In StarCraft II, it’s still the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss clashing against each other, and you’re still mining minerals with SCVs, Drones, and Probes and pulling Vespene Gas from the ground to fuel production. It’s a classic style of real-time strategy play, one old-school RTS gamers should be very familiar with. Compared to the changes Blizzard made between the traditional gameplay of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness and the hero-based leveling elements of Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, StarCraft II feels like a relatively safe play; a game designed to slide in and discreetly supplant its predecessor instead of ruffle the feathers of longtime StarCraft devotees and risk rejection. While it’s not a revolutionary game, it is one of the most fully featured, expertly designed, and impressively refined real-time strategy experiences on the market.
Even though at its most basic level a lot of the game is familiar, much has been adjusted. In no area is this more apparent than in the single-player campaign. Blizzard’s decision to split the overall story of StarCraft II into three parts sparked some controversy when it was first announced; basically that means you only get to play as the Terran faction (with a few exceptions) for the solo portion, and must wait until later for the Zerg and Protoss campaigns to be released to see the entirety of the story. While that affects some of the impact of the tale, it in no way means you’ll be starved for content if all you’re looking to do in StarCraft II is play alone. There’s a huge campaign here that could easily take many hours to play through (depending on your style and level of difficulty). It’s all exceedingly well presented, with a totally reworked narrative delivery system, a few instances of choice driving the story, and options for inter-mission upgrades that make it feel like more of an role-playing experience than a series of mission that exist solely to get you ready for the multiplayer.
Unlike the original game, this time around you won’t be staring at the sparsely animated heads of major characters as they bicker and plot on video monitors between missions. Instead, Blizzard gives you a detailed world to play around in to give its fictional universe a greater sense of place and atmosphere. The action follows along with Jim Raynor, who begins the game as a gruff alcoholic in the process of rebelling against Arcturus Mengsk, the corrupt emperor of the Terran Dominion. If you’ve forgotten the StarCraft storyline or never got around to learning it, then it should be fairly easy to dig into this one, though you’re going to miss a lot of references.
Regardless of your level of exposure to the fiction, it’s difficult to ignore the eye-rolling cliches and talk of prophecies being fulfilled, and the overabundance of 1980s action movie-style macho posturing and cheesiness. It’s all snugly wrapped around the missions though, which makes it easier to look beyond the standard sci-fi trappings and appreciate the detail that’s gone into the creation of the character models, the smoothness of the animations, and the amount of character interaction packed into the experience. Since missions are bookended by cut-scenes, great voice acting, and rewards, it makes each feel important in its own way, and adds to your motivation to meet every challenge. It’s something a lot of developers besides Blizzard have difficulty doing in this genre, with their missions often feeling like a string of meaningless, boring tasks.
Additional narrative is also provided through interactive environments between missions. You’re able to explore various settings, from a dusty building at the campaign’s outset to Raynor’s starship, the Hyperion, and beyond as the action continues. Eventually the entirety of the game’s options and locations are unlocked, letting you flip around to different areas of the ship to talk to major characters or purchase upgrades. On top of that, new units are unlocked depending on which mission you choose to take on next, which can be further modified in the upgrade center, adding significant bonuses to each like more effective healing for medics or boosted protection for Marines. Because the campaign isn’t tied down by the strict rules of multiplayer balance, this also means you’ll see a number of favorites return from the original. Firebats, Vultures, Goliaths and more can be unlocked and upgraded in the story mode, which is both a great nod to fans and adds more variety for new players. It’s a system that’s constantly giving you new things to play around with and ways to modify what’s already available, making progressions more exciting.
As if that wasn’t enough, even more options for army customization exist throughout the campaign, including a research system and mercenary units. These mercs can be hired by Raynor for a fee, and when deployed in battle serve as elite versions of existing units that are called in instantly. It can be great in a bind, and adds to the stable of available fighters when setting up a battle plan. Optional objectives in missions call for the collection of Protoss or Zerg research items, which can then be turned in between stages for even more upgrades. Along both Zerg and Protoss paths these upgrades exist in pairs – where selecting one locks out the other – meaning you’ll have to make permanent decisions about things like whether you want to buff the armor of a Bunker or slap a gun turret on top. All these modification systems combined make for a highly customizable campaign experience that’s consistently fun because it introduces a steady stream of new content and options, making sure there’s always something to look forward to trying out for the first time.
