Prior to StarCraft II’s release, there was a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over Blizzard’s decision to split StarCraft II across three games. “Why pay full price for a third of a game?” was the not-unreasonable question. Fortunately, after playing a lot of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, we can tell you that this is emphatically not a third of a game. In fact, it’s the most polished, full-featured single- and multiplayer RTS we’ve ever played.
Between missions, Jim Rayner hangs out in his command ship, the Hyperion.
The action in the single-player game takes place across 29 missions, all but four of which see you leading space cowboy Jim Rayner’s band of mercenaries into combat. Though you’re limited largely to the Terran race, StarCraft II’s incredibly polished level design makes every mission feel like a completely different experience, from a zombie invasion to a mission where you must build up a force while on the move, always keeping one step ahead of a steadily advancing firestorm.
The story is pure sci-fi schlock, but the presentation is a lot more immersive than the first game’s talking-heads approach. Between missions, you can explore Rayner’s capital ship and base of operations, the Hyperion. Onboard, you can buy improvements for your units in the armory, recruit new mercenary factions in the cantina, research new technologies in the lab, and discuss coming missions on the bridge. All the unit customization and research, combined with a large number of single-player-only Terran units, means you get to create a highly personalized force to take into battle.
Despite all the single-player game embellishments, the multiplayer game is a no-nonsense affair. Each of the three playable races has about 14 units—very close to the number found in the first StarCraft, post-expansion. Although there has been some significant shuffling of units and abilities, Blizzard has been careful not to mess around with the core of StarCraft gameplay.
This is still StarCraft, and Siege Tanks still blow up Zerg like it's going out of style.
Like the first game, multiplayer in StarCraft II isn’t for the faint of heart. There’s a very steep learning curve, and until you’ve played at least a couple dozen games and done some serious reading up on strategy, you’re going to get the living daylights stomped out of you by any halfway-decent player online. There’s no way to get a “lucky win” in StarCraft.
Fortunately, Blizzard has recognized that vicious, tooth-and-nail competition can be intimidating, and the developers have gone out of their way to introduce a number of features to make it easier for new players to adapt to the online environment.
First, they’ve added a number of single-player challenge missions, which focus on simple, online-applicable skills like rush defense, unit counters, and macro- and micromanagement.
Second, new players are given the option to play up to 50 practice games before being thrust into the official online league. These practice games run at a slower speed and use modified maps, which makes early attacks impossible.
Finally, Blizzard has split the online ladder system into five leagues—Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond—and when you play, you’re matched against other players in your league. Each league is further split into divisions of 100 players each, so if you’re a poor player you can still track your progress within your league and division, even if your overall standing is a number so high it can only be written using scientific notation.
Because sometimes one flamethrower just isn't enough, you can buy permanent upgrades for your units in the campaign.
Balancing an asymmetrical, three-race RTS is no easy task, but this isn’t Blizzard’s first time at the rodeo. The lengthy beta phase was spent perfecting the multiplayer balance, and that has paid off in the final game. People still complain, of course, and tweaks will surely be forthcoming, but any match-up can be won with the right strategy.
StarCraft II’s map editor is the most potent yet, and plenty of custom games already exist, including old favorites like tower defenses, RPGs, and hero combat games. New features in the editor allow even more ambitious projects, like a cart-racing level and a side-scrolling shooter. Unfortunately, Blizzard has done away with the ability to download custom maps outside of the game—if you want people to be able to play your map, you have to host it on Battle.net, which imposes size restrictions on your uploads.
The only real shortcoming to StarCraft II is that it’s more of an evolutionary product than a revolutionary one. That’s always been Blizzard’s strength, but when you’re evolving a game that’s more than 10 years old you risk dating yourself. The gameplay in StarCraft II is solid as a rock, but next to some of the more sophisticated recent games like Dawn of War 2 and Company of Heroes, it seems a bit dated. Of course, one person’s “dated” is another person’s “classic,” but if you don’t like real-time strategy games, this probably isn’t the game that’s going to change your mind.