Blizzard recently announced the open beta for StarCraft II, quite likely one of the most anticipated sequels in gaming history. This article will attempt to trace the history behind the game play in the most popular RTS title till date – StarCraft: Brood Wars to its cartoony cousin – WarCraft 3 and also take a look at Battle.net 2.0.
The StarCraft universe has gone through several changes, from having a scrapped up sequel in StarCraft: Nova to the ultimate delayed development of StarCraft II. Despite that SC fans have eagerly awaited the release of SC II. The game however doesn’t play as its predecessor does in fact it takes on the limitations faced by it betters it, adds a whole new dimension to online gaming and does all of this in superior fashion.
In Brood Wars (expansion pack and from now on BW) players had to contend with 3 races, each unique in their own right. The Terrans relied on early defense and a powerful macro based game (macro is where you rely on an economy i.e. several bases) the Zerg relied on early harass and then subsequent follow up to delay the opponent to reach a powerful tech. The noble Protoss however relied on the sheer brute strength and quality of their units. One thing remained constant; the game didn’t have any set rules if you had to get better at the game you had to face crushing defeats. Why was this so? Brood Wars was never newbie friendly it rewarded those that had invested months and even years in this game. Let’s look at some of the reasons:
- You could not bind multiple buildings, which meant if you needed to work your economy you had to go back to base manually all the time
- Your workers never did the right thing – that meant you had to instruct them individually which mineral patch to harvest from and you could not queue follow up commands
- You had to understand the meta-game – The game within the game, to understand what different openings meant (Terran wall-ins or proxy buildings or even bugs in the game)
All in all the skill of an individual was boosted by how well they knew these factors listed above, timings were important, scouting was of paramount and of course even the best professional gamers in the world could not do everything in StarCraft, till date – no one has. This is how players had different styles; this is how game play developed. One of the most important points was that there were very few units in Brood Wars which were useless after a point. Basic units you started out with never got out dated and they were needed in games right till the end (Zerglings, Zealots, and Marines). Most games emphasized on bigger and better units as you progressed; Brood Wars would never let you forget these little guys who took you past the first 4-6 minutes of game play.
In comes StarCraft II, in the alpha phase when Blizzard was releasing their famous battle reports, we could observe the following:
- You could bind multiple buildings
- Your workers did the right thing and yes queuing commands was now possible
- Lastly and perhaps most importantly the meta-game didn’t appear to be too complex at the start
What does this make SC II? A very newbie friendly game, it can be picked up by anyone and mastered by them too. Not at a slow pace but at a very fast pace. All races now come with the ability to boost production times by efficiency (Chrono Boost by Protoss allows them 50% faster build time on units and researches lasts a certain amount of time, Terrans have robotic M.U.L.E.S who mine minerals faster but last a certain time or they can increase their supplies) or by sheer unit numbers (Zerg are not restricted to 3 larvae anymore, they can increase the number of larvae produced thanks to the Zerg Queen in a new avatar)
Let’s look at it from the different races perspective.
BW Terran – Back in the day you had to rely on certain units to produce the desired results – Terran Goliaths, Siege Tanks & Vultures were a staple diet in most matches. Their infantry were also very remarkable. Terrans were also famous for their Medics and Marine combination (M&M) which was very effective against a Zerg opponent.
SC II Terran: SC II Terrans have been completely revamped, their infantry has gotten vast and more effective, and their staple Goliaths, Siege Tanks and Vultures are all but gone. The true power now lies in a strong air based Terran. A Terran now techs, relies on early defense but essentially goes for higher up units while macroing his army into a stronger position in terms of economy. Terran players going up against the Zerg Swarm need to watch out for early techs to Roaches and Hydralisks. With recent patches the Terran infantry has received a huge boost making build times for researches less. The Terrans now also have a strong unit on the ground (Thors) and have an awesome aerial strike force.
SC II Zerg: SC II Zerg relies strongly on 2 units now – Roaches backed with Mutalisks and of course the infamous Hydralisk is still a deadly unit. The Zergling has become very pathetic barring early assaults. Most mirror matches end up becoming a Roach kill fest and whoever has more or upgraded roaches – wins. Zergs sadly have a lot of high end units which aren’t finding use in the game so far (Infestor – their caster & Over Lord – unit that provides changelings that function as scouts). Their queen has become more useful than ever, she can produce extra larvae (which means more units to evolve) & she can buff the Zerg race by increasing creep (Zerg can only build on Creep – a peculiar slime like substance that provides for nourishment to Zerg forces and buildings) and providing instant health to a structure.