Customization is a big part of the campaign’s appeal, but really the best part is the mission design. It’s quite a feat for Blizzard to stuff in this many missions and give each a unique feel, but that’s exactly what’s been done. Each can be broken down into basic and familiar escort, commando, defense, and assault types of tasks, but within each of these a special element is always thrown in. Sometimes it’s a giant wave of fire slowly sweeping across a map spurring you to frequently relocate your base in pursuit of objectives. Sometimes it’s a see-saw back and forth battle between armies as you vie to capture nodes located around map. Sometimes you’ll just be in control of a single unit and need to stealth into enemy territory, relying on AI controlled allies to help wipe out detectors so you can snipe, slice and nuke your enemies into submission. I’d recommend any seasoned RTS player bump the difficulty to Hard since Normal is pretty easy, but regardless of skill level the game is always fun because the mission objectives are so diverse.
Then it’s back to your ship to trade in credits, tweak your army, and talk to the crew. Considering each character usually has something new to say about each situation, in many cases revealing important or interesting plot points, it’s worth hearing everyone out. Interacting with characters also helps establish a stronger relationship with them, which can make some of the decisions that eventually need to be made more meaningful. Depending on who you choose to side with at the culmination of a few story arcs can have a noticeable effect on what follows, both in terms of the rewards and the fate of the characters.
Personality is also established through detail in the environment. Unlocked units will appear in your ship’s armory like trophies on a rack, there’s a jukebox sitting in the Cantina filled with a wide selection of songs that meshes well with the kind of good-natured roughness that characterizes Raynor and his crew. There’s even a newscast that runs new episodes during the entirety of the game that communicates a comedic side-story that would feel more at home in a role-playing game than an RTS. Even the menus feel meticulously developed, where descriptions of upgrades are backed up with embedded videos showing exactly what the upgrade does. It’s a level of production value not often seen in the industry, and one that, as consumers who like being spoiled, is easy to appreciate.
On the subject of the actual story, it takes a little while to get to the interesting stuff. No doubt franchise fans will eat it up, but newcomers may be wondering what all the fuss is about while going through the early missions that lack the kind of urgency you would hope when the fate of civilization is in peril. By the end, it certainly makes you wish the second installment, called Heart of the Swarm, was available so you could move past dealing with Raynor’s personal regrets and vendettas and focus instead of the larger issues facing Terran, Zerg, and Protoss forces. It’s not all serious, though. There’s plenty of humor injected into the story, from Blizzard in-jokes like the dancing Night Elf in the Cantina and the Lost Viking arcade game to Marine Tychus Findlay’s insistence on smoking cigars inside his suit to the huge range of unit acknowledgements, it’s a welcome counterbalance to the grim future all the races will eventually need to face.
When you’ve finally exhausted the campaign’s content, it’s time to head into the multiplayer portion and dive into all the new version of Blizzard’s online service, battle.net, has to offer. What you’ll find is a wide range of options for play, the star of which is the automated league and ladder system that ensures you’re playing against someone of roughly comparable skill level. Before getting into that, though, if you’re new to the game it’s worth checking out all the tutorials and information Blizzard packed into battle.net. Everything from unit descriptions to tech trees to tutorials on how to play have been included so nobody should feel entirely lost.
Challenge missions also exist to allow you to more easily get acquainted with how each unit individually matches up against others. It’s a handy tool for learning that Hellions can burn through groups of infantry or that Siege Tanks aren’t the best unit to use against the Immortals’ heavy shields. It also introduces you to concepts like using heavy units to soak up damage while ranged hit from afar, as well as familiarizes you with important skills like the Sentry’s Force Field and Guardian Shield and the Corruptor’s ability to enhance damage to air targets. Overall it’s a great selection of conveniently placed and produced tutorial materials to help disperse the veil of elitist mystique that surrounds this game and let everyone pick it up and discover why it’s so entertaining.
