It is difficult to compete with a legend. When StarCraft first came out in 1998, it was well received, and sold around 1.5 million in its first year- a respectable, albeit not spectacular number. Somewhere along the way, the sci-fi real time strategy game managed to transcend the realm of average and become something different- just ask gamers in Korea, where the StarCraft brand has generated nationally televised competitions, a professional league complete with large cash prizes (and game fixing scandals), and even a television station. The game has gained a cult following, in the most extreme way possible.
So while a sequel seemed inevitable, it also seemed problematic. With millions of fans that have been playing for over a decade, the scrutiny heaped upon StarCraft II has been nothing short of intense, and in order to satiate fans, the game would need to be better than good- better than great. It would need to be epic. And in almost every way it succeeds. It isn’t perfect, but StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty offers one of the best games in the real-time strategy genre ever made.
For those that have expunged the original’s story after so many years having passed, here’s a brief recap. Brace yourselves, the story has had 12 years to spawn expansion packs, novels and the fertile ground of gamers’ imagination where it has grown to epic proportions.
In the 25th century, humanity will be known as the Terrans, and we will still be kicking the crap out of each other, just on a galactic scale. On a backwater planet, a marshal named Jim Raynor steps into the role as an unlikely leader, and fights off a horrifying attack from an insect-like swarm race known as the Zerg that are the stuff of nightmares.
Unfortunately the Zerg aren’t the only problem for Raynor and the Terrans, as the oppressive Confederacy of Man moves in and unjustly arrests Raynor. Raynor then joins the growing revolution against the Confederation, where he meets Arcturus Mengsk. The two join forces and soon Raynor falls for Mengsk’s second-in command, Sarah Kerrigan.
In what was a fairly major twist, Mengsk betrays everyone and shows his true colors as a tyrant. It is revealed that Mengsk was using the Zerg, and luring them to inhabited worlds to further his own goals by attacking his enemies. Through his betrayals, Kerrigan is left to die, but is instead captured and mutated by the Zerg. Raynor, believing her dead, forms his own resistance group called “Raynor’s Raiders”, and the war grows. Kerrigan returns as the Queen of Blades, betrays everyone, and helps push civilization to the brink of destruction. The Protoss, the most technologically advanced race in known galaxy join the fight against the Zerg, and total war engulfs the galaxy.
As the flames of war begin to burn everywhere, Raynor and a Protoss commander named Tassadar, discover the key to defeating the Zerg was to destroy the Overmind. Raynor joins a desperate final assault on the Overmind, and Tassadar gives his life to destroy the Overmind. It was fairly epic stuff.
The sequel picks up four years later, and again follows Raynor, as he continues to fight Mengsk and the Terran Dominion. Soon, the Zerg begin an all out attack, led by the Queen of Blades, who is seeking several mysterious relics. To give away more would do a disservice to fans who have been waiting for the campaign, but suffice to say they should be happy with the depth of both the characters and the storyline.
Wings of Liberty
The campaign follows the Terrans though a series of branching storylines that allow you to choose which order you want to play through, as well as giving you the occasional choice that will force you to side with one group or another. Despite the options, the game still follows a mostly linear story, but it is engrossing enough that most will be happy to watch the scripted plot unfold.
Once you have taken control, the game plays out like many real-time strategy games, but it does so with a polish and finesse. Rather than reinventing the genre, Blizzard wisely takes what works, tightens it up, and streamlines the rest. The result is a gameplay style that will immediately feel familiar to fans of the genre, and yet still feel fresh and new as well. Players who aren’t familiar with the genre will still have some troubles at first, but should be able to stumble their way through until they get the hang of things. RTS games are inherently difficult to master, but StarCraft II manages to balance complex, but intuitive controls against an ever increasing level of difficulty that eases you into using the full control scheme. It is a fine balancing act, but one that works.
After playing a few maps, you will quickly see the level of thought that went into the gameplay. Frequently in RTS games, gamers will find something- usually just a minor thing or two- that they wish they could do but can’t. Sometimes it is just a simple matter of wishing they could see where a certain unit is, or that there were simpler ways to do a particular chain of commands. It is inevitable with the genre, and usually more to do with the gamer’s individual style than anything. In StarCraft II, you will frequently start to wish Blizzard had done this or that, then see that there is a way to do exactly what you hoped for. Some games spend years on exacting and detailed graphics. Blizzard spent years on exacting and detailed controls. With games like these, you can’t please everyone- there are so many personal preferences to deal with- but no matter what, you cannot fault Blizzard for the time and thought they put into the controls.
As for the campaign itself, the story is deep and compelling, but it is difficult to put an exact number on how many hours it will take to complete. Unlike other, more linear games, StarCraft II could be as long or as short as you want it to be. The campaign missions each feature multiple achievements that require you to go above and beyond just completing the mission requirements. Many of these achievements are only pointed out after the mission ends, which might have some people hitting the replay button right away, but usually you can guess what the achievement might be from the in-game communications.
But even if the achievements don’t appeal to you, the game is still difficult to put a time frame to because there are so many ways to play, and while they might be radically different, there is no wrong way. Some players might be offensively-minded and want to rush out and take the fight to the enemy, while others might set up defenses and let the enemy come to them. It can be the difference between a 20-minute game and an hour long game, and neither is wrong. A balanced player might be able to beat the campaign in 20 hours or so, while an achievement driven player could easily double that time.
