My brother got me Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm for Christmas this year. I am a major fan of Starcraft, so when Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty came out, I decided to risk running it on my old computer. I ran that game on the lowest possible graphics settings and brought a book along for the loading times, because not even having a computer so old it needs coal shoveled in was going to stop me from playing that game. Getting Heart of the Swarm reminded me of the release of Wings of Liberty: the anticipation, the anxiety. What were the people at Blizzard going to do to my precious Starcraft? Fortunately, I enjoyed Wings of Liberty, though I did have a few problems with it.
Aside from some story issues, most of my criticism for Wings of Liberty was the art. I could have supplied the entire Terran army from the bullets I made my computer sweat. At that lack-of-graphics level, it wasn’t the prettiest game. I figured it was just my old computer, but I’ve played it since on a new one and even with graphics at maximum I am not totally happy.
The trouble I have is something is with the art style. Over the last decade or so, Blizzard Entertainment has developed a signature art style. It’s bright, colorful, blocky, and exaggerated, and was one of the selling points and keys to longevity that makes World of Warcraft still a major money-maker for Blizzard.
Unfortunately, that style just doesn’t work for Starcraft. It evokes the wrong atmosphere. The art of Starcraft 1 is understandably dated, but it is seamlessly integrated with the feel and story of the game. Starcraft’s universe is gritty and dark. It’s not an epic adventure, but instead a desperate fight for survival. The art reflects this.
Skip ten years and move on to Starcraft 2. The artwork has changed drastically, and so has the feel of the game. By adopting the emerging “Blizzard style,” Starcraft 2 lost some of that bare-bones grit.
This can be seen by looking at the hydralisk. In Starcraft 1, the hydralisk is lean and deadly, like a praying mantis crossed with a snake. It has the same direct, efficient look as a combat knife.
Hydralisk from Starcraft 1. Starcraft and Hydralisk are owned by Blizzard Entertainment.
Hydralisk Concept for Starcraft 2 by Samwise Didier. Starcraft and Hydralisk are owned by Blizzard.
On the other hand, we have Starcraft 2’s hydralisk. Whereas the first hydralisk was frightening because it had nothing extra, this one is all flair. It has too much extra stuff.
A hallmark of good design is a lack of excess. Everything is there for a reason; everything is intentional, nothing is superfluous. It is streamlined. The hydralisk in Starcraft 1 has that look. In Starcraft 2, it fails the test. While turning the graphics settings up to maximum improves the visuals (and believe me, it is pretty), it doesn’t solve the fundamental style problem.
The Blizzard art style is not bad, but it does go over-the-top. That fits perfectly into the feel of Warcraft, but not in Starcraft, where the story, the universe, and even the gameplay were all about leanness and efficiency. It’s about brutal competition and searching for perfection, in-universe and out. The cartoony, spiky, blocky art style is by its very nature excessive and therefore unsuited for feel of Starcraft.
Starcraft 2 is still a beautifully rendered and enjoyable game, and its continued success speaks to its gameplay value. Still, it could be better, especially in story mode, where the atmosphere dominates. Ultimately, I think the choice to go cartoony has detracted from the tightness and believability of the game.
(Starcraft, Warcraft, etc are all property of Blizzard Entertainment. Go check out Samwise's original art at his website and also the website for Starcraft 1 where you can download the image of the hydralisk as a wallpaper.)