BW Protoss: The mighty Protoss had 2 units which were very important to any army – The Dragoon & Reaver. The Dragoon had good mobility, hit air units with its ranged attack and could also be use for early pressure on the opponent. Protoss had very good air units and of course they had one of the best offensive areas of effect spells – Psi Storm & the Reaver’s scarabs. But the most important cog had to be the Zealot; they proved useful right till the end.
SC II Protoss: The SC II Protoss needs to rely on either quick paced attacks (thanks to the Chrono boost that speeds up production/research by 50%) or has to rely on a tech that gets him lots of resources to counter his opponent. The Dragoon is replaced by a poor version – The Stalker and the Reavers absence makes clearing up chunks of units (while facing Zerg) a little difficult. Protoss have to rely on a powerful army which is smaller than the other 2 races. The good news is that they have retained three of their best units – the ninja like Dark Templar and the casters High Templar who can merge together to create a completely new entity – the Dark Archon. Protoss now have the Mothership as well, which is a terrific addition to an army with its defensive abilities and the permanent invisibility on all nearby units.
A basic summary means that the game play has not just evolved but has become very different. We are still at the early phase in beta where cheese (tricking opponents’ early game or abusing certain abilities) and early rushes (relying on infantry) are the norm.
There was another RTS title which changed the way we play strategy games, that was WarCraft 3: Reign of Chaos and WarCraft 3: The Frozen Throne, the latter enjoying a massive popularity with players from around the globe. Despite having a massive fan base, WC3 actually became redundant after a point, after years and years of evolving the game play, the meta-game reached a stand point where it became only about whose hero had the best items and who stacked on them the fastest in game. What started off as a great game eventually folded, marred by imbalances which were exploited to the hilt by players. Some of them are:
- Heroes: Yes the same guys who made the game so unique with their abilities and ultimates eventually led to a vast disparity between players. Certain heroes like the BladeMaster of the Orcish Horde or the Demon Hunter of the Night Elf Sentinels enjoy tremendous popularity and are a necessity in any army if you want to compete.
- Basic units go redundant: As all good RTS titles compel you to evolve your game play they forget that the higher up you go the lower tier units’ end up looking like pipsqueaks. Nearly all the race’s basic units (barring a few exceptions like the Undead Ghoul & Fiend) turn out to be pretty pathetic at mid-late game.
- Scouting is only for spawn location search: Yes, sadly a WC3 player relies heavily on scouting only at the first 5minutes of the game, why? Just to see where the player is, strategies got written in Gold and only once in a while would a shocker of a strategy surprise you. Late game scouting only included expansion searches and not really dealing with tech changes and unit modifications.
- Item luck: When Blizzard created the concept of creeping to keep players entertained while they built their bases they forgot to keep into mind the luck factor of item drops from creeps. The randomness of this had and is such a huge factor in deciding how an early game goes that on certain maps a few items had to be removed as drops because players couldn’t deal with the item luck involved in WC3.
- New Maps: After a point the game stopped seeing new maps, even till date the first map that kicked off The Frozen Throne (Turtle Rock) has enjoyed the most attention, it’s still used in most major tournaments across the world.
- Patches! Blizzard stopped caring about balance between 4 races after a point, its way too difficult to balance a game and still maintain a wave of enthusiasm amongst players. They introduced new neutral heroes and ran beta servers for a patch or two but eventually they just gave up on WarCraft 3.
|Blademaster with Orc army overpowering elf||Archers: A tier 1 unit can't muster up the courage to take on a stronger unit||Scouting in WarCraft 3 is all about finding the correct position and not about studying your opponent's opening build|
Those are the primary reasons why game play in WC3 remained stagnant and why it eventually started declining into cookie cutter strategies. Don’t be mistaken BW also has standard builds and openings but the variety of strategies allowed after those initial builds are so vast that you have a lot of choices to make. WC3 is like playing cricket, once you’re committed to the front foot, you better have a good shot in place else it won’t work.
|Base build and resource collection in WC3||Mineral collection done by Protoss Probes||Protoss now need a massive supply of Vespene Gas to back their late game skill|
They have been a critical part of any RTS title, and barring lower games like Dawn of War the good titles (we’re referring to BW, WC3 and SC II only) have only 2 resources to harvest which are limited in your start location. Resources in WC3 were Gold and Wood, while a race like Orc relied heavily on Gold for units, there wasn’t a huge difference in the way an Orc, Human, Night elf or Undead player played in these aspects, they had similar needs and barring a few exceptions (see Orc race) they were all equal. In BW, Minerals and Vespene Gas are what count for your units, again there wasn’t a massive difference in racial resource collection as it was in the kind of units you wanted, so casters, and heavy offensive units needed more Vespene gas.
