Tag: Blizzard (page 1 of 7)

The Kerrigan Question

The Queen Bitch of the Universe, Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

“Girls don’t belong in games/movies!” This is the cry of “men’s rights activists” who point to things like Rogue One and female gamers & game journalists (Susan Arendt, IRL Jasmine, etc).

“What about Sarah Kerrigan?”

I suspect I’d mostly get blank stares. Maybe a bit of drool.

Here’s the background: Sarah Kerrigan is a major character in StarCraft and its sequel. StarCraft is a massively popular real-time strategy game that is played professionally as a multi-player contest & sport. Its single-player campaigns, while maybe not having the best writing, is still full of affecting moments — the rise of Arcturus Mengsk, the sacrifice of Tassadar, etc — but I would argue that the growth and arc of Kerrigan’s story is the beating heart of the narrative, though I admittedly haven’t played the last chapter, Legacy of the Void, yet. It’s a bit beyond my means at present.

I’m going to run down Kerrigan’s story for those of you who don’t know, and proceed to my point after.

[spoiler]
StarCraft depicts a large-scale conflict between three races: the Terrans (that’s us), the psionic and aloof Protoss, and the swarming, ever-evolving Zerg. Sarah Kerrigan is a Terran operative, a “Ghost” (read: psychic sniper assassin) who joins you early in the Terran campaign alongside rough’n’tumble backwater space cowboy Jim Raynor. They don’t get along at first — Jimmy’s initial thoughts are about how hot Kerrigan is, and she immediately reacts with revulsion and rightly scolds Raynor for a lack of professionalism. But, through the course of fighting for survival as the Protoss and Zerg clash with the Terrans in the middle, they grow to admire, respect, and appreciate one another.

Their partnership, both professional and romantic, was short-lived. In a callous act of sacrificing his resources for convenience and advancement, master manipulator and all-around bastard Arcturus Mengsk left Kerrigan to die as her position was overrun by the Zerg forces Mengsk himself had attracted to a Terran world to better secure his political position. Disgusted, Raynor left Mengsk’s service, and looked for Kerrigan, only for her to emerge some time later as a new weapon in the Zerg’s arsenal, the fearsome and deadly ‘Queen of Blades’.

Empowered by Zerg evolutionary strains and determined to unlock her own full potential, Kerrigan proceeded to align both her former Terran comrades and several Protoss factions against the Zerg Overmind who’d had a hand (or, rather, tentacle) in creating her. Her plan succeeded, and she thanked her erstwhile allies by betraying them. Some of these allies were Protoss warriors Jim had come to trust as friends; when they were killed, he swore he’d avenge their deaths, and be the one to kill Sarah. Laughing off the threat, Kerrigan wiped the floor with what was left of the Terran forces and retreated to her own corner of the sector.

After the so-called Brood War that’d seen Kerrigan triumphant, she began to hear whispers of impending doom. To arm herself and her Swarm to face it, she invaded Terran space to find more powerful weapons. Raynor set off to oppose the Zerg invasion, seemingly still driven by his vendetta and supported by an old friend from his previous life. Things got complicated when a Protoss warrior, one of the few Raynor knew from the Brood War who hadn’t been killed, told him that Kerrigan needed to live to fight what was coming. The Terrans used the very weapon Kerrigan had sought to claim to rob her of her Zerg enhancements and leave her vulnerable. Conflicted, Raynor decided to save Kerrigan’s life at this moment, choosing to give her a chance for redemption rather than letting his friend shoot her.

Kerrigan was held for experimentation, with Raynor keeping an eye on her, and her memories as both Mengsk’s assassin and the Queen of Blades haunted her and made her question her morals and sanity. While previously Kerrigan’s ambitions had been aimed towards conquest and victory for her Swarm, her restored humanity narrowed her focus to revenge on Mengsk. The facility were she was being held was attacked by Mengsk’s forces, and in their escape, Kerrigan and Raynor were separated. While Kerrigan was able to escape, Raynor was reported to be killed, much to Mengsk’s delight. Consumed by her need for revenge, Kerrigan turns to the Zerg, returning to the Swarm to regain her former power.

