StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty Review
Very few PC games have had so much hype and anticipation behind them as Starcraft II. After almost a decade of Blizzard making nothing but Warcraft games (it's true: Diablo II: Lord of Destruction was released in June of 2001, and Starcraft II was released in July of 2010, marking nine full years of only Warcraft releases), we're back to one of Blizzard's other massively popular franchises. After a highly-publicized beta and great showings at Blizzcon, StarCraft II is finally out and millions of people have already joined in.
There has been a lot of controversy about how the new Battle.net online service will work as well as with some of the specifics of StarCraft II, but the end result is still a highly polished sci-fi game that's hugely accessible at first and very deep and playable at the end-game. Blizzard has very carefully straddled a line: on one side was their option of making a direct copy of Starcraft but with better graphics, and on the other was the possibility of creating an entirely new game that throws out everything that made the first one so great. For better or worse, they've carefully kept that balance: there's so much familiar here, and yet so many things seem new and fresh.
It starts with the single player campaign. Not only has Blizzard put their signature quality into the game's cinematics, but in-engine cutscenes are also impressive, with solid lipsync, tons of character detail, and some fine voice acting to pull it all together. These cutscenes will trigger as you go into and out of missions, and also can pop up when you explore the capital ship that serves as your base of operations. It's in these areas where you get to learn a bit of Starcraft lore and also pick up a range of upgrades for your troops using the cash you get from winning missions (and you'll get more cash for completing secondary and bonus objectives as well).
Sure, you'll also have the mid-mission upgrades you're used to from the first game, but the new ones are separate and only need to be bought once in the whole campaign. You'll be able to do some basic things like upgrade the health or speed of some of your bread-and-butter units, but you'll also get the chance to add entirely new attack and defense capabilities, like an added gun turret on top of your bunkers, or the chance for a Thor mech to rebuild itself after it's blown up.
You'll be playing as Jim Raynor, one of the heroes of the first game. (You'll control him directly in some missions, but usually he's calling the shots from up on high.) Now that the Brood War is over, he's a freedom fighter that's rebelling against the forces of the Dominion, the faction that sent Raynor's possible love interest from the first game, Kerrigan, into the claws of the Zerg. Now known as the Queen of Blades, Kerrigan's still out there somewhere, and right in the middle of Raynor's rebellion that you're controlling for the first few missions, she shows up again with a massive assault on pretty much every human in the galaxy. You'll be tasked with choosing missions to put together money, forces, and technology - after all, you started the game as a backwater freedom fighter without an army - and eventually take them on. (Oh, and you'll fight some Protoss too - don't worry about that.)
The campaign is solid, with interesting objectives - even if a few aren't entirely original. Hold out against the Zerg onslaught for 20 minutes here, destroy Zerg-infested buildings there, collect a mint worth of minerals while dodging lava, retreat at night and venture out during the day, or just build a base and wipe out the enemy. None of it is particularly amazing, but it plays great and the story is about as good as you'll get out of any RTS game. A lot of that comes from Blizzard refusing to try and put real cutscenes into the actual levels, so you don't get that silly Warcraft III-style conversation system in the middle of a map with low-quality character models gesturing at each other from a bird's eye view. Instead, you'll see the character's face, 3D-modeled, in a small window. It doesn't sound like much, but it does a hell of a lot to maintain the immersion in the story while in mid-mission.
The campaign does include a bit of drudgery, because many of the missions you go on are one-off "side quests" that only very loosely contribute to the ongoing story and aren't nearly as interesting as the central plot. But the ultimate complaint many have had is that Starcraft II doesn't include full Protoss or Zerg campaigns, so it's like charging the same price for, in their minds, a third of a game. But I think that this position purposely ignores a much deeper and more interesting story in the campaign, as well as a very polished multiplayer mode both in skirmish and in competitive play (where all three races are fully fleshed-out and playable). Still, that won't matter for some, because three campaigns is greater than one campaign - regardless of any other facts.
