“Ah! That’s the stuff.” ~Firebat
It’s been more than 17 years since StarCraft introduced itself to the world. For many, it's been more than just a game. In my case, it was my first experience with online multiplayer, my first strategy game, and my first taste of competitive gaming. Its arrival right at the onset of the internet boom made it a profoundly impactful game that changed gaming for the better.
Despite the popularity of the initial debut, Blizzard has been very careful about subsequent releases. Each game might have sold several million copies, but there was only one expansion for StarCraft, which was soon followed up with a sequel that had two planned expansion releases. For those counting, that's five total releases in 17 years.
MOBAs have taken over the majority share of the strategy gaming market, but StarCraft still stands mighty with hundreds of thousands of active players, colossal tournaments, and rich gameplay mechanics. It's walked a long road, and now the final release of this era has arrived. It's called Legacy of the Void, and it is a tremendous package that makes StarCraft better than ever.
Legacy of the Void is the Protoss-centered expansion for StarCraft II, so naturally its storytelling has a heavy dose of Artanis, Zeratul, Fenix, and other Protoss elite, although other characters including Kerrigan are thoughtfully introduced. The entirety of its campaign places you in control of Protoss forces during major events of the timeline.
The narrative is large in scale, with the fate of the world on the line. Zerg have retained control of the Protoss home world of Aiur, and the Protoss want it back. During the campaign you’re introduced to a major antagonist as well as an overcomplication of a once interesting story. A fair amount of the dialogue is trite and impedes on what could have been satisfactory. This comes as the expansion’s one major fault, as those who come in expecting a memorable final bout are met with something that tries too hard and achieves too little.
Thankfully, the campaign isn’t solely reliant on plot elements. Equipped with good voice acting, powerful sound effects, and what could be argued as the best soundtrack of 2015, the audio does its part to provide an emotional experience. It doesn’t stand alone, as the five-year-old but still eye-pleasing visuals of StarCraft II's engine are a strength in their own right. It used to power a wealth of in-game cutscenes where the cast exchanges dialogue and action sequences occur. Blizzard has put in a lot more effort than ever before to tell the story in dramatic fashion and to some degree it's a great success, only held back by sub-par writing.
In addition, the gameplay of the campaign is the best StarCraft has ever delivered. There’s great flow between base-building and unit-focused missions, with a steady increase in unlocks to ease even the newest player into the strategy. Along the way you’ll unlock the ability to swap out units with unique unit types, including the widely-requested Dragoon. There are also special abilities to be unlocked and equipped.
By the end of it all, it’s easy to come away impressed by how much work has gone into the gameplay portion of the campaign, and you can tell that Blizzard took the magnitude of this expansion very seriously. Made better, it found a way to fully utilize all the work it put into unit variety and special abilities: Co-op. For the first time ever, there are story missions that have been purposefully built for two players to tackle. There are multiple missions to embark on, each sharing a mix between a standard StarCraft II "build a base and wage war on your foe" game layout and story mode objectives. In these, you have the choice between six different armies that have distinct compositions. For example, while one Protoss army may not have access to the Void Ray or Dark Templar, the other trades out Dragoons and High Templar for them.
This mode is successful on multiple fronts. For one, it offers a great way for casual players to enjoy the compelling strategy of StarCraft 2 without all the pressure of competing against other players or the unrewarding nature of facing A.I. It also adds a ton of replay value for players who don’t enjoy the traditional ladder experience. You earn experience as you participate and increase the potency of the army you use with new unlocks. Experience rewards are based on the difficulty you play on, so even veterans have been taken into consideration with its thoughtful design.
Surprisingly, the casual-friendly offerings of Legacy of the Void don’t end there. Even more revolutionary than Co-op is the introduction of Archon mode. What this does is allow more than one player to share control of a single army. So, while traditionally players who are new to the game are overwhelmed by having to manage units, economy, and base building all at the same time, these responsibilities can be split among more than one player. It’s a huge addition for the franchise that makes it more approachable and even allows for an excellent way for veteran players to teach new players. It’s supported in the competitive ladder as well as being available in Custom for all sorts of unique combinations that can include A.I.
The deep, competitive strategy game that has reigned supreme for years is here in uncompromising form. You can compete alone or with up to three teammates in ladder. There are portraits and other goodies to unlock, clans, and a bunch of other features that make spending hundreds of hours in this $40 package a reasonable expectation.
For the types of players that enjoy the thrill of competition, the new units are the greatest addition to the experience. There are two for each race, and they’re all relatively micro heavy specialized units. It's unlikely that new players will be able to use them to their full potential, but they're a big addition for experienced players. In some cases, they provide a new way to pressure opponents. In others, they provide a solution to a weakness for an army. For example, the Zerg’s Ravagar is capable of breaking Protoss Force Fields, while the Terran Herc is great at dishing area of effect damage to potentially fleeing targets. Each of these units have undergone rigorous testing to ensure they are great additions to the roster, and it shows.
While the casual additions to the franchise are what makes Legacy of the Void most successful, its prolific competitive side along with new Automated Tournaments are certain to keep the hardcore anchored into the world of StarCraft.
The culmination of all the features that Legacy of the Void adds to the StarCraft II ecosystem is the most complete RTS package the world has ever seen. There’s something for everyone, from the friendly entertainment value of Co-op and Archon to new dynamics that increase complexity for the hardcore. Its campaign is a joy to play, only hampered by a story that doesn't do the franchise justice. However, it's easy to look past that as this is the first time that veterans can not only become engrossed in the rich strategy of StarCraft, but have a good reason to invite even their most RTS-reluctant friends to come and see why the franchise is one of the industry's greatest.