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StarCraft II is the sort of game I hate to review. It's not because it's bad - it's not - but because it seems like everyone's already made up their minds about it. Gamers have either been waiting a decade for it or they're boycotting it because it's $60, it doesn't have LAN support, and Activision made the game discs out of orphan bones (or something). Still, to convince myself to keep writing, I'm going to pretend there are a few undecideds out there. Imaginary readers, this one is for you.
SC2: Wings of Liberty's campaign picks up four years after StarCraft's expansion Brood War. The campaign follows former marshal Jim Raynor as he leads a rebellion against Arcturus Mengsk, the leader of the Terran Dominion that he helped to the throne in SC1. Characters retell the relevant bits of story from the first game and its expansion over and over so if you'll be able to find your footing very quickly if you haven't played either.
SC1's story was told solely through mission briefings with talking heads and a handful of flashy cinematics. SC2 has both but most of the plot is instead conveyed through in-engine cutscenes. The game's new 3D graphics engine allowed the developers to craft scenes with high-quality character models. These are a lot easier to make than those polished CG cinematics and as a result, the devs could fit more story moments into the game. While I'm not ga-ga over the plot or the characters - Raynor goes through the standard "disillusioned drunk to courageous leader" transformation and says "darlin" about five thousand times in the process - there's no denying that SC2's story is richer than that of its predecessor.
What Blizzard has really done is create a universe that exists outside of the gameplay. In between missions, Raynor can travel to different parts of his flagship and talk to the crew, watch the news, or just simply look at interesting crap hung on the walls (like his old marshal badge). It's a bit like the interludes from the Wing Commander games. Some of the characters you'll interact with, by the way, are originally from the StarCraft novels. The protagonist from the cancelled StarCraft: Ghost game makes an appearance as well. SC2 pulls together the different stories that have been told in this universe and presents them as a unified setting. It warmed my RPG-loving heart and made me wonder if they're working on a StarCraft MMO.
The campaign plays a bit like a role-playing game as well. Completing missions earns you money that you can spend on unit upgrades or new mercenaries (elites that you can purchase in limited quantities). You'll also acquire Zerg and Protoss research points. As you acquire more points, you unlock upgrades or new units. At each rung of these two research ladders, you'll have to make a choice between two possible advances. For example, do you want your command centers to have radar dishes or defense turrets? The obvious effect of this is that you get stronger throughout the campaign. More subtly, though, this process of choosing upgrades makes you examine your playstyle. A really nice upgrade might make me use a neglected unit type more often or make me lean on a favored unit even more.
If you're completely unfamiliar with StarCraft, the SC2 campaign is a great way to initiate yourself. The game introduces roughly one unit per mission and you won't get access to the full cupboard until the very last missions. This might sound like hand-holding to veterans but fortunately the campaign has four difficulty levels (Casual, Normal, Hard, Brutal) so that every player will be adequately challenged. Each mission has three Achievements to chase (one of which is always really hard) so no one's going to be bored here. Also, some of the units are unique to the single-player campaign so the experience is distinct enough from multiplayer that you really should give it a go.
For the most part, Blizzard avoided making the campaign missions into simple skirmish matches against the A.I.. In some cases you're not even in control of a base and you're simply controlling a small group of units and trying to keep them alive by playing to their strengths. Even in the more traditional RTS missions where you're gathering resources, training units, and then directing them into battle, there's always some twist. One mission has you escorting a series of refugee trucks along a highway. In another, a wall of fire is moving slowly left to right across the map so you have to pack up your base (Terran buildings can lift off and fly to new locations) over and over to prevent its destruction. Oh, one more: you and your opponent want to hire a mercenary army to wipe the other out. However, the planet is short on resources so you have to race around the entire map trying to pick up salvageable material.
Often these situations are skewed toward use of whatever unit was introduced in that mission. The previously mentioned "salvage" mission, for example, teaches you the value of the speedy Vulture hoverbikes. In addition to becoming familiar with these units, you're also being forced to adopt new tactics. I always considered myself more defensively-minded and the campaign really shook me out of that comfort zone. It taught me to be more flexible and riskier - an important mind-set for multiplayer. It's unfortunate that there's only a Terran campaign in Wings of Liberty (the Zerg and Protoss campaigns are included in upcoming expansion packs) because it means you're only learning one faction. There are a handful of missions where you control the Protoss but there's too much ground to cover in too little time.
