StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void manages to pull something off that few games ever have: it marks the culmination of one of the most engaging, thrilling and incredibly rewarding stories in RTS history – and is the best thing to happen to multiplayer gaming since its predecessor, StarCraft: Broodwar, kicked off eSports almost two decades ago.
In the conclusion to StarCraft II‘s trio of expansions, Legacy of the Void has you take control of the Heirarch (leader) of the Protoss (space wizards), Artanis – who has led his dispossessed people back to their homeworld of Aiur in the hopes of reclaiming it from the Zerg. Inevitably, though, something goes horribly wrong and Aiur is once more besieged – though, this time, by an ancient and terrible evil that turns the Protoss against one another. Artanis must escape his home aboard an ancient Protoss Arkship, the Spear of Adun, and reunite the disparate Protoss factions as he struggles to save the galaxy entire from the dark god, Amon.
You may think that if you’ve played one RTS, you’ve played them all. Well, StarCraft has always had a tendency to innovate (where possible) in what it means to play an RTS, and StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void merrily continues this trend. As opposed to just sitting back, building up an army and going out to wage a war of attrition against your enemies, Legacy of the Void puts a welcome spin on some otherwise quite stale objectives-based missions. In one mission you have to race a powerful laser-beam as it cuts its way through an ancient Protoss base, while another has you providing psionic support to a warrior locked in a ritual battle to defeat his rival. While there are a few of what feels like Blizzard’s default RTS missions (either hold, deactivate or destroy between three to five objectives across the map), even these have been tweaked to present more individuality, adding, for example, a frequent cloud of gas that affords the enemy the opportunity to send more powerful units against your base, or a psionic shockwave that incapacitates your allies for minutes at a time.
These more considered and heavily authored missions help to tell the greater story, although most of it is told either in the cutscenes that bookend each mission, or the conversations that Artanis can have with various allies in the Spear of Adun’s Bridge, War Council and Solar Core (similar to Raynor’s Hyperion and Kerrigan’s Leviathan from the previous games). The story itself is epic, and the Protoss are the perfect protagonists for it. There’s no way you could have wise-cracking, cynical old Jim Raynor leading the charge to defeat Amon, nor would Kerrigan’s bristly personality be a welcome companion on such a journey. However, the Protoss are… well… a bit dry. The differing personalities of the other Protoss do much to offset Artanis’ almost Superman-like, golden-boy personality (the engineer Karax has an almost childlike sense of wonder and the Tel’darim Ascendant Alarak has a scathing wit and sharp tongue), but if you’re going to explore all of the potential conversations and listen to all of the dialogue between missions you’re going to want to have some form of comic relief on standby.
Each of the three expansions for StarCraft II have featured a different race – the Terrans in Wings of Liberty, the Zerg in Heart of the Swarm – but neither embraced the personality and playstyle of that race quite as much as Legacy of the Void. The Protoss focus is on the single warrior: long build times and expensive units mean that you’ll be at a large numbers disadvantage (especially when up against the Zerg) for the majority of the game, but most units have special abilities and are far more durable and versatile than those of your opponents. Mobility is also a key feature – with the Protoss barracks (called a Gateway) able to transform into a Warp Gate, you can call in reinforcements anywhere you can build a pylon, making fast and decisive unit placement a vital strategy. Of course, there are still times when the best thing to do is sit behind a big wall and churn out vast numbers of units with which to beat the enemy to a bloody pulp, and Legacy of the Void lets you put your own spin on the kind of units you’ll take into battle.
Customisation is a big part of StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void. As you progress through the campaign, you’ll continue to add more unit types (melee, ranged, support, robotic, fighter, etc.) and, as you progress further and help Artanis bring new Protoss factions and technologies into the fold, you’ll get the option to choose from three potential variants of the same unit type, each with their own individual abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Not only that, but you’ll have the option of using the vast powers of the “Spear of Adun” itself to help you in your fight. The Arkship has 18 different upgrades available, but each (above the first tier) costs a certain amount of something called “solarite” to activate and you’ll need to wait for the Spear of Adun to generate enough energy to use your powers during a mission. These powers include dropping down a pylon (complete with reinforcements) on any visible location, gathering vespene gas without the need for drones and landing a mighty hero on the battlefield to devastate your enemies. You acquire a small amount of solarite through the game’s main missions, but the bulk of it comes from additional objectives; the boost you get from the Spear of Adun’s abilities means that bonus objectives are actually incredibly important (especially when playing on higher difficulties) so you’ll either be going out of your way to secure them or you’ll be kicking yourself if you’ve missed out.
