STRATEGY GAME OF THE YEAR: StarCraft II

This week I’m discussing the Games 100 awards issue, which is found in the December issue of Games Magazine

We came thiiiiis close [I’m holding my fingers approximately 1/4th of an inch apart] to giving this one to Civilization V. The problem: we didn’t have final code for Civ 5 in hand.

Let me explain why I’m so particular about only covering finished product. I spent years covering PC games, which could be remarkably fluid things that looked good when they ran on one system, but completely broke down when run on another. In addition, we often had access to beta code, which is not the completed version of the game.

One would think that the completed version of a game would be better than the beta, or at least not worse.  One would be wrong. I found errors being introduced post-beta, and other problems that were unique to the final product. These could include mastering or copy protection problems that could render a game unplayable. Early on, I urged PC Entertainment, and then PC Gamer, to establish an official policy of only reviewing final box copy: not beta, and not post-release patches. This wound up being how we functioned in the very early days, though that policy eventually became a bit fluid under the pressures of producing a print magazine with timely content.

Nonetheless, it’s a policy I still practice. I don’t even look at beta code unless I feel the need to do some kind of preview coverage. And Civilization V missed the mark by about 2 weeks.

If we had Civ V and StarCraft II in hand at the exact same time, would the award have turned out differently? I don’t think so. At the very most, they would have tied. Both are excellent examples of extremely professional, expertly designed, and well-produced PC games. They are each at the pinnacle of what PC gaming does best: deep strategy gaming with fine levels of control.

Taking into account all of the design and production elements, I’d have to say StarCraft II would still have emerged on top. Oddly enough, it would not have been my personal pick based on the X-factor of “Game I’d Like to Play When I Have a Spare Hour.” In that case, I’d probably pick Civ V because I enjoy the series so much, even though I have reservations about individual design decisions in Civ V.

But, Games Magazine isn’t my personal blog. I take other opinions into account and pick the game that is objectively the best achievement in its given category, and StarCraft II is just a better-made game. I felt that some of the features in Civ V were wonderful, particularly the new hex design and more satisfying combat. On the other hand, I found some parts less appealing, particularly the handling of diplomacy, religion, and social policy. Control of these elements is unsatisfying to anyone who has put a lot of playtime into this series.

Civilization IV represents the summit of the Civilization design. While Civilization V improves upon it in many ways, it also changes fundamental elements of the formula in ways that diminish the appeal for me. I understand why they did it–it’s a new kind of Civ for a new generation–but I miss some of the old-school gameplay.

I can’t say the same for StarCraft II, which is a brilliant version of a classic kind of RTS gaming. Even though I’m a bit played out on the whole RTS format, I can spot a top flight piece of design when I see one. Blizzard just makes a darn good product.

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