Summary: After 12 years of waiting, fans of Blizzard's StarCraft RTS finally have a sequel to play. StarCraft 2 focuses on just one race though, Terrans, and it lacks LAN play. Activision is also selling it for $60. With so many limitations, is Wings of Liberty worthy of the StarCraft 2 name? Vandy seems to think so...Read on for the full review!
Hell, itís about damn time!
A very long 12 years after the release of the original, Blizzard has finally come out with the first game in the StarCraft II trilogy, called Wings of Liberty. It contains one campaign following the exploits of Jim Raynor and his band of revolutionaries in their fight for justice against Dominion Emperor Arcturus Mengsk, as well as a full multiplayer/skirmish component featuring full playability of all three races: Terran, Protoss, and Zerg.
Along with a brand new 3D graphics engine good enough to handle real-time, near cinematic-quality cutscenes, StarCraft II features new units, upgrades, interactive mission hubs, more than two dozen unique missions, Battle.net 2.0, and a lot more. If youíre coming in to this thinking thereís no way the game could suck, youíre right. So, I will be telling you more about the game so that you can more accurately ascertain how good it is. Turn the page!
Raynorís liberated battlecruiser, the Hyperion, is your base of operations throughout most of the campaign. You spend time between missions talking to companions, absorbing backstory through fictional news casts and knick-knacks on the walls, listening to music from the jukebox, or even playing a full-fledged arcade minigame. There are more important things to do on the ship, though, such as patronizing a grizzled mercenary contact in the cantina, buying upgrades for your units in the armory, researching new technologies in the laboratory, and accessing current or past missions via terminals in the bridge.
There are 29 missions in total. Some are not required to complete the story and some are not available during your first playthrough. (At several points throughout the campaign, you will be presented with a choice of two mutually exclusive assignments with different rewards.) You start out with only basic units and tech available, but each mission unlocks a new one for you to use from that point forward. Then, if you choose to go back and replay a mission, you can do so with all of the units you have acquired. Earlier levels may become easier this way, which could be considered a good or bad thing.
Completing missions and/or bonus objectives within them can earn you precious credits, which you spend on the aforementioned upgrades and mercenaries. Unit upgrades can unlock new abilities or fortify attributes and are applied across the entire campaign. Each group of mercenaries represents a supercharged version of certain units, and once you hire them, you can call them in to fight for you during a mission. They are summoned instantly for a premium over the standard unit and also have a cool-down period, but they are affected by the upgrades. Keep in mind that you wonít get enough credits to buy everything, so youíll have to choose carefully!
No two missions are exactly alike. Theyíre all made up of unique scenarios that often involve a lot more than simply destroying the enemy. You might be defending your base and holding out for extraction, protecting colonists from Zerg invasion, stealing a Protoss artifact while they are distracted by Zerg, etc. One of my favorites involves a massive Zerg infestation Ė you go out and raze defiled buildings by day, but once the sun goes down you must retreat to your base and fend off the nocturnal, shambling infected populace. I donít want to spoil them all, as most are surprisingly fun and interesting.
There is a Protoss mini-campaign (series of four missions) within the context of the story that has you playing as that race. Itís a refreshing diversion, probably included because theirs will be the final game in the trilogyÖ I suppose Blizzard didnít want to make us wait too long for some new energy-bladed story action.
The new online game service has been available to World of Warcraft players for a while now, but it takes center stage with the release of StarCraft II and all newer Blizzard games going forward. It boasts a bevy of enhanced features including voice chat, cloud file storage, leagues and ladders, achievements, stat-tracking, unlockable rewards, custom mod support, and more. Thereís even an extensive help menu and tutorial system that can teach you the basics of the game, as well as a set of challenge missions that will help hone your skills for online competition.
When you activate your copy, you must tie the CD key to your Battle.net account, and if itís a new one, itís a Real ID. You have a permanent user name of your choosing, but you are also asked for your real name, which will be a part of your profile. I suppose you could input a fake name since there is no need to use a credit card to pay for a subscription as with World of Warcraft, but thatís not necessary. You decide whether or not you will give people access to your Real ID Ė itís possible for you to know them only by screen-name and vice versa. Blizzard recommends you only add people you know as Real ID friends.