The missions themselves are interesting and varied, and each new setting offers something different. Some levels will have you simply clear an area or defend a base- standard RTS stuff- while others will give you time based events that require you to react to the situation, which then changes and forces you to adapt. One early level has you under attack by the Zerg at night which forces you into a defensive posture until the sun rises, which then puts you on the offensive as you hunt the Zerg bases until the sun sets again. Another level has you gathering materials in a lava bed, then quickly retreating and waiting as lava flows in, then back out and the countdown begins again.
In general RTS games can rarely illicit emotion from players. They are a thinking person’s game, and as such you focus more on the next several moves than the mission itself- unless of course you count frustration as an emotion- but seldom do you play a strategy game that has you nervous and wondering how you can possibly survive. Several of the missions in StarCraft II do just that, and you will find yourself keenly aware of everything happening on the board as you fight to survive and alter your tactics on the fly. It is an impressive feat for a game in the genre.
How Fast Can you Click?
But as good as the campaign may be, a few weeks from now, no one will care about the single player side – the focus will all be on the online multiplayer. When the StarCraft II beta came out, it was hard to get a real impression of the online side of the game. It was a beta, after all, and the point was to check the technical side of the game more than the gameplay or “fun factor”. After playing the beta and seeing the difference in the final game, it seems obvious that Blizzard knew exactly what they were doing.
The multiplayer aspect of the game is an incredibly well honed experience, and one of the best online games ever made. While the campaign might look great, and the cinematics are what you will see in the ads, it is really the multiplayer that will make this game a worthy successor, or a disastrous failure. In truth, only time will tell if players fully accept StarCraft II. The original became something of a phenomenon that took on a life of its own, but Blizzard has made sure to do their part and offer the tools to make this game the new “go to” game for RTS fans.
The first thing people will notice is that despite the inherent strengths and weaknesses of each of the three playable races, they are all well balanced, and there is no one particular strategy that will dominate the others. Each race plays differently. The Terrans are a balanced group, the Zerg are an overwhelming swarm, and the Protoss are the most technologically advanced. But no matter who you play as, you will find a strategy that works, and a counter strategy to that. If you aren’t familiar with the RTS genre, you might overlook the detail in the multiplayer, but after you play a few games and begin to see the way the matches can turn into battles of ebb and flow, you will realize that Blizzard spent a LOT of time fine tuning the multiplayer aspect of the game. There will be a steep learning curve for players unfamiliar with the genre, but most will quickly learn and adapt.
As for the graphics, they are what you would expect, but maybe not what you would hope for. They are solid and look great, but after waiting 12 years it is hard not to be a bit disappointed that the game won’t blow you away graphically. Maybe that is unfair to the game, but it has been 12 years. That isn’t to say that the game doesn’t look great- it does. The detail is intricate, the character models look good, and the maps and locations are engrossing. We were using a Maingear eX-L 17 computer for the review, which might be a bit of an overkill, but most systems shouldn’t have much trouble running the game near its peak output.
The sound is also top notch, and little things like the jukebox in the cantina will frequently play songs that are original to the game, including one that talks about shooting Zerg. It is details like that which will make you smile, but you’ll quickly forget about them and move on. StarCraft II’s toughest competition is likely to be the expectations it faces. If you come in without any hype, you will likely be impressed.
The Party is Over
Despite how good the game is, there are two noticeable problems with StarCraft II, and while both are understandable, it is hard to be enthusiastic about either. The first is a totally understandable, but somewhat regrettable exclusion of LAN play. For many this will not be an issue at all, but for some that have fond memories of LAN parties, this might come as a blow. There is no reason you could not recreate the LAN party online, but it just isn’t the same, and it leaves you at the mercy of the battle.net servers that you need to sign into each time to play. While reviewing this game, lag and problems with battle.net were frequent, but hopefully that is just growing pains for the game as the servers gradually begin to accept the strain of the huge influx of launch day purchasers.
The reason that LAN parties are not included is actually somewhat clever and understandable. It is also the reason you didn’t see any reviews of the game on the launch day. When you play StarCraft II, you are required to authenticate your copy of the game on the battle.net servers in order to verify that you are not pirating the game (the servers did not go active until launch day, which prohibited early reviews). Given time, someone may find a way around this with a crack, but with software piracy a massive concern for PC games, Blizzard might be on to something here. It is a shame that LAN parties had to be a casualty of the anti-piracy measures, but it is understandable.
The second problem is more of a business one than something that will affect the game. While the campaign is deep and rewarding, it is also just one-third of the story. In the campaign you are only allowed to play as the Terrans. Blizzard has promised that the Zerg and the Protoss campaigns are coming soon, but both will require purchase. Again, an understandable business decision, and one that shouldn’t count too harshly against the game, but it still leaves a bit of a bad taste in your mouth. It is hard not to see it as a money grab, even if there are legitimate reasons to withhold the campaigns, and even if it is a reasonable business strategy. Still kinda sucks.
Despite these minor flaws, StarCraft II is a deep and intuitive game that will please veterans of the series, and allow new players to see what all the hype is about. Whether or not it becomes the classic that the predecessor did remains to be seen, but Blizzard has done their job and released a worthy successor, as well what is probably best RTS game made yet.
Score: 9 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the PC using a retail copy)