. You too will coordinate assaults with teammates, using a ground force to distract opponents while an invisible flotilla of bombers destroys their supply lines. You too will degrade your worker units.

Just don't butter the biscuit.