'StarCraft Universe' Isn't Really an MMO, But It's Still Wonderful

We spent a few hours with a 'StarCraft II' mod that changed the game to play more like 'World of Warcraft.'

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Aug 8 2016, 10:00am

Image: Upheaval Arts.

Most massively multiplayer online role-playing games start out in the open world and only later send its players into the deep, dark dungeons. StarCraft Universe kicks off quite the opposite. It's set in an era of StarCraft lore when hope has long fled, and we find a pocket of humans and Protoss (high-tech, religious aliens) that's been holed up in a cave for ten years. A ship crashes outside. A small squad rushes out to see what happened despite the protests of some folks in charge. A handful of tutorial windows later, they venture out into a leafy, green hell where insect-like "zerg" clatter from the trees in alarming numbers and sizes.

It's a fitting debut for a StarCraft Universe, which started out as a 2011 mod headed by Ryan Winzen called "World of Starcraft." It took the normally top-down assets for StarCraft II's real-time strategy maps and repurposed them to make a third-person role-playing experience remarkably similar to World of Warcraft. Blizzard shut it away almost immediately, but after a successful Kickstarter and Blizzard's blessing following a rename, it's now at last taking its first steps into open beta to be followed by a real release next month.

Image: Upheaval Arts

And now, all these years later, it's wonderful. Alas, it's technically not a true MMORPG (although it certainly feels like one); instead, it's more like a series of instanced scenarios you can play with up to four more friends, sort of like a World of Warcraft dungeon but with a lobby or like a dungeon romp through Diablo. But the cutscenes alone look almost as though Blizzard Entertainment could have crafted them itself, while the gameplay mimics the look of World of Warcraft's quest log, action bars, and its system of vendors, boss battles, and using the "tab" key to target new enemies. While StarCraft II proper focuses on the grand strategy of controlling masses of units at once, StarCraft Universe pits you against bosses like a house-sized "ultralisk" as a single unit (with help from computer-controlled characters) with one of eight combat classes split between the Terran (Human) and Protoss races. In my case, I played a Protoss Dark Templar, which sometimes acts like a World of Warcraft Rogue in that one ability, Dark Blade, works best if you attack your target from behind.

The catch is that you kind of have to be familiar with StarCraft II itself to grasp the magnitude of what Winzen and his merry band of programmers accomplished here. Walking through the dimly lit corridors and plodding across rainy landscapes and moving among the intricately detailed enemies and heroes, it's easy to forget that StarCraft Universe uses the exact same models used in the campaigns players normally see from above. Only a few details reveal the truth. Take the strange, stunted designs of many of the Protoss and Terrans: an unfortunate side effect of a shift in perspective Blizzard never intended. There's the noticeable scarcity of ceiling models, a side effect of growing out of a genre where none are needed.

Image: Unheaval Arts

All Nickpicks, especially under the slightest consideration that StarCraft II is "just a mod." And a free one, at that. That should never be a mark of shame, though, as Dawn of the Ancients (DotA) first saw life as a mod for Blizzard Entertainment's Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos in 2003, and its Valve-developed sequel has morphed into a juggernaut that over 800,000 people play daily.

It's worth tinkering with for the setting alone. Few MMORPGs have managed to make space and science fiction work well with the genre, and EVE Online (the one great exception) chooses not the battlefields of flesh and rock for its stage but the very planets and the titanic ships that weave between them. Many space-themed MMOs like Star Wars: The Old Republic or WildStar blast off at launch with payloads full of promise but fizzle out long before they reach the stars they shoot for.

It's reasonable to expect that StarCraft Universe, "mere" mod that it is, may find itself in the same situation a few month in. As impressive as it is, much of its appeal rests of the novelty of its creations. But I've also found that its story interests me in ways that its bigger budgeted cousins rarely did, perhaps because the tale StarCraft universe tells is so damn bleak. The one-person focus over controlling hordes of units works here precisely because it's such a personal story. The great armies have basically been wiped out. The Protoss are only a couple of bad moves away from extinction. Every step, every action means something, and there's very little of the sense that a Very Great Hero And That's You is going to fix it all. With these plot pieces in place, I care more about the characters I see. Circumstances (namely, QuakeCon), pulled me away from it for a while, but I look forward to jumping back in and seeing where the rest of the open beta story goes when I get back home.

It's still a beta, though, so expect some beta things. The worst offender, in fact, began before I'd even properly started the game. You have to have at least the free starter version of StarCraft II installed to play, but all of the available episodes of StarCraft Universe for the beta are featured in the spotlight for the main menu's "Arcade" tab. As much as I pressed and pressed the "Play" button from the Spotlight window, it would never start up. Eventually I just searched for the mod through the prompt on the left, pressed play from that menu, and found it worked just fine.

Which is a good thing, because it'd be a terrible thing to miss out on. StarCraft Universe shows just how much mods can enrich a game and extend its years, even by shaking it to its very foundations.