Review: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (single-player)

I’ve never been, nor have I ever had a desire to be, a Blizzard fanboy. There wasn’t a powerful enough computer in my household to run many of their earlier games, and while I enjoyed Warcraft III, I didn’t finish it; and I certainly didn’t embrace it like many of my PC friends did. I’ve still never really played any of the Diablo games and have vehemently refused to even try World of life-sucking Warcraft. While I played the original StarCraft, I didn’t buy into the subsequent hype. I was, however, impressed by the diversity of the three factions and how balanced they were.

So why the hell am I reviewing this game? As anyone who tunes into the live show would know, I’m the PC guy, but beyond that, I’m also a big fan of the RTS genre. RTS multiplayer has always seemed a wee bit too daunting for me as I tend to spend altogether too much time trying to build pretty bases with epic defences that are inevitably trounced by some tank-rushing anti-city planner. Because of this, and also because RTS multiplayer is very different from StarCraft multiplayer, I’ve opted to review the single-player portion of StarCraft II and leave the multiplayer portion in the hands of more… fanatical folk.

Disclaimers aside, allow me to proceed. StarCraft II is, for all intents and purposes, a very solid RTS experience, albeit a familiar one. While harsh criticisms that the game is essentially StarCraft with prettier graphics go too far, there is some truth in this observation. The first handful of missions felt very familiar to StarCraft II’s predecessor and the game really feels the same, albeit with some opportune tweaks in certain areas. I’ve gotta admit that I really feel for Blizzard in this regard. They had to walk a fine line between doing right by the fans of the game—and this is one particular game where you don’t want to piss off the millions of fans who are eager to buy your game—while also introducing enough new stuff to justify the existence of the game as well as entice newer or simply non-hardcore fans into the game.

If you’ve been living under a rock and have somehow managed to avoid the StarCraft phenomenon, allow me to enlighten you. StarCraft II is the sequel to the still massively popular StarCraft that was released over a decade ago. It sports three factions: Terran (humans), Protoss (think Elites from Halo and you’re halfway there) and Zerg (Starship Troopers bugs only uglier). In Wings of Liberty you’ll be following the exploits of one Jim Raynor, sheriff turned outlaw, as he fights against the oppressive Terran Dominion, the Protoss and the Zerg. And yes, Wings of Liberty only includes a Terran campaign, but considering there’s just shy of 30 missions which take around half an hour (for me at least) to complete, that’s none too shabby on the game length front… and that doesn’t even take into account the countless hours you can lose in multiplayer. Game length is certainly not an issue.

As an RTS game, StarCraft II gets a lot right. There are some fantastic graphics on offer—both in gameplay, in-between mission segments and particularly the gorgeous cutscenes—while animations and the diversity of environments are also admirable. More than simply aesthetically different, certain missions will require you to not only battle Protoss and/or Zerg foes, but also the locale as well. Lava will flood lower grounds and fire can slowly take over a map on a planet whose shelf life is set to expire in a few hours – all of this creates a diversity in the mission structure that kept me coming back for more and employing slightly different tactics than the usual affair of build a bunch of units, perform attack move, win.

But in saying that, there are plenty of missions where that very tactic I just made light of can be successfully employed. If you’re after more of a challenge you may be shocked to discover the vast gaps in difficulty levels. Easy is ridiculously simple, I didn’t find Normal challenging at all, while Hard and Brutal were definitely of the ‘RTS freaks need only apply’ variety. This latter point will particularly upset achievement junkies as every mission has specific achievements to be completed on the Hard difficulty setting; and they’re none too easy either.

I found the mission pacing fantastic though and, in many ways, it felt like multiplayer training for those who’ve never dabbled in online StarCraft before. Each new mission presented a new building and/or unit and it would mould certain mission objectives around its/their use in order to familiarise you with the tech. Don’t get too attached to every unit though as not all of them make the cut when it comes time to take the battle online but, for me, this was more of an incentive to play through the campaign than an annoyance at their online omission.

