This is not a piece about Starcraft II reviews. I want to make that very clear; but I do take issue with calling the authors of these reviews “critics,” and Starcraft II is merely the latest title to bring this inappropriate verbiage to light.
To wit, the headline of the GameSpy article was “Critics Praise it, But a Number of Players Have Some Big Complaints About StarCraft II.” The video game media uses the words “critic” and “reviewer” interchangeably, as though they are synonymous. Most of the current reviews of Starcraft II have absolutely nothing to do with criticism.
Critics are concerned with evaluation based on a formal set of criteria, what we call “critical language.” The best, formal criticism seeks to have some modicum of objectivity by basing its content in the acknowledged critical language of whatever art form or field of study that it’s talking about. When a film critic does their job, they will refer back to film theory and established technique and the body of critical language that’s been developed for decades.
This is not to say that critics are entirely unbiased. I had a professor in school who was the acknowledged expert on the film maker John Cassavetes, and said professor was as much a fanboy as any participant of console flame wars – but he was able to defend his fandom using legitimate film and cultural theory. In this, praising Starcraft II isn’t unreasonable from a critical perspective, as long as the critic maintains credibility by also seriously acknowledging where the game might have honest weaknesses from a critical perspective.
Reviewers, on the other hand, tell a story of how they felt when they experienced something. “I liked this movie because,” or “I hated this movie because.” As Jim Sterling recently opined, there’s no such thing as an objective review. It’s all based upon personal bias…and it’s ultimately what makes a review pretty worthless to anyone other than the reader who already agrees with the sensibilities of the reviewer.
Criticism of video games is tough because we have no formal, critical language to conduct that discourse with. If you ever wonder why so much of the writing about video games is of such poor quality, you can lay a lot of that on this doorstep. We can apply some concepts from film criticism now that story is taking such a huge role in video games. If Mass Effect 2 didn’t make us feel a sense of connection with our crew members, we as players wouldn’t give a damn whether any of those crew members died or not during the suicide mission, and all of those tense moments at the end of the game would have been lost. We can discuss, from a critical perspective, the narrative techniques Mass Effect 2 used to make us connect with those characters.
We could probably cobble together a critical language of video games if we needed to. I hold that said language already exists through the collective experience of the O.G.s (original gamers) who have been at this since the Golden Age of the Arcade, the Amiga and Commodore 64, and the Atari 2600. The elder members of the gaming culture have been playing video games long enough such that, if they sit down and think about it, they can figure out what makes a good game or not, and judge other games by that jury-rigged theory. When it comes to looking at video games within a specific genre, a critical analysis becomes even more tenable – and if we look at Starcraft II in a critical manner, it’s not going to present the same picture that a review would.
The Starcraft II single-player campaign is very interesting. The attention to detail and graphics are top-notch, and the storytelling and RPG elements are appreciated additions. I’m logging my time spent with the campaign to validate just how much gaming I wring out of the title, and I’m already secure in my feeling that I’m going to get as much or more from the single player game as I do from most campaigns for console releases. The $60 price tag no longer bothers me.
The multiplayer game, however, seems devoid of any innovation short of what a third expansion to the original Starcraft would have brought, i.e. new units. I don’t follow the competitive South Korean leagues, but I’ve watched short documentaries, and Starcraft seems made into a completely different animal by the Koreans. Perhaps they utilize some real tactical acumen when it comes to the actual use of their armies, but what I experienced of online Starcraft play was that micro-intensive gameplay and rushing won the day.
Real Time Strategy games have evolved greatly in the 12 years since Starcraft and Brood War. In Company of Heroes, control of territory determines the resources one has to build and improve troops. Cover and positioning are immensely important. The real work is in the movement of one’s forces and their tactical positioning. This is real time strategy that concerns itself with combat, not base management. Dawn of War II has done away with resource management almost entirely. Strategic points are needed to call down reinforcements, and to gain logistical advantages like turret deployments, but if the game has micromanagement it is tactical in nature. Use of cover and unit interdependency are the name of the game.
In both of these titles, we see an evolution towards a grand strategy that increasingly focuses upon the actual use of military forces. RTS gameplay has moved from logistics and resource production and morphed more into a true tactical exercise. The new RTS title R.U.S.E. seems to continue the movement in this direction, taking things a step further in adding new levels of strategic subtlety based on potential threat of force rather than actual confrontation.
Along comes Starcraft II…and the gameplay hasn’t changed one meaningful whit from its predecessor. It is still micro-intensive gameplay where rushing wins the day. It no longer quite fits in with the other titles we dub “Real Time Strategy games.” If we were talking about first person shooter titles, Company of Heroes and Dawn of War II would be normal, and Starcraft II would be “on rails.” From the videogamer.com review: “Multiplayer is a fast affair, epitomising the virtues of the rush and solid micromanagement.” A critical analysis of Starcraft II would not gloss over this. It would not call the game “thoroughly modern.”
To a point, Blizzard has dug themselves into the same hole that the Halo franchise has dug itself into. Halo represents a distinctly old style of first person shooter gameplay. It has fallen behind the times, and if the Beta is any indication, Halo:Reach is only making grudging steps forward into the modern FPS world. Halo is too popular a franchise to change, and so all the Halo titles blend together in terms of their gameplay. Starcraft is also too popular to change, and while the sequel may sell 10 million copies, it’s still a dinosaur, and any critical analysis must acknowledge this.
To be fair, Blizzard was in a lose/lose proposition. If they had taken some risks and shown some innovation which carried over into the multiplayer, the game would no longer have been Starcraft II in the eyes of devotees, but some other game entirely. Because they did not take any risks the game is effectively Starcraft 1.5 as soon as the campaign is over.
I have no problem with the reviews of Starcraft II other than those which are awarding perfect scores. Even if a review and a critical analysis are separate entities, I feel a reviewer should exercise some modicum of perspective and historical foresight in declaring what constitutes a “perfect” score. In some ways, this just shows the weakness of a 5-point scale, in that it’s much easier to hand out a 5/5 rather than a 10 or a 100. My problem is when we call these reviews “criticism” by labeling the authors “critics.”
The ultimate purpose of a review is not to make us think about game design, but rather to inspire or dissuade our purchase of the product being reviewed. That’s the reality of mainstream video game writing, and I call no foul on account of economic necessity…but I long for the day when video games have grown up enough where we DO have proper critics who can start calling spades, spades. Then I can read the reviews to decide whether I want to look into buying the game or not, and then slide over to the criticism to read the interesting stuff.