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Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty Review

 

When a sequel for a popular game is announced, the fanbase splits into two camps with vastly different outlooks. Generally, either the sequel is a thick, rich syrup that gets poured over the pancakes of the first game and is so loaded with MSG and sugar that you can’t keep from eating more, or the sequel is the developer just taking the same dish, serving it again after waiting all these years when the concept and design have gotten stale and mouldy, and now nobody can even think about the first game without getting indigestion.

Starcraft 2 was one of the exceptions to the split-fanbase phenomenon. Pretty much everybody stayed up all night in anticipation for this sequel, knowing that Blizzard would fry and fold the omelette perfectly, throw in some cheese and ham, pour out the milk and cereal, and serve the shit out of a balanced breakfast to the masses.

Of course, if this were a clear-cut case of Blizzard hitting the ball out of the park again, I’d just tell you to buy the game, full stop, end of conversation. But as much as I hate the term “90’s kid” (and I do), I have to admit that having grown up in the 90’s with the first Starcraft and its expansion Starcraft: Brood War, there’s more to this sequel than its bread and butter. I’ll stop with the food analogies now.

The first Starcraft is regarded widely as a god-damned masterpiece. Since it came out in 1998, along with its expansion pack, it’s sold about ten million copies, making it the fifth best-selling PC game to date, beaten out only by Half-Life 2, Blizzard’s own World of Warcraft and The Sims 1 and 2. That’s a tough standard to meet. The sequel itself wasn’t announced until 2007, which means there was a period of almost a decade where Starcraft veterans like myself just hung around waiting for any hope whatsoever that Blizzard was finally going to stop making Warcraft games and get around to our side again. Hearing this announcement after so long made me lose my damn mind. I can only imagine how the more dedicated players felt – and by “dedicated players” I mean South Koreans. Seriously, if you haven’t, go watch a Starcraft tournament. These things are intense as hell, and are actually televised in South Korea. With commentators and a live audience. On one of four TV channels. It’s not called their national sport for nothing.

SlayerS_`BoxeR`, a man who makes half a million US dollars annually playing Starcraft while I make minimum wage doing work that does not entail video games. Fffffffff.

Anyway, on with the review. I got my copy of SC2 at the midnight release, and didn’t stop playing it for about 2 months. I’ve spent a lot of time with this game, and it’s no secret I love its guts. However, there were some areas where I felt it let me down. Allow me to be your guide through the murky waters and dark forests of Starcraft 2.

 

Gameplay

Virtually everything from the first game’s interface has been repackaged and, sometimes subtly, sometimes enormously, improved. Veteran Starcraft players will quickly get used to the game, while newcomers won’t have too much trouble learning what’s what. Every unit you have can now be selected at once (as opposed to Starcraft’s limit of twelve units per selection), you can select more than one building and tell them all to work simultaneously instead of having to painstakingly click each one, units are far better at moving en masse and don’t clump or get stuck, and hotkeys are rearranged to make it way easier to issue orders quickly. It’s difficult to find something to criticize – the interface really is that smooth.

The game actually feels a lot faster and more fluid than the first, especially since the player doesn’t have to babysit their base as much and can scout out around the map while simultaneously ordering up units and gathering resources. Rally points can be changed at a whim, worker units gather automatically, and with the ability to select multiple buildings, you can build a whole round of warriors without even looking at your base.

Where Starcraft’s gameplay revolved around controlling parts of the map and holding your advantage until you can finally roll over your opponent, SC2 revolves more around using each unit for what it does best. In the original, if a player puts enough powerful units around a certain area, that area would be essentially shut down to the enemy as going through there would cost too much, even in victory. In SC2, it’s much more chaotic – every race has a unit that can hop cliffs, or cast a spell that does heavy area damage, or is fast enough to dart into their base and destroy a dozen workers before any help can arrive, and even though each race is immaculately balanced, at no point does either player truly feel “safe,” even when they have the upperhand. When it comes to multiplayer, Starcraft 2 is an intense experience, no matter how good you are. Every mistake can cost you dearly, and a split-second can decide the game.

 

Presentation

If you’ve got a computer powerful enough to play this game on Ultra or Extreme, do yourself a favor and crank it up there. This game looks great on the higher settings. The cutscenes between missions are pretty and have a distinctive art style reminiscent of Warhammer 40k, and in-game, a concrete physics engine makes every battle look as intense as it feels.

To quote my old Bop-it: they did it the same, but BETTER.

