I’ve spent the last several days playing through Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void, and I generally enjoyed it very much.
Prior to the release of Wings of Liberty – the first part of the Starcraft II “trilogy” – Starcraft had fallen to the bottom of my list for Blizzard’s IPs. Wings of Liberty took it back up to the top of that list, and I’ve eagerly awaited Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void.
Legacy of the Void released just after BlizzCon with minimal fanfare; unfortunately, it seems the franchise has been eclipsed in popularity by more recent releases like Hearthstone, Heroes of the Storm, and Overwatch. It makes sense for Blizzard to invest more in marketing these other titles; Hearthstone and Heroes are going to be recurring sources of revenue due to their free to play model, and that’s going to rapidly eclipse any sales Legacy of the Void can make on boxes. Overwatch has been announced to be a single-time purchased product, but frankly I will be shocked it if does not end up containing some kind of microtransaction options – and it’s also the newest and shiniest IP.
So, onto the meat of things.
Warning —- TONS OF SPOILERS —- Warning
Seriously, I’m going to talk about pretty much everything in the game here. You probably don’t want to read this if you haven’t beaten the game.
You have been warned.
Okay, spoiler warning complete.
I liked the game.
The gameplay was generally what I expected; the player gradually unlocks units in a similar fashion to the previous two installments, and missions are broken down into similar styles – typical attack missions (often with timed objectives), “defend the x” missions, and occasional hero unit missions.
The meta-progression paths for Legacy of the Void were somewhat disappointing by comparison to the previous games. Choosing a faction-specific variant for each broad category of unit was neat, but didn’t feel like it was sufficient meta-progression on its own.
The Solarite-based upgrades for the player’s ship replaced the Hero leveling for Kerrigan in Heart of the Swarm, and ultimately I felt very disappointed by this. Being able to level a character directly adds investment into the character, and being able to choose upgrade paths for the Queen of Blades made playing her in the game feel rewarding. This game essentially threw that system out entirely in multiple ways; the choices I made for leveling Kerrigan were ignored, and I had no upgrade choices for my hero for this game, Artanis. This leads me to my next bit of frustration – Artanis himself.
“Wait, who is Artanis?” another former Blizzard employee asked me when I mentioned he was going to be the main character in Legacy of the Void.
“Uh, I think he was a Templar in Brood War,” I thought. Nope, that was Aldaris, a similarly-named Protoss character.
“Why isn’t Zeratul the main character?”
Having played through the entire game now, I still question the choice to use Artanis instead of Zeratul. As some background here, I used to write for the Warcraft franchise. I’ve worked for Blizzard. I’ve read a large number of Starcraft novels. I remember Michael Liberty’s middle name. (It’s Daniel.) I don’t remember Artanis.
Presumably, this is because Artanis is supposed to represent the player – he’s more of a blank slate character. I remember being referred to as “Executor” in Brood War – I guess that was Artanis? I’m still not 100% clear on that, and I’m not going to go back to play Brood War to find out.
Either way, I had no investment in him as a character.
There are ways to create investment in new characters – and Legacy of the Void succeeded wonderfully with some of them. Karax has an atypical personality for a Protoss character, representing a caste we’ve never seen on-screen before, and a growth arc an interesting interactions with other characters.
Alarak is basically a Protoss sith lord. He was tons of fun.
And, of course, there was Fenix. Ah, the character named after a mystical bird that keeps coming back to life – who keeps coming back to life. I can’t complain, in spite of the ridiculousness of the name. Talandar – the proper name for the new Fenix clone – was one of my favorite characters. I just hated the way Artanis interacted with him. Artanis doesn’t provide the clone with any insight on his condition, and then later, repeatedly refers to the character as Fenix well after the clone has made it clear he doesn’t want to be identified that way. Frankly, it was a pretty horrific way to handle a sentient AI clone of one of your old war buddies, and I feel like there should have been consequences for Artanis’ problematic behavior – but I guess Talandar was too chill to worry about it.
Artanis, on the other hand, was bland. He starts the game by making a critical mistake, and while he owns up to that, he never really does anything to evolve from the same shiny-eyed idealist he starts out as. The game largely glorifies this idealism, allowing his unification-centric attitude to work out largely without any difficulties, save perhaps an implication that Alarac could be a threat in the future.
I didn’t identify with Artanis. I didn’t hate him, I just didn’t find him interesting.
There are a few ways that I think the game could have significantly improved on this.
- Just let us play as Zeratul. Seriously, I don’t know anyone who was interested in this game who didn’t want to play as Zeratul. We got to play Raynor and Kerrigan again for the first two games; Zertaul was the logical Protoss equivalent. The first two games let us play missions as Zeratul, warming us up for the idea of a Zeratul campaign – and then wham, Artanis.
- If for some reason Artanis *had* to be the perspective character, there are a few key ways I can think of that would have helped create investment in the character.
