I was doing a bit of math and it turns out I've played and written about more than a thousand games since the last time I took command of an army in the original StarCraft, which was released more than a decade ago. I've watched franchises (even a whole genre or two) spring to life, grow popular, and then fade in the interim between entries in Blizzard Entertainment's real-time strategy phenomenon.
You'd think that such a long space between games would result in a sequel almost unrecognizable as heir to its predecessor, but that's not the case. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is StarCraft through and through. From narrative and characters to units and strategy, it's impossible to imagine someone familiar with the original game to mistake this follow-up as anything but StarCraft.
And I'm pretty sure that's going to make the majority of the six million people predicted to own this PC and Mac exclusive by year's end pretty happy.
The single-player campaign is space opera of the best sort; willfully ignorant of its implausibility and loaded with rough-hewn characters that are easy to warm up to. It's also filled with enough breathtaking, state-of-the-art cut scenes (check out the cinematic trailer above) to make one wish that Blizzard's CGI team would use their down time between games to make a feature length film.
The first part of a planned trilogy of StarCraft II games, Wings of Liberty centres on the plight of the Terrans (the next two will revolve around the franchise's other races, the insectoid Zerg and the almost godlike Protoss). We take on the role of moralistic rebel commander Jim Raynor. He's still feeling the loss of Sarah Kerrigan, a woman betrayed by her emperor and left to die in a massive Zerg attack in the first game. She was subsequently infected and transformed into the insects' hideous leader, the Queen of Blades.
Raynor wages war on three fronts. He heads into space with an aim to stop a new Zerg threat being led by Kerrigan, but the Terrans have branded him a terrorist, so he must fight them as well. Meanwhile, the Protoss, who admire and respect Raynor based on his selfless actions in the previous game, are nonetheless willing to battle his forces whenever their objectives or philosophies clash.
It's immensely watchable. The game's storytellers clearly had a blast putting it all together. From commissioning original rockabilly songs for Raynor's cantina jukebox (my favourite: "A Shotgun, a Zerg, and You," performed by White Boy James and the Blues Express) to inserting knowing references to loads of other great space sagas, including Star Wars, Firefly, Alien, Predator, and Star Trek (as well as at least one obvious and satisfying nod to Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy), the writing is clever, easily digestible, and will leave you wanting more-especially after the shocking ending.
And players don't just watch conversations between missions, they also make decisions. I hired mercenaries, upgraded and read about my units, examined alien artifacts, and can even played a little arcade game in the ship's pub called Lost Viking (a riff on one of Blizzard's first games, The Lost Vikings).
And yet as fun as these interim scenes and activities may be, they're all but forgotten once a mission begins. Indeed, Wings of Liberty's real-time strategy play is instantly accessible, defiantly old-school, and completely enthralling.
Over the last decade many RTS developers have moved away from base building and resource collection-once the foundation of almost all games in the genre-and have instead embraced smaller mobile forces.
Blizzard is not one of these game makers.
Rather than figuring out how to cleverly eliminate the perceived monotony of bases and resources, Blizzard's team has apparently spent its time coming up with fresh ways to make these fundamental elements a fun and integral part of most missions.
For example, a mission called "The Devil's Playground" requires players to collect resources from within a basin that fills with lava at regular intervals. Most players will send SCV units down to harvest them, protected by an escort, and then make sure they're all back up on the plateau once the lava pours in. This tactic works well enough on easier difficulty settings, but the long trek makes for slow going. More skilled players will set up their command base in the basin right beside the minerals, quickly pulling in bountiful harvests until the last second, and then pack up the operation and take off (Terran HQs can fly, albeit slowly) to wait out the lava surge. It's riskier, but the reward can be worth it.
The brilliance of the single player campaign is that, while the same basic build-a-base principles apply to most missions, they still manage to have quirks and diverse objectives that ensure the action never grows stale. In one mission you'll need to keep moving your base ahead of a line of fire created by a supernova that's slowly eating away the surface of the planet. Another involves airlifting surgical strike teams from your base to specific locations across a Zerg-infested city to eliminate targets and rescue stranded teams calling for help.
Blizzard's goal, clearly, was to make each mission feel different than the one that preceded it. There's no question that they've succeeded.
I spent nearly 20 hours working through the campaign, but I plan to go back as soon as I can. Now that I'm familiar with the maps and goals I want to see if I can't find quicker and more effective means of finishing them. Plus, there are several missions I've yet to play due to choices I made in the branching story. And I want to try the missions I've already played on harder difficulty levels with an aim to complete side objectives and earn more achievements. It's playable and replayable in a way that few games are.
And then, of course, there's the multiplayer.
As my colleague, Omar El Akkad, pointed out in one of his Globe on Tech posts last week, the original StarCraft's extraordinarily well-balanced multiplayer is what propelled it to become the world's most popular and competitive e-sport. It's still played by millions, especially in South Korea, where some players have become so proficient over the last 12 years that they can undertake more than 300 unique game actions per minute.
I don't know if I could even click a mouse button 300 times in one minute.
In fact, I have to confess that I'm not terribly experienced playing StarCraft in multiplayer. I tried it when the game first released, enjoyed it, and moved on. I was a little concerned that this would put me at a discouraging disadvantage heading into StarCraft II's multiplayer modes, but I'm happy to report that wasn't the case.
Not only does Blizzard's matchmaking system use an algorithm to pair players up with competitors of equal skill (as many shooters have in recent years), it also steers beginners toward the shallow end of the pool by allowing up to 50 matches to be played in what is essentially a n00b arena. Once you've hit your limit you're off to standard online play. This is meant to ensure that the best players have little opportunity to ruin the fun for beginners. I still got my butt handed to me for many of those 50 matches, but by the end I had picked up some good strategies and was holding my own.
Another feature that helped acclimatize me to StarCraft II's player-versus-player modes is a series of challenges designed to make players think about which units of one race are an effective match against units of another race. They let me do things like test just how many zerglings an emplaced Terran siege tank can take down before succumbing to the swarm, whether snipers are better used against flying or crawling foes, and how to set up successful decoys. They're about helping players learn how to counteract enemy attacts. In a word, they're about balance. In fact, these challenges make a strong argument to the effect that StarCraft II's three factions are just as evenly matched as those of its predecessor-no mean feat.
More importantly, though, they helped a relatively inexperienced multiplayer commander like me get up to speed as painlessly as possible. I usually don't spend much time online in any of the games I play (a necessary evil of my job-I can only allot so much time to one game before moving on to another), but I'm finding StarCraft II hopelessly habit-forming. I expect to be online for quite a while.
As for veteran StarCraft fans, they may want to take note of one important difference between the original game and this sequel: StarCraft II does not support local area network play.
This won't mean much for the vast majority of North American players who tend do most of their multiplayer gaming online. However, it could have an impact on the viability of StarCraft II as a game used in professional competition. Online gaming suffers more lag than LAN gaming, and while this lag is typically imperceptible to most of us it can be felt by people who, say, carry out 300 actions per minute.
I enjoyed the original StarCraft, but I wasn't one of its zealots. I was looking forward to the sequel because I was intrigued by what a studio with resources as vast as Blizzard's could create given a lengthy seven year development cycle.
Now that the hype has died down and I've spent a week of late nights experiencing the finished product, I'm hooked in a way that I never was with its predecessor.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the ultimate old-school RTS game, polished to a mirror finish and finely tuned in just about every conceivable way. And while the 12 year gap between the first and second entries in this franchise make me fear that the next two planned chapters are further away than I'd like, I take comfort in the fact that there's plenty here to keep us all occupied until they arrive.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
Platform: Windows (reviewed), Mac
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
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