The sound is fitting, and every unit has their own unique voice actor. The worker SCV has a sort of redneck blue-collar drawl, the marine sounds like the sergeant from Full Metal Jacket, and the battlecruiser sounds like a wizened old European general. All the Zerg units’ hissing and growling sound appropriately grotesque and menacing, while the Protoss units have a little telepathy-echo-reverb effect and talk like a warrior race probably would (“From the shadows, I come!” “My life for Aiur!”, etc.). Their voices are also fittingly deep and charismatic.

As with most Blizzard games, SC2 is really well-optimized, and it can be played pretty easily on just about any gaming-capable computer. Even on low settings, the game still manages to look decent, and gameplay rarely suffers. There are occasions where it does slow down once the unit count gets high enough, which can be really frustrating when you’re playing online. If someone in the game has a slow computer, the game sometimes stutters for everyone as it re-synchronizes with their machine and gets everyone back on the same page.

Overall, though, it’s really impressive how polished and refined it is. You probably won’t find a strategy game that plays as smoothly and stays as fast-paced as SC2.

 

Single-player

The campaign in Starcraft 2 is some of the most fun I’ve ever had with a single-player game. There are up to 29 missions that can be played, and each one has a unique, individual feel that never gets old. Of course, if you’ve been playing strategy games for a long time, you’ll notice the familiar themes of escorting, smash n’ grab, and holdout missions, with some special additives thrown in to keep things interesting. There’s the mission where you have to gather 8,000 minerals while momentary surges of lava keep threatening your base, forcing you to pack up and move everything every few minutes to avoid getting completely annihilated. Another is where you have to set up roadblocks and stop a train full of cargo, all the while dodging around the enemy army which greatly outguns yours. There’s one where you have to punch through a Zerg and Protoss battle to steal an artifact out from under their noses. Every level is memorable in its own way.

When it comes to the writing, however, here is where it falls flat for me. In the original game, Jim Raynor was a marshal caught up in a battle that was out of his league, but doing what he can anyway because he ain’t gonna sit on his hands and wait for the end. In the sequel, a lot of that feeling is lost among the clichés, the excessive acting and the sometimes uninspired plot.

In the opening cutscene for SC2, Jim Raynor introduces his friend like “Taah-kus Findleh” (Tychus Findlay). With this specific drawl like he’s delivering it for a trailer (which he is, but that’s beside the point). Every other line out of his mouth in this whole game has this kind of delivery. It grates. Whenever a character has a conversation with him he responds like he’s dictating to a typist writing his autobiography.

Compare this to the first game, where even though cutscenes are just floating heads talking to each other, he actually has fluid-sounding conversations with every character, and it feels real. The way he ditches Arcturus Mengsk in SC1 (“Aaah, to hell with you!”) doesn’t even look like much on paper, but he legitimately sounds really pissed off. In SC2 he’s more laid-back even when he should be panicked or riled up, and it detracts from how he feels as a character.

Zeratul also gets a similar treatment – he went from cool, intelligent and mysterious in the first game to a poltergeist who plays with the lights in SC2 and whispers about an ancient prophecy, like something out of a lame horror movie. Compare:

"We do what we must, but we do it for Aiur. Not you!" (Actually talks like a warrior might.)

"Jaaaames Raynooooor... I bring tidings of dooooom!" (Exactly those words. He has turned into a spooky ghost.)

 

Most of the ancillary characters around Raynor are a little two-dimensional as well. The scientist is jumpy and babbles a lot, the engineer is a stout, gruff-voiced redhead with a huge moustache (at least he doesn’t have a Scottish accent), the mercenary guy keeps his head down at a canteen and speaks in dulcet tones, and the doctor/love interest is an attractive young bleeding-heart girl who can’t bear to watch her people fall in battle (“My God… the slaughter… I can’t bear to watch”), but is totally fine with the killing of basically everyone else. Plus, how many other people predicted what Tychus would do at the end?

The theme of the story itself is actually pretty solid, despite the issues I have with characters. At first, you’re just trying to establish yourself with a force big enough to survive. Then the game quickly progresses through multiple, self-contained and sometimes optional subplots that culminate in finally defeating Kerrigan and Mengsk. Along the way, you amass credits that you can use to buy upgrades for your units, hire mercenaries and unlock research that bolsters your army. It’s a thrillride, all things considered, to start at the beginning with a single band of marines to building an armada and going toe-to-toe with a multi-world superpower in the course of a campaign. It’s just that more often than not, the cutscenes and plot bridging the different missions seem to only be there to move the game along and get you into the next battle. Which, to be fair, is a pretty damn good reason if you want to get the game going, but it is more of a distraction than a successful device.

