The saga of Starcraft 2 has been quite a ride. If you look at the three “episodes” of SC2 as a single entity it’s something that’s been in development for nigh on a decade; when Blizzard announced they were splitting the game out into three race-specific releases I don’t think anyone anticipated it would take them five years from the release of Wings of Liberty to get this last installment out the door. Even for Blizzard, that’s slow. As it transpired, what they put in each box was easily worthy of the status of a full-fat game, which is probably why it took so long; however it also meant that the gaming landscape shifted dangerously under Blizzard’s feet while they were locked into their development process. When they first announced SC2 in 2007 the real-time strategy genre was showing serious signs of senescence, but there was still a huge appetite for it that afforded plenty of room for an old classic like SC2 to come roaring back onto the scene.
Fast-forward 8 years, and who wants to play the classic style of RTS any more? Oh, the die-hards say they do, but the continued failure of spiritual successors such as Grey Goo and Act of Aggression is a definite indicator that things have moved on. The RTS genre isn’t just looking a little bit peaky, it’s got a priest standing over it giving it the last rites while surrounded by its grieving MOBA offspring, and Starcraft has gone from being Blizzard’s biggest success to being possibly their most niche product1. This is an odd environment for what used to be the flagship RTS franchise to release its final episode into, and it makes Legacy of the Void a legacy in the truest sense, in that it’s something of a relic from a bygone age.
But at least it’s a *fun* relic.
After spending time with the bog-standard human Terrans in Wings of Liberty and the insect-like alien Zerg in Heart of the Swarm, Legacy is the Protoss-themed installment of Starcraft 2. The Protoss are another alien race whose gimmicks lie in every unit being shielded, warping units in instead of building them, and a heavy emphasis on tough robotic units with a lot of staying power – but if you have played either of the previous episodes, or even the original Starcraft, you’ll know all of this already; the Protoss in and of themselves are nothing particularly new. What is new, though, are the singleplayer-specific ways in which Legacy plays around with what we’ve come to take for granted as the bog-standard Protoss units. If you’ve played Wings of Liberty at all you’ll remember that you could unlock special upgrades for your standard units as well as a selection of singleplayer-only units (including classic units from Starcraft 1) in the campaign metagame, affording you a much-expanded roster of abilities and tactical options. Legacy of the Void repeats this trick except with a distinctly Protoss-y spin, and it’s much more successful than Heart of the Swarm’s attempts to do the same.
There’s a fairly chunky campaign attached to Legacy of the Void consisting of 25-ish missions. Six of these missions are confined to the prologue/epilogue, where your customisation options are taken away and you get stuck with static troop/ability choices as defined by the mission, but the rest of them allow you to gradually unlock new units and abilities. This is done through the Protoss campaign’s big gimmick, which is that you’re on board a gigantic spaceship called the Spear of Adun which flies around the galaxy gaining allies for the fight against a Generic Blizzard Villain. Each unit that you’re used to in standard SC2 Protoss play – the Zealot, the Strider, the Immortal and so on — now occupies a broader unit category of “foot soldier”, “walker”, “tank unit” and so on (these aren’t the actual names, I can’t remember what they are). Each category lets you take a choice of one of three units, and each unit will have substantially different abilities; for example, the first choice you’re given is between the Zealot, who has acquired a polearm that allows them to attack multiple units simultaneously, and the Centurion, who can charge into battle through your other units and inflicts a brief stun on any nearby enemy units when he makes contact. The walker category on the other hand gives you a choice between the SC2 Strider, which is fairly mobile and can do a short-range teleport, and the classic Starcraft Dragoon, which doesn’t have any special abilities but which is tougher and packs a bigger punch than the Strider.
To start with you’ll only have one or two options per category available (and most of the categories will be locked outright), but as you progress through the campaign and gather more factions to your side you’ll start to open up more and more options that let you build an army that dovetails nicely with your strengths as a player. I hate micro so I tended to avoid units with active abilities; instead I put together a force of strong units with a lot of staying power that could warp in anywhere on the map thanks to the Energiser variant of the Sentry unit, which can convert into a warp node at a moment’s notice. Eventually the basic units taper off a little as campaign power creep set in (in particular I was painfully aware of the Zealots’ status as expendable foot soldiers as I’d lose most of them during every fight) and it becomes more effective to just mass Void Rays or Carriers instead of playing an attrition game with the Zerg or the Terrans (which is something the Protoss are very bad at), but it’s still a nice system that affords a hell of a lot of tactical flexibility. Most importantly you’re free to chop and change your unit options from the campaign menu at any time, which makes experimenting with new combinations both easy and fun.
Still, this unit system is ultimately nothing that Wings of Liberty didn’t already do five years ago. What is genuinely new, however, is the way the game deals with the Spear of Adun itself. Your flagship is the venue for many, many inter-mission cutscenes, but it never makes an appearance on the map during an actual mission. Instead it makes its presence felt via a number of extremely powerful abilities that you invoke via a hotbar at the top of the screen. You start off with just one – the ability to summon in a Pylon anywhere on the map, which is useful for warping shenanigans before you get the Energiser — but eventually expand to a selection of eighteen in all, split into six categories; as with the units, you get a choice of one of three abilities per category, but unlike the units this choice is not free. You’ll always have access to a slot’s basic tier-1 ability, however unlocking the tier-2 and 3 abilities requires varying amounts of Solarite, Legacy’s macguffin resource that you gather through completing each mission’s bonus objectives. It’s well worth the effort to collect as the higher level abilities are much more powerful, and if you change your mind and want to try out a different ability you can always refund any Solarite you’ve previously committed and invest it in something else.