You’ll have a limited choice over the order in which you complete certain missions, granting you access to particular units at earlier or later stages of your campaign depending on your play style. There are also credits and research points up for grabs, so choosing more lucrative missions first can help to make later missions easier because of purchased upgrades and access to Zerg/Protoss research point upgrades. Choosing research point upgrades, separated into five tiers with two choices for each, was a great way to further personalise your play style, all the while making some tough choices as picking one upgrade is always at the expense of another.

The story is kinda problematic though, in that it definitely feels like it would be a whole lot more rewarding if you had an intimate knowledge of the events of the previous StarCraft storylines. Most of the time I could follow everything that was going on, while at others it felt like it was going over my head. While the voice acting is top notch and there are some interesting characters thrown into the mix, there’s a strange meandering between seriousness and hit-or-miss humour. When the humour’s on, it’s fantastic: the iPistol advertisement at Apple’s expense is particularly memorable and had me laughing out loud the first time I saw it. On the flip side, the same-joke news reports get real old real fast and if I wasn’t such a sucker for clicking on every interactive item in a room then I would have stopped watching them after the first few.

But it’s a combination of the strange oddities that constantly tarnished my levels of immersion when playing StarCraft II. There were a number of clipping issues, even during game-engine cutscenes that made them rather hilarious (in a bad way). Units making grand entrances by way of drop-pod would occasionally get stuck behind the building they dropped in on, pathfinding was off at times, and I saw enemy AI get stuck in strange two-step patrol routes more than once. There was a mission that required me to teleport groups of units across various chasms which only worked half the time; when it stuffed up, half of my selected group would still be stuck on the wrong side of the abyss with their teleport ability recharging… huh?!

The Real ID friends list is a bit more disconcerting in that adding any new friends in StarCraft II also means sharing your full name associated with your Battle.net account (required to play StarCraft II). While this may not be a concern when adding real-life friends and family members to your list, it does become a bit more problematic when you want to add ‘n00bPwner69’ because he’s great at the game, but you don’t necessarily want him to have access to your full name so he can try and add you on Facebook. This system was recently reported on by AngelusRen (found here) in regards to the World of Warcraft forums; a move that was, thankfully, abandoned. It’s a shame that it was integrated into StarCraft II.

At the end of the day I really still see many of my problems with the game as small in comparison to the achievements of StarCraft II. While it may not take real-time strategy to its next level of evolution like Company of Heroes did, it presents a tried and proven RTS formula with the right amount of tweaks and new features to keep you interested. Storyline gripes aside, single-player is mostly accessible to fans and newcomers alike, which is a mighty accomplishment for a game that has built up such hype.

8/10

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  • popshott

    I will say the cut scenes were absolutely gorgeous as nacho pointed out, and the single player isn't too bad I’m currently enjoying it, but I do agree with the difficult settings. I just don't know why Blizzard would look over something like that. Another issue would be the multiplayer; there is a language barrier between us English speaking players and other nationalities. Also I believe us Aussies can only game with only Asian nations due to Servers?

    Also just curious, will there be any DLC Starcraft 2 events happing some time in the future?

  • NachosJustice

    We've got a multiplayer review in the works from someone a lot more qualified to do it than I am.

    I like where your head's at with the StarCraft 2 events… if anyone else is interested, let us know and we'll see what we can put together.

  • Moopidoo

    I'd be very interested, but I can't get StarCraft II until Monday. Blizzard forgot to put the disc in the box before EB Games mailed it to me. Lots of fun… :(

  • NachosJustice

    Classic EB Games. So we've got three people interested (including myself) and I'm sure I can wrangle the QuesterX's and Shonky Adonis's of this world to join in, so our numbers are already playable… I really do suck at multiplayer though.

  • Moopidoo

    Shotgun not teaming with Nachos… :P

  • popshott

    Another good thing about Starcraft 2, is that I believe it revived PC gaming. I haven't seen a pc game sell so crazily like before.

  • Frozencry

    Definitely a different review to mine!

    Also I'd be interested in playing some games too. Feel free to add me as well: Frozencry.566

    Platinum league 1v1, 2v2 and Gold 3v3 ; D

  • NachosJustice

    Oh I'll learn very, very quickly Moop… don't you worry about that.

