Seems like it only yesterday it was the year 1998 and Blizzard’s (spiritual) follow-up to the Warcraft franchise, StarCraft, was released, beginning its long and sometimes unhealthy run as the world’s most popular RTS game. The ability to play and master three completely different alien races, helped by WarCraft-style intuitive gameplay and Blizzard’s unique sense of dedication and humor helped cement the game as a bona fide classic that’s still enjoyed to this day. It’s taken a good decade-plus, an aborted console spin-off (Ghost), and the screaming adoration of millions of fans, but the long-awaited sequel is finally here and ready for public consumption with the excellent, if somewhat abbreviated, StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty for the PC and Mac platforms.
For those unfamiliar with StarCraft, it’s a RTS (real-time strategy) game that uses resource management as it’s main base. You start off with units that proceed to mine minerals and collect Vespene gas that you use in turn to make buildings and structures to create more powerful units and upgrades. Different units each have their own specialized abilities and functions, and once you’ve learned the basics of their operation and feel you’re ready for bigger and better things, you’ll send your troops to fight – or defend against – a host of ever-changing intergalactic enemies. Add completely different races to the mix and the gameplay possibilities are practically limitless, giving it the rare distinction of having almost unlimited replay value with one of the largest and most dedicated fanbases in the world.
As its name implies StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty is the first of three planned ‘sequels’ to the original game that have been designed to split up the campaigns of the three playable races (Terran, Zerg, Protoss) across multiple releases. The first chapter continues the adventures of human Jim Raynor (once again voiced by Robert Clotworthy) and picks up four years after the events of the first StarCraft expansion release, Brood War. Raynor is still trying to fight the good fight with very limited resources at his disposal, and you’ll have to guide him through over 26 missions (and 3 alternatives) as he tries to make money and gets involved with the Protoss and Zerg like never before. This epic saga is told through a combination of thrilling rendered cinematics and in-game dialogue, both working overtime to complement – and never overshadow – the actual gameplay.
Unlike most real-time strategy games, StarCraft retains an enormous – and growing – library of characters, stories, and rich history that spans the world of videogames, novels, toys, and more. Incredibly, Blizzard’s managed to reign these sources in and has established a remarkably canonical background that makes sense – if you can keep up with it. StarCraft 2 keeps with this tradition by including the franchise’s rich history and several characters from past games and novels, and does so in a way that simultaneously makes the game immediately accessible to both hardened fans and newcomers alike. There was hardly a moment in my playtime where I wasn’t looking forward to what the next mission was going to be, as they range from saving people, fighting for survival, to finding ways to make money for yourself and your troops.
One of Blizzard’s most admirable traits – making their games playable on a wide variety of different PC/Mac configurations – is present and accounted for here, and those fans who may not sport the latest and greatest hardware will probably find their rigs more than adequate (but still do your homework before picking the game up). The game’s engine, while probably not going to tax the latest graphics cards (at least not intentionally…see below), does a remarkable job in bringing this vivid and often spectacular space drama to life in dazzling color and outstanding art design. Whatever the game may lack in pure horsepower is more than made up for in pure artistry and imagination, both of which are on full display here.
I really love how Blizzard put so many cool animations into the game. For example, when you build something, you’ll see the building unit welding and drilling while robotic arms and scaffolds grow from the structure and proceed to help build itself until it is finished. Or when you make a structure to collect Vespene gas, you’ll see a machine inside the structure that turns the gas into a container that your unit can pick up and take back to your base. And just try not to be impressed when you see how much detail was put into the backgrounds, which are often filled with various space debris, translucent planets, and even the occasional space animal floating by.
The game’s soundtrack is especially good, and filled with enough bombast and quiet moments to give most Hollywood films a run for their money. Likewise, the game continues the series (and all of Blizzard’s releases, actually) penchant for adding hilarious and often absurd voices for you to discover while playing. You’ll really enjoy the funny voice clips from your units, as you play. Such as the Arnold Schwarzenegger-like Thor mech units, complete with some of his famous one liners like “Stick Around!” No surprise here, given the game’s lineage, and it’s wonderful to think that Blizzard continues to think humor is so important to the experience.
Long-time StarCraft fans may feel a little bit of déjà-vu after playing a few rounds, as for all the improvements in the game’s visuals and technology, playing the game online feels remarkably similar to the original game. This doesn’t come as much of a surprise, given how popular the original game’s multiplayer continues to be (especially in South Korea), and the desire to keep fans happy has made the online multiplayer feels more evolutionary than revolutionary, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I found it incredibly easy to join games with friends or play in ranked matches, although you’ll have to play through a few random matches first so the game can determine your skill level and help match you with opponents of comparable skill, but this is infinitely better than matching newcomers with skilled professionals who wouldn’t hesitate to obliterate them with rush attacks. The all-new and completely redesigned Battle.net experience seems to handle the furious online matches well, although I did experience the occasional hiccup and dreaded ‘waiting for server’ message when playing online with friends on some of the larger maps.
As good as the actual experience is (when playing), there’s quite a bit going on behind the scenes that may upset those fans who’ve not already resigned themselves to loving the game, flaws and all. When the game is running as intended, it’s an almost transcendent experience, and absolutely one of the best RTS games that I’ve ever experienced. But it’s getting there that can be a major problem for some people, as the game contains frustrating limitations on just how players are ‘allowed’ to use the game.
Perhaps the most immediate complaint is how the game now requires users to be logged into the Battle.net service to play the game, even during the single-player campaign. At least for most people, as some (including myself) have been able to play the campaign without needing a constant online connection. Personally, I was able to play and experience the game without being online (after logging in as ‘Guest’), but doing so meant I wasn’t able to collect any in-game achievements or rewards. Given the different experiences that people are reporting, I’m going to err on the side of caution (and trust the sticker on the box) and say that a constant online connection to play through the campaign is required at this time.
While on the surface this may not sound like that much of an inconvenience (given how popular the multiplayer is), requiring a constant online connection throughout means the game cannot be played while traveling by car, plane, or any other method where a solid internet connection is present. Not only that, but this imposes a secondary DRM protection (after having to input the game’s included serial number), and along with being limited to one profile per account, the removal of LAN play, and severely reduced cross-region play, all this gives the feeling of having to pay a premium price for what is clearly not a premium experience.
Add to this the need to purchase three different (and full-priced, I’d guess) editions to experience the full story of StarCraft 2 and you can see why a lot of folks would be upset, especially considering none of these restrictions (or abbreviated story) were in the original release.
It should also be noted that the retail game shipped with a serious problem that could potentially damage your graphics card by overheating it. While too complex to detail here, Blizzard has posted a workaround solution that has users altering lines of code in the game’s config file to keep everything running smooth until a patch is issued. While it’s admirable of them to acknowledge this issue quickly, nobody should have to deal with a game that could overheat and damage their video card, especially for a game like this.
And then there’s the Galaxy Editor, which is not only an enormous improvement over Blizzard’s previous level editors, but in some ways manages to be as engaging as the actual game itself. Skilled editors will be able to jump right in and play with some of the Galaxy Editor’s more advanced features, while others (myself included) should be more than happy to simply arrange icons and create simple maps using the game’s assets. But there’s even more to explore for those willing to manage the editor’s more robust features, including the ability to recreate a slew of non-RTS games (i.e. shooters, platformers) using just the toolsets available in the editor itself. Another neat feature is the ability to create entire campaigns and even Hero-type units (i.e. WarCraft 3), meaning the sky’s the limit for the most dedicated StarCraft fans looking to bring their fan-fiction to playable, interactive life.
The ability to create and share your own StarCraft 2 masterpieces seems limited only by your imagination and technical skill level, and Blizzard is promising to monetize some of the more robust and ‘professional’ mods that will undoubtedly spring up from this exciting feature.
For the most part, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the sequel millions of fans have been waiting well over a decade for, and should help reinvigorate the RTS genre with its incredible story and accessible gameplay. As with all of Blizzard’s titles, the game looks and plays great across a wide range of PC and Mac configurations, and the online multiplayer should keep fans occupied until the next chapter. The missing Zerg and Protoss campaigns, in lieu of an expanded Terran storyline, feels more like selfish milking than added narrative, and the questionable decision to require a constant online connection is unnecessary and invasive DRM. Despite its flaws, its worth playing, even if its not quite the ‘complete’ experience it could have been.