Kerrigan returns to the homeworld of the Zerg and seeks her own path to evolve along instead of having it imposed upon her. In doing so, she comes to understand the Zerg on a far more fundamental level, and in doing so, not only guides it to great success, but forges it into a far more powerful force than it was before. With a renewed Swarm and her powers and memory finally under her control, Kerrigan tears across the sector towards Mengsk. Along the way, she finds Raynor alive, but her rebirth as the new Queen of Blades puts an incredible chasm between them; Jim can’t let go of everything she did as the Queen of Blades, and as much as she wants to repair that breach, since she was not the creature she was before, Jim can’t bring himself to meet her halfway. He can’t kill her, either, but joins her to kill Mengsk.

Having joined forces, Mengsk’s defenses folded under the assault of Raynor and Kerrigan. They work together to bring down the tyrant, Kerrigan saying Mengsk had “made [them] all into monsters” before blowing him up Scanners-style. With their nemesis dead, Kerrigan leaves to turn her attention back to the doom that had brought her back in the first place, leaving a conflicted and emotional Raynor in her wake, looking up at where the woman he loved (and perhaps still does) disappears.

This isn’t the end of the story, but it’s all I know, since I’m avoiding spoilers for Legacy of the Void.
[/spoiler]

The essence of Kerrigan’s story, to me, is that after getting betrayed and turned into something awful, she took control of her own destiny. She seized control of a massive, powerful alien force, just because she could. When she caught wind of something bigger coming to destroy everything, she set out to stand up to it, no matter what it cost. And after everything that happened to her, she decided to recreate her power on her own terms in order to either rescue a dude important to her or avenge herself on the bastard who’d betrayed her in the first place. To me, that speaks of self-actualization, independence, and empowerment.

I can see some counterpoints to this perspective, but the fact remains that she is a major character who becomes a protagonist in a major sci-fi gaming franchise, and yet, insecure man-kids haven’t brought her up as an example of something that doesn’t belong in their games. So is it because she’s not as prominent as the leads in Rogue One or The Force Awakens, or is it because they felt some sort of satisfaction in what happened to her when she was disempowered? I’m not sure; it’s a headspace I have a lot of trouble getting into.

I’m just going to toss this out for potential discussion. What do you think of Sarah Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, as a character? Is she a positive or negative influence on female empowerment in science fiction? And does Legacy of the Void go on sale regularly, so I can finish the story and also get some awesome, shiny Protoss action? Let me know!

Mondays are for making & talking about art.

Hearthstone For Beginners

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft has been my go-to CCG for some time, now. I’ve coached by pros, and I have blatantly netdecked to gain ranks in the ladder. While I continue to chase the dream of achieving Legendary rank and possibly participating in tournaments, I’m happy to say that I’ve learned a great deal about playing competitive games in general and Hearthstone in particular. Hopefully, these tips will be helpful if you want to get into the game, play at a higher level, or just have more fun. By the way, most of these tips apply to Constructed play; I’m not a very good Arena player. I need a lot more practice, there.

Casual Mode Is Your Friend

If you’re aiming towards the higher rungs of the ladder, you may think that you should be playing Ranked mode as much as possible, all day, every day. However, I have found that this is not the case, nor should it be. A great deal can be learned from Casual, as well. Since it’s more of a melting pot, you’ll be up against all sorts of opponents, all sorts of decks, and it’s harder to predict what your opponent is going to do next. You learn to anticipate the unexpected, trust your own decks, and take failure a bit less seriously. And it’s a great place to try new decks. Speaking of which…

Don’t Be Afraid To Try New Decks

I’m guilty of having favorites. Paladin is probably my favorite class in Hearthstone, even though my corresponding character in World of Warcraft isn’t max level. My highest character in Azeroth is a Hunter, but Hunter tends to frustrate me in Hearthstone since so few Hunters play anything but decks that aim to beat face as quickly as possible. Anyway, my point is that even if you have a favorite class and a deck whose concepts you love (for example, my Rofladin deck that uses [Hobgoblin] and a bunch of adorable little minions), you shouldn’t be afraid to try out a deck in another class, even if it’s a class you don’t necessarily like for whatever reason. With the mutable nature of the meta-game, in terms of what decks are more efficient at producing wins, not to mention new cards you might earn from packs or solo adventures, it’s almost always a good idea to try something new. Take it into Casual and see what happens!

