It was one of the most heartbreaking experiences. After investing years mucking around on the Aus-1 server for Brood War and years grinding my way up the South East Asian, Korean and North American ladders in Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm killed StarCraft 2 for me.
I simply couldn't play. The physical stress was already a substantial burden. But it was more than that. The game had ceased to be fun. The campaign was less of a joyride too. And the many problems that existed with Wings of Liberty were still present.
But Legacy of the Void has corrected many of those. I'm enjoying myself again. I'm looking forward to matches again, and I'm not the only one.
Legacy of the Void's campaign has proven to be the most enjoyable of the series
"Does anyone want to play Archon?"
It's a message I've been seeing on a regular basis in a Skype channel I've been a part of for the last five or so years. It's a channel for the largest StarCraft clan in Australia, Terror Australis, one that I've been part of for a number of years. (I'm not listed on the official Liquidpedia page, which is brilliant because then my terrible inhouse record will never be known to the general public.)
At the height of Wings of Liberty, there was around 30 or 40 members who might be active on a various basis. There was enough that we could have inhouse leagues of our own with various divisions. If you wanted people to practice with, mine builds off, discuss strategies, there was plenty. And there was plenty of Grandmaster and Master-league level players too, not just on the South East Asian server but in North America.
Most of us quit when Heart of the Swarm came out. It wasn't all for the same reason, but we shared the same level of apathy. The game wasn't interesting. It was stale. It was mechanically unpleasant. It was too much.
But people are starting to return to the fold. We'll never regain our competitive spirit. The in-house leagues will probably never kick off again. But that's not an issue, because we've discovered other modes to occupy our time.
The co-op mode, while appearing simplistic, has proven to be supremely effective for old-timers
Take Allied Commanders. It's a fairly straightforward addition to an RTS game; it's the kind of thing that, upon reflection, should have been in the trilogy from the beginning. One of the most engaging aspects of the Dawn of War 2 series, after all, is the ability to play through the campaign in co-op.
Legacy of the Void's co-op mode isn't quite as thorough, although it feels a little the same. A lot of the best missions are ones pulled directly from Wings of Liberty. The co-operative experience makes the Heart of the Swarm missions more enjoyable than they were the first time around.
It's also the best way to get back into the game, currently, if you haven't played in a couple of years — as has been the case for many of my friends. One quipped earlier this week that, according to his match history, he hadn't played a ranked ladder game for almost three years. This was someone who, during the beta, was the kind of player so good that he'd be invited to exhibition matches against some of the top North Americans.
Heart of the Swarm convinced him to throw it away altogether. But now, he's back playing ladder matches, working his way through the Platinum leagues and trying out various builds and shenanigans against unsuspecting opponents. It's a far cry from the heady days of Grandmaster games against MLG winners — but it's fun, something StarCraft hasn't been for a long time.
The range of viable openings has broadened significantly, although Protoss are still largely dependent on the Robotics Facility
A large element to that is the increased variety. The range of viable options for races is now much, much greater than it ever was before. Variety was an immense problem with Wings of Liberty: the initial map pool was awful and forced players into a limited range of openings, if only to avoid the inevitable range of frustrating early game cheeses.
Zerg and Terran, in particular, have a much greater range of army compositions that they can build around. Professional players can flex their creative muscle without having to gamble quite as much, and the dynamic makes it a more engaging game to watch too.
From the perspective of someone returning to the game, it's both good and bad. There's a much greater range of things that you can encounter over the course of a few hours on the ranked ladder, but there's also more room for discovery. It's not an awful idea to vary your army composition, for instance, to include a wider mix of units.
I remember a meta where it was largely all marines, marauders and medivacs fighting against zerglings, banelings and infestors. Or Protoss vs Protoss matches that permanently descended into who could get the most number of Colossi first without screwing up the engagement. Matches where Zerg spent their time stockpiling larvae so they could rebuild 100 or more supply of roaches as soon as a fight began.
Games are far less one-dimensional now. The range of things you can get away with is almost chaotic, in fairness, as was inadvertently shown by Australian professional Jared "PiG" Krensel earlier this week when he found a way to make a five hatchery build work against a fellow Grandmaster player.
The capacity for troll builds has never been greater
I remember something similar happening in Wings of Liberty when players would float off their Terran bases to the gold minerals and pump out an absurd amount of marines before their base was discovered. It was a crazy gamble. But the fact that it could work at all made matches — at least on that particular map — exciting. It was the little bit of X-factor that kept you playing through the rest of the grind.
And that's perhaps the greatest improvement: the game doesn't feel like a grind. Sure, there are plenty of issues. The problem that Blizzard created for themselves when they introduced Warp Gate technology still hasn't been resolved. Protoss units still aren't strong enough to stand on their own two feet on the raw numbers, so Blizzard has had to balance that by introducing a range of gimmicks and quirks to make things viable.
It shows through in the Adept's weird phasing mechanic, or the way the Mothership was re-purposed into a floating core that now just wanders around your base turning Pylons into gigantic Photon Cannons. It's patently absurd, but it's what they needed to do to make the game work. It'd be better if the Protoss gateway units were more viable staples from the off — Stalkers with the Blink ability are perhaps the closest Protoss has — but then pairing that with the ability to warp in anywhere would be utterly and completely broken.
So you have this odd Protoss composition of units that are cannon fodder mixed with other units that are way stronger than they should be. It's silly. It works, in a hotchpotch kind of way, but it's still silly. But without redesigning the race from the ground up, it's something that will never change.
Colossi have been a necessary staple of the Protoss race since Wings of Liberty, but they've never been as exciting or intriguing as the Reaver
That's a long-term concern, however, and the absurdity of entire matches hinging on a missed forcefield or an error with a Disruptor isn't a front-of-mind problem when you're too busy rediscovering how all the pieces fit together again.
And that process is, for the first time in years, thrilling. It's exciting in a way that StarCraft always should have been, but wasn't. It's engaging in a way that people have been convinced to come back to Aiur and battle it out, despite all the problems that still persist.
I thought I was done with StarCraft. And so did many of my friends, who grew up with the game and stayed with Brood War, holding viewing parties for OSL finals and Starleague matches years after everyone had moved onto something else. I still can't play more than two or three ladder matches at a stretch. But the fact that I'm excited to play at all: that's been a wonderful surprise.