Review: Free to Play: Documentary – Valve’s Magnifier on eSports

Free to Play

Today, Valve’s highly-anticipated documentary, Free to Play has been released. Free to Play’s platform and subject is Valve’s own free-to-play game: Dota 2 and while the main content has some focus around the competitive game, the beauty of this documentary is how representative it is for all eSports whether StarCraft or any other eSport. The three main protagonists, Benedict ‘Hyhy‘ Lim Han Yong, Danylo ‘Dendi‘ Ishutin and Clinton ‘Fear‘ Loomis symbolize the question of choosing what life expects from you; what is the safest route, and following through on your passion, the chase to be the best in something – in Dota 2. Free to Play uses Dota 2 as a platform to introduce these three players and expose its audience the adversities we all face.

Though it is unfortunate that in many areas, this documentary is dated both in how far Dota 2 has come along as well as how much the scene as a whole has grown, it is something that all documentaries will suffer on gaming-related subcultures; especially eSports when everything moves so fast. The timeline of this documentary is set throughout Valve’s first major tournament: The International 2011 where Na’Vi claims first and EHOME ends second. They transition between in-game footage and Source Filmmaker-created content to alleviate the outdated graphics and further inject excitement in the matches for those unfamiliar with the game.

However, on the other hand, Valve plays strongly on its consistency in emotion, story-telling and pacing. They shrug off the small fact that it is outdated and push forward with its exposé of the three main pro-gamers: Singaporean player, Hyhy, Ukrainian Na’Vi competitor, Dendi, and American Evil Geniuses star, Fear. In short, Free to Play has some dated parts, but the stories, emotions and prevalent problems are timeless and culturally contextual.

Free to Play sits on a unique fence of being an easy-to-understand overview of what makes eSports so compelling and so risky as a career for newcomers to the electronic sphere but also intriguing and curious on the inside lives of the players on an individual level and on a cultural level between Eastern Europe, China and North America.

The Free to Play documentary highlights what most of us already involved know, on any level; that eSports is a transitional valued competition. That older generations value what they know; education, sports, music; skills that can be displayed, used or even marketable in the real world. eSports embodies sports through its players, their dedication, determination and passion. The sacrifices these players make, to convince or ignore those who did not initially support them is what we can all resonate with and further shows how much of a leap this transitional generation we are in. A generation where technology captures the timeless essence of our desire to thrive, compete and become the best.

All in all, Free to Play does not break new grounds for most of us, but helps set a presentable front a relatable front for those new to eSports and curious of looking deeper in this new body of subcultural water known as competitive gaming.

You can watch the full documentary on Youtube.com and/or via the Steam Client!

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm – An Overview & Review

Swiftly lead by an impressive beta, the release of StarCraft II’s expansion: Heart of the Swarm brought out many balance changes and UI improvements to the series. High expectations were set on the direction of StarCraft II not only as an E-Sport, but as an entertaining game overall. These expectations exploded during the public disapproval of Blizzard’s lack of public appeal. There was public backlash for their inability in improving the title on a multiplayer and singleplayer level (after so many years of clamoring), also in view of Battle.net 2.0’s long list of criticisms since its implementation. People wanted more and hammered the company for months (even years for some features) begging for utilities that made the game less secluded for the user and more open towards cooperative play such as: additional building blocks to improve the player and enhanced modes both in gameplay and in variety of tools (shared replays, resume from replay, unranked matches, etc).

As Heart of the Swarm opened its servers, there was impatience to see how Blizzard could outdo their exciting beginnings of Wings of Liberty, and renew the passion of old followers and fans of the genre (RTS) and scene. In short, they have hit their mark and the expansion delivers what was urged but not without some drawbacks in many areas of the game.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is split into singleplayer and multiplayer, both completely different in value and appeal. In the singleplayer aspect, the players are jumped into the perspective of Sarah Kerrigan, previously the Queen of Blades in Wings of Liberty and is returning once more after an ambush separates her from her two-way unrequited love with Jim Raynor. An arch of vengeance, power struggle and a yearning to be reunited with someone who said he’d never give up on her (doesn’t get more deep than that) are what’s to be expected in this sequel. While the gameplay and missions are definitely just as varied as the missions in Wings of Liberty, the story and dialogue leave much to be desired and can only be compared to that of Star Wars: Episode II. One thing to note is that you will never play any of the other races in the campaign (neither Protoss or Terran).

