What a difference a few years makes. Only three years ago it seemed as if Blizzard was resting all its hopes for the future on StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm’s chitinous shoulders. At Blizzcon 2011, some of the company’s top brass took the stage to present their vision for a game they hoped would be the poster child for the burgeoning eSports phenomenon.
Back then, the singleplayer panel was chaired by Chris Metzen, head of story and franchise development, and Blizzard’s company cheerleader. Dustin Browder, StarCraft II’s game director, enthusiastically chaired the multiplayer panel.
In 2014, Metzen was conspicuously absent from StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void’s singleplayer panel. He was busy elsewhere championing the new guard at Blizzard. Dustin Browder bustled onstage to rattle off the names of the developers on the the multiplayer panel, but he hastily jogged off, presumably to return to his new paramour, Heroes of the Storm, as soon as possible.
It’s weird. Left to take our cues from some of the biggest names at Blizzard, we might be forgiven for assuming that StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is a lame duck, a game developed out of a sense of obligation rather than opportunity. But in fact, Legacy of the Void just might be quietly bristling with more clever ideas than the full array of the Golden Armada.
The singleplayer campaign in Legacy of the Void is the final act in a space opera 16 years in the making. You are Heirarch Artanis, leader the ancient Protoss race.
As the game opens, you’re preparing to retake your Zerg-infested homeworld, Aiur, when the godlike Amon appears at the head of an army of hybrids bent on wiping the galaxy clean. The campaign will see the Protoss give up almost everything they hold dear in order to preserve their civilisation and defeat Amon.
Legacy of the Void iterates on the gameplay formula established in Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm, and plays with the series’ conventions to create unique scenarios. For example, a level called Unleashed requires players to move their entire base on a grid to new, but rapidly depleting mineral lines and vespene geysers.
Players will also be able to control the mother of all Motherships, The Spear of Adun. By completing secondary mission objectives, players will be able to charge the Spear’s weapon systems. Once primed, players will be able to launch different kinds of orbital strikes on their enemies.
A number of improvements will affect both the singleplayer and multiplayer aspects of Legacy of the Void. The game introduces new weather effects such as light cloud cover, and new terrain texture technology that allows the game to render them much more realistically.
Tweaking the formula
Of course the most interesting changes are all to multiplayer balance. Overall, the multiplayer balance team has worked to reduce passivity, and to increase harassment options and incentives to go on the offense. They've also sought to increase micromanagement opportunities for both attackers and defenders. The goal is to make the game more skillful, and therefore more interesting to watch.
This philosophy has carried over to the game’s economy as well. Mineral fields and vespene geysers will now deplete much faster. Players will need to expand their bases much sooner and much more aggressively. As a result, expect to see more early harassment.
To move things along even faster, starting workers have been increased from six to 12, and to compensate, the supply granted by Command Centers, Nexuses, and Hatcheries has been increased. Unsurprisingly, many of the changes to existing units, and many of the new units in the game are designed to increase aggression and provide some useful alternate opening strategies.
Fittingly, one of the biggest changes is to the Protoss. The ability to warp units around the map has been revisited. Now, Protoss units will take longer to warp in, and will temporarily take an additional 200 percent damage after doing so. Choosing when and where to warp Protoss units is now much more fraught.
Similarly, the Zerg Nydus Worm has been buffed to make it much more effective. The worm’s head cannot be attacked before it has finished unburrowing and is ready to deploy units. It will therefore take more units to effectively counter the worm, and it provides Zerg players with a new late-game option when faced with a heavily fortified enemy bases.
The Terrans have been provided with more ways to harass and agitate opponents. Siege Tanks can now be picked up and moved by Medivacs, a change that is sure to cause all sorts of headaches.
Terran players will have access to two new units, the Herc and the Cyclone. The Herc is a Barracks unit that has a grapple ability which allows it to move quickly towards its intended target. It has been specifically designed to counter mass zergling and baneling strategies in Terran versus Zerg match-ups.
The Terran Cyclone is a Factory unit with a Lock-On ability that allows it to move and fire at the same time. It’s designed to counter some early harassment techniques, especially drops.
Brood War’s Zerg Lurker is back. It has been reintroduced to to force Protoss players to micromanage their armies better, and to counter mass Roach strategies in Zerg vs Zerg match-ups.
On Roaches, they now have a new morph called Ravager. The Ravager has a corrosive bile attack that can break down force fields, and is designed to be effective against stationary units. This should also make it a very effective unit against the Lurker, so no doubt more balance testing is necessary.
The Protoss get just one new unit, called the Disruptor. It has a single ability, Purification Nova, which gives it a temporary movement speed increase and allows it to move through other units. After four seconds, the Disruptor discharges a blast of area effect damage. In its normal state, the Disruptor is very fragile, meaning players on both sides will need to micromanage effectively if they want to maximise or mitigate the unit’s effectiveness.
(For a comprehensive list of changes to existing units and for more details on new units, visit Battle.net.)
For keen multiplayer gamers, new Automated Tournaments over Battle.net are likely to be a welcome addition. These are designed to be played over a single day, and will allow participants to do things that they can’t in the regular ladder such as vetoing maps and preparing strategies for their next opponent. For now the goal is to keep tournaments to three to four hours.
Finally, Legacy of the Void will introduce two new gameplay modes. Archon Mode will allow two players to control the same side. It’s designed to be both a learning tool and a way for players of different skill levels to play together. For example, one player might control production and economy while the other micromanages units in the field. Of all the ideas Blizzard has so far trialed for lowering the entry ramp to competitive play, this could just be the best.
Allied Commander mode is a cooperative mode in which each player will control a hero character and set out to complete a series of objectives. As they do so, they’ll unlock new units and abilities in an open-ended progression system versus the AI. The mode wasn’t shown at Blizzcon, but from Blizzard’s description alone it sounds something like the missing link in the evolutionary chain from real-time strategy to multiplayer online battle arena.
Legacy of the Void’s relatively low profile at Blizzcon was not at all indicative of the quality of thinking that has gone into its early design. There’s a long road to launch, but it’s already very clear the heroes of the Korpulu sector don’t intend to go down without a fight.
You can sign up for the Legacy of the Void beta here.
◆ James Cullinane travelled to BlizzCon courtesy of Blizzard Entertainment.