When StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was released in July 2010, for many it was a long time coming. Here was a sequel released a full decade after the original game served as the high watermark for real-time-strategy (RTS) gaming on PC. It had pretty big, almost clown-sized, shoes to fill. It didn’t help that by this time the genre had sort of faded into the background, with high profile RTS releases becoming a thing of the past. A past firmly set during the mid-to-late ‘90s. But even so, the legacy of StarCraft endured. Even outside of its popularity as a stadium filling e-Sport across East Asia, a lot of people were anticipating the release of StarCraft II.
The ground-breaking multiplayer, the Battle.net system, the finely tuned and varied races, and the rollercoaster story all came together to create one of gaming’s most iconic universes. StarCraft and its expansion Brood War, were and still are classics.
In the end Wings of Liberty wasn’t just a return to form for the genre in a classical sense, it was also the first entry in a new trilogy of games bearing the StarCraft II moniker. With each entry’s campaign focussing on a single race, the story would not only span three separate games, but the perspective of three different races. And sure, this was one of the main selling points of the original game and a Blizzard staple seen across other games like Warcraft II -- but never, at this sort of scale. Outside of the impressive pre-rendered opening cinematic, the majority of Wings of Liberty’s story was told through intimate character interaction, and careful and deliberate pacing that at times felt like you were in the midst of a space-western. It was grand in scope, and the missions were designed in such a way that they not only serviced the story, but also the wonderfully intricate nature of classic StarCraft mechanics.
Plus, the focus on the exploits of the human Terran resistance (led by Jimmy Raynor) against the forces of an evil Emperor was, to put it simply, great storytelling. At times it was cliché, cheesy, and a little on the nose, but always thoroughly entertaining and wonderfully presented. The next entry, Heart of the Swarm, switched up the perspective and instead focused on the Zerg Queen Kerrigan, and her merry band of pulsating blob-and-goo-and-tendril-aplenty friends. The tone was different, but the story was a direct continuation.
The pace was quicker, the real-time set pieces more elaborate, and the dialogue more assured. In a lot of ways it was the perfect middle-chapter, the story introduced the right amount of confusion, darkness, and it also set-up a universal war that would decide the fate or every living thing. The stakes were raised. And now, in 2015, five years after Wings of Liberty we get to witness the conclusion to the StarCraft II trilogy. Some might say the epic conclusion. A trilogy that when taken as a whole, is quite possibly the greatest RTS game ever created.
Legacy of the Void puts you in the role of the alien Protoss and their newly appointment Executor, Artanis, aboard the vessel the Spirit of Adun. In the broadest sense, across the lengthy campaign Artanis will need to try and make sense of the encroaching darkness threatening his people, whilst also trying to wrangle up enough forces and allies for that one battle that will determine the outcome of every living thing everywhere. So yeah, no pressure.
For those that see the Protoss as emotionless weirdo alien gods that love the colour gold more than anything else, Legacy of the Void may take a little while to win you over. But not too long though, because after playing through the campaign one thing is clear. Being in control of the Protoss forces for the final chapter of the story makes complete thematic sense, and the prophetic and mystical undertones of the first two games feel at home amidst a cast of mouthless telepathic aliens with eyes that cause a visual lens flare effect that would make JJ. Abrams blush.
In other words, by actually changing the perspective from Terran to Zerg to Protoss, the story carries more weight than other similar sci-fi tales. It’s a feat that Blizzard deserve a lot of credit for, because each entry introduces more characters than other trilogies would even dare to, and Legacy of the Void begins with players put in the role of an alien that seemingly lacks any real sense of humanity. Because hey, alien. Or more fittingly, the Protoss kind of act like Zeus and co. atop Mt. Olympus whilst the likes of Jimmy Raynor are left to do all the dirty work.