There’s No Shame In Netdecking

Especially when it comes to clamboring up that ladder, I would refer to the post I linked above when it comes to looking up decklists online. Inspiration and experimentation make for some very interesting and fun decks, to be certain, but if you’re looking to get yourself ahead, it’s good to remember that folks have been there before. My experience with using online resources for new, meta-friendly decks in Hearthstone has universally been a good one. HearthPwn user Sigma put together a fantastic Warlock deck that I love to play, but control decks can be hard to manage at lower ranks when everybody’s playing Face Hunters. Thankfully, Sigma also made The Angry Chicken is pretty much the go-to podcast about the game. The hosts are agreeable and knowledgeable, the information is up-to-date, the debates are intriguing, and the transitional audio cues are fantastic. I love tuning into that podcast. I think you will, too, if you’re into Hearthstone at all.

Sean “Day[9]” Plott has long taught people to be better gamers, with his exemplary attitude and informative commentary. He tells great stories, has a bunch of experience commentating and streaming games, and did I mention he’s a great Hearthstone player? You should absolutely tune into his stream, or catch up on his YouTube channel.

Hafu is another great Hearthstone streamer. She plays more Arena than Constructed, but her attitude is great and I love seeing more represtnation among gamers. I plan on tuning into her stream more often, and subscribing once I can afford to do so!

That’s about all I can think of in terms of getting the most out of your Hearthstone experience. If you want to see me playing the game, talking about how I play and (hopefully) applying all of the above, you can do so over on Twitch. I hope to see you there!

The Call of the Nexus

When I got notice that I’d finally been chosen for the beta of Heroes of the Storm, I was pretty excited. As much as they ply their customers for ever-increasing amounts of cash, I am a fan of Blizzard Entertainment and their games. Sure, occasionally I will balk at their asking prices for things like cosmetic items that serve no purpose other than looking cool, but they have proven that their work is always of high quality in terms of presentation and imagination, and they do listen to their players. It takes a while, sometimes, but they do listen. Look at the whole Diablo III debacle.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Anyway, Heroes of the Storm. It’s the sort of game that is actually born of one of Blizzard’s earlier products, Warcraft III. A mod for Blizzard’s landmark real-time strategy game allowed players control of a single heroic character, pitted in team battles against one another. This formula is the basis for games like League of Legends, an experience with which I am relatively well acquainted. I haven’t played it in a long time because it became increasingly apparent to me that the arithmetic required to optimize a character is more important than which character is the most fun, especially when a good portion of the player base would rather berate a teammate for falling behind on the kill/death ratio than looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opponents. In spite of funny or cute alternate skins, it feels like League and its ilk are missing a crucial component in keeping “casuals” like me coming back for more.

Heroes of the Storm has it. Heroes of the Storm is fun.

For starters, Heroes does not restrict its “hero brawls” to a single map with the same lanes and same jungle every time. There are, at time of writing, seven distinct maps, each with unique geography, baked-in challenges, and a personality that praises, cajoles, or gently mocks you for your performance. This is honestly one of my favorite features of the game: Blackheart’s Bay makes me grin because the undead pirate captain is so jolly, while Sky Temple makes me grin because the spirit controlling the temples is so irritated that we’re on his lawn.

Then, there are the heroes themselves. Drawn from the various franchises of Blizzard’s games, they have categories veterans of similar games will find familiar: tanks to initiate combat, assassins to deal damage, supports for healing, and specialists to debuff, confuse, or frustrate the enemy. The models for the heroes are well detailed, the voice acting is peerless, and they interact with one another in the middle of gameplay. I find it delightful that when opponents within a franchise end up on the same team, and they take the time to verbally jab at one another before the battle begins. It puts me in the mood for fun. It primes my mind for a good time. It makes me want to play.

The final thing that I believe makes Heroes of the Storm a better experience for those players more interested in a fun, pressure-free online brawl is the emphasis on teamwork. Sure, you can track your takedowns in comparison to your deaths if you really want to, but the maps are designed in such a way that you have to work with your team to succeed, rather than focusing on your own efficiency and accuracy. While one player gets to possess a mighty dragon knight on one map, it takes the team to guard the shrines that bring said knight to life, especially if the other team is hot to trot for that draconic action. The rewards for this are a unique selling point: breathe fire on your enemy’s forts. Curse their minions and defenses. Summon super-minions to supplement your assaults. You win or lose as a team. That, to me, is a big difference from the competition.