 

Multi-Player

The online gameplay is simply unmatched when it comes to intense strategy. The three races, Terran, Zerg and Protoss, are all available for play online. They each have a completely different feel to them – Terrans are good at digging in and holding out, Protoss are good at using plasma shields and high hitpoint counts to make a lot of use out of only a handful of units, and Zerg can just steamroll their opponents with sheer numbers. Each race has its own interface theme and music, which is a nice touch to accentuate their differences. The Terrans have this heavy metal-bluegrassy fusion thing going on that varies in intensity between Metallica levels and theme-from-Firefly levels, it’s actually pretty damn catchy. The Zerg have slow electric guitar and drums that conjure an image of a creeping, wet ooze in how it sounds, slow-moving and slurry. The Protoss music is more epic-sounding: it has a choir, and what sounds like a full orchestra. It’s a bit like Diablo 2‘s soundtrack, which I personally like.

It’s difficult to convey the diverse yet perfect, subtle balance of these three races; the Zerg can build many units at once, the Terrans can pump out ranged units, tanks, bunkers and mechs, and the Protoss can construct single units almost instantly, anywhere there’s a Pylon. A Terran player has to plan his defense carefully, and if he does, he can hold out for as long as he needs to. A Protoss player has an easier time attacking since his units last longer and have more accessible abilities, and a Zerg player can just keep building units for every one they lose. It’s all a matter of position, tactics and multitasking.

Terrans have the high ground, but the Protoss just teleport up the cliffside.

Every online game can be played by up to eight players on official maps, although there are certain custom community-made maps that can handle more players. The amount of content available on battle.net through custom maps alone is mind-boggling. The map editor that comes bundled with the game is incredibly versatile and can make anything from a first-person shooter to a top-down arcade shooter to an RPG to a River City Ransom-style beat-’em-up. There are even role-playing maps where they’re just a wide open space with some landscape and players can create whatever units they want at whatever stats they want, and role-play with them.

The official multiplayer ladder is pretty good at matchmaking based on the skill level of the players involved. Players are grouped into six leagues from least to most skilled: Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond and Master. After 5 placement matches, battle.net sticks you in a certain league that you’ll be mostly playing with for the season. You can move up or down through the leagues as time passes, which adds a competitive element that more games need. It encourages you to try harder and do better. The feeling of moving up in a league after weeks of hammering away at your opponents, refining your play and working your way to the top is irreplaceable.

 

Battle.net

The new, revised version of Blizzard’s online service, Battle.net, serves as a sort of conduit between both the single- and multi-player aspects of SC2 – you have to sign into your battle.net account to play online, and it uses a Steam-style cloud-based service that allows you to carry over game settings and campaign saves between machines. Overall, it’s a nice system and works just fine.

What many gamers will miss from the first Starcraft is the ability to play on a LAN network. The only way to play with another person is to have both players connect to Battle.net and find each other online, which can be a real hassle if you’ve got friends over and want to game. However, there are major improvements across the board. For example, replays can now be accessed and played like a video, with options to rewind and skip, and an overlay that shows detailed statistics on the players in the game. Games can now have spectators who have access to the overlay, but can’t talk to any of the players.

There’s also a revamped naming system. You no longer need a unique name, since you get a personal identifier number from 1-999 in addition to a name of your choosing, so people can single you out. This is really cool because now you can give you and your friends names from the A-Team and have it work perfectly in team matches. Or name yourselves after Pokemon, if you’re a special, super-cool kid.

There’s also a new LiveID system that was also introduced to WoW players at around the same time. You can give your real-life friends your email address and they’ll show up in whatever Blizzard game they’re playing that works with LiveID. You can send messages and invite them to your game, again, not unlike Steam. If you have real-life friends you want to play with, you can send a specific LiveID request to them and if accepted, you’ll see their real name when they play with you. This generated a buttload of controversy back when it was released, but don’t worry about it, nobody’s gonna see your real name unless you specifically allow them to.

 

Overall

For the multiplayer alone, Starcraft 2 is worth the retail price. You’ll spend way more time downloading and trying new maps, and honing your skills in match after intense match of head-to-head multiplayer, than you will on your own with this game.

If you’re a fan of the original, or a fan of strategy games in general, pick this game up. You really can’t go wrong with a game this refined and a fanbase this dedicated. There’s tons of content to work through. Play through the campaign, then play the secret missions, the challenges, play on the multiplayer ladder, download custom maps and mods from battle.net and play completely different games based on the SC2 engine, and get more than your money’s worth.

Even if you’re a nitpicker like me, the faults of this game are far, far outweighed by how awesome it is. Starcraft 2 on the whole is about as perfect as Blizzard could possibly have made it.

Score: 9/10

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