The idea of a Starcraft MMO has been stewing in the primordial brain fluids of fans since even before World of Warcraft. Many had wondered if developer Blizzard Entertainment’s long-developed, now-defunct MMO project codenamed ‘Titan’ would be that very thing — at least until it was scrapped and smelted down to build something much more streamlined. Yet the desire for a massively multiplayer undertaking persisted in the hearts and minds of Starcraft fans the world over. It was a want that we had resigned ourselves to accept that it would never be — until now. Kind of.
Starcraft Universe: Beyond Koprulu (SCU) is the five-year result of Kickstarting, Indiegogo-ing, and a lot of hard work. With project mastermind Ryan Winzen at the helm of a growing studio of modders named Upheaval Arts, SCU takes place in an alternate timeline from Blizzard’s mainline games (so as not to interfere with the canon, I presume) and uses Starcraft II’s game engine but with loads of new art, SFX, and music. But is it the bright, shining star we all wished upon?
SCU doesn’t quite capture the Starcraft MMO I’d been imagining all these years. It doesn’t have the polish or engagement I expect from a true Blizzard game, even if it is an undoubtedly impressive effort. But I’ll admit, there is magic here. I can feel the love for that can only come from a deep, longtime adoration for the Starcraft universe in SCU, even despite its shortcomings.
It Came From Beyond the Stars
Blizzard hosts thousands of custom Starcraft maps on Battle.net. Some have even gone on to be games of their own. But SCU stands out because its scope was huge to begin with. It was proclaimed as a free-to-play Starcraft MMO from the start, with ambitious goals like multiplayer raids, PvP, guilds, vehicles, ship combat, and so much more to be implemented over time. It was even originally named World of Starcraft, which Blizzard has a copyright for and had resulted in a cease and desist of the project before it took off in 2011. Although Blizzard has a history of shutting down projects in the interest of protecting their IPs, SCU not only went through these five years later, it got Blizzard’s support as a spotlighted mod.
SCU released in early September as four separate maps — three prologue maps and a large open beta multiplayer map — that anyone who has a copy of Starcraft II can play. And so far, it seems like it’s delivering on many of its promises, which should be heartening to fans and backers of the game.
However, it’s the execution of these promises and features that I’m worried about.
To say that SCU is influenced by World of Warcraft, Blizzard’s other mega-hit, is a simple understatement. Anyone who’s played WoW will feel right at home with the skill hotbars, tab targeting, and heaps upon heaps of menus. But SCU can’t help it; in many ways WoW was the MMORPG experience distilled down into its base minerals, so SCU couldn’t help but share a lot of common ground. Even so, I found the way the game hits you with a ton of menus right from the start a little “power overwhelming,” and that’s coming from a 10-year WoW vet.
The systems work, certainly, but they feel dated. The way every skill you learn must be added to an ever-increasing hotbar menu, forcing you to practically condemn your hand to a life of carpal tunnel as you stretch to activate the full potential of your digital arsenal — that’s old-school in a way that doesn’t have the comfy glow of nostalgia about it. Still, to have all these RPG elements in an RTS engine — during my time with SCU, I was constantly reminding myself just how crazy that was. Using the WASD keys to control your character while holding down the right mouse button to pivot the camera felt smooth and natural given that your view is focused on your character, instead of free-roaming like an RTS.
Unlike WoW, you have a larger (though not by much) range of character customization options. You choose a class based on eight different more-or-less iconic units from the Starcraft games, such as the Terran Marine or the Protoss Dark Templar — then customize appearances like height and color. Further customization comes in the form of attributing points to permanent stats like critical chance and stun chance, which adds a bit more specialty to your class. As you rank up — SCU’s terminology for leveling — you buy your class’s standard skills. But don’t expect to have your full skillset at your disposal — you have a limited number of skill slots, so even if you train multiple skills at each rank up, you won’t be able to equip them all until you rank higher.
As a fan of melee classes (and due to the game’s lack of playable Zerg characters), I chose a Protoss Zealot. Equipped with a damage attack, stun, and a charge, as well as a shield regeneration ability, I longed for combat and headed on into the first prologue map. The quests in the first two prologues are linear, but they follow a pretty strict story narrative. Quests are given out by plot-important characters who sometimes accompany you into the thick of battle. Although these characters aren’t notable figures from Starcraft lore, I thought it was an effective way to feel invested in the quests they dished out. It also meant I didn’t have to spend time backtracking between zones, collecting zergling nuggets or hydralisk ballsacks. Everything I needed, save for a class trainer, was right alongside me.
While the quests for these first two maps were distributed nicely, I can’t say the same for the combat itself. My skills and abilities just didn’t seem that impactful. For example, I was overjoyed to have gotten a stun skill right away, but the applications for it were few and far between. In WoW, stuns were a premium skill, and you could use them to stop deadly spellcasters from putting debilitating effects on you. However, in SCU, there aren’t any prime targets, as the few enemy special abilities I encountered would either do too little damage to pose a major threat or would ignore the stun altogether.
The third prologue got much less elegant in terms of both pacing and combat, as it places you on a starship heading toward some plot-important destination. The quests in this prologue felt rote; the entire map was essentially one giant tutorial on maintaining the ship. Instead of feeling like a capable soldier, on the run from forces out to wipe out my people, I felt like the ship’s butler. My considerable abilities were put on the backburner so I could put out fires, use stationary guns to shoot at attackers, and run willy nilly around the ship to repel invaders who would mostly be dead by the time I got there.
