Where to start? Reviewing a standalone expansion for a PC exclusive that came out five years ago is — to understate things — a bit odd. Upon its release in 2010, Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty was a stern reminder that RTS base-building games were far from outdated. The now seemingly overwhelming MOBA scene hadn’t really started to gain ground yet, and every RTS coming to market acted more as a reminder of how great the genre was a decade beforehand, rather than pulling it into a state of modernity. Wings of Liberty reminded us all that Blizzard were still the trend-setters. World of Warcraft was dominating the MMORPG space, and had been for several years, but the rest of their properties had gone almost a decade without any iteration. We’d almost forgotten that this company was as gold-standard as any video game developer could be, that they were the Muhammad Ali of the development world, and Wings of Liberty came out swinging for a knockout.
Its mission design forced players to learn multiple strategies and to build diverse armies to insure against any possible disaster scenarios. It presented its story both during the action and in its mission hub, aboard Jim Raynor’s ship. The player could converse with the diverse cast of characters, customise every aspect of their army, or hell, just play video games within a video game in the ship’s arcade machine. The stakes of the story were high, and the constantly shifting mission designs kept the pacing as close to perfect as I’ve ever seen a video game accomplish. But Blizzard weren’t done. 2013’s Heart of the Swarm — the Zerg campaign — followed Wings of Liberty up with an even better campaign design, taking the wider story arc of Starcraft into crazy new places that were only hinted at throughout its predecessor. So the question posited over the past two years has of course been: ‘Now that MOBAs rule the RTS roost, how successful could a Starcraft game possibly be?’
By all accounts at the time of writing this, damn successful. And rightfully so, because Legacy of the Void is a stellar end to the Starcraft 2 saga.
• Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
• Publisher: Activision Blizzard
• Reviewed on: PC
• Also Available On: Mac
• Release Date: Available Now
The campaign picks up right after the end of Heart of the Swarm, which I won’t spoil here because it’s both a huge story spoiler and also has more to do with the current state of affairs in the wider setting than it has to do with Legacy of the Void‘s story. The short version is: There’s a looming threat over everyone’s heads, but only a few know about it. Therefore the Protoss are marching on with the mission they’ve had in mind since the end of the first Starcraft‘s arc: The invasion and retaking of their home planet, Aiur, currently overrun by the Zerg. In order to show how much the Protoss want this, the intro cinematic for the game, created by the ever-awe-inspiring CG team at Blizzard, is below (no spoilers).
To talk more about the story would open up way too many spoilers about what has happened over the past two Starcraft 2 entries, as well as Legacy‘s story itself, but the important aspect of it is that the Protoss will do anything to retake their homeworld, which includes continuing their compulsory — albeit tense — alignment with their outcast brethren, The Dark Templar. Before I move onward and away from the story, I feel I should put this out there: This is very much a universal stakes, everyone must put aside their differences, bog-standard sci-fi story. If you thought that Mass Effect‘s large-scale run of the mill story was too ridiculous to keep your attention, this will push you further away (especially given how ‘anime’ it often gets), but if like me you’re down for that kind of high stakes craziness, this is your bag.
The campaign structure is a little different this time. Unlike Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, Legacy of the Void begins with a three-mission prologue, which leads into a nineteen-mission campaign, and a three-mission epilogue. The aforementioned prologue was actually released months in advance on Battlenet, first for pre-orders, then going free for everyone that owns Starcraft 2. Because of this early tease, the prologue throws players in very much at the deep end, giving you access to an already-established Protoss army that you will have very little idea of how to efficiently control unless you’ve recently played the micro-Protoss campaign in Wings of Liberty, or play as Protoss in the game’s existing multiplayer mode. It certainly bridges the gap between games in terms of story and a certain character arc, but serves more as a hindrance before getting into the meat and two veg of the primary campaign.
As per usual, the campaign grants you a ship that acts as your inter-mission hub, where you can converse with the crew and plan your upgrades. Heart of the Swarm handled upgrades quite differently to Wings of Liberty, and Legacy of the Void continues that trend, making each campaign feel like you’re really playing differently dependent on the race you’re playing as. The central mechanic that Legacy revolves around is the upgrades to your ship itself. The first ability you’ll unlock is to warp in a pylon in any visible location, followed by the ability to call down five orbital strikes to any visible area of the map. Later you’ll gain things like temporal fields that temporarily freeze enemies in areas you determine, and you can warp in a hero unit that tears the place up for thirty seconds. These abilities all come from the persistently evolving Solar Core of your ship, which is powered by a mineral called Solarite, which is attained during every mission by completing any optional objectives. The varying abilities you’ll eventually gain access to give an extremely adaptable power set that will allow you to deal with any situation thrown at you, and frankly, they often make you feel like a god-damn Boss.