Though the campaign is limited to one faction, this doesn't mean it's a third of the length of the SC1 single-player. In fact, it's about the same length. There are 29 campaign missions in SC2, compared to 30 in its predecessor. Considering there's only one faction, it means that total isn't padded out by thin tutorial-style missions. The campaign should take about 12 to 13 hours to complete. All the missions all be replayed through a console on the Hyperion's bridge, too, in case you want to pick up any Achievements you missed. Once you're through with all that, there are also nine standalone Challenge missions to sharpen your skills. You can sink a lot of hours into the game without ever setting foot online.
In multiplayer, all three SC2 factions are pretty similar to what they were like in SC1. This is good news for everyone who played the first game because it means they'll be able to quickly acclimate to the new units/buildings and other changes. What this means for series newcomers, though, is that you're going to get slapped around quite a bit. Seriously. You have no idea what these people are capable of. Even if you're playing Terran, there's going to be a harsh learning curve here.
The only way to really learn the rock-paper-scissors of the multiplayer is by playing over and over. You're encouraged to ease into online skirmishing by participating in the Practice League. Practice matches are unranked and have newbie-friendly settings (such as a slower speed). You can play up to 50 of them before venturing into the normal, ranked matchmaking. Once you opt out of the Practice League, you can't go back. You'll still probably get your ass beat during your first practice matches but at least it won't hurt your ranking in the future. Also, this system bypasses the awkward situations from SC1 where people would host matches called "beginners only," which invariably resulted in more experienced players poaching newbies. If you're worried about embarrassing yourself in even practice matches, you can also opt to play cooperative matches with one or two other players against the A.I..
SC2 marks the debut of Battle.net 2.0, which is styled after Xbox Live and PSN. It allows you to add friends (through their Facebook or Battle.net accounts) and chat with them with instant messages. You can also form a party and join games together. Matchmaking is quick and painless; you set your preferences (speed, match size, etc.) and boom, you're in a match with players of comparable skill within seconds. Manual match browsing is only used for games with custom settings, modes or maps. It's not terrible to scroll through a list of matches but I wish they had made that process a bit easier by letting you sort alphabetically or something.
Custom maps, by the way, are the reason why SC1 and WarCraft III were so widely played for years after their release. They're basically like playing another game. In some cases they're still real-time strategy but in other instances the player creations will stray into RPG, action, or racing genres. SC2 comes with a new Galaxy Editor to allow for the creation of new maps as well as campaigns and mods. Amateur builders can then publish their works to Battle.net so everyone can download them. You can actually start a custom match with a map you don't have on your computer; after selecting it from the browser, you will automatically download it before going to the matchmaking screen.
Still, before you go building a golden statue of Battle.net 2.0's lead programmer, it's worth noting a couple downsides. First, you can't play across territories; Europeans have to play with Europeans and Americans stick with Americans. Second, you can't play over a local area network. The lack of cross-territory play makes sense from a lag standpoint but the decision to not include LAN support is just baffling.
As can be expected from such a high-profile game, StarCraft II has generated a lot of debate. Are we owed LAN play on every multiplayer game? Should Blizzard have finished the Protoss and Zerg campaigns and included them with this game, even if it would've resulted in a lengthier development? Is a PC game ever worth $60? What bugs me about these lines of criticism is that they ignore the game itself. Instead of fretting over the principle of a publisher charging $60 for a PC game, shouldn't we instead be evaluating whether the game in question is really worth $60?
Is it worth $60? In making the argument against this, critics will state SC2 is really just StarCraft 1.5. In other words, it's just an improved version of the original rather than a true sequel and thus unworthy of our hard-earned money. I'm not sure what to tell people who make this argument. What else did you want SC2 to be? It sports a new and well-crafted campaign, much improved graphics (they moved from 2D sprites to 3D models), new units and structures, a completely redesigned multiplayer network, and better tools for user-generated content. Casual and fanatic real-time strategy games alike will get dozens of hours of fresh entertainment out of this. That's more than I get out of a lot of $60 games. If you're intent on boycotting, though, go ahead. Activision Blizzard will be too busy counting its money to notice and you'll miss out on a great game in the process.
Platform(s): PC, Mac
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment