Twelve years ago Blizzard gifted PC gamers with one of the most incredibly popular science fiction franchises in the world. StarCraft featured three diverse and exciting species battling for freedom, for honor, for survival. Never before had a game with such grand a scope as the fate of the universe pulled you so deeply into the emotions of its main characters. Their hopes and fears were yours, for better or worse.
And now it's 2010 and StarCraft II has finally landed on store shelves. Those that have watched the Ghosts of the Past trailer likely felt the same build up of anticipation leading up to the game's release. The Terrans: Raynor, Emperor Mengst and Duran. The Protoss: Artanis, Zeratul and their fallen comrades Fenix and Tassadar. Finally the Zerg: Kerrigan, Queen of Blades, and her swarm, free from the Overmind. How will each of their stories intertwine; how will StarCraft II recreate the enchantment of the original?
Patiently, it seems, as StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty features a Terran-centric campaign. The other two portions, Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void (Zerg and Protoss campaigns respectively), are to be released over the next two to three years. A true epic space trinity meant to provide a complete, elaborate chronicle. More is better, correct?
And of course it wouldn't be StarCraft without a robust online system featuring extensive competitive multiplayer, custom games, map making and more. The full release of Battle.net 2.0 coincides with StarCraft 2's; Blizzard's affront to piracy and embrace of social networking. Gone are the chat rooms of the past and born is the Real ID social system of the future.
So how is it? How does StarCraft II feel now that is is a real, playable game?
Contrary to the original StarCraft's nameless commanders, StarCraft II places you in the shoes of Jim Raynor. Wings of Liberty is his story, focusing on his troubles, his commitments and his quest for redemption. Each mission is directly related to one of Jim's goals, whether that be overthrowing The Dominion's Emperor Mengst, acquiring mysterious Xel'Naga artifacts with old comrade-in-arms/ex-convict Tychus, or other important tasks.
You see, in StarCraft Jim took place in the genocide of a planet. That event also led to a very important person to him, Kerrigan, being taken by the Zerg and eventually her evolution into the Queen of Blades. Jim blames himself for these events, explaining the alcoholism, but like any true manly space marine decides he's responsible for fixing everything.
Jim's character takes on a very space cowboy style of personality. Silently brooding while the people close to him worry, Jim struggles with a very important truth: Kerrigan is the Queen of Blades, murderer of millions and leader of the Zerg swarm. How can a single, misguided backwater marshal handle the responsibilities of a revolution, an approaching Zerg army and his own unsettled conscience at the same time?
The answer is: very arbitrarily. StarCraft II's missions system is very inconsistent with the overall narrative. The missions laid before Jim often seem of conflicting priority or worse, of little consequence. Often, I'd view a particularly interesting cinematic only to select an unrelated mission next. Jim and his army stumble into every situation, creating what feels like a deus ex machina at every turn.
"Sir we've received a distress call." ... "Jim the next important item's location was just sent to us." ... "Boss, the enemy is up to something fishy. Think we should check it out?"
It borders on, dare I say it, a small dramatic campaign extended to fit into the role of a full release. While each mission is entertaining from a gameplay-point of view, each lacks the weight of dramatic exposition. Certainly, there are emotional peaks and valleys, but they are so ineffectual it's near impossible to empathize.
Every single time they put Jim back in his bar, drinking another beer, they do him a disservice. Is Jim so thick as to have no complex reaction to anything? In the original StarCraft Blizzard escaped this with their unnamed protagonist. Back then any lack of his development was excusable, because the characters around him experienced dramatic transformations.
Now we are protagonist. We are Jim Raynor, and his lack of evolution is, quite frankly, boring.
Does Blizzard still appease its fans with well-crafted, overly-dramatic cinematics? Absolutely. They are better than ever and they won't disappoint in the ways the rest of the narrative will. There is also a group of missions that do not include Jim Raynor and these missions are particularly intriguing. And, of course, Blizzard hides a multitude of sub-plots for those of us well versed in StarCraft lore (find Duran).
StarCraft II's over-development, which hurts its story and narrative so, does the opposite for the game's strategic gameplay. Blizzard has undoubtedly created one of the best, if not the best, competitive strategy games ever. The game's combat is wonderfully complex and rich; no single mission or match will ever play out the same way twice.
Despite their significance in the story, each mission in the campaign is a creative and fun scenario. Whether it's destroying a series of trains that spawn on three different rail-ways, or burning through a series of thick metal doors with a giant laser, while fending off a series of progressively more difficult baddies, make sure to remember to breathe.
