StarCraft 2: Legacy of the Void, The final instalment

It’s been 17 years since StarCraft was unleashed on the world. In the games industry a few months is a lifetime 17 years is practically eternity. The fact it’s being played at all, much less one of the largest games on the professional eSports circuit, is no mean feat.

Yet, the last few years haven’t been kind to the Korean darling. While strategy titles still control the top of the charts, relatively new kids on the blockLeague of Legends and DOTA are by far in control. StarCraft has been on a declining path for a while.

Even veterans such as Sean Plott, who goes by the handle Day9 online, said during a Reddit AMA last year that free to play games have a much wider top of the funnel, and that this will “certainly…reduce the number of incomers”.

Blizzard has an uphill battle. But the company Top of Formhas another chance to give the old girl some life the final expansion for StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void.

During the Game Developer’s Conference we were given the chance to go hands-on with Legacy of the Void’s multiplayer, in the midst of a co-operative mode something the game has never attempted before. Unfortunately, we weren’t give any look at the single-player, although series producer Tim Morten said, predictably, the focus will very much be on the different factions within the Protoss.

“This is the conclusion to the StarCraft story which started in StarCraft 1 this is where it all resolves. It’s a big moment for StarCraft as a whole.”

“There is obviously an emphasis on Zeratul and the Protoss characters…it’s an epic story.”

During the campaign the player will need to bring the different Protoss factions together to help complete missions successfully, and subsequent decisions to ally with certain groups will dictate the flow of the plot. Ultimately, the goal will be to unite the race together.

But people don’t play StarCraft for the campaigns. They play, ostensibly, for multiplayer.

This is a crucial time for StarCraft. It needs to bring in as many new players as possible, and Blizzard is keenly aware of this. It’s part of the main reason why this expansion will be a stand-alone. Unlike Wings of Liberty or Heart of the Swarm, Legacy requires no previous StarCraft game to play. It’s not quite a freebie, but reduces a huge barrier to entry.

“We want to make it easy as possible for anyone who wants to play, to just get in,” says Morten.

Last November, Blizzard confirmed a number of units for the Legacy of the Void. For the Terrans, there will be one new unit so far: the Cyclone, a walking mech which is able to target both ground and air units while moving. And B can now teleport *anywhere* on the map even without prior vision. Another unit, the Herc, was announced at BlizzCon last year but has been ditched due to “not living up to our standards'', according to Morten.

Zerg have a new unit, the Ravager, which produces incredibly powerful bile, while fan-favourite Lurkers will make a return. A new upgrade ability will allow Swarm Hosts to send out Locusts.

The Protoss have a completely new unit called the Disrupter a powerful piece of hardware which has a devastating area of effect attack, along with the new Carrier, which allows Interceptors to deploy at specific target areas.

We were also given access to a completely exclusive unit for this presentation, the Adept, a ground ranged unit. It’s a powerful unit, built out of the Gateway, and is able to project a mental image of itself after 10 seconds, the unit teleports to wherever the mental projection is.

But the biggest element shown to us during the hands-on preview was the new co-operative play ability called Archon mode. In this set-up, two players control one base. They’re given equal access to everything, so success depends ultimately on the amount of communication with your partner.

The problem with previewing Starcraft builds is that in the hands of an amateur, none of them can seem particularly overwhelming or significant. Even when controlled by a player, it really takes the intense match-ups of the professional scene to really see how they play. But we did our best.

Paired up with other journalists, we were given the choice of race to play. Given our limited experience, we chose Terran, with two other journalists as Protoss.

A word of warning we were all in the same room. Communication between teams isn’t likely to happen this way in most instances, when playing online, so this type of interaction is outside of the norm.

The co-operative Archon mode is, above all else, about communication. Between two low-level players our first inclination was to split tasks as much as possible, with one player given control of workers and base structures, with the other in charge of all field units.

“This method is all about teamwork, all about communication,” Morten said. He was right, and it’s a lot harder than it seems. Although the interface shows which units and structures your partner has selected, success in this method depends on communicating build orders as efficiently as possible.

At first, we began efficiently, building marines and other melee units. It’s simple enough at first, but when expansions are needed communication is easy to break down. At several points, we were confused about who was controlling which expansions, which SCVs were being created, and who should be using ilities of the Command Center such as a MULE to extract minerals or a sweep to show off more of the map.

In any other multiplayer game, this is difficult enough. But StarCraft relies on an intricate relationship between units and counter-units. If you see a Zerg player is building a particular type of unit, you need to be ready to upgrade your own units in response and start with more buildings like a Factory or a Starport.

A quick transcript of our conversation is enough to show how slow this process can be:

“Are you building a Starport?”
“No, but I will…”
“Okay I’m going to take these units on a skirmish…”
“Which ones?”
“These ones down here…are you building more workers?”
“Yep, yep.”

I checked. He wasn’t building more workers. Which is fine, because, hey, StarCraft is tough, but it represents how the co-op mode can either be a useful tool in the hands of the proficient, or just a way to keep already confused StarCraft newbies out of the fold.

Art director Allen Dilling agreed: “Around the office we’ll commonly talk about who will do base management versus field management, although it doesn’t mean you’re stuck to that role.”

“We’re going to see some really cool tactics we think, especially with people using micro in the same army. We’ll see some crazy stuff.”

Indeed, although none of those crazy tactics were on hand in our presentation. Over time we managed to work together more, swapping orders back and forth and picking out areas of the map to focus on. The addition of another player with you also makes for a larger battle, even faster. StarCraft is already a frantic game, but adding another player increases that intensity that can sometimes be lacking among games with less experienced players.

Between expansions it’s often easy for unit changes to be pushed into the background. Not so, this time in fact, some of the units and upgrades here will make even StarCraft veterans change their ways.

For instance, Siege Tanks. Now they’re able to be dropped in Siege Mode, tanks can be used for harassment like dropping them behind a mineral deposit. Similarly, Cyclones which can fire on the run can be used against large, slow units. We saw both in action during our time, and not only do they change the nature of play, they force players to respond in new ways.

A unit like The Adept makes things interesting for Protoss, but it’s the Disrupter which really got in our grill a huge AOE makes defending supply lines even harder.

Blizzard has said Legacy of the Void multiplayer is designed to bring “consistent action”. Based on our time with it, we can confirm this is indeed the case. It’s a faster game with more emphasis on micro-management than ever before. More than ever, if you can’t control units, then you’re not going to get far.

But will it be enough to bring in new players? The stand-alone nature of the game will help, and certainly a cooperative mode is good fun I can imagine a more experienced player helping out a less experienced friend, even if they just want to watch.

The private beta will be up and running by the time this issue hits the stands, although it’ll be extended over time. And Tim Morten was sure to tell us “there could be many more changes between now and when the game launches”.

StarCraft: Legacy of the Void is the fastest-paced and most frantic StarCraft yet. Whether that helps, or hurts, new recruits is up in the air. As for existing players, they should rest assured: StarCraft isn’t slowing down yet.

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