What I’ve been playing lately…

Screenshot2013-03-17 01_39_22

… is StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm. That’s been the primary time-suck for me, games wise lately. I finished the Heart of the Swarm campaign a couple weeks ago, and honestly was only disappointed by how easy it seemed to be on Normal difficulty. While reviewers have complained about the typically weird and nonsensical Blizzard storyline, which is full of sci-fi tropes and sometimes cringe-worthy dialogue, it’s a fun romp and gives you a chance to take control of vast hordes of the Zerg swarm.

But since then, I’ve actually made the dreaded leap into the multiplayer ladders. Initially, as I suspected would happen, I got chewed up and spit out by just about every player I took on, but as time has passed, I’ve found myself getting better and winning games. In fact, while I was admittedly dropped into the bottom (Bronze) league, I’ve worked my way up to first place in my division since starting my foray into multiplayer.

StarCraft 2 has a huge learning curve, and I think its reputation for that puts many potential players off the idea of venturing outside the single-player campaign. There’s plenty of fun to be had there, and even when you’ve finished one or both campaigns on normal difficulty, there’s still achievement hunting to be done (some of the achievements, by the way, are rather clever and/or funny).

So what helps? For one thing, there are tons of resources out there for players looking to start or fine-tune their multiplayer performance. Professional player and caster Sean Plott, a.k.a. Day[9], has hundreds of videos on YouTube that break down StarCraft 2 to its fundamentals, analyze games by pros, and generally give you a good idea of places where you can make improvements. TeamLiquid has a great compendium of information in wikis and forums, plus tools for modding. Watching games, especially pro-level tournaments, is confusing at first (particularly with certain casters’ propensity for rapid-fire, jargon-filled commentary), but after a while it starts making sense.

And there’s no substitute for practice. With the release of Heart of the Swarm, Blizzard rolled out a revamped training system, which teaches players multiplayer piece by piece against AI that gradually increases in difficulty. While the AI doesn’t really behave like most human players on the ladders do, it’s still helpful and takes the high-stakes element out of early attempts.

Predictably, my first games on the ladder were all losses. Placed in the Bronze League, I was always outplayed by everyone I wound up facing off against. But gradually, I started making some headway – first I found that I was suddenly able to fend off initial attacks that used to overwhelm my fledgling bases. Then I was creating armies that could actually go and do damage to theirs. One morning I wound up facing off against a Protoss player (these had always caused me problems due to their early-game ability to fly in a new unit, the mothership core, and wreak havoc on unsuspecting workers), and I found that I was… actually… winning. The “GG” came up on the screen as I pushed marines and tanks up into his main base, and I saw a screen I wasn’t expecting: “VICTORY.”

Proof!

Proof!

There have been a lot of losses since then, but these tend to teach me more than wins do about how to get better. Sometimes players themselves have offered tips – One terran who beat me told me about how great the “3Rax-Expand” opening is, and another talked a bit about the value of certain upgrades like Stimpak (he said it was “OP,” or overpowered. Now I get it every time).

That’s one thing I really like about StarCraft: The community isn’t nearly as toxic as it is in other multiplayer-focused games. I’m thinking particularly of League of Legends and Dota 2, but FPS games, particularly the Call of Duty series, are way worse. Maybe it’s StarCraft’s difficulty that keeps things mostly civil – Blizzard doesn’t allow profanity over in-game chat, but gamers have always found ways around that. There’s also the fact that StarCraft 2 has a truly international player base… but then again, LoL and Dota 2 do too, and they’re games with at least a similar format to StarCraft’s.

StarCraft is probably not the only game out there that has a player community that’s normalized civility, but it’s certainly one of the most prominent. I’m sure the result is the confluence of several factors, but however it’s been brought about, StarCraft’s fan base has made getting into multiplayer, and staying with it even for the short time I have, a lot more enjoyable.

This season ends May 1, and if I stay near the top, I have a pretty good chance of being promoted to Silver for next season. More challenges await!

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