August 19, 2010

Review – StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

Filed under: Reviews — Tags: , , , , , , — Brad Johnson @ 8:55 am

It’s been twelve years since the release of StarCraft, which is something you’ve probably read a dozen times by now if you’ve been following the coverage of the game around the intertubes. It sounds significant, which is probably why people keep writing it—for many, the realization comes with a wave of nostalgia, recalling the days of dial-up modems, shuddering lag, zergling rushes and a million players who really didn’t know how they should set the latency option.

Then you start to realize it’s hard to get nostalgic about a game you were playing as recently as six months ago.

Yes, StarCraft had legs. Players warred with one another for years before the game began to show its age, and even then many couldn’t pry themselves away. Blizzard diligently rolled out patches, carefully adjusting the game for those faithful who still saw fit to log onto what had become an entirely archaic online gaming platform. It was a level of meticulous perfection in the gameplay mechanic that allowed StarCraft to endure far longer than anyone could have imagined, surviving the shift to 3D and certainly other challenges along the way. It had become ancient by the videogame standard when Blizzard finally dropped the StarCraft II bomb in 2007—but people were still playing.

The strength of the original StarCraft was in its multiplayer. The campaign had a strong story and offered unique challenges, but ultimately it presented the same tools and experience as the multiplayer component—and once one had run through the missions, multiplayer quickly became the optimum way to play the game, with little cause to ever return to the single player. Blizzard, recognizing this reality, has crafted the sequel with an entirely new perspective on the campaign, designed to increase its replayability and its value in the face of the multiplayer component.

Research and armory upgrades grant players unique ways to change the shape of their army and the flow of their missions.

Most notably, StarCraft has been afforded an infusion of RPG DNA, which you may have noticed is not uncommon for games of any genre in recent years. Character progression has increasingly become the name of the game (all games, that is), and here it’s applied as a means of upgrading your army with powerful new technology as you move through missions. Certain missions may offer specific additions to your forces, while others afford research items that can yield new technology (where choosing one option means you can’t choose another). These upgrades can significantly change the face of the battlefield in ways that could never happen in multiplayer, allowing players to literally customize the mechanics of the game to suit their strategy. If the medic is critical to your strategy, you can purchase an upgrade allowing them to be produced more quickly; if you loathe spending precious resources filling bunkers with marines, you can research the automated flame turret to defend your base.

Also in the RPG vein comes the requirement to make story-oriented choices. Though these are rare, and do not affect the outcome of the campaign, they make for a more personalized experience, resulting in different missions and affording specific rewards—such as the addition of a new unit—or strategic advantages.

From elaborate cutscenes to simple unit portraits, everything in StarCraft II looks great.

Missions are characterized by unique objectives and challenges—some mandatory, others optional. A particular mission may require you to combat environmental hazards (including one mission requiring that you repeatedly locate your base to avoid an approaching wall of fire), while others involve time-sensitive challenges or limited resources. Care is taken to ensure the mission is never a straightforward affair; there are always concerns that will color player strategies.

The campaign bolsters its forces with a wealth of units that didn’t make the cut for multiplayer, including classics like the Goliath from the original StarCraft and new units like the Diamondback tank. Offering such a wide array of unique tools not available in other modes means that the campaign is no longer merely the multiplayer package with interspersed cutscenes; it becomes a very different game, one that you’ll find yourself returning to, in order to experience more of its unique offerings. In a market flooded with “1.5” sequels, repackaging the same game with a slim set of new features, uncovering a game that truly earns it’s “II” is significant—and Wings of Liberty does just that.

Point and click adventure intermissions are most notable for offering a more detailed look at the StarCraft universe—something you won’t find looking down on the battlefield from above.

The story itself is told in a variety of ways—through cutscenes (both in engine and some very impressive pre-rendered sequences), mid-mission dialogue, and most notably through point and click intermissions. These sequences feature Jim Raynor and his ship, the Hyperion, as populated by a number of supporting characters and featuring a set of distinct environments. Selecting characters or elements of the environment will start conversations or offer commentary or details on aspects of the StarCraft universe. Though the point and click mechanic seems trivial, what these intermissions serve to offer is a level of depth, detail, and personality that was previously absent. It’s far easier to perceive the events and characters as part of a coherent universe when they can be seen existing in non-combat environments and from a more natural perspective. Incidentally, there exists one cutscene—a Sarah Kerrigan flashback—which is guaranteed to make you wish StarCraft: Ghost had seen release, but that’s another story.