Once you’re actually into the multiplayer, there’s plenty to do. The progression online eases you into competitive play by giving you the option to practice on rush-proof maps before dropping you into placement play. Based on the placement results you’re then assigned a league and division automatically with the intention of ensuring those you’re matched up against are roughly of the same skill level. From what I’ve experienced since launch the system works well, placing me against fairly equal opponents across 1v1 or team games, which can be up to 4v4. All statistics are then tracked on battle.net as your position shifts depending on performance. Best of all is the replay feature, which allows you to save and relive any match in a convenient fashion. During the replay you can fast forward, reverse, and see a variety of statistics from the game including the all-important APM (actions per minute), that represents essentially how fast you are with issuing commands. It’s an easy way to observe the build orders and see where you went wrong, and serves as yet another useful learning tool to ease in newcomers.
The catch is you need to connect through battle.net to get in a game, and you unfortunately won’t find an option to play over a local area network. It’s still possible to play with people you know, but you’ll have to do so online by adding them to the in-game friends list and setting up a party. If, for whatever reason, you’re without a reliable internet connection, you can at least log into battle.net offline and play the single-player and AI matches across an enormous number of Blizzard-made maps, though you won’t earn Achievements this way. Being able to play offline is at least good news considering how many recent products require you to be constantly online even to play by yourself.
When you’re finally set and ready for competitive play, you’ll find one of the most finely tuned traditional real-time strategy experiences on the market. Every unit feels useful, every move has an impact. Terrans can set up defensive perimeters around their base by building supply depots. These can be lowered into the ground to let friendly forces pass, and can serve as a protective wall against rushers as Marines peg would-be invaders with machine gun blasts from safety. Memorization and swift reflexes are keys to success in StarCraft II, and knowing exactly what to build when can have dramatic effects on how a match plays out. The interaction and counters between the three races are still as entertaining as ever, particularly because of some of the new gameplay additions like the ability for some units to hop between tiers of land.
Having units that can move between different levels of terrain adds a ton of tactical options that make multiplayer games more dramatic. This can be especially brutal in a skilled Terran player’s hand that manages to get a group of Reapers together and uses their jump jets to vault past an opponent’s defenses and directly assault their resource gatherers to disrupt economic production. If the player’s micromanagement skills are good enough, it’s then possible to direct the fast-moving Reapers away from defenders, then hold off just long enough to fire a volley of shots, pecking away at pursuers as they themselves stay out of harm’s way. For those playing against Protoss, there’s perhaps no feeling more disheartening than establishing a huge army and setting up elaborate defenses only to have a giant group of Colossi waltz up a cliff at the unprotected back of your base and incinerate all that’s been built with their devastating twin lasers. For whichever strategy you come to think is best in StarCraft II, there’s a counter. It’s just a matter of who can scout and react the fastest to changing conditions.
Much of the experience is going to be familiar to StarCraft fans, but there have been so many additions and tweaks that there’s plenty to learn. A lot of players have already been figuring things out in the heavily publicized beta that ran for months pre-launch, and continued support in the months ahead can be expected as Blizzard keeps patching and tweaking the already excellent balance.
On the hardware side of things, it’s nice that the game is capable of running on a wide variety of systems (though anyone with a powerful gaming machine will be happy to see the game looks beautiful at Ultra settings, with detailed character models that are especially striking close up during cut-scenes). Attention to detail throughout the rest of the game, like the sparring of the spider mines in Raynor’s armory and general level of wear and tear in other environments (the spider web above the Cantina’s television and boots hanging from the overhead wires) shows that a lot of thought was put into delivering believable environments. When you’re actually playing the RTS portion of the game the visuals aren’t quite as impressive, but you’ll still get to see some great animations as units trot around the landscape with a sense of weight, get scorched by Hellions, dissolved by Roaches, or sliced in half by Zealots.
Blizzard wasn’t trying to do anything drastically different with StarCraft II. Much of the core gameplay of the original has been preserved, yet with plenty of tweaks, additional units and new abilities for veteran players to toy with and devise new approaches to competitive battles. Anyone intimidated by the notion of playing against live opponents will find a lot to enjoy, with a fantastically presented single-player campaign featuring impressively varied mission design supported by a memorable, though often cheesy, cast of characters. Then, if you’re feeling courageous, the notion of venturing online is made more appealing by battle.net’s automated ranking system that frequently matches you up with opponents of similar skill level. It’s not a step forward for the genre, exactly, but StarCraft II is still one of the most polished, finely crafted and well presented real-time strategy games available.