Starcraft II has online play through the new Battle.net system in skirmish and competitive modes. Just like before, you can jump in with a friend to a skirmish game and cooperatively take on a bunch of AI opponents, or mix it up with any combination of AI and players you want. The competitive ladder system for taking on any and all comers is damn good, as Battle.net does a fantastic job of matching you up with people around your skill level. There are mods that can be added as well, and the game does include a map editor, so we're already seeing user-made content. At some point, yes, the content creators (and Blizzard) will start charging for content, and it'll be up to the users to decide whether any of it's worth buying.
One thing that's missing is support for direct LAN play. Here, you'll have to have your own copy of the game and it'll have to be connected to Battle.net for online play. That's not really a big deal for modern LAN parties nowadays, because most are connected to the internet, and while you can no longer "spawn" a copy of the game so that someone else who didn't buy it can play over the LAN (this was a great feature back in Starcraft that really helped get people going back in the day), at this point, the franchise is so massive that I can't see too many LAN party types not owning their own copies anyway. For me, this is only an issue because it's something being taken away, but it isn't really going to affect too many people overall.
You don't have to be online to play the single player campaign, but you do if you want your achievements recorded. One thing I do like is that your progress throughout the campaign is saved both on your local machine and "in the cloud" (on the B.net servers), so if you have two PCs you happen to be alternating between while playing the campaign, you can swap back and forth between missions fairly easily - as long as both PCs can get online.
You might actually be able to switch between PCs easy as well, because even though Starcraft II is a pretty serious strategy game, it can also run acceptably on a fairly wide range of laptops and older PCs. Basically, if you can play World of Warcraft at a pretty decent speed, then you should be able to enjoy the SC2 campaign. You probably wouldn't want to do your match to stay at the top of the 1v1 ladders on a business laptop or anything, but you can get by in more casual settings fairly well.
And the graphics are pretty damn good, too. You'll get solid detail even at the lowest settings, and that signature Blizzard art style has evolved once again and it looks better than ever. While SC2 doesn't have the absolute best graphics you've ever seen, it does have some of the best graphics you'll see on today's low- or mid-range PCs, especially compared to most of the games that have come out in the last year. I've heard that the Mac version suffers from some mildly sluggish frame rates compared to the Windows version, but that it's not terribly far behind - and Blizzard usually does improve frame rates in their Mac ports post-release.
Blizzard has also committed to a couple of things due to community demands, like the re-addition of the chat rooms from the original Battle.net. Blizzard had hoped to do something entirely based around their RealID and friend system, and it's easy to see why, because chat rooms were such a huge amount of hassle and effort to police due to spammers, scammers, and the like. But the community won out on this one, and a patch to include chat rooms is coming in the next month or two.
Starcraft II does a lot of little things differently than the first game, and almost every one of those changes people are complaining about happen outside the action - they have nothing to do with PvZ balance, or control configuration, or frame rates, or the like. Almost all have to do with online play setup, Blizzard policies regarding online play, the price compared to the lack of real campaigns for Protoss or Zerg, and more. But, if reports are correct, nearly two million copies of this game have already been sold, and it's only been a few days since the release.
With Blizzard's keen eye for RTS balance along with an included map editor and out-of-the-box support for mods, it's silly to think that this game will be anything but a massive success. It's not going to fulfill the wildest fantasies of its most dedicated fans, but the base content is polished as hell and very deep in multiplayer modes. With the tools included, Starcraft II should be a fantastic value - even at its elevated $60 price point. Sure, the future expansions that add the extra campaigns will likely clock in at least at about $40 each, a price point Blizzard seems happy with for expansion packs, but I think it's a good bet to predict a very long life for this game.
So has Blizzard lived up to their illustrious reputation once again? Starcraft II is far from being the most ambitious or original RTS game this decade (or even of the last five years), but it's tough to deny that it's probably the most accessible and polished - and the online community and mod-making features will help it to be the most long-lasting. Despite a relative few disappointments regarding the campaign differences and changes to the handling of the community, I think this one will go down in the books as another fantastic release from Blizzard and a welcome return to non-Warcraft franchises after almost a decade of neglect.