But as is the case with this series, in the end we become attached to each race, we saw it with the Zerg in Heart of the Swarm and again now with the Protoss. As a whole StarCraft II provides a sense of scope we rarely see, and narratively Legacy of the Void is a wonderful conclusion to the story. Sure, you could probably pick apart its story with words like McGuffin, familiar, and predictable but that would be missing the point. The “Epilogue”, which is made up of three additional missions after the main campaign ends, is just about perfectly crafted. And it caps off a five-year journey with the sort of attention to detail, emotion, and character that Blizzard is known for. It brings together the Terran, Zerg and Protoss races in a way that feels like a love letter to fans of the series.
You’ll feel satisfied. Which in and of itself makes Legacy of the Void a success.
Now if you haven’t played Wings of Liberty or Heart of the Swarm then your take would naturally be a little different. It would be like watching Return of the Jedi without seeing the first two Star Wars films. It would make sort-of sense, but in no way would you feel the weight of what’s happening on screen. On the other hand, playing Legacy of the Void is also a little different than what we’ve seen before. The mission design feels tighter and more thought out. The balance of tailoring the mechanics based on those seen in the multiplayer with those you’d normally associate with a campaign, with stuff like special commander powers and unit variation, is more pronounced here.
Without the incredibly tight and intricate nature of the multiplayer, the StarCraft II campaign would suffer. And Legacy of the Void benefits from five years of balancing in addition to the new units on offer. And likewise, without the ability to tweak and configure abilities and units in a fashion not possible or present in StarCraft II multiplayer, the campaign would suffer again.
In Legacy of the Void the Spear of Adun spaceship can be upgraded with abilities like calling down orbital strikes during missions, being able to heal units and structures at all times, as well as create a shock-wave that can stop time for everyone but you. These sort of champion abilities add a layer of strategy to the campaign, one where you can shape how you approach each mission based on your style of play. It builds on the seemingly limitless strategies on offer in classic StarCraft multiplayer, but with the added bonus of making you feel like a commander, a hero. And by adding enemies exclusive to the campaign, giant hulking ancient aliens, encounters rarely feel like multiplayer matches. Even when they kind of do.
One mission in particular has your base sitting on a platform that you can then move throughout the map to find more resources and get closer to objectives. This comes pretty late in the campaign, and is a testament to how it all never feels, well, boring or repetitive.
This leads us to the new co-op mode added to StarCraft II, which follows the template set by the campaign missions, but expanded for two players. Each player gets to pick a hero, each with their own set of units, abilities, and special power-ups that unlock in a fashion not dissimilar to something like Blizzard’s Heroes of the Storm. Each mission provides an objective or obstacle, destroy these things, or protect this, with added bonus objectives and a varying degree of difficulty that you can tackle once your commander becomes more powerful. It feels like a natural extension to the single player campaign, and with the story now wrapped up, it’s something that hopefully Blizzard expands upon with additional (and timely) content.
As for the regular multiplayer StarCraft II hasn’t changed all the much, apart from being sped up a bit with more resource gatherers given to each player upon starting a match, and some new units for each race. Zerg fans, of which there are many, will be happy to learn that the Lurker is back. Blizzard has continuously balanced and improved the multiplayer aspect of StarCraft II for a number of years now, so right out of the box Legacy of the Void arrives with over half a decade’s worth of refinement. But, it is great to see the new Tournament Mode, which refreshes every few hours, giving everyone the chance to take part in the sort of StarCraft gaming usually relegated to e-Sports broadcasts.
In the end, Legacy of the Void will be remembered for a number of reasons. First, as the final chapter in the StarCraft story that began 17 years ago. Second, as a satisfying conclusion to the StarCraft II trilogy. One that includes some of the best single-player missions in the series. And third, with the focus on the Protoss race it proves that shifting perspective and changing tone can result in some truly entertaining story-telling. Plus, it’s still one of the most intricately designed, fast-paced, and skill-centric multiplayer games ever created. One that can be enjoyed by players of all skill level.