Wings of Liberty features the Terran campaign, the first of three featuring the three central species of the game. That two thirds of the experience would exist somewhere in the unknown future as separate purchases was understandably met with grumbling skepticism from the fanbase, but those concerned can rest assured that this was probably not a decision motivated solely by the desire to pick your pocket. No, considering the size of the package delivered and the amount of time it took to produce, more likely is that this strategy was motivated by the desire to have the game on shelves some time before 2013. Yes, StarCraft II is a lot of game, one of an increasingly rare set that offers more than its sixty dollars worth. Between the lengthy campaign, elaborate multiplayer, challenge modes, and a plethora of user-generated content via the campaign editor, there’s always a new way to play.

The service has been completely redesigned to modern standards, making joining games and keeping track of your stats, friends, teams, and leagues a breeze.

On the multiplayer side, changes are decidedly more conservative than the campaign, and it’s not difficult to understand why: StarCraft represents perhaps the best industry example of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Accordingly, it plays very much as you might remember, and it’s easy to pick up if you’re an old StarCraft warhorse. Still, while maintaining the basic StarCraft experience was clearly one of Blizzard’s goals, there has also been some very careful and significant advancement.

A number of additions to the interface allow players to optimize their warmaking for maximum efficiency, and a selection of new units and abilities provide a new spin to the battlefield. Protoss players have been gifted with the ability to temporarily boost the operations of their structures, critical for the early-game push and to defend against the dreaded zergling rush. Terran command centers can ferry SCV’s for quickly redeploying to more lucrative resource patches. Zerg can now spread to all areas of the map by traveling while burrowed or through the use of the redesigned nydus network. An array of such improvements build on top of the established strengths of each species, allowing for more specialized tactics in what can sometimes seem like a never ending game of rock, paper scissors.

Increased emphasis on unit specialization means you’d best have all your bases covered.

The strengths and weaknesses of units are starker than in the original game; approaching an enemy army with the wrong forces will result in especially dire consequences—utilizing the right unit for the job has become critical, as units are increasingly specialized for specific tasks. Many units have been phased out in favor of newer models filling similar, though adjusted niches. The addition of high-yield resources, units that can scale cliffs, and new species-specific abilities for maximizing base efficiency and unit production mean that even though StarCraft plays the same as it always has, it still has the ability to surprise. New dimensions to multiplayer warfare serve to break old school players out of the patterns they’ve carefully practiced for twelve years now, and though this hardly makes for an even playing field, the result is that new players will at least have a chance against their veteran opponents.

The package is rounded out with excellent production values; this release is characterized by exceptional art design from top to bottom, a solid soundtrack, an excellent cast of voice actors, sharp cutscenes and a strong script. It’s a sizable package, and these details are going to leave players wanting to explore everything that Blizzard has offered up.

StarCraft II represents not only a modern update to the original game, worthy of 2010, but also a rare breed of sequel that serves to redesign and reimagine itself to offer new experiences and surpass its previous incarnation. Though it may be impossible to say if StarCraft II will endure as long as its predecessor, the strength of the package certainly suggests that possibility.

StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
System – Microsoft Windows, Mac (Microsoft Windows Reviewed)
Release Date – July 27, 2010

*A copy of this title was purchased by Gamesugar for review


  1. Need to find the time and the money to buy Starcraft II. Don’t see myself playing only since I’m a bit rusty but let¿s think about it once we get there.

    Comment by EdEN — August 19, 2010 @ 9:49 pm

  2. I wish more games would wait years before making sequels… maybe not 12 years, but I’d say 4-6 years would be a nice wait. Consider that games like Assassins Creed and now (bleh) Bioshock (don’t get me wrong, I loved the first game, but it didn’t need any sequels) have like 3 games in 4(?) years it seems silly. Over saturation kills games. Look at how fast games like Guitar Hero went from AWESOME! to blah another game?! (this isn’t even taking into consideration that fact that Harmonix were what made GH awesome to begin with… but you get the idea!)

    Comment by Ujn Hunter — August 22, 2010 @ 4:20 pm

  3. Well, I love me some Guitar Hero. Own all the games and have no complaints. Then again, I play the games every week or so with my brother in law and some friends so maybe that helps.

    Starcraft II took FOREVER to be relesed. A good cycle would be two-three years per game, right?

    Comment by EdEN — August 22, 2010 @ 10:00 pm

  4. Depends on the game. Can you change StarCraft enough to warrant that sort release cycle? Yearly expansions make sense to a point, but once the three campaigns are out I see little need for StarCraft III to follow so quickly. Waiting fewer than 12 years would be nice, of course.

    Comment by Brad Johnson — August 24, 2010 @ 8:57 pm

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