This isn’t to say that Heroes of the Storm isn’t without flaws. While free to play, with a rotation of free heroes and gold that can only be earned by playing, the dollar price for things like skins and mounts can be a bit steep. This is somewhat par for the course with Blizzard, and is mitigated by frequent sales, specials, bundles, and bonus weekends. Since the game is free to try, most people will know pretty quickly if the experience is worth the investment of time; and, I think in most cases, those who enjoy it will be willing to pony up a bit of cash for a favorite hero. It’s kind of like getting guacamole on your burrito at Chipotle – you know it costs extra, but it’s completely worth every penny.

The other factor that may turn some gamers off is the relative simplicity of Heroes of the Storm‘s design. Players do not need a copious amount of skill or an arcane knowledge of skill interactions or combinations to play the game. There are no items to purchase during the battles, and a hero’s talents are limited when a player first picks them. The player and their heroes gain levels through play, unlocking more talents from which to choose once you’re used to the basics. The learning curve on Heroes is much more gentle than in other similar games, and those players looking for a close alternative to the likes of League of Legends may find this something of a letdown.

For those like me, though, Heroes of the Storm has a ridiculous amount of appeal. Seeing old favorite characters in this new environment tickles my nostalgia centers. Hearing the in-game banter makes me smile. Unlocking new talents that spark my brain into planning tactics encourage me to work with my teammates. It is very difficult to do something “wrong” in Heroes of the Storm. That counts for a lot, if you want to have fun with a game without worrying over things like efficient play or individual achievement.

I heartily encourage Blizzard fans to give the game a try, now that it’s been released. The game is polished, the play is fun, the characters are nicely varied, and the maps will keep you coming back for more. The Nexus is calling you, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll find it a call worth heeding.

Game Review: Hearthstone

One of the things Blizzard Entertainment does very well is presentation. World of Warcraft‘s visual style has aged rather gracefully, StarCraft 2 has remained consistent in its high-quality art and sound assets (if not necessarily the stories it is telling), and the technical alpha for Heroes of the Storm looks and sounds impressive, from everything I’ve seen. I will write more about that when I actually get into the game. My point is that, when I first discussed Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, it already looked good and sounded good. It is now in wide release, and is even available on iPad, so now seems the right time to give it a full review.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment

Hearthstone is a game that plays a great deal like Magic: the Gathering, and is both simple and free to play. In fact, there are characters within World of Warcraft that can be seen playing the game. In essence, it’s a pub or party game played by the denizens of Azeroth, either as a break from or a substitution for grander adventures. All sorts of Warcraft staples are present, from angry chickens to towering giants, and some legendary figures represent the player while others stride across the playing field. Or charge, in the case of some minions like Leeroy Jenkins.

In terms of development, little has changed between the production edition of Hearthstone and its closed beta. Some graphical glitches have been either addressed or smoothed over, cards work the way they’re intended more often than not, and Blizzard’s visual panache is as strong as ever. Its familiar characters, strong tactile design, and business model all make the game consistently appealing, and easy to pick up and play.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
The game presents constant strategic and tactical questions. Provided your draw is at least half-decent.

“Pick up and play” is even more apt now that the game is available on iPad mobile devices. The app is free to download, of course, and controls with the touch screen instead of a mouse. The translation of some functionality, such as dragging the mouse to a target, is replicated or replaced rather well, making the transition from the computer to the tablet very easy. The game does lag a bit here and there, though, so the implementation could probably use a few tweaks. Still, it makes it even easier to enter the game, say if you’re on a flight path in World of Warcraft or waiting in one of Blizzard’s many multiplayer queues.