Add to that a range of difficulties from casual to brutal, allowing everyone a challenge (or not if you'd prefer), and it's difficult to find a complaint here. You even have the option of going back to complete all of the missions at a different difficulty after finishing the campaign. Of course, you'll need to do this to acquire all of the achievements.
Speaking of achievements, StarCraft II has a ton of them. There are three achievements for each level, (one for casual, normal, and hard difficulties). There are also a ridiculous amount for the various multiplayer modes. I won't go into them all of them but, for example, in the three cooperative matches I played yesterday I unlocked 10, and didn't know what a single one was for.
As mentioned before, you'll be playing Terran throughout the campaign, with only a few exceptions. To better acclimate players to StarCraft again, the campaign will limit which units you have access to initially. Each mission you complete will unlock a new unit, up until the final battles where you'll be required to use every unit at your disposal and more.
Another background mechanic that empowers you as you progress are the research upgrades. Completing bonus objectives in each mission will net you either Zerg of Protoss "research" points. As you gain more and more of each research set, certain upgrades will be become available. Unfortunately, you're forced to pick one of two and, after your selection, the one you don't choose is removed forever. It's an exciting feature that helps accentuate each person's play-style.
Other new features for the campaign include the armory and mercenary features. The armory is a selection of upgrades you can purchase with cash earned throughout the campaign. Each of your unit types has two different upgrades, and you won't likely earn enough cash for all of them, so spend wisely. The mercenaries also cost cash to unlock, but they'll give you access to powerful units that you can build instantly, for a high price.
If you're especially interested in the competitive ladder multiplayer I recommend you check out our beta preview. The competitive multiplayer was never my interest, but what I did play was, well, stressful. You compete in five placement matches and depending on your performance are placed in a league of players with similar experience. From there you can either win your division or not, move on to bigger and better things, or not, or whatever you like.
Personally I enjoy playing against computer players with friends, instead of head to head with a live opponent. Just set the difficulty to something challenging, but fair and have fun!
Accessing different modes in either single or multiplayer is extremely simple. This is mostly due to Battle.net 2.0's amazing user interface. Everything is clearly labeled, or has a giant button pointing you in the right direction. Yes, you do need to connect to the internet, but it's a simple login and you're golden from then on.
I'm not even going to bother commenting on any other controversial topics. My Real-ID friends list is great, and DRM isn't a problem. If those things bother you then this isn't the game for you. Then again, if you like games, more specifically StarCraft, then these are things you can deal with.
Graphically, StarCraft 2 is very nice looking. I'm not really sure how to classify it, but it's absolutely the most impressive looking strategy game available. Of course, it comes with a price. Even on my reasonably specced gaming computer I ran into lag. These moments often led the game to warn me, "Lowering your graphical settings may increase performance." If I did that, I wouldn't see all the fancy effects! Still, it's amazing to see one hundred marine in glorious detail when compared to the classic StarCraft units.
Similarly upgraded was the game's soundtrack. Classic StarCraft fans will recognize the old Zerg, Protoss, and Terran themes revamped and fully orchestrated to magnificent effect. The classic songs were memorable, but hardly instant hits. These new songs are both memorable and beautiful; they are truly moving pieces of art and accentuate the gameplay's pacing very well.
Do I even need to mention the cinematics? They'll blow you away. You will fall out of your seat, wonder if you missed something and then watch the movie five more times just to make sure. Blizzard is one of the best in the business here and these cinematics do not disappoint.
Behind all of the hype, the nostalgia, the controversy and the expectations is just a game. A simple PC game with strengths and flaws like any other. Sometimes it's easy to lose perspective, so it's best to keep things basic. Did I enjoy StarCraft II? Absolutely. Will it makes fans happy? Another resounding yes. Is it an astounding game; is StarCraft II perfection? No, it isn't.
There are certainly aspects of StarCraft II that are astounding. Moments where you'll sit back and think that twelve years was well worth the wait. Then there are moments where you're wondering just what Blizzard was trying to do. Sadly, StarCraft II's narrative and flow didn't live up to my expectations. It still provides a solid and well produced experience, but I won't pretend I'm not disappointed.
Weighed with all of the spectacular aspects of StarCraft II, it's not so bad. Perhaps when the second and third episodes of the StarCraft II trilogy are finished I can look back and appreciate the foundation established here. Until then, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty will have to settle with being a very good game, but not a great one.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty released for PC on July 27, 2010.