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.