The Storytelling in Legacy of the Void Sees Blizzard At Their Most-Flawed
With 2015 quickly disappearing behind us, it’s clear that Legacy of the Void, the final installment of Blizzard’s Starcraft 2 trilogy didn’t make much of a splash. Not that it didn’t try. As a package, it’s pretty solid. Alongside a the new Protoss campaign, there are new cooperative multiplayer modes and all the polish and high-production values you expect from a new Blizzard title. Yet enthusiasm around the expansion seems far more muted than it should be.
Like Rise of the Tomb Raider, Legacy of the Void found itself eclipsed by the hype-juggernaut that was Fallout 4. However, Bethesda doesn’t deserve all the credit here. Blizzard’s own bad habits likely played a far bigger role in sapping fan enthusiasm around the game, as did its elongated release schedule.
When Blizzard announced that Starcraft 2 was to be split into three installments at Blizzcon 2008, response was generally positive. There was a lot of excitement from fans at the possibilities of the game’s increased scope — but also some concern that dragged the series’ main story across the development and release of three games would cause players to lose interest in it. It’s one thing to be excited for the return of one of the most popular strategy series of all time, but quite another to extend that excitement half a decade after the release past Wings of Liberty.
That said, Wings of Liberty gave fans a lot of hope and reason to be excited for the rest of the trilogy. It was a rich and stylish return-to-form for the series from both a design and storytelling perspective. It did a great job of both blending classic RTS design with adventure-game and RPG-lite mechanics that brought an ambitious branching storyline into the mix (a feature originally promised to extend across the whole trilogy but one that quickly fell to the wayside). The game felt fresh and it seemed like Blizzard was leading the way into a new era for real time strategy games as a genre.
However, this excitement began to break down as soon as Heart of the Swarm’s 2013 release. On the multiplayer front, this can be attributed to the steady rise of MOBAs — which had begun pulling both eSports interest away from the Starcraft scene, as well several of its biggest professional players.
Meanwhile, the game’s single player audience began to grow frustrated with the direction Blizzard were taking the story and these frustrations were only accentuated by the series’ prolonged duration. By 2015, it felt like things had come full circle and Legacy of the Void saw Blizzard’s new model of real-time strategy games treated more like nostalgia-trips than anything else.
As the developers of the Warcraft, Starcraft and Diablo franchises, Blizzard have a reputation for creating story-rich universes that are easy to lose yourself in the details of. However, this is only half-true. The storytelling in Blizzard’s games isn’t especially well-done, but there is a LOT of it to absorb and, for the most part, it’s very well presented.
There’s absolutely a comparison to comic books to be made here. Iron-Man and James Raynor are both characters with a lot of personality who leave a strong impression but a lot of the time it’s an impression that’s only surface level. Blizzard care a lot more about making characters cool than they do believable and resonant and, like any good pulp storytellers, they are masters at using presentation elements like the music and visual design to get you to overlook this detail. Even if over time even that approach can lose its shine.
Blizzard also have a bad habit of revisiting the same themes and plot elements across their different franchises — specifically notions of power, corruption and diametrically-opposed factions who must put aside their differences to defeat a common threat. Though this aspect of their work has often been dismissed as part of their ‘style’, the reactions to Legacy of the Void seems to suggest fans have had enough.
In any case, narrative-recycling and surface-level characterizations aren’t the only bad habits Blizzard brought to the final installment of the Starcraft 2 trilogy. Legacy of the Void has major structural problems that emerge almost immediately with the ‘Whispers of Oblivion’ prologue campaign. From a gameplay perspective, the prologue (originally released as a pre-order incentive) is jars with the structure of previous campaigns (which have taught players how to play each race over the course of 20–30 missions) and story-wise it assault players with all the ominous prophecies, ancient aliens and flimsy space magic that has always been the least-compelling aspect of the Starcraft universe.
Though the involvement of these elements sabotage the central narrative in a general sense, they pale in comparison to the game’s ending. The conclusion of the main campaign sees the player unites the scattered Protoss factions and triumphs over the series’ antagonist, only for the story to takes an abrupt “Now we have to defeat him once and for all” turn in the aptly titled ‘Into the Void’ epilogue campaign. All the dramatic payoff and emotional satisfaction with the main campaign’s ending gives way to the most outlandish plot points of the entire Starcraft saga thus far. The three main factions unite to rescue a ghost, later revealed to be the sole surviving Zel’Naga in disguise, who then transfers his power into Kerrigan in order to allow her to becomes a angel-like messianic figure capable of finishing the fight.
In the space of three short missions, the ending of Starcraft 2 turned from steel to copper. From a final battle it earned, to a cartoonish epilogue that leaves a bad taste in your mouth. It goes overboard in the worst possible way and the cutscene that follows all this nonsense goes out of its way to tie up every possible loose end, declaring everything happily ever after whether it makes sense or not.
As a product, Legacy of the Void delivers — but as a story it wildly misses the mark. Perhaps tellingly, the best comparison I can think of is Peter Jackson’s trilogy of films based on The Hobbit. In both cases, the stories these creative powerhouses wanted to tell were split across three installments but their prolonged delivery incited the fatigue eventually dwarfed any enthusiasm for them. Wings of Liberty and An Unexpected Journey saw fans thrilled to return to a new adventure in a world they grew up with, Heart of the Swarm and The Desolation of Smaug had some strong moments dogged by fans who weren’t so impressed the second time around and by the time Battle of the Five Armies and Legacy of the Void arrived a lot of former-fans just wished the whole thing was over already.