Just like in the previous two campaigns, unit classes can be altered to suit your needs. In Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, these changes were made permanent after your initial decision, but in Legacy of the Void you truly are given the keys to the fun wagon, eventually unlocking three very different variations of every unit class that you can switch back and forth between before any mission. Like Stalkers a whole lot but hate how they often plug up a tight corridor, leaving your zealots stranded behind them? Good news! Now you can change to a type of zealot that can warp through any obstacle automatically, and as a bonus they’ll also generate a brief stun upon landing. With the right level of devious creative thinking, combining these unit options with the various ship support systems can lead to some overwhelming moments that will make you feel more empowered than any RTS game has ever allowed, short of maybe that one mission in Heart of the Swarm where you get a tonne of Banelings to control and the game almost breaks from the amount of acid splashing around on the screen during the following base attack.
The Epilogue consists of three missions that tie up the connecting arc of the Starcraft 2 story, i.e. The ‘uneasy alliance to save the universe’ bit. As you might expect, this entails taking control of each faction for one mission, which is going to throw you off-balance entirely if it’s been a while since you last played Terran or Zerg. On top of that potential problem, the difficulty spikes — hard. These last three missions demand a certain level of build order efficiency from the player, as the terrific dynamic objectives are often on timers. I quickly found myself thinking that if I had never gone through the multiplayer training exercises, I likely would have hit a wall here. Fortunately it didn’t take long for the muscle memory to kick in, and I just about survived the epilogue as a whole, enjoying the hell out of it as I stumbled through. I haven’t played those missions on Hard or higher, but I imagine they would drive all but the most dedicated Starcraft players to rage-quitting. But as an unapologetic From Software fan, that’s the kind of wall I relish in trying over and over again to clear.
Another new addition to the franchise is the co-op mode, in which you select one of six heroes to take into a PvE scenario. Each of the heroes has an army made up of differing units to their same-race counterpart, so you end up with two Terran armies, two Zerg armies, and two Protoss armies, each of which play quite differently, possessing different strengths and weaknesses. When you enter the game you’re placed alongside your companion player’s army and given objectives to complete that resemble campaign-like levels. Optional objectives will appear over the course of the match that grant additional experience, and that experience levels up that hero’s army in a persistent manner. It’s a standard addictive gameplay loop, playing to level up to play harder levels to level up, but that makes it no less satisfying. It’s an excellent addition to what was already going to be a fantastic overall package.
And now we move on to the part I can’t honestly comment too much on. Starcraft multiplayer is a thing you’re either super invested in, or you’re not. There’s not a lot of middle ground to be found. I am absolutely one of those people that enjoys watching the pros play, but stick quite wholly to the campaigns. That being said, I have to give Blizzard credit for the training exercises they include that teach not just how to play multiplayer, but how to get great at it if you have the time and willingness to put in. Teaching someone the importance of not unit capping, how to expand a base, how to control ramps, and giving an incredible amount of feedback at the end regarding build order and resource efficiency using tables and graphs that compare to your AI opponent, is something that is extremely difficult to teach, but they really pull it off here. You might never get great at it, but these exercises will improve your Starcraft game to an extent that will at least allow you to enjoy playing higher difficulties in the campaigns, even if you never dive into a ranked match.
The big two new additions to the multiplayer game are the Tournament screen, and Archon matches. The tournaments are fairly self-explanatory, but nonetheless very clever. Every time you log into the game or go back to the main menu you’ll see a window that will tell you what the next tournament entails, and how long until it starts, and you can hop right in and compete. Full disclosure: I haven’t done this myself, being a campaign-driven player, but I’m certain it will appeal to those that live for Starcraft multiplayer.
Archon mode is a double-edged sword. The premise is that unlike standard 2v2 multiplayer, in which each player is responsible for their own base and army, in Archon you and your partner share control of a single base and army. On the one hand this sounds great for players that can’t macro-manage especially well. With Archon you’re suddenly presented with an opportunity for one player to handle micro (unit control), and the other to handle macro (resource and base efficiency). The other side of this scenario, however, is that you will need very clear communication with your partner, as one mistake on your end will adversely affect them just as much as it does yourself. Personally, I’m a big fan of the chaos this can lead to, but I get why Starcraft die-hards would avoid this mode like the plague. And it’s for that reason alone that I would thoroughly recommend beginners to get involved in Archon. It’s a tonne of fun, especially when things start going wrong, and most of the elite Starcraft multiplayer community will likely be elsewhere, controlling their own armies, thus leaving you with a shot at success.
I won’t dwell on this part due to the word count already being pretty severe, but I couldn’t post this review without also mentioning how great the sound design and score are. If Legacy of the Void doesn’t get nominated for any Best Score categories across various video game awards, it will be a borderline crime.
It can’t be overstated just how comprehensive Legacy of the Void is as a package. Even if you find the story to be as hammy as a hamster (which I’ve heard other critics receive quite negatively, or apathetically), the ‘game’ part of this video game is unquestionably sound, extraordinary in fact. My only concern is the validity of this bizarrely standalone expansion to a person that has not played the previous two entries, but I’d be willing to bet it would successfully sell them to those players down the line. The tale of Starcraft 2 has been a long and strange one, and I wouldn’t even care to guess where the franchise goes from here given the overwhelming success of hero-based MOBAs over base-building RTS games, but if any company could pull it off, it’s Blizzard.