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Starcraft II, Blizzard, and the Power of Doing What Works

Fun is not something guaranteed by innovation, but by forming a solid core that is accessible and relatively simple. Blizzard seems to have nailed down the x-factor of fun and doing what works with its products, as evidenced by Starcraft II.

[Fun is not something guaranteed by innovation, but by forming a solid core that is accessible and relatively simple. Blizzard seems to have nailed down the x-factor of fun and doing what works with its products, as evidenced by Starcraft II.]

Before I start, I will not go into the story in depth, as to avoid spoilers.

To take and slightly warp a quote from Thomas Edison, “Success is 90 percent perspiration and 10 percent innovation.” The original chestnut and its variations appear on motivational posters in offices, college dorms, classrooms, and other locales.

It has been a little over a week since the long anticipated Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty was unleashed upon the world and it is already one of the hottest selling products on the market and will probably end up being the biggest selling game in PC Retail. And it is obvious there was a lot of perspiration put into Blizzard’s latest release, while sticking close to the tried and true formula.

The reviews so far have been great to sterling with only a few detractors in the gaming press, who readily admit Starcraft II it is a good game. The quips range from anything as “too easy” from Gamespy, to “lack of innovation”, a complaint echoed across forums and several reviews, to the frustration of only being given one third of the story for US$60 by GameSpot.

At this point, any of that is boilerplate and I will spare the reader my in-depth review. I will say; I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the game. In spite of a clichéd story and familiar gameplay and interspersed with new units and a variety of tweaks to keep things fresh (thus our ‘10% innovation’) while staying true to the source material, the end product works.

Blizzard stated early on that they were building the game for fans – and that is exactly what they did. Starcraft II stands as a testament to the thanks and acknowledgment that Blizzard has towards its fans. Fans of Blizzard’s other properties, especially Warcraft, will find numerous of less than subtle nods and winks throughout; that pop up repeatedly in their anachronistic, irreverent, effervescent joy.

Now, the game is not without flaws and there are moments where the story and dialogue is definitely cringe-worthy, but again, I think its more homage than actually poor writing. Just as the original Star Wars was a loving homage to Westerns, Samurai films, and pulp Sci-Fi/Space Opera and contains more than its share of bad dialogue, the Starcraft series traverses much of the same ground, grinning ear to ear while doing it. 

The only aspect that I feel is cynical, is the fact we have to buy two more expansions to get the full story, but the reasoning behind this is sound. Early on, the writers claimed that they would be doing this to ensure that the story was tight and well devised. For pulp-grade, throwback, B-Movie level Space Opera – Blizzard nails it with their classic cartoony style and melodramatic bombast. People who were expecting grand, sweeping narrative worthy of the greatest writers of Sci-Fi and Literature in general will be highly disappointed.

And for those who put the original down for years and argue that the original had great writing, let’s try to recall how cheesy a lot of the dialogue was. That being said, video game writing has come a ways since the original, but it is still nowhere near the level of great literature; however, surpasses a lot of the stuff mainstream Hollywood has put out lately, this year especially.

The gameplay of the original is considered by many to be the subliminal distillation of everything that made old-school RTS games fun and exciting. Starcraft II basically takes all of this and amps it up. The pacing is slightly faster, more frenetic, and battles are decided in the classic rock-paper-scissors mode (or Muk-Chi-Ba/Kai-Bai-Bo in Korea), just like in its predecessors. Blizzard ensured this game was balanced to the finest detail before letting it out and I am certain tweaks are on the way.

If anything, innovation in gameplay is up to the players in this regard, because tried and true tactics will always work, but someone will always find something that causes subtle shifts in the gameplay, especially with newly introduced units. I have not done much online play yet, so I cannot really say what effect the new units such as the Thor, Brood Lord, and Colossus will have or what new units will show up in future releases, if any.  

That leads me to my next point, there is nothing particularly innovative about Starcraft II, but it does not need to be. It does what its predecessor did and delivers a factor that is all too often missing from games nowadays. Pure, unadulterated fun. A lot of games are fun, but there is something magical about a game that you can pick up right out of the box and get right into the fun, which is what the original did, and what its sequel does now. This is something that a lot of games get wrong, they are so focused on being innovative or ground-breaking, they completely forget to get the core fun right.

It’s evident that Blizzard focused on the gameplay and making it as balanced and enjoyable as possible. Of course, there are always frustrating moments, especially on higher difficulties, but even then difficult moments become fun because they are treated more as learning experiences than punishing and actively rewards the player for improving with achievements and a sense of accomplishment.

Starcraft II makes no bones about being an updated version of the original with a new story, but that’s how Blizzard managed to get so much right. Building on a game that is already considered one of the greatest, if not the greatest, the designers had a strong framework to move forward and create something that is beautifully rendered down to the last detail.

After over a decade of waiting, we received a fine continuation of a much beloved game. The delivered goods take everything that worked with the old game, both story and gameplay-wise, while attempting to either tweak or excise that which did not work.

Blizzard has never been known for being particularly innovative. Starcraft II is a worthy continuation of the Blizzard pedigree: Taking well-established ideas, learning from their mistakes and those of others, and distilling the genres down to their most essential components and creating an experience that anyone can jump right into and have a good time. If it works, go with it.

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