StarCraft 2's new prologue missions are another slice of gimmicky delight
Legacy of the Void Rays.
The Protoss replace the Zerg as the focus of StarCraft 2's final expansion, Legacy of the Void, and if you're as careless and lazy a StarCraft player as I am in single-player, that means you're going to have to unlearn some very questionable behaviour. I played through most of Heart of the Swarm's campaign leaning on F2 rather heavily: I'd mass my slithering, rupturing, chittering horrors, and then I'd fling them directly at the next objective marker as one. It's a stupid, wasteful approach, and it only really worked on the lower difficulty settings, but it was fun and it felt appropriate. The Zerg are rabid, frenzied, drooling monsters. At least they were when I was in charge.
The Protoss are very different: austere and spindly, beneath the golden armour they feel delicate as much as they feel powerful, taut filaments and crystalline structures waiting to snap and shatter. Playing through Whispers of Oblivion, the three prologue chapters that are available now if you pre-order Legacy, they've taken a bit of getting used to. Units and structures warp in rather than being birthed in a gooey pit, and there are pylons and their attendant supply structure to worry about even before your jewelled walkers totter off into battle.
What hasn't changed is Blizzard's approach to single-player RTS design, which could best be described as all gimmick, all the time. I don't mean that in a bad way, as the gimmicks are often brilliant, and the missions here, which follow Zeratul, a heretic seeking to end a galactic disaster before it has fully taken shape, showcase some brilliant ideas that keep things exciting.
The first mission, for example, is set on a sort of asteroid field prison, and while the main objective is simplicity itself - scour the map to break captured Protoss out of their cells - you're kept on your toes by the machinations of the two other races. The Terrans mount mech-based defences as you cart your groups of Zealots and Stalkers around, and will attack your base whenever you get too focused on a single offensive huddle. The Zerg, meanwhile, pursue their own agendas as ever, giving a rhythm to the map by building up forces and then leading them to a distant target, a tsunami of wibbling alien protein that you'd do well to stay away from. It fundamentally changes the tempo of your advance, and I'm of a mind to say it's a trick picked up from Heroes of the Storm. It would make the basis of a great Heroes map, anyway.
The second mission's equally inventive, as you lead your own attack across a planet that has an unstable mass of Vespene gas churning beneath the surface. In terms of tactical problems, what this means is that there are no reliable Vespene sources to factor into your base, and you're left pinging between rents in the earth that erupt on a neat timeline. It's a clever means of dragging you away from your main objective and encouraging division of labour, while also putting a chokehold on your economy in general. The solution, for me at least, was Void Rays. These are often the solution where the Protoss are concerned: beautifully ornamental "surgical strike craft" that can attack ground and air units, and grow more powerful the longer they stay on target. They were perfect for leading my main attack, while ground troops gathered the Vespene I needed to create...more Void Rays.
They're one of the great temptations of the Protoss arsenal, so wisely they're left out of the final mission, which is a straight ahead raid through an ancient structure, with the inevitable scramble to safety when the whole place decides to fall down. This is one of those StarCraft missions that feels a bit like Diablo given an expansive twist: you lead a group of Stalkers through swathes of enemies, stopping only to blink across gaps, cloak yourself, or lay on a special attack for one of the big-ticket baddies. Supplemental objectives, meanwhile, have you taking out gun emplacements to earn additional troops. It works beautifully, and as a whole provides an ideal reward for all that economic wrangling I'd gone through in the previous mission to keep the Void Rays warping in.
It's just a teaser, of course, but Legacy of the Void's prologue missions are still a delight to hack through. If you've stepped away from StarCraft 2 over the last few months, they're an ideal primer in everything that's good about the single-player game - and that's probably true even if you haven't picked up any bad habits.