How good is StarCraft II’s multiplayer? Prior to Legacy of the Void, I played over 3,500 multiplayer games, and it has been my first choice in competitive online gaming and the real-time strategy (RTS) genre for years.

Legacy of the Void takes what made Wings of Liberty and Heart of the Swarm so enjoyable, mixes a few new concepts in, and delivers an updated experience that is refreshed, exciting, and best-in-class.

After 17 long years, the final addition to the world’s first true esport and one of the most popular gaming franchises of all time has arrived, and StarCraft II’s third chapter takes most of what Wings of Liberty did in 2010 and makes it better. The new and compelling multiplayer design answers the content and feature questions fans have been asking for years.

Legacy of the Void (for PC and Mac) is the final and ultimate pass at bringing balance to the forces of the Protoss, Terran, and Zerg for multiplayer competition for professional gamers and first timers alike. In this multiplayer review, we’ll see how well it tackles this challenge – and if it can establish an esport legacy on the level of its progenitor.

What you’ll like

Updated visuals and smarter interface design

If you’re new to StarCraft or RTS games, Legacy of the Void has some simple things about the new multiplayer experience that you’ll enjoy. A new, polished interface makes finding games or teaming up with your friends easy and intuitive, and a slew of graphical improvements bring its look and feel out of the 2000s and into 2015.

From left to rigth: The menu design for Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm, and Legacy of the Void.

Above: From left to right: The menu design for Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm, and Legacy of the Void.

Image Credit: Mike Minotti/GamesBeat

Navigation is cleaner, with core features made easily accessible. The game engine and graphics have gotten some touches to give them new life — Legacy of the Void looks incredible.

If that Colossus doesn’t look epic to you, we can’t be friends.

Above: If that Colossus doesn’t look epic to you, we can’t be friends.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Co-op Missions makes playing with friends easy and fun

While the aptly named Archon Mode was the source of a lot of PR pump-up during the lead-up to Legacy of the Void’s beta and eventual launch last week, the biggest success in terms of an accessible, social multiplayer experience has to be the new Co-op Missions. Previously developed under the moniker Allied Commanders, Co-op Missions pit two players against a variety of campaign-style objectives with increasing amounts of power as you level up your characters, as well as the option for increasing levels of difficulty that can speed that leveling process along.

Getting your friends to experiment with multiplayer StarCraft has always been a challenge. The campaigns have always been, and remain, quite popular, but many who would otherwise be interested in StarCraft bill the multiplayer as “too hardcore.” While the experience is not strictly analogous to traditional multiplayer or Archon Mode, Co-op Missions give you a way to do something in StarCraft with your friends to help ease them into the experience and try some all-new content in the process.

You can also queue for Co-op Missions alone and play with someone using the matchmaking service, which is great — the attitude I saw across dozens of Co-op Missions was very much one of congeniality and working together, as opposed to some of the less polite banter that can sometimes be common in competitive multiplayer situations (from teammates or opponents alike).

Co-op Missions feel like the missing link to really get new players to try out multiplayer by playing alongside, not against, their friends. It eases players into the setting and provides obvious cues about what to do. While the extra abilities and limited units create some distinctly single-player-style experiences, the mode helps teach some basics of pacing and coordination that will translate well into competitive team multiplayer, which tends to be the springboard to the game’s cherished core of competitive 1-on-1 multiplayer (and, now, tournaments).

Automated tournaments finally return to Blizzard’s repertoire

How or why this feature disappeared from games — but especially Blizzard games! — after Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne is beyond me. To finally see it added to the StarCraft franchise in Legacy of the Void is long overdue, and the execution makes me wish that this feature could be seen in more games (here’s looking at you, Hearthstone). Signing up for a tournament takes only the push of a single button, and new tournaments launch every two hours — 3-round tournaments throughout the week, and 6-round tournaments on weekend evenings.