Legacy of the Void is a huge game. Not only do you have the single-player campaign – 19 missions ranging from 15 minutes to over an hour long (depending on how you play) with four different difficulty settings – but you have multiplayer, co-op missions (previously called Allied Commanders), Archon Mode and the ever-expanding Arcade to play with too, not to mention a plethora of unlockable portraits and achievements. So, in reviewing Legacy of the Void, I had to step outside of the safety of the single player game, put on my big boy pants and get absolutely trounced in the multiplayer.
Since Broodwar (the expansion pack for the first StarCraft game) helped to really cement eSports in Korea – still the cradle of competitive gaming – people have been playing StarCraft against one another. That’s nearly two decades of experience people have in the A-Move, resource-blocking, and the infamous Zerg Rush. Since StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is a standalone game (you don’t need to have either of the previous expansions to play it), there are going to be people without 20 years of StarCraft under their belt who will die. A lot. Fortunately, Blizzard have prepared for this eventuality and, as a result, they’ve included three training missions to ease you into the multiplayer mindset and set you on the road to victory. The first mission has you commanding a very basic force and teaches you about resource management (in this update to multiplayer you get 12 workers at the start, as opposed to the six you had previously) and what the best build-order might be. The second brings in more advanced units and introduces upgrades and the expanded tech-tree. The third opens up all of your army options and serves as a jumping-off point to your first real match.
None of this, however, really prepares you to go up against another human in the terrifying world of competitive StarCraft. Actually, the single-player campaign doesn’t, either. The multiplayer, by its very nature, needs to have balance – there can’t be seen to be a real meta-build that will consistently beat everything else, otherwise the viability of the game as a sport disintegrates. Therefore, you’re limited to what units you can bring into battle and there are no additional abilities to be had… not that you’ll have time to use them. The biggest push Blizzard have made with the multiplayer changes in Legacy of the Void is to reduce game times; to limit the boring early game resource gathering and scouting tactics and get straight to the fight. In the few multiplayer games I played against other humans, I had barely made it to my second resource location before my opponent sent the troops in and swiftly massacred what few troops I had, leaving my workers open to almost instant annihilation. I only had one game that went over eight minutes. Given the rise of the MOBA and the slow decline of interest in StarCraft, it’s no surprise that Blizzard wanted to encourage shorter, more brutal and instantly gratifying games – eSports isn’t big because everyone can play these games, it’s big because they’re fun to watch and, if you can watch two or three blistering StarCraft games in the time it takes to complete one match of League of Legends, that’s got to be a good thing for Blizzard’s viewing figures.
Alongside traditional multiplayer, Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void also introduces two new modes: Archon mode and co-op multiplayer. Co-op is pretty straightforward – two players each take on the role of one of the main characters (two from each faction, each with their own set of abilities and units) and work together to complete one of five missions, leveling up the character each time you play to unlock new abilities and units. Whilst co-op missions are quite fun, there’s no story to the missions nor any sort of end-game once you’ve maxed out the characters, and playing it feels rather like a grind with additional XP gain for randomising the character and mission selection. Blizzard have confirmed that they’ll add more characters and missions over time but, for now, co-op just feels a little like being in there for the sake of it, rather than having any serious intent as a hardcore game mode.
Archon mode, on the other hand, has the potential to really build on the multiplayer, both for entertainment and in competitive play. In it, two players take control of one army and go up against another two players, jointly in control of the enemy army. One player might focus on managing resources and build queues while the other takes control of military forces – or both players might, ultimately, control different groups of military units to engage in more intricate and sophisticated strategy; pincer movements with precision timing, baiting an enemy force from their base before your partner waltzes in and destroys the place. As I said, Archon mode has the potential to build on the multiplayer. Currently, though, Archon is little more than a training device where a more experienced player can hold the hand of a newbie and walk them through the best build order, show them how to scout, to expand and how to deal with that pesky Zerg Rush.
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is some game. There’s something here for everyone and, as it’s a standalone game, newcomers to the RTS genre are more than welcome (there’s even a “story so far” cinematic that you can watch to get caught up on nearly 20 years of story – even if you know it, I’d encourage you to watch it, if only for the bittersweet nostalgia – Oh, Tassadar!). The multiplayer is all set to revitalise StarCraft in the eyes of the gaming elite, and I can safely say that Legacy of the Void definitely delivers in terms of its story and is a fitting end to almost two decades of storytelling.
Now bugger off and leave me alone: I’ve got an ancient dark god to kill. For Aiur!