- Let us level him up and control him in more missions. Seriously, letting people customize a character generates investment. The tech is already there – and he even shows up in cutscenes for missions where you didn’t actually have him on the map. Sure, this adds a degree of balance complexity, but I think it would have been worthwhile.
- Give him a growth arc. Let the Artanis from the beginning of the game have a notably different attitude from the Artanis at the end. I didn’t see this occur at all.
- Give us some agency in how the story of the game develops. More on that below.
The player has no agency to affect the story of Legacy of the Void. It’s essentially a straight line; the only deviations are choosing which planets to go to in what order, and even then, it’s limited to a maximum of two choices and you still have to play all of them.
Wings of Liberty didn’t have a ton of agency, but it had a little bit – and that was great. It was a hint of a possible system for branching stories within an RTS, and that’s fantastic. I think that style could have been expanded upon, leading to multiple ending options, rather than being abandoned after Wings.
Yes, branching creates extra work. I work at an RPG company these days – I see the pains of dealing with branching on a daily basis.
Is it worth it to help create a memorable story that players will talk about for years to come?
I love talking to my friends about my choices in Mass Effect, or Dragon Age, or even my own company’s Pillars of Eternity. Meaningful choices help generate discussion, which enhances the fandom potential of an IP. It’s a costly investment, to be sure, but I would have gladly taken a shorter campaign with branches over a long campaign where I had no influence.
There were some clear opportunities for branching in this campaign. Should I awaken the Purifiers? That’s a great branching option – there were clear pros and cons. Similarly, should I trust Alarac and help him take over the Tal’darim? Again, an awesome branching point – and those are just a couple that I can think of within the existing framework of the story. Once branching is an option, you can expand things vastly further.
Maybe there’s a choice early on in the game to offer the Terrans help with putting together the technology for Pylons – we see Mobeus experimenting with that in the Prologue, but there’s never any follow up on it. It’s a really interesting story hook. Giving that tech to Valerian might be a bad choice in the long run, but it could be a massive help in the war effort.
Or, in the Eplogue, there’s Amon constantly taunting you not to trust Kerrigan – which is ultimately meaningless, because you don’t have a choice *but* to trust Kerrigan.
What if there was another option?
Could we transfer that Xel’naga’s power to someone else? I bet Alarac would be happy to volunteer.
Blizzard games have never been big on narrative consistency.
I say this as someone who absolutely loves Blizzard games, and someone who has written for several Warcraft books – it’s just not a huge concern. The “gameplay first” mentality leads to decisions where gameplay contradicts lore, and Blizzard IPs often end up with confusing, comic-book style retcons. (The Draenei, anyone?)
Starcraft II has actually been pretty good about consistency, although I was disappointed at the minimal impact from the choices in Wings of Liberty. The biggest consistency issue I encountered was from Ludonarrative Dissonance – a fancy way of saying gameplay and story contradicting each other.
Some examples of this include:
- Artanis showing up in a cutscene at the end of a mission, but not actually being present in gameplay.
- Hero units with changing stats and abilities between campaigns, and in the case of Kerrigan, between individual missions.
- Seriously, she has different stats and abilities for every mission in the endgame – and none of them take your choices from Heart of the Swarm into account.
- Hero units can die in some of the final battles with no notification to the player – but the game progresses as if the character survived. This was both confusing and frustrating. Some missions end early if a hero dies. Sometimes heroes respawn when they die (e.g. Kerrigan in the final missions). But sometimes you just have heroes die and no one says anything about it, like if Alarac dies by being Leeroy Jenkins in the final Legacy mission, which he likes to do on a regular basis. This was frustrating from a gameplay perspective, but even moreso from a narrative perspective – it makes the lives of the characters feel less meaningful.
Aside from ludonarrative inconsistencies, I was also frustrated that the Eplilogue campaign didn’t take my choices from the previous games for upgrading my stuff into account. For example, my Spear of Adun had different abilities in the first Epilogue mission – presumably because it was set up as a different “campaign”, and no one set up anything to import data from the previous “campaign”.
This one is pretty simple, and I’d like to see it patched. At a minimum, let people pick the specs they use when going into those missions – especially since they’re literally the end of the game.
The cinematics were awesome, as always. No complaints. Seriously, good stuff, Cinematics team.
I didn’t really notice the music for the most part, but there were some good tunes at times. The voice over work work was excellent as usual. Good stuff here.
I didn’t run into any major game-breaking bugs, so the QA team probably did their job. If I was still in QA, I would have reported the fact that choices don’t carry over between campaigns, but I’ll bet someone did and it got marked “Not a Bug”. That’s how things like that usually go.
I really enjoyed the experience of Legacy of the Void overall, but it had some very memorable side characters. If the game series continues in some capacity, I would like to see more player agency, more RPG-style character customization, and more effort put into making the main character someone we can really invest in.