Playing in a tournament gives you the brackets of a professional StarCraft event — a 3-round tournament will feature eight players of comparable skill in a single-elimination playoff bracket, while 6-round tournaments add the dual tournament phase prior to the eight advancing players going through the 3-round playoff bracket. Players can earn trophies that are displayed in a trophy cabinet on their in-game profile, as well as a trophy being visible alongside their primary structures in-game for the duration of the ladder season they earn them in.

There are many trophies like it, but this one is mine.

Above: There are many trophies like it, but this one is mine.

Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment

Tournament matches use the same matchmaking process as standard multiplayer, so you’ll face opponents of similar skill to your own — and every game you play also counts toward your ladder ranking, so you don’t have to feel like you’re choosing between making progress toward multiplayer rank/achievements or playing in tournaments. It seems like a minor thing, but it drastically improves the attractiveness of the tournaments to any serious player.

An easy visual indicator is overlaid on the game or menu wherever you are to remind you how long you have until the tournament starts. Games have a fixed length limit to keep the tournaments brief (even if you have to play in every round as a potential finalist!). You can issue per-round map vetoes, and even see which maps have been strengths or weaknesses of your opponent. All in all, the process is incredibly smooth, and immensely enjoyable.

What you won’t like

Multiplayer starts are punitively fast

Immediately apparent to first-time players and veterans alike, the rate at which StarCraft II demands your complete attention and flawless execution has been exacerbated by doubling the starting worker count. The initial 2-3 minutes of a given match in any previous version have been effectively removed in an effort to enhance the rate of play and make the experience of spectating high-level StarCraft more engaging early on.

The cost this comes at, however, is that there is no time to ease into a match. Where you used to be able to methodically set up your base as you built workers and follow a reasonably reproducible opening build order you found online, now you have to learn to run before you learn to crawl. It’s not a negative change, and certainly gives the game a new feeling, but even as someone with a substantial background in StarCraft, I found it frustrating. It’s the only game I’m playing — even in Blizzard’s franchise library — that doesn’t have a bit of a “warm-up” window when you first get started.

Co-op adds something new, but multiplayer needs more variety.

Above: Co-op Missions add something new, but multiplayer needs more variety.

Lacks variety

Unless you’re mixing it up with a melange of Arcade games, the veneer of new features wears thin fast. Co-op Missions are a blast, but Legacy of the Void has just five of them, and the experience isn’t meaningfully different enough from one character to the next for it to have much depth. Additional new missions are necessary in order to keep this feature from becoming stagnant and falling into disuse. Core multiplayer feels fresh thanks to tournaments, but the competitive multiplayer experience hasn’t evolved in any significant fashion.

You’ll also feel the pinch from these new features in other areas of the game. Before Co-op Missions, Blizzard did have co-operative multiplayer (more akin to standard multiplayer gameplay) in their Versus A.I. option. Where queues for Co-op Missions (if you don’t bring a friend with you) are mere seconds, players are waiting for up to 10 minutes to get a Versus A.I. queue to pop. Chasing those achievements without some persistent people on your friends list could prove dangerous to your health and/or sanity.

Map design in multiplayer hasn’t shown a ton of innovation, but this season’s map pool has enough options to keep it from feeling redundant. Without some clever new additions as the game progresses over the coming months, the competitive multiplayer scene’s fascination with new and emerging styles of play will be stymied by insufficient efforts to push the boundaries of what’s become accepted as “standard.” From the same company that’s pushing for progressive evolution in the MOBA scene with map diversity, the irony here isn’t lost on Blizzard fans.

Conclusion

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void takes most, but not all, of the lessons learned from over 20 years of Blizzard developing real-time strategy games and ties them together into a functional, enjoyable package. With a visible and oft-recited commitment to further balancing efforts and post-release content, Legacy is shaping up to be among the best games in the genre, and a fitting final performance for South Korea’s would-be national sport.

If Blizzard delivers on that promise to do the due diligence on updates, StarCraft may finally be positioned to recapture some of its former glory, and prove that RTS deserves to maintain a spotlight thought forgotten to the annals of MOBA history.

Score: 92/100

StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void is out now for PC and Mac. The publisher sent GamesBeat a code for the purposes of this review, but we did not use it.