Despite its questionable surroundings, and indeed its questionable plot, Starcraft II‘s campaign as a whole is a very strong thing. While the rest of the game is mired in eSports the campaign is almost entirely divorced from the outside world — which means it has the freedom to paint the town red.
I find SC2‘s melee mode quite annoying. There aren’t a lot of units to build, or choose from, and each one has a very precise purpose — the enemy are building rocks, we must build papers to counter them. I find that boring. It requires too much balance and has very little margin of error, and there’s not even much visual variety to feast on while you’re losing.
Singleplayer campaigns in strategy games generally unfold in a particular way, regardless of their narrative structure. The early missions start by giving you a very limited palatte of the melee units and technologies on offer, and as you progress through you get more toys, until the last two or three when you finally have the full might of your chosen crew. Then it stops and that’s it. Ten missions or so and you’re done, now play the exact same thing again with the other races and a slightly different story.
The implication being that the singleplayer campaign is nothing but training for the “real” game — competitive multiplayer.
It seemed like a bold step that Starcraft II decided to buck a lot of trends and dedicate a single “game” to each race. Rather than giving the three races 10 missions each, they would release a game and two expansion packs with 30-odd missions apiece.
It is at least in principle a good idea, even if Heart of the Swarm didn’t quite live up to the dream. Warcraft III deserved a second expansion pack — the Frozen Throne was a triumph and it’s sad to think where WC3 could have gone if they’d applied a similar quantum leap on top.
Wings of Liberty has 25 Terran missions and 5 bonus Protoss missions to make up its total of 30. The best thing about having a long and focused campaign is that you require more toys with which to fill it up. No one of those stunted, balanced-to-the-point-of-boredom melee races could occupy your mind for 25 missions — you’d have unlocked everything by the first 10 and then had another 15 to go with nothing new and exciting to keep you interested.
So of course they added more units. Units with questionable balancing. Old units reborn, new units from the cutting-room floor. Sweet, sweet versatile, weird, fun, cool-looking, totally imbalanced bonus units.
The rock-paper-scissors “hard-counter” system generally provides two or three prescribed ways of dealing with a given set of enemies. If you don’t recognise the appropriate counter quickly enough, then you get slaughtered and it’s over. It’s very hard to build a generalist force — one that is perhaps not optimised, but also won’t get completely steamrolled by a few mistakes. I’m human, I’m not a great strategist — but I still enjoy building units and bases and ordering them around and I appreciate some margin of error in doing so (especially with SC2‘s map loading times being as long as they are).
My favourite of the bonus units, then, is the Goliath, a mech that can shoot both ground and air units. An old unit from the original Starcraft, it is sort-of replaced by the finicky Viking — a transforming vehicle which can be a ground walker that can only attack ground units, or a fighter jet that can only attack air units. Because when it’s in ground mode, it can’t still use those missile pods — or, like the bog-standard marines, just point its chainguns upwards? Because when it’s in air mode, it can’t point its missile batteries downwards?
That’s not to say the Goliath makes any more sense; it has independent missile batteries and chainguns that don’t cross over either. This does, however, lead on to one of the other major areas of banter the singleplayer campaign brings in…
Each mission you complete gives you cash to spend on permanent upgrades between missions. This allows you to purchase even more balance-breaking upgrades, from flat hit-point and damage increases for unit types to more esoteric capabilities, like allowing the Goliath to use its ground and air attacks simultaneously.
With each new unit acquired through the narrative comes a way to improve it in some way, and with nowhere near enough cash to max everything out it brings in another cost/benefit analysis — and allows you to focus on your favourite units and ignore the other ones. People go on about branching narratives in RPGs, but why has it taken so long for an RTS campaign to bring us branching armies?
That’s not even the only thing to spend your money on, either. You can also purchase mercenary contracts that allow you to summon special versions of some of the units during missions. These also inject more visual flair into a game — to go along with their increased hitpoints and attack speeds and whatnot, they also have special unit models that make them stand out just a little. (Functionally, they don’t count as different unit types so they slot together with your generic army seamlessly. For all Blizzard’s crap around social elements they really know how to make games work.)
So while Warcraft III brought in pure RPG elements in its super-unit heroes that have experience points and levels and can use items, Starcraft II couldn’t use that in melee without disrupting its flow. Instead, the campaign opted to bring the same traits in a different way — applying them to your entire army, for the entire campaign. The variety of units on offer and the swathe of upgrades to choose between adds a whole new layer beyond the tactical fun of actually playing through each mission, which makes the campaign quite a bit better than the sum of its parts.
The only thing I hope Legacy of the Void will improve in this area is to make the individual missions a bit bigger… Oh okay, and maybe add in that Zeratul/Nova RPG mission I’ve been pining for.