Snapshot 4

Though many of these “mutations” or customizations cannot be found outside of the singleplayer, truly enhance how to go about completing your missions and keeping in a “Zerg”-style way.

What the singleplayer lacks in creative story development, it makes up in missions and customization. You will soon find that the game plays more like WarCraft III with control of a “hero” or main character (with strong abilities) than purely a real-time strategy game and the missions definitely compliment this area. Also, the personal touch of your units are fitting with the Zerg-esque feel where you can modify your units with advantageous perks, exclusive evolutions and tutorial missions to let you try both evolutions out (to better your selection). To add, your hero can be leveled, allowing Kerrigan to obtain unique powerful abilities. The singleplayer side of the game however lacks miscellaneous activities ranging from minigames that we saw in Wings of Liberty (The Lost Viking) to no new challenges that let you improve your ability with each race. As always, Blizzard Entertainment delivers in ambiance, amazing cinematic cutscenes and of course their epic music (you can even pause in the cutscenes to take these kinds of snapshots!)

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Pretty impressive stuff. There are many cinematic scenes like this, even more action-packed than ever before.

On the multiplayer side, since Wings of Liberty, “improving” would be the summation here. Ranging from AI difficulty levels, builds and diverse game mechanics towards various ranked/unranked matchups really lets the player make the game as serious or jokingly as they want. The welcoming of new units definitely refreshes the game and creates new scenarios and approaches towards winning for the player (though the question of if its balance is still arguable). Free-for-all mode is still lacking in terms of maps and uniqueness though the arcade feature still has some amazing games both promoted by Blizzard and the community themself. The varied custom games navigation and UI, however improved, still leaves a lot to be desired, especially in finding something beyond the top ten most popular custom games (and searching those who want to play it).

The tools brought into Heart of the Swarm are what really make those still hesitant to return, reconsider going back to the game. The options menu has expanded to having more graphical options, customization of hotkeys (hotkeys for the singleplayer do not overlap with the multiplayer) and how involved you want the client to help you in your multiplayer matches (from enabling/disabling your mouse from clicking on enemy units to auto-gathering your workers at the start of the game). In addition, your profile card is also both concise and expanded in various menus and the rewards in playing multiplayer matches is displayed through your profile picture, experience and levels as well as interesting skins for your units and animations (dancing and such). The UI for spectator mode can also be customized for tournament organizers, removing the unnecessary graphics for the spectator and delivering more essential information to better view progaming matches. Everything is slick and smooth in navigating through Battle.net and a major improvement from the previous version where a lot of empty areas were brimming with potential use.

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The UI is sleek, attractive and concisely informative. Everything is available either in a drop-down menu or through sectioned menus.

StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm delivers a lot to those already in love with the series. Tutorials, challenges and custom games also hold onto players who love the game more than for its competitive ladder and leagues. Its aim to create new ways to connect and cooperate with others through groups, clans, resume from replays and more really lessen the secluded and sometimes frustrating tone of the game and expand its options. However, there is still much more to be done with the game story-wise as well as within the UI, StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm is off to a great start and appeals to the expectations of many people who started with StarCraft II back in 2010 and perhaps regain those who have given up on the series and E-Sport. There are many minor features not elaborated in this review that you’ll come to appreciate (like end-of-match reports and statistics, map info/screenshots/patch notes/review, concise friendslist, etc.), but in short, Heart of the Swarm is definitely worth its cost. In comparison to Wings of Liberty, it does not feel short for an expansion. As a series on its own, it feels complete, but could still use additions in regards to team-games/FFA  (balance & better maps), dialogue/story as well as qualities like team matches, or qualities found in WarCraft III like daily/weekly tournaments and chat features. Nonetheless, if you love Real-Time Strategy games and pine for a compelling singleplayer, advanced multiplayer to really devote your time and energy in improving yourself: StarCraft II can feel very rewarding for the competitive fan.