The Spear of Adun’s abilities are seriously powerful. Some of them act in a similar way to the permanent upgrades you got in Wings of Liberty, like the auto-gathering of vespene gas from Assimilators without having to commit probes, but most of them have a huge influence on how you actively play the game. Having a panic button that lets you incinerate groups of enemy units makes you a lot more carefree in your expansion, as does being able to warp in a group of Dragoons and Zealots as reinforcements or calling down a huge robotic juggernaut from space to cut a swathe through the enemy ranks. There’s a shield booster that temporarily gives your units a massive buff to their toughness, repair beams that shoot down from orbit and heal any robotic units you have in your army – not to mention the ability to stop time for twenty seconds, freezing enemy units in their tracks while your troops cut them to pieces (that one’s on a flat five-minute cooldown for obvious reasons). Probably the most powerful ability is also one of the most subtle: giving Stargates and Robotics Bays warping capabilities, which when combined with the Energiser allows you to teleport Immortals and Carriers directly into the thick of battle.
(As a quick aside, I should point out that the single-player campaign is balanced around you having these abilities at your beck and call so it’s not quite the pushover you’d expect, especially on the harder difficulty settings.)
All of the activated abilites are gated by a slowly-recharging energy resource that prevents you from firing them off willy-nilly, but they remain impactful enough to completely change the tenor of the game – arguably they’re the one big thing that stops Legacy of the Void from being the inferior do-over of Wings of Liberty that Heart of the Swarm turned out to be. I’ve never found the Protoss particularly compelling as a faction in Starcraft, but the slowly-unlocking abilities combined with the unit variants held my interest for the entire length of the campaign. It helped that Blizzard have looked a little further back for their “inspiration” in mission design this time around; many of the basic objectives are welcome repeats of levels from Warcraft 3/Frozen Throne (I think 13 years is long enough that they can defrost them with a straight face now), and there’s a couple of completely new ones like the mission where your base is on a moving platform that you have to punt about the map in search of fresh resources2. Even the inevitable rehash of WoL’s zombie mission was relatively inoffensive this time around, and as a complete package Legacy of the Void’s single-player campaign is remarkably focused, coherent, and as a consequence just downright enjoyable.
Except, that is, for the story.
I said it in the review of Reaper of Souls, I said it in the review of Heart of the Swarm, and I said it in the review of Diablo 3, but it bears repeating again and again until Blizzard finally hire a professional writing team: their ability to tell a story is almost unbearably terrible and is the single biggest problem facing their games today. (Note that I say tell rather than write; the writing in the original Starcraft, Warcraft and Diablo games was also pretty bad, but it was presented with a great deal more style than modern Blizzard titles.) To be fair to Legacy I don’t think the story was quite as comprehensively bad as Blizzard’s recent efforts, but I suspect that’s because I found it difficult to give the tiniest iota of a shit about the Protoss one way or another. I don’t even remember the main character of Artanis from the original Starcraft, but he’s so bland and one-note here that it’s not hard to figure out why: he’s totally forgettable, and that goes double for the crew of nobodies populating the Spear of Adun. And as the conclusion to a five-year saga spanning three games the plot itself is entirely limp and nonsensical; Blizzard have now completely reverted to type and pit you against their standard Blizzard Baddie (a dark god who dreams of destroying the universe, just like in Diablo and just like in Warcraft), complete with interludes where they call you up on the space-phone to taunt you and tell you everything is proceeding according to plan even as you exterminate their armies and kick in their front door. I am surprised that there isn’t such a thing as the Blizzard Plot Generator online, but if there was I could easily believe that Legacy of the Void’s storyline was the resulting product; a satisfying denouement to a galaxy-spanning epic it most definitely is not.
Still, I’m not about to let that get me down; it is rather unfortunately par for the course now as far as Blizzard games are concerned3, and I’ve become rather accustomed to putting up with terrible writing to get at the meaty, satisfying mechanics within. As far as those are concerned I think that while Legacy of the Void doesn’t quite achieve the insanely tight mission design of Wings of Liberty, it’s at least good enough to be mentioned in the same sentence. As a swansong for Starcraft in particular and for the classic style of RTS in general it has at least left me with some pleasant memories. And given other recent efforts? I think the genre could do a lot, lot worse.
- Albeit one still capable of shifting a million copies because this is Blizzard we’re talking about. ↩
- Even if I did completely short-circuit that one with warp technology. ↩
- I’m actually a little relieved that modern Blizzard is entrenching itself firmly in the realm of narrativeless dedicated multiplayer experiences such as Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch, as it means I don’t have to endure their pathetic attempts at storytelling any more. ↩