In SC II however, the difference is visible, Vespene gas is now limited but available readily even at your start location. Minerals are now classified as high yield and normal yield minerals. The biggest difference however is the different races, Terran has decent consumption, Zerg needs a good amount and the Protoss well, even with 4 Vespene geysers there was trouble pumping out the high end units in the late game. Resource collection has always been standard and Blizzard has now got in major changes, how much might this change before final release?
Another question in mind about resources is that will they tweak it to make it so that Minerals are not as important as Vespene Gas? Or perhaps we will see the same sense of balance retained from Brood Wars.
|Battlenet NOW||Battlenet then||Battlenet a few years back|
With Battle.net 2.0 releasing everyone has analyzed and abused Blizzard about being greedy for money and moved away from a community they fed across 3 different universes. The truth is, those things are true, but Bnet 2.0 is probably really worth it. Let me break it down for you across a few points:
- Match-making system: Having played match making in its previous avatars on Bnet (BW & WC3) I can safely say that the system is now even better, it picks out matches for you very fast. It’s important to note that players are NOT picked based on ELO anymore; they are picked based on who is available. So in game you will be notified about who has the advantage and while Blizzard has made note that they want to work on this, right now in the beta they don’t need to since they just need tons of games to be played at a really fast rate.
- Placement Matches: Bnet 2.0 introduces a unique concept called placement matches, what it does is, it lets you play 10 test matches and as per your performance in game and time finished to complete games it places you in divisions. This means that you constantly fight against players of your own ELO, the bad news is, if you develop fast you need to play a lot before you can get out of your division (Platinum, Gold, etc and so on)
- Maps: Maps didn’t come pre-installed and every time you have to compete on a different map you have to download it again. There is however one major change, most maps have 2 variations, one being the beginners version of the map (where there are blocks to prevent early rushes) and standard versions. If you’re a newbie trying to get accustomed to the game, you should first hit these “safe” versions.
- 1v1, 2v2, FFA & Custom Games: Sadly only 3 varieties of game play are available, there is also no map making system in place as of now.
- Replay function and microphones: Probably one of the best features of Bnet 2.0 has to be the presence of a replay function that lets you rewind games while watching them, it also has become more friendly for people to view in-game statistics like APM (Actions per minute) and resource and unit counters have also been added. In the near future Blizzard said they would like to release their own version of streaming games, this means players could stream games and people can just view their “idols” compete all while being on Bnet 2.0. People can also talk right now, so it’s very possible to even commentate on your own games or others and the community feel in this sense is big, previously the only way this was possible was if you used Team Speak or Ventrilo.
- Stand Alone complex: Ah yes, the biggest drawback of the current Bnet version is that you are in no chat room, in previous versions of Bnet you always joined a chat room first and communicated with others through various chat rooms existing, clan based or open channels. This is not there anymore and I have to admit it makes people feel very alone.
- Updated Friends list: The big saving grace is that it’s not that hard to find friends, you can search them by email or by primary nicknames.
- Replays aren’t affected by Patches: This should come as a huge sigh of relief for people who like to watch old games between top players. The current set up on B.net 2.0 allows it to load older replays with no hassles whatsoever. This makes it a huge bonus as most people in past Blizzard games lost out on replays after a new patch was released.
- Account names: People raged and Blizzard didn’t yield, yes you can only create one account and your entire play history will be on it. This means if you started as a newbie and earned 100 losses to 1 win and then got better, you will still be fighting the odds till the end of time to balance out your win to loss ratio. Pros? Prevents players from smurfing (high skilled players beating newbie players on new accounts) and reduces the load on Bnet employees!
All in all, these are the primary areas of stand out when one logs into Bnet 2.0. There is obviously tons of scope for improvement but am willing to bet, Blizzard will not be addressing certain demands (like the 1 account per person) in the near future.
The game in general is still in the early phase and barely a week or two into beta testing, so give this time and it will develop into a blockbuster title known purely for its multi player value. Yes, that’s going to be the stand out in this game, a trait very rare in RTS titles and something the developers behind Quake Live were interested in, perhaps this is the next phase in Gaming isn’t it?