Anachrony

2010-08-02

Respecting the Solitary Life

So, StarCraft II. Much ink has been spilled over various aspects of the game, from the rebalanced multiplayer to the lack of LAN play to the curiously elevated price tag—$60 for this versus $50 for most PC games. There’s an aspect to this that many haven’t considered, however: the singleplayer game.

Most RTS games treat the singleplayer game as an extended tutorial for the multiplayer. There’s a thin veneer of plot slathered on, but the real purpose is to get you familiar with the units and tactics of each faction, so you can go forth to the online matches and, hopefully, not suck.

This is not the right way to go about it. For one thing, the AI opponents never behave like real people do in a match. This does a disservice to those looking to get ready for the MP, because it sets up a bunch of wrong expectations that have to be unlearned once you actually wade into the fray.

The multiplayer craze has been huge in the past few years, driven in no small part by games like Team Fortress 2 and Halo that manage to be relevant years after their release. For these games, their success is driven by the depth and satisfaction of their multiplayer modes. RTS games are no strangers to this, certainly. The whole genre, more or less, has been serving up the same MP oriented gameplay for years now, providing further and further refinements of essentially the same formula.

The problem with this, I feel, is how this affects singleplayer enthusiasts. The people who play games not to connect with others, but to get away from them for a little while. Sure, playing with others can be fun, engaging, uplifting and so forth. But sometimes, you don’t want to put up with that. Sometimes, you want to just fire up a game and play, without worrying about coordinating with other people’s schedules, without worrying about dropped connections and server hiccups and oh hang on guys, I have to take out the trash.

Singleplayer is an aspect of gaming that has been denigrated in recent years. The contest of man vs. machine is one that can be mishandled in so many ways: inconsistent difficulty, cheating AI opponents, Insane Troll Logic puzzles, narmful cutscenes or dialog that serve to break immersion, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam. Yet when it’s done right—and we have plenty of examples of how it can be—it is glorious. Games that pay attention to pacing, to challenge, to fun; these are the ones we remember for a lifetime.

This brings me back to StarCraft II. (Bet you thought I’d forgotten!) Blizzard has certainly spared no aspect of the multiplayer; they understand their fans too well to neglect that. One aspect that hasn’t gotten as much press—though there certainly has been some—is the singleplayer game. Yes, it focuses solely on the Terrans, but this is to the game’s benefit.

Instead of having to cram everything into ten missions, they have the space to let the player breathe—to absorb the game’s essence and atmosphere at a more natural pace. New elements are introduced gradually, and the player is given some agency in the progression via the research trees.

There’s certainly nothing here that hasn’t been seen in RTS games for years, but the sheer amount of care and craft that has gone into this game is phenomenal. I normally loathe RTS games; I only played through the first StarCraft with cheats on to get the story. In this one, I find myself playing the missions for their own sake.

The cutscenes can veer into cornball territory at times, but they never outstay their welcome. The shipboard scenes that serve as the mission hub are bursting at the seams with little touches put there to discover. One of these, an arcade cabinet sitting off in the corner of the Cantina, is the front end to a top-down scrolling shooter game: The Lost Viking. This bears emphasizing: Blizzard hid a whole other game inside StarCraft II, just because they could. It’s mainly meant to show off the capability of the SC2 engine, but it’s got enough depth to be enjoyable in its own right.

Blizzard didn’t have to do any of this. They could have slapped together a quick SP campaign, shipped the game with all the MP enhancements, and they still would have made a mint. They didn’t, though. They chose to put just as much time and care into the singleplayer experience as they did for the multiplayer game. The end result is a polished, refined game that’s a joy to play.

Sure, Blizzard has more money to throw at any one project than most companies have period. But that’s not what makes their games great; Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 had just as much money thrown at it, and nobody’s going to remember it in a year save the die-hard grognards who spend their life in MP matches. StarCraft II is going to be with us for years to come, because Blizzard put care and thought into making it fun as a game, rather than an interactive special-effects reel. More companies could stand to learn from that attitude.

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