  • NachosJustice

    I knew you were going to jizz all over it though dude! And well you should, as a StarCraft fanboy (and I mean no disrespect by that) you were destined to love it… as my other StarCraft fanboy mates do as well. In fact, they were very upset when I told them I was going to give the game an 8 (which, in my books, is still a great score for a great game and shouldn't deter people from buying it in the slightest).

    I think Josh said it best on the show last night when he said that if you can distance yourself from the fan aspect of the game there are some legitimate concerns… particularly for us gamers who don't have the same burning passion for the StarCraft series.

    Another thing I only half touched on in this review, but covered in more depth on the show, is how it favours the traditional RTS over the more recent evolutions (I'm thinking of Company of Heroes) of the genre. I'd be very interested in hearing your (and anyone else who wants to chime in) thoughts on this particular point.

  • Frozencry

    It's definitely a pure fact that there's going to be a polarisation with this game; the fans who grew up and loved it, and then non-fans who only just really jumped into it.

    I think for me what it came down to was pure polish, and Blizzard are the utter kings in this regard. Every area in this game screamed extreme attention to detail and a well designed overall game (I was surprised to read about clipping issues, never encountered those on my play. Oh and the blinking stalkers is not a pathfinding error, it's to do with positioning and micro..trust me there's a clever trick to do some really good blinking!). My ratings on a personal level have always been about the polish and functionality of a game, and it's why this and Uncharted 2 are the only games I have ever rated 9.5.

    In terms of concerns, I did note in my review that how BNET is set up is odd, and indeed a little worrying. Though functionality is excellent and it's made to be highly accessible, I did question why it was region locked and why there are no chat rooms. Blizzard has always taken pride in their tight community, so this flip around of locking everyone into regions and not adding chat rooms is strange, and dare I say it, has the stink of Activisions hand (they cannot touch Blizzards IPs, however BNET is external).

    That being said, I'm pretty okay with no LAN, primarily because LAN has almost become redundant in most cases, especially due to the advent of high-speed internet. It's NOT just a simple excuse to fight piracy btw, there's a big issue regarding LAN and with some Korean players who exploited the LAN in the original SC to make an unofficial cup called ICCUP. Millions upon millions were able to play on these unofficial LAN servers, and they were all pirated. It's not documented too well but among SC veterans, it's known that ICCUP is full of shit with pirates and such. It was pretty bad but ultimately it's a double edged sword; we lost a feature (though majority cry about features they'll never use because this era of gamers is full of whiners. Bioshock MP anyone?) because of piracy and yes, it hurts the general consumer and isn't really the best way to go about it, but at the same time it was a large portion of the fans fault for exploiting ICCUP so much, which was hugely popular. Piracy's always a delicate issue.

    In terms of the RTS gameplay, I think that StarCraft is the purest form of RTS play, and this is why it's so successful. Company of Heroes is definitely an excellent RTS, but it's also signficiantly different and feels slightly action-RPGish in its unit control, though ultimately it's an RTS more than anything. StarCraft on the other hand focuses on a simple system of macro and micro (and to clear that up, macro = economics, micro = unit control) and adds depth in through unit variety and control.

    They're different beasts, but I feel that StarCraft and most Blizzard RTS games have the upper hand in the fight, because their balance and astonishing meta-game depth in unit control and composition extends their lastability to insane degrees, and this is the key to Blizzard's design; they stick to a tried and true mechanic, but inject depth through the variety and compositions of your units. Their philosophy is very much like that of Pixar in film; no true innovation in storytelling or design, but extraordinarily polished, relatable and accessible. And hell, even Pixar themselves have called out Blizzard as being the Pixar of games.

    And finally, simplicity. The game does not give you 500 things to worry about or 10,000 features, it streamlines it all and lets you focus on only a few things at hand, but with those few things comes a lot of depth that is easy to come to grips with but would take years to master. This is why I think SupCom failed; it was over ambitious and pretty much collapsed under its own weight of technicalities and extreme macromanagement.

    I don't know, I could go on forever as to why StarCraft is such an excellent game, but ultimately Blizzard went for a formula that is by no means broking and simply evolved it into an even more perfected form.

  • Frozencry

    …damn that's a long reply.