The fourth and final map, the continuously updated “Beyond Koprulu,” began with the same ship maintenance sequence of extinguish, shoot, run, and repel that I’d done for nearly the entirety of the third prologue. And as I understood it, I would have to repeat this sequence every time I visited a new planet. Bored at the mere thought of that, I decided I’d seen enough.
Life, Starcraft Universe, and Everything
So after trying out the game’s opening handful of hours, I had to start asking myself the big questions:
Are its similarities to WoW to its detriment or to its advantage?
During the peak of WoW’s popularity, a whole horde of copycat MMOs sprang up, seeking to get a piece of the action. They never seemed to last long, while Blizzard’s juggernaut forged onward, growing ever larger in player numbers. These MMOs didn’t innovate enough, didn’t improve on the streamlined formula WoW had borrowed from earlier titles like Everquest and Ultima Online, and SCU seems to fit in with those. But I believe SCU simply couldn’t have existed any other way — at least, not in the terms Winzen and Blizzard agreed upon. But a more action-y RPG just wouldn’t have worked within the Starcraft II game engine. Winzen and Co. were had to work within the limitations of the game engine would allow them.
SCU offers little in the way of improvements over WoW, and picked up many hindrances due to its impressive conversion from an RTS to an RPG. For example, moving skills to the hotbar is done using a menu, instead of simply clicking and dragging them where you want them to go. Then again, there’s the overtly ambitious and entirely mandatory (as far as I could tell) ship sequences. WoW has players travel via flight paths to all the major towns in the game world; sure, you travel in real-time, but you could just stretch your arms for a few minutes or take a bathroom break and then come back ready to roll. The ship sequences in SCU are baffling to me because the game assumes I want to do them in the first place. Instead of letting me explore the tantalizing worlds just beyond my reach (which would really make this thing seem MMO-ish), I was stuck about a starship, suffering from cabin fever and making sure everyone had mints on their pillows.
I can’t lie, though — the raid encounter at the end of the second prologue lit a fire within me I thought had extinguished years ago when I had first given up WoW, that fire of the thrill of conquest and having overcome impossible odds. Like I said, there’s magic here, but it is of an ancient breed, one that can be tamed by monotony.
So the notable thing about this is, yes, you must put up with some annoyances — but that is the price to experience The Vision. Whether it resonates with you or not is up to you.
Do the skills feel meaningful in a way that will make playing with others satisfying?
Moves and abilities are what make RPG classes distinct from one another. A lack of something, the ability to take a lot of damage for example, is what encourage players to group up so they can better face the challenges ahead. So I came into SCU with the expectation that abilities would interact in interesting ways, and I came away pretty disappointed.
You’ve got your straightforward damage attacks, stuns, AoE attacks, crowd control, self-healing moves — all the standard RPG fare is here. Classes usually have some kind of specialization — Protoss Zealots specialize in tanking, while Terran Medics are great healers — but there’s a lot of overlap. All classes have some kind of minor heal, which makes a bit of sense if the developer figured most people would be playing solo. But even on my own I didn’t find the skills interesting. Instead, the skills just feel like icons to put on your hotbar that you can occasionally press to make things happen. I could find few reasons to not just start plinking around on my piano.
And now the biggest question of all…
Do I feel like I’m on the verge of a great game?
At the end of the day, all I really have to ask myself is “am I having fun?” Never mind how I find it impressive that SCU was built in an RTS engine, or how it is the closest realization to a pipe dream we Starcraft fans have had for years and are ever likely to receive. If the answer to this question is no, then do I foresee a future where its potential will be more fully realized? Will it come to life once you add entire raid groups of twenty-five, even forty people to it like the vanilla WoW days of yore? What will it take for this game to be fun?
Asking offers up more questions than answers, and I think that speaks to my complicated feelings on it. I don’t want to give it a free pass just because it’s fan-made, but at the same time I don’t see myself wanting to play more. Then again, if you can’t go lenient on fans — of whom I am one with, my own flesh and blood! — then that just feels heartless to me. Because this game’s got a lot of heart. It’s a labor of love, built for fans, by fans, and it didn’t cost me a damn thing. I’m grateful it exists and that one of us had the gall to make this damn thing since Blizzard wasn’t going to do it for us.
But is this a Starcraft MMO? More of a third-person RPG, as you can only play with four others. It’s epic in scope, if a bit lacking in execution, yet it is aiming to do what WoW did for Warcraft III — that is, presenting the world, characters, and story approach of the previous games in a brand new way. The problem is that SCU is doing so over a decade too late. As such, the feel of the world is right, but the gameplay itself just feels tiresome.
I learned something very useful from all this. Although SCU is very derivative of WoW, it shows that maybe a developer may know when it is in danger of retreading too much ground and not innovating enough. Blizzard’s “Titan,” or a project like a proposed “World of Starcraft,” is just the kind of thing best left to the fans.
I wish the very best for Winzen and Upheaval Arts, and I hope their work will lead to some fantastic opportunities in the future. Until then, if I ever hear people pining for a Starcraft MMO, I’ll tell them about Starcraft Universe.