The top 9 PC games of 09

Diablo III

When Blizzard showed off Diablo III for the first time at the developer's World Wide Invitational 2008 in Paris, France, more than a few long-time fans of the franchise experienced self-induced strokes at the sight of some of the revamped features. Change, after all, is difficult to cope with. But, having experienced this new world of evil and decay that Blizzard has painstakingly built from scratch, Diablo III is change we can believe in.

Diablo III’s custom game engine imbues environments with nearly as much character as your avatar and your foes. Loose floor stones can be smashed to recover loot, walls collapse into rubble, and if you’re really pissed, go ahead and blow that giant pillar into lethal chunks raining down onto the heads of your enemies.

Of course, you can still go the traditional route and hack bodies apart in a spectacular shower of blood (but keep in mind that the occasional zombie torso might come crawling after you just as you’re wiping the goo off your shoes). The improved combat pays off in the most satisfying ways, including a WoW-style hotbar that gives you fast access to multiple abilities and potions, effectively making you much more powerful. Now you can weed out the weak enemies with a flaming skull ranged attack, raise a wall of zombies to fend off the next wave, and then blast the stragglers with one of the most bad-ass spells we’ve ever seen: firing off a wide cone of flaming bats in the faces of your enemies until they crumble to ash.

Will Diablo III actually hit in 2009? Given that Blizzard only announced the game in June, and this is Blizzard we’re talking about here (the legendary developer has a habit of delaying games until they’re just right), we’re not so sure. But Blizzard hasn’t ruled it out - call us foolish optimists.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
The stars get craftier

In a way, the decade of bottled up restraint, canceled spin-offs, and lack of sequels is what’s most exciting about StarCraft II. Waiting more than 10 years to revisit the Zerg, Protoss, and Terrans shows Blizzard’s respect for the franchise, and this reverence permeates the sequel’s design, from the fine-tuned roster of simple-but-nuanced units each race is allowed, to the intricate animations that bring battles to life. A vibrant color palette communicates unit types at a microsecond’s glance, and when the arc welder of a boxy SCV constructor flicker-crackles and its pilot reports “job’s done” in a casual, southern drawl, it makes building bunkers a satisfying task.

More encouraging is StarCraft II’s focus on story - Jim Raynor’s battlecruiser serves as your mobile base in Wings of Liberty, with fully-rendered versions of your crew waiting inside to chat up between missions. Point-and-clicking around the bridge, cantina, and other areas digs up bits of lore; you can purchase units and upgrades through your engineering deck, or pull up the galactic map to choose which missions to take, which adds replayability to Wings of Liberty while we await the release of the Pross and Zerg campaigns.

Rob Pardo: WorldCrafter
Blizzard’s Executive Vice President of Game Design talks to PC Gamer about StarCraft II, Blizzard fever, and The Next Big Thing

How do you determine your role in all the projects that you’re involved in?

It depends on what the project needs. Right now, I’m probably spending more time on StarCraft II than I am on, say, World of Warcraft - we’ve really built up that team in terms of processes and procedures, and I just meet with [the developers] a couple times a week now and help them with hard design problems and concepts, but they’re pretty much good to go. And on StarCraft II I’m really involved on the design of the feature set and a lot of the single player story stuff. On DiabloIII I’m the executive producer - Jay [Lead Designer Jay Wilson] always wants me in more design meetings, but he’s got a handle on it, so I’ll probably get more involved with DiabloIII once it gets a little closer to release.

Now that StarCraft II has been established as a trilogy, how many missions can players expect within each game?

About 25-30 - which is why we made that decision. If you look at the original StarCraft, if I remember correctly, it was 32 missions, 12 for Terrans and 10 for [the Zerg and Protoss]. And then the Brood War expansion was eight per race, or 24 missions. So we’re kind of in between Brood War and StarCraft for each of the packs. We [wanted to hit] that 25-30 mission mark because that’s what we felt like was a good amount of content for the players. But the story we wanted to tell, and the ideas we had for the single player campaign, meant that it’d amount to ten missions per race, and that just didn’t feel right. That’s where we made the tough decision that OK, let’s just put it into three separate boxes. And it’s really the same model as the past, but with an extra expansion set.

But we really want it to feel like a trilogy. We don’t want it to feel like you’re getting the epic saga and then the two add-ons, right? We want it to feel like The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and Return of the King.

The subscription model is a pretty unassailable solution to piracy. Are there any other approaches out there that you think are also working?

I don’t necessarily think that the subscription model is what’s combating piracy. The reason we’ve been successful on PC is because we offer extremely compelling multiplayer elements to our games, WoW being the most obvious, of course. But all of our games, a lot of the longevity in the gamesare the compelling multiplayer, and if you want to play on - which I think is one of, if not the best gaming service on the planet - then you have to have a legitimate CD key, so that just cuts out all the piracy right there. That’s what’s unfortunate about the PC business. For many companies, the most compelling part of their product is the single player, or the only part of the product is the single player. At that point, they’re forced to use some sort of heavy-handed DRM solution. It’s difficult right now for them.

As you work on StarCraft II and Diablo III, are you taking any inspiration from fan-created materials, such as mods or characters?

Absolutely. I don’t know if there are any specifics, but [we] take inspiration from everything to be honest, even [other developer’s] triple-A games and console games. I love the casual games space, it’s just becoming so vibrant, and there are so many interesting ideas. And it’s also interesting watching how they influence each other. We’ve been watching some of the core mods that came out of the Warcraft III community and observing how they’ve gone into different permutations. I’m pretty sure all the tower defense games originated in Warcraft III, it’s the first time I ever saw them, and now I see them [everywhere]. We’re pretty big believers in that stuff. I wish we could’ve done it with Diablo III, but we’re not going to be able to ship an editor with that. But maybe one day in the future we’ll do that with one of our RPG games too.

Is there anything out there on the horizon that makes you think “Hm…that could be the next World of Warcraft?”

I don’t know yet. The Old Republic MMO just got announced, and I think that has a ton of potential. It’s so early right now that I don’t really know what to think of it, but those guys are really, really talented, and they have a phenomenal license. I always thought that Star Wars Galaxies was going to beat us to the punch, because that game came out before [World of Warcraft] and it had some amazing buzz around it. Everyone was really excited about it, and in some ways we dodged a bullet because it just didn’t catch on, and then we were able to come in and really be the top MMO. But we’ll get knocked off. I just hope that we knock ourselves off.