Recently, “free to play” games have come under a great deal of scrutiny. Often, such games are powered financially by business models that often lend themselves to the description of “pay to win.” In essence, such games are presented in such a way that if one pays enough money, they can get clear advantages over other players and basically pay their way to the victory within the game. In spite of accusations of one class or another being overpowered, Hearthstone avoids the “pay to win” trap by being quite well balanced. It is entirely possible to go into Ranked play with a deck using only the cards one gets for joining the game the first time, without spending a single cent, and rise to the Legendary ranks of the game. Decks with Legendary cards might be more efficient or flashier in what they do, but you don’t have to spend any real money to be successful in Hearthstone, which is definitely a feather in its cap.

Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
Life totals aren’t everything. Warlocks know this better than most.

Hearthstone is a game I return to on an almost daily basis. It scratches the itch left by card games like Magic: the Gathering and Netrunner, does what it does with panache, and doesn’t take up a great deal of storage space on one’s shelf. It continues to be challenging months after my first game, delivers fantastic moments of fascinating turnarounds and snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, and seems to only be getting better. A new adventure mode has been announced, and the first ‘dungeon’ we’ll be facing to gain new cards is the necromantic stronghold of Naxxramas. I’m very curious to see what will happen next in this game, and if you are too, there’s never been a better time to check it out.

First Impressions: Hearthstone

A few years ago, Blizzard Entertainment tried their hands a trading card game version of World of Warcraft. I was into it, for a while, as were quite a few other fans. It coupled the familiar themes and powers of the MMO with excellent art and an interesting mechanic for getting cards into play that sought to reduce some of the problems inherent with a TCG’s necessary randomization. While I no longer play it, it seems to still be going, if the shelves at Target are to be believed. And now, Blizzard seems to be working on bringing that sort of turn-based strategic and collectible experience to their PC fanbase with Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft, currently in closed beta.

Courtesy f2p.com

The game behaves like most TCGs: you acquire a starter set of cards, assemble a deck, and do battle with other players. Every turn within a game session, you receive a mana crystal with which to cast spells or summon minions from your hand, ensuring you never get shorted on the resources necessary to play. The goal is to reduce your enemy’s hero to 0 health while keeping yours alive. There’s a hero for each of the nine basic character classes in World of Warcraft, from ancient legends like Malfurion and Gul’dan to relative newcomers like Valeera and Anduin. Each hero has some class-specific cards, and a general pool from which they can gather other minions. The game is certainly not rocking the boat when it comes to traditional aspects of TCGs, and as with most things, the devil is in the details.

There’s an astounding amount of detail in Hearthstone‘s art and sound design. The play areas themselves are interactive, every minion has a unique voice, opponents slam into one another with resounding cracks to the cheers of the onlooking crowd – it all leads to a greater sense of immersion. The minions’ abilities are varied quite nicely, opening up multiple avenues and playstyles as they are added to decks. Each hero has a power to which they always have access, meaning that a player is only rarely entirely out of options. There are two play modes: regular or Constructed, in which players assemble their decks from their personal collections before doing battle, and The Arena, where a brand new deck is constructed from a pool of random cards and runs are more limited. Both modes offer up rewards, as do Quests which are distributed once a day, most commonly in the form of gold which can be used to enter The Arena or buy ‘Expert’ packs of cards. And if you don’t need some of the cards you get, you can ‘Disenchant’ some, breaking them down into Dust which is then used to assemble different cards, from Common cards all the way up to Legendaries.

As much as I like Hearthstone, I recognize it has some flaws. There’s very little to do on an opponent’s turn. There are ‘secrets’ which are cards that activate on certain triggers from an opponent, but only a few classes have them and they’re not that difficult to deal with. A couple classes feel a little unbalanced (looking at you, Priests) and it can be difficult to assemble an effective ‘theme’ deck. There are some glitches here and there, but the game is still in beta and that’s par for the course. Finally, the game can be a bit stingy with its in-game currency and rewards, and while the nature of its systems keep it from being a ‘pay-to-win’ style game outwardly, I feel like higher quest rewards or more Dust from the Arena would be better incentives to keep playing.

That said, Hearthstone is a rock-solid implementation of a good premise for an extension of one of Blizzard’s longest-running franchises. I am enjoying the beta, and continue to sneak matches in around writing sessions and bouts with longer games like Skyrim and World of Warcraft. It scratches the Magic: the Gathering itch quite well and, flawed as it is in places, I’m curious and eager to see how it behaves in its final form.

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