Back in 1998 I played StarCraft and really enjoyed it, but I am by no means a StarCraft fanboy. Consequently I like to think that I am able to approach this review with at least a smidgeon of objectivism. Now that that’s out of the way, the following sentence should, theoretically, hold a little more weight: this game is the best thing to happen to the RTS genre since the original StarCraft (and yes, I’m including Company of Heroes in that). Many of you probably already knew that, but we at NAG Online feel the urge to fling our opinion into the vespene choked ether, just like the guts from a zergling might be flung about after meeting the business end of a siege tank. Ready to roll out?
Single Player Campaign
Wings of Liberty focuses on the Terran chapter in the StarCraft II trilogy. Players take on the role of Jim Raynor from the original StarCraft as he sets in motion a string of events to spark a revolution against Arcturus Mengsk’s corrupt Terran Dominion. Naturally, his efforts are inextricably tied up with the Protoss and Kerrigan – the Queen of Blades and leader of the Zerg race. As far as canon goes, the StarCraft universe is a dense one and many new-comers to the series may feel slightly overwhelmed by the bulky plot. Luckily, while you wait for the game to install you are taken through a series of summaries of the events that occurred in the original StarCraft and its expansion Brood War. By the time the progress bar hits 100% you should have a good idea of what to expect and who is who in this sci-fi epic. If you still don’t, then fortunately the game ships with a booklet that details the events in much more depth – good job Blizzard.
As far as gameplay is concerned the fundamentals haven’t changed much since 1998. You will still be marshalling your forces, harvesting minerals and vespene gas, researching new technologies and trying desperately to fend off wave after wave of Zerg and Protoss. It’s classic StarCraft with a shiny new coat of 3D paint. Well, that’s what it seems, but look closely and there are a number of subtle tweaks, additional units and ideas that make the experience a much greater one. The most obvious addition is the quasi-RPG element in between missions, which serves a dual purpose. The first is to provide a more interactive way of progressing the story as you can speak to various people, watch news reports (which are often hilarious), and soak up background details via the interactive screens. This is in stark contrast to traditional RTS plot progression that, rather impersonally, pushes the narrative forward through a series of pre-rendered sequences and mission debriefings. That’s not to say that there aren’t any pre-rendered cutscenes to be found. Blizzard is still the king of stunning cutscenes and a retrospective one involving Kerrigan’s betrayal at the hands of Mengsk is undeniably excellent and is almost guaranteed to give you goose bumps.
The second effect from the RPG additive is allowing you to select specific tech upgrades and research elements. Within each mission will be certain objectives and pickups that will allow you to accumulate research points that unlock tiered additions to your army. For example: collecting enough Protoss research points will allow you to unlock an ability that lets you drop instant supply depots from orbit. Furthermore, missions may have secondary objectives with credit payouts for successful completion, but most missions will award you with a credit payout upon completion. You can then use your credits to hire mercenary troops or to permanently upgrade your units (such as giving marines shields or battlecruisers the ability to fire anti-air missiles). This, coupled with the tech upgrades in the field, means that you can customise your army and style of play quite significantly.
What will delight many is the variation to be found within the missions – this is something Blizzard is becoming very good at and gone is the RTS staple of “build base and destroy enemy base”. One particular mission called “Outbreak” has you defending your base at night from waves of sun-sensitive, infected colonists, and launching counter attacks by day while the enemy is in hiding. Alternatively, another mission has you constantly uprooting your base to relocate it as a firestorm slowly spreads across the map. Little elements like this means that the fundamental gameplay is kept fresh in every mission. Out of the twenty-six or so missions in the single player campaign, I never felt bored in any of them as they are all unique in their own way.
Let’s face it: many people are only into StarCraft for the multiplayer. This time around, however, Blizzard shipped StarCraft II with Battle.net functionality central to the overall experience. Many bewailed the fact that LAN support had been dropped and online play made mandatory for all multiplayer matches, but the truth is that the new Battle.net system is slick and functional. With Facebook friends lists built in, finding your friends on Battle.net is a breeze and in general the UI is accessible and easy to navigate (with the exception of finding your three digit profile code – protip: you can see it when you hit the “add friend” button).
Naturally, the competition out there is tough and those new to the StarCraft competitive scene will lose – a lot. For those who take their multiplayer gaming seriously, there are ladders and ranked matches to be found with ease. For those new to the scene, you have an option to splash around in a beginners’ pool for your first fifty matches. Here you will likely find players of similar experience, but once those initial fifty matches are used up then Blizzard thinks you’re ready to play in the big league (gulp). This beginner’s pool is entirely optional and you can opt to bypass it and move straight into ranked matches.
There are alterations to available unit types and tech research methods to be found in the multiplayer section, so don’t expect to find a carbon copy of the load-outs and tech trees from the single player campaign. This has obviously been done to keep things balanced, but it also adds another obstacle to overcome for people new to the online scene.
One gripe is that, at the time of writing this, Battle.net accounts are region locked meaning that until Blizzard changes their approach, you will only be able to play against people in South Africa and Europe. If you have any friends in Australia or the USA for example, then you’re out of luck.
Sadly, I experienced some pretty rough graphics glitches and the game crashed on one or two occasions. Fortunately, during the online experience I was only ever dropped from one game, so the new system seems very stable, especially if you take into consideration that the game launched worldwide on the same day meaning the server load must have been massive.
It’s been twelve years since the first StarCraft but the universe and game that Blizzard created so long ago seems as fresh as ever. The single player campaign is the stuff of true science fiction brilliance, and the climactic ending is only overshadowed by the realisation that this is just the first chapter. Bring on Heart of the Swarm.