In 1998, the original StarCraft struck the real-time strategy gaming landscape like an asteroid, and its impact changed the genre forever. When the sequel was announced a decade later, countless fans became filled with anticipation for a follow-up to a perfect PC game and full-on sport in some parts of the world.
But the market has changed between the 2010 launch of Wings of Liberty ($17.99 at Amazon) (the opening chapter of the StarCraft II trilogy) and now. MOBA games like Dota 2 and League of Legend have sucked all of the oxygen, and money, from the traditional RTS genre while fully legitimatizing the idea of eSports. Where does that future leave a storied institution like StarCraft II?
After playing hours and hours of Legacy of the Void, the third and final StarCraft II expansion, I’m pleased to say that this $39.99 PC game is both a fantastic conclusion to Blizzard’s five-year saga and a great entry point into one of the most complex, but satisfying, strategy games ever. It’s a towering achievement and an Editors’ Choice.
Good Luck, Have Fun
In a nutshell, StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is a sci-fi real-time strategy game in which you build structures and gather resources to build an army and defeat your opponent through cunning tactics and sheer firepower. Unlike the previous StarCraft II expansion, Legacy of the Void doesn’t require you to buy any previous versions of the game to play this package. It’s completely standalone. That said, if you do own the other two episodes, the Battle.net launcher compiles them into a single interface so you to easily hop among missions for the humanoid Terrans, insectoid/reptilian Zerg, and regal alien Protoss. I’ll talk about multiplayer in a later section, since that might as well be its own game, but seeing all three races in the single-player menu made me feel as though I was playing a complete StarCraft game for the first time since the original.
Even on its own, Legacy of the Void is a complete product. While the campaign only focuses on the Protoss race, it still takes several sittings to finish, depending on the strength of your strategies or fondness for cheat codes. Like in the second episode, there aren’t quite as many missions here than in the first third of StarCraft II, but this expansion also doesn’t cost as much as that initial $60 release.
Legacy of the Void wraps up the entire StarCraft narrative through the eyes of the Protoss, the majestic aliens somewhere between space Egyptians and religious Predators. The ancient eldritch evil hinted all the way back in the original StarCraft: Brood War expansion has finally emerged and shackled the proud race to his twisted psychic will. You control a small force of free Protoss as they deal with surprising thorny Protoss politics and put together a coalition strong enough to save the universe from annihilation. Along the way, you’ll get closure for characters like rebel Terran cowboy Jim Raynor and his tragic love interest Sarah Kerrigan, aka the fearsome Zerg Queen of Blades (voiced by Battlestar Galactica’s Tricia Helfer).
The story is lovably dopey space fantasy, and as a long-time Protoss player I enjoyed delving deeper into the lore and interpersonal relationships of my preferred playable faction. Even the softening of Kerrigan, the Darth Vader of the series, feels earned. It helps too that Blizzard’s CGI gorgeous cutscenes are unrivaled. The in-game visuals also look quite shiny and chrome on my HP Envy 17 with an Nvidia GeForce GTX 850M graphics card at Ultra settings.
My Life for Aiur
StarCraft II’s real-time strategy mechanics are so pure, flawless, and time-tested that even a bare bones match between a human and an A.I. can lead to some of the most tense, thrilling, and intellectually stimulating gameplay I’ve ever experienced. Nothing beats spying on the enemy base and whipping up the ideal units to counteract their forces or miscalculating and making a daring retreat. But campaign missions go out of their way to deliver a variety of scenarios. Some levels involve building up a standard base and fighting force to wipe out the enemy army. Others just give you one or two powerful hero characters to control with a set of specialized abilities like teleportation or energy beams. Mission diversity, combined with the digestible length of most skirmishes, keeps Legacy of the Void innovative and not as intimidatingly dense and time-consuming as similarly complex strategy games such as Civilization and Command & Conquer.
As in previous StarCraft II expansions, players can customize their army in between campaign missions. As you convince new Protoss tribes to join your cause, you’ll incorporate new units into your army. The game uses this conceit to explain the functions of elaborate late-game units, such as the imposing Colossus robotic walker or cloaked Dark Templar assassin. But later on you also get to choose between different campaign-exclusive variations of core units. I was a fan of how the warlike Tal’darim tribe modified the familiar Void Ray starships, and I nearly fell out of my chair when the Dragoon, a classic original StarCraft projectile unit, finally reappeared after a 15-year absence.
To give yourself an even bigger boost during battle, you can upgrade your flagship, the Spear of Adun. Most missions feature optional side objectives that reward you with Solarite. Using this resource, you can give your ship new abilities like firing giant lasers from space at targets below, instantly warping in reinforcements, or building refineries that harvest useful Vespene gas automatically without requiring you to build worker probes. The meta-strategic elements give the campaign a great, distinct flavor compared to the multiplayer mode. Overall, the single-player experience is fulfilling and well-crafted enough that even players too scared or apathetic to touch multiplayer will still walk away more than content. What MOBA can say that? Blizzard also plans on releasing additional, smaller StarCraft II episodes. A mini-campaign starring Nova, hero of the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost, is slated for next summer.
The Beautiful Game
StarCraft’s multiplayer has been strong enough to support a professional gaming scene since the dawn of the millennium. So it makes sense that on the surface Legacy of the Void provides more of the same immaculate balance between the rugged, adaptable Terran military, gross, expendable, and always-growing Zerg swarm, and methodical, spiritual Protoss army. But while in some ways StarCraft’s multiplayer is an unblemished diamond, it’s also a changing, living organism. And Legacy of the Void offers some intriguing evolutions.
