StarCraft II’s new 3D engine is impressive-looking enough that Blizzard didn’t need to use a bunch of pre-recorded videos for cutscenes, as is their tradition. This time, most of the cutscenes and cinematics are rendered in real-time right on your computer, as are the incredibly detailed intermission environments. Unfortunately the visuals are scaled way down for the actual gameplay, most certainly the result of a choice to favor performance over fidelity…
Seems they wanted to make sure that the game scaled very well to older computers (2.6GHz P4 and Radeon 9800 Pro minimum!), in addition to providing smoother than smooth framerates to the competitive crowd. It doesn’t diminish the gameplay experience per se, especially if you’re still used to your StarCraft being 2D, but you have to wonder why they couldn’t make it look prettier for people that have the hardware to manage the extra load... I’ve included screenshots of both gameplay and in-engine cutscenes in this article so that you can compare.
Gross underutilization of graphics capabilities aside, StarCraft II is not a bad game to look at. Texture quality is adequate, particle effects and shaders are decent enough, etc. The dynamic shadows are a real treat, along with seeing all of your favorite units of olde being rendered in three dimensions, of course. I quite enjoy watching the shield effect on Protoss units, as it flares and blocks projectiles until it fails and they hit their mark. Quite the contrast to back in the day when the shield merely served as an additional pool of regenerative hit points.
The thing that bothers me most about the way the game looks is that you can’t zoom out very far from the battlefield. Not that I necessarily need it to be able to see the entire hemisphere at once, but it should at least allow you to compensate for the bloated UI that takes up about a quarter of the screen. That and it should be possible to turn the camera and view the action from any angle. If you hold the delete or insert keys, you can temporarily pan the camera around to the left or right, but it snaps right back, so it’s not very useful.
If you played the original StarCraft, you will recognize many of the sound effects and unit acknowledgements as they have been faithfully reproduced, albeit in higher quality. Whether it’s “Need a light?” or “YOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS,” the classic sound bites will have you reeling with nostalgia. Obviously, new units have new voices, my favorite being that of the Thor heavy assault walker. He sounds so much like a certain Governator that I find myself expecting to hear “Get to the choppa!” at any moment.
The music in StarCraft II is so awesome, I find myself feeling envious of those of you that have or will be getting the Collector’s Edition with the soundtrack CD. (I know it’s for sale on iTunes, but I’m not that envious, nor would I dare use iTunes.) Not only are there are slew of great covers and original tunes that blare from the jukebox in the Hyperion’s cantina, the in-game score is top-notch. Ranging from that twangy western guitar to the standard epic orchestra and full-on rock instrumental, the background music is always atmospheric and is also surreally reminiscent of the music from the original… Maybe some of it is the same, I don’t know.