moby-dick-(or-the-whale)-68
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BLIZZARD GLORY

23 May 2007

The obvious topic for me to talk about here is Starcraft 2: Blizzard's recently announced sequel to arguably one of the finest games ever made. The temptation is here to explode into a raving jubilation of the many qualities of the 1998 realtime strategy classic; about how it perfectly tied a sweeping narrative with fascinating characters into an extraordinarily balanced game that provided at the same time enormous leaps forward in the genre with innovations such as completely differing races (where previous RTS games had always employed the 'same mechanics different graphics' technique) and the craftsmanship we have come to expect from the architects at Blizzard. Since this is information that is widely expressed already in the nigh-decade we've been playing this game, I shan't divulge it again, pleasant though it would be. Pleasant, and unnecessary.

Instead, I'm going to take a more critical stance. The following is something you might not have heard too often and would certainly not expect from someone who is known for being a staunch Blizzard man ever since Warcraft 2. I would like to talk here about my opinion that there hasn't really been a Blizzard game since the first Starcraft that was flawless. This heresy would cost me my head if it wasn't for the internet providing the chanting masses no immediate way of physically interacting with me, but let me walk you through a timeline and explain to you the sometimes very personal, and sometimes not so, reasons for this bold statement. In short: a timeline of events AS (Anno Starcrafti).

Starcraft, 1998: Perfection. The best realtime strategy game ever made; but also one of the most complete games, fulfilling both ludologically and narratively.

Diablo 2, 2000: Having had a tremendous passion for Diablo, I anxiously awaited the sequel in the year 2000. And whilst in the odd five years after that I played through the game innumerable times in single- and multiplayer, it never did manage to reach the heights of its unfortunately aged predecessor. The environments were too bland, open and uninspired for it. The gameplay was very fun and addictive, but something of the monochrome, dark magic was lost in the translation to an epic and colourful second instalment. This wasn't horror anymore, but fantasy pulp. That's great too, but for some reason the atmosphere was lacking. I'm secretly hoping that the third Diablo game, which stands a high chance of being announced later this year, perhaps at Blizzcon, will herald a return to the uncompromisingly dark roots of the series.

Warcraft 3, 2002: The same story applies to the long-awaited return of Warcraft. It's in every respect a fantastic game, but the atmosphere was less intense and charming than its 2D ancestors. Two guilty parties can be tried: one was the music, which had a generic fantasy quality to it where Warcraft 2 got much of its identity from the claustrophobic, intense MIDI music that sweated and grinded with feverish orcs and demons. The bigger culprit was the 3D graphics however. By no means bad or badly designed, they nevertheless lacked the natural charm of handdrawn sprites. I don't know yet if this is simply impossible to achieve in 3D or if it was merely the engine's limitations that caused the problem, but I did feel heavily that Warcraft 3 lacked the technical sophistication to really absorb me. I always kept seeing textured polygonal shapes mashed into each other instead of characters and that just killed the suspension of disbelief. I know a return to 2D is unfortunately out of the question as 3D simply brings too many other advantages such as flexibility, but I hope the charm will eventually return. Again, I want to reassure you that Warcraft 3 is a great game. It's just that it didn't enthral me as much as the classics.

World of Warcraft, 2004: Ahhh, World of Warcraft. If ever there was a game that spelled love-hate it is Blizzard's painful masterpiece. It is, indubitably, the best MMORPG out there. But therein lays also its stumbling block: it's an MMORPG. And MMORPG's are inherently flawed as I have explained many times already in great detail all over the interweb. You see, what's the one thing that you desperately want in a game that you play with the rest of the world? To stand apart and be noticeably different. And what's the one thing you can't do in these games, by sheer design necessity? Exactly that. You can only become a cookie-cutter, generic avatar that looks like all the others and neither can you have any real effect on the game, and if you can, others can do it as well. Of course, there's then the fun of playing that still stands proudly, and the design of a beautiful world, and World of Warcraft delivers tremendously in those. But in the end, it's all so very futile. There is no game that doesn't become boring after playing it non-stop for months. And for a game with no end, that's just cruel.

So here you have my coloured report of the games that arrived after Starcraft, and you see none of them reach the vertigo-inducing heights of that classic title. They all fall short somewhere, though they're all very good games. And that is why I'm hoping fiercely that Starcraft 2 manages to excel again. It runs many a danger: its 3D engine might cause another charm-drain and we must acknowledge the possibility that Blizzard have lost their magic touch. But I'm optimistic. In fact, I'm not even worrying. You need only look at the released material and the information we've been fed so far. Starcraft 2 will be very true to the original. Designs and mechanics have survived and are being added to. The screenshots show bold use of 3D, which seems to have achieved the sophistication that Warcraft 3 lacked, and in any case befits a science-fiction universe better. If anything, I think Starcraft 2 will blow our minds and turn out to have taken the comfortable, gritty universe we know and love and put it on steroids. There won't be any RPG elements tucked in either; it'll be hardcore, pure RTS. In short, I'm going to join the millions of Koreans in joyful anticipation of what I expect and hope to be a return to form of Blizzard glory. Hell, it's about time.

Roderick.