Okay, here’s the deal: over a decade ago (which is like a century in computer and video game years), Blizzard Entertainment released a real time strategy game called StarCraft. It was met with glowing critical reviews and strong sales, and quickly grew to become an international phenomenon, garnering millions of players from across the globe and helping to expand the fledgling professional gaming community. A few years ago, Blizzard finally announced that a sequel was forthcoming. StarCraft fans were of course elated, but couldn’t help wondering if Blizzard was up to the task of making a brand new game that evolved and expanded upon the original while still staying true to its roots. For years, the world watched and waited with bated breath…
Now that we finally have StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty in our hands, was the wait worth it?
Apart from a few small-to-moderately sized issues (more on that later), SCII entirely succeeds in creating a fresh, new experience while still maintaining the trademark strategic combat and fine-tuned balance that made StarCraft famous. Those worried that adding a bunch of new units and changing some of the original game’s mechanics would upset the precariously balanced gameplay need not fear. Each of the three playable races feels powerful and unique, and each individual unit serves an important role. The balance isn’t perfect — yet, but you can bet that with Blizzard’s history of compulsively patching balance issues and exploits, it won’t take long before SCII becomes the new gold standard for RTS game balance.
And the new units and gameplay tweaks definitely breathe some fresh air into a game that was beginning to feel stagnant (I mean, there are only so many different ways you can Zergling rush someone). Some of the new additions — such as the Zerg Roach, the Protoss Stalker, and the Terran Marauder — provide interesting new workhorse units that form the basic backbone of their respective races’ armies, but add a strategic twist with their researchable special abilities. Others, like the massive Terran Thor and Protoss Colossus, introduce powerful and incredibly fun to use mid-to-late game units that are capable of reducing entire armies to smoking ashes in a matter of seconds.
And when I say “smoking ashes”, I mean it literally. With the graphical settings turned all the way up, StarCraft II is a truly beautiful game. I cannot relate to you in mere words how satisfying it is to watch the twin thermal lances of your Colossi sweep back and forth across the battlefield, cutting vast swaths of fiery destruction in their wake. It may seem morbid to obsess over the fact that SCII‘s much more sophisticated engine means that death animations are impressively dynamic and grisly, but little details like that really add an element of viscerality to what is, after all, supposed to be a game about intergalactic war. And besides… they look really cool.
Don’t fret if you lack a flame-spewing death computer, though — SCII can still easily be enjoyed on a much more modest piece of hardware. I installed the game on my 5+ year old computer, and although the results weren’t exactly pretty, SCII was still playable. It’s a testament to the flexibility and quality of Blizzard’s design that the same game that can bring even dedicated gaming machines to their knees is still playable (albeit in much lower graphical fidelity) on relatively outdated hardware.
StarCraft II is no slouch in the audio department, either. Every action in the game — from your workers harvesting precious resources to a Battlecruiser charging up its devastating Yamato Cannon — has a distinct sound. Blizzard’s trademark unit voiceovers make their return, and while I still think WarCraft III had funnier unit quotes, SCII doesn’t disappoint in that category, either. It may seem like a small detail, but hearing the Thor pilots quote Arnold Schwarzenegger movies never really gets old. Nor does the music, for that matter. Each race features a unique soundtrack that subtly complements the on-screen action without getting distracting or repetitive. Never once have I felt the need to mute the game’s background music in favor of my own, impressive though my library of infectious emo and pop-rock hits is.
Where StarCraft II‘s high production values really shine through, though, is in the single player Wings of Liberty campaign. Blizzard’s cinematics team wows once again with gorgeous pre-rendered CGI cutscenes that rival or surpass the best the industry has to offer. Even the in-game cinematics that occur between missions look good and help immerse the player in the story. The voice acting is solid too, with several actors reprising their roles from StarCraft. I’m beginning to wonder, though, if Tricia Helfer (the new voice of Kerrigan) signed some sort of contract to provide voice work for every major sci-fi game for the next five years.
The single player campaign is a very rewarding experience overall — the individual missions are fun, and upgrading your units outside of combat adds another layer of planning and strategy to how you approach your objectives. Sadly, the plot that surrounds the missions is much less satisfying. Apparently, in the intervening years between games, Blizzard decided to dramatically reinterpret some of the most important elements of the story. Characters’ motivations have suddenly changed, others have been introduced without making any attempt to explain who they are and why they’re showing up now, and still others have disappeared entirely. Wide swaths have been cut through the backstory, ignoring or altering much of what happened in StarCraft and its expansion, Brood War. What used to be a thrilling sci-fi tale of intergalactic war has devolved into a cliche and implausible love story. To top it all off, the game’s ending left me feeling confused and concerned about the next two chapters in the story (Wings of Liberty is only the first game in the planned StarCraft II trilogy).
While we’re on the subject of SCII‘s shortcomings, I may as well mention its biggest faux pas: Battle.net 2.0. Blizzard fans have always enjoyed free online multiplayer through the Battle.net service, and with the release of SCII, Blizzard has taken the opportunity to completely overhaul its aging online client. Unfortunately, Battle.net 2.0 is a classic example of “one step forward, two steps back.” The new service offers a quick match feature designed to get players into games with opponents of roughly equivalent skill at the touch of a button. Having done a fair amount of competitive online gaming, I have to say that Battle.net 2.0 has the most intuitive and accurate matchmaking system out there (it’s certainly better than WarCraft III‘s, at any rate).
That’s the “one step forward” part. For all its new features, Battle.net 2.0 somehow manages to lack support for clans and chat channels. Being able to chat with your World of WarCraft friends is neat and all, but why do these token additions have to come at the cost of much of the basic functionality of the original Battle.net client? Further compounding the problem is the fact that SCII does not support LAN play. If you want to experience the game in a multiplayer setting (and believe me, you do), you have no choice but to use an online service that still feels like it’s in beta. Blizzard has promised to add chat channels and clan support in a future patch, but these are features that should have been available from day one.
As much as the above criticisms continue to frustrate me, they don’t change the fact that StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a phenomenal game with near limitless replay value. In fact, it is only because the game is so damned fantastic that I get so disappointed when Blizzard drops the ball with the story or the online multiplayer. Having experienced the innovations and improvements in SCII‘s gameplay, there is absolutely no way I could ever go back to the original. With a lengthy (~20 hours) single player campaign, intelligent online matchmaking and ranking system, and astoundingly flexible map making and editing software, StarCraft II proves that it not only meets the expectations of the original; it has the staying power to last another decade or so. Despite its flaws, StarCraft II is the sequel fans have been waiting for all along. Hell, it really was about time.
Things We Liked: Intelligent online matchmaking and ranking system that helps keep the competitive level even. Eye-catching visual effects really bring the game to life. The game isn’t perfectly balanced, but it’s surprisingly close given its recent release. Playable on a wide range of hardware, including Macs. For all the changes, the game is still undeniably StarCraft in feeling, and that’s the highest praise possible.
Things We Disliked: Without clans or public chat channels (yet), playing online feels cold and impersonal. The campaign storyline has more plot holes and retcons than your average fanfic (fewer homoerotic relationships, though). No LAN play makes me a sad panda.
Target Audience: StarCraft fans. Hardcore RTS junkies. The entire sovereign nation of South Korea. That guy in your CS class who won’t shut up about his build order.
(StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty – Developer: Blizzard Entertainment. Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment. Available for Mac and PC. Unfamiliar with CFD!’s review system? Read our newly revised explanation here.)