However, only by using the Real ID can you gain access to the newest features of Battle.net, such as current cross-game support or whatever else they decide to add in the future. As you can see in the Battle.net Overview video posted here, friends that you know by Real ID will appear in your friends list whether they are playing StarCraft II or World of Warcraft or other upcoming Blizzard titles. It also shows you what theyíre doing, i.e. what mode of SC2 theyíre playing or what area of WoW theyíre currently in. Using this unified friends list, you can instant message or invite people to join your party, which allows for easy coordination of group matches.
When it comes to StarCraft, online multiplayer is practically an entirely different game. You probably shouldnít jump into it until after you know what youíre doing because the whole thing blows wide open and can be overwhelming to a newbie. For example, without the meta-upgrades of the campaign, everything has to be researched before you can use them in that particular skirmish. Also, some units (such as Terran medics) were removed from multiplayer to preserve the delicate balance between the races or because they are made redundant by a new unit. Compared to the scripted, leisurely campaign, competitive matches against other people are fast-paced and cut-throat, often concluding in the blink of an eye if you are caught unprepared.
My play style isnít very conducive to success in the competitive online world, so I generally stay away from playing against strangers. The cooperative skirmishes against AI opponents are more my speed, so that will likely be the extent of my multiplayer experience. I used to play StarCraft matches with a friend of mine, but the whole business of optimizing build order, constantly churning out masses of units, memorizing hotkeys, and micromanaging combat just isnít how I generally like to enjoy playing a game.
StarCraft IIís new 3D engine is impressive-looking enough that Blizzard didnít 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 fidelityÖ
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 doesnít diminish the gameplay experience per se, especially if youíre still used to your StarCraft being 2D, but you have to wonder why they couldnít make it look prettier for people that have the hardware to manage the extra load... Iíve 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 canít 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 itís 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 itís ďNeed a light?Ē or ďYOU MUST CONSTRUCT ADDITIONAL PYLONS,Ē 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 ďGet to the choppa!Ē at any moment.
StarCraft is back and better than ever. New look, even better taste.
Sub-par graphics. Though light-years ahead of its predecessor, the graphics in StarCraft II leave something to be desired.
The only thing more amazing than StarCraft II is the fact that thereís really nothing revolutionary about its core gameplay. They added several new units and features, as well as further balanced and changed some of the old ones, but you can tell they didnít want to shake it up too much. Itís completely understandable, considering they already had a good thing going; donít fix what ainít broke, right? The fact is that nobody has been able to top the first StarCraft until now. Besides, most people (including myself) havenít played the original in so long (if at all) that more of the same isnít bad at all.
Having limited the field of view like that, they should have cranked up the in-game graphics some more. Of course, they wanted to make sure really old PCs could run the game, but the new engine is capable of much better visuals that they shouldíve let enthusiasts tap into. The majority of the cutscenes are rendered in real-time at high enough quality that they deemed fit to use footage from them in the extended trailer. Most third-person shooters donít look that good!
Missions last up to 30 minutes on average -- some are longer, some shorter. With nearly 30 of them available, the campaign ought to last maybe 15-20 hours total, depending on your play style, difficulty, and whether or not you bypass the optional assignments. Thatís also not including replaying to unlock achievements, complete challenge missions, or just plain skirmish. Iím not really into multiplayer when it comes to strategy games, but Iím sure many people will be able to garner endless enjoyment from that. After all, it is the rightful successor to the king of competitive RTS games, not to mention that going online is the only way to play as Zerg for now.
Hopefully they donít take too long putting together those expansions Ė the Zerg are coming next with Heart of the Swarm, and then the Protoss-themed Legacy of the Void will finish things up. The events of all three campaigns transpire in chronological order, and I canít wait to get started with the next one. I hope it follows standard expansion pricing of around $30, but if it is the same quality as Wings of Liberty, even full price may be justified. StarCraft II is just that good. Certainly a top contender for game of the year, it may even be the RTS of the decade. (I doubt there will be any question about the latter once the rest of the trilogy is released.)
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