I’m far from a master StarCraft player, but even I could notice the tweaks to the overall game speed. Armies now start off with twice as many workers and fewer resources. This allows you to build bigger armies quicker, but also forces you to expand your base sooner or you’ll be at an economic disadvantage. Epic clashes and sprawling empires are some of the most exciting aspects of StarCraft matches, so it’s cool that they now happen much earlier. This also frees up players to concentrate more on nimble micromanagement, like harassing stray enemies with spells or capitalizing on holes in a vulnerable base’s defenses.
Stubborn players may take a while to warm up to this recalibrated pace, but I found it refreshing. It’s like fast-forwarding to the good parts. I didn’t have to worry nearly as much about correctly performing the standard, boring opening moves like amassing enough workers or choking off my ramp with buildings like Gateways and Photon Cannons at the right time. I could try more creative tactics a lot faster. And even if these changes are rejected by the community, Blizzard will just continue to make tweaks like it has in the past. This game isn’t going anywhere.
The only unit that’s been cut is the Terran HERC, which made a brief appearance during the beta. Six new units have been added. The Protoss gain the ranged Adept warrior and tricky Disruptor robot. Terrans can use fast Cyclone assault drones and multifunction Liberator flying siege tanks. And Zerg Hydralisks and Roaches now evolve into stealthy Lurkers and corrosive Ravagers, respectively. These new units allow for more strategies to emerge while not making the already elaborate system of matchups incomprehensible.
StarCraft’s multiplayer skill ceiling is almost infinite, and it has therefore developed a reputation for being too difficult for new players to get into. I’ve never really bought that idea, since I still enjoyed the game as a barely literate eight-year-old who was somehow going to LAN parties, but the criticism isn’t entirely unfair. MOBAs, a genre that owes its entire existence to hacked together StarCraft and WarCraft mods, face a similar problem. Impatient pro players aren’t particularly welcoming either. Thankfully, Legacy of the Void’s handful of new multiplayer modes seems specifically designed to address this issue of impenetrability, and they succeed.
In addition to the main campaign, you can team up with strangers and friends online to tackle co-op missions. These levels feature straightforward tasks like destroying powerful enemy bosses, surviving for a certain period of time, or collecting special resources. They provide the enjoyment of interacting with another human being without the stress of a competitive match. You pick a hero for each mission, like Kerrigan or Raynor, with their own set of units to command. As you complete more missions, you’ll earn experience for your chosen hero and unlock new powers and perks, similar to how progression works in the campaign. This a better use of MOBA ideas than the second expansion’s handful of Dota-style missions. There are also no microtransactions, presumably because Blizzard has already made enough Hearthstone ($0.00 at Amazon) money. My only complaint is that this is really just a side mode. If it included some more missions to choose from with more interesting objectives, co-op mode could easily support a whole campaign.
The new Archon Mode is far more peculiar. In StarCraft fiction, Archons are a potent Protoss unit made when players merge two High Templar units. In Archon mode, two players merge into one consciousness and take command of the same base. This is different than a simple 2v2 match in which each player is ultimately the only person supervising his or her own base. In Archon Mode, the conjoined players share resources and control of the same units. StarCraft veterans will be amused by this new method of pooling knowledge, but for newcomers this mode is a secret godsend.
A master could teach an apprentice the ropes while still being comfortably in charge. Instead of having to worry about all the complicated systems at once, one person could focus on micromanagement while the other keeps their eyes on the big macro picture. Stressing over not being good enough, following the wrong tech tree or having a low APM (actions per minute), is the most discouraging part of playing StarCraft. Tutorials try their hardest to explain basic and intermediate techniques, but high-level theory can only be understood through practice. No one just knows that blink Stalkers counter Carriers or what MMM (Marine Marauder Medivac) stands for right off the bat. Archon Mode is a brilliant solution for allowing players to naturally spread that crucial information in a relatively safe space.
Even with all these fancy new modes, Blizzard hasn’t forgotten the old favorites. You can compete in ranked and unranked battles, as well as regularly scheduled tournaments, as an individual or in a team as big as four players. Leaderboards reset over time, so if you’re occasionally off your game you won’t be stuck in Bronze League forever. And if you feel like goofing off, you can create ridiculous matches with just your friends and A.I. opponents or browse the treasure trove of user-created maps and modes in the Arcade section.
Hell, It’s About Time
I adore StarCraft. When I wasn’t playing it for this review I was watching professional matches and reading fan forums. Everything from the sounds to the artwork to the specific way it makes my eyes bloodshot from staring too long feels like riding a bicycle every time I revisit this game. From playing the original as a child, to falling in love with the first episode of the sequel the summer before starting college, to wrapping up the saga as a professional video game critic, StarCraft is one of the most meaningful game franchises in my life.
So I would be the first to tell you if Legacy of the Void failed to stick the landing. I wouldn’t forgive something as blasphemous as a mediocre StarCraft game, especially since shifting tastes in strategy games sadly means we probably won’t get an RTS as classical as this for some time. But that’s not the case. StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is an exciting and enjoyably robust single-player real-time strategy game, an astonishingly approachable introduction to one of the most bewildering competitive games around, and a cathartic final piece of one of the greatest game of all time. It’s the easiest Editors’ Choice for a game I’ve ever given, and you owe it to yourself to play it.
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StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void (for PC)
Brilliant real-time strategy gameplay is perfectly balanced and infinitely complex.
Varied single-player campaign.
Doesn’t require previous expansions.
Co-op modes ease in new players.
The Bottom Line
StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is both a fantastic conclusion to Blizzard’s five-year saga and a great entry point into one of the most complex, but satisfying, strategy games ever. It’s a towering achievement.