In a gaming industry where developers release sequels at the rate of one a year or every two years, a 12-year wait for a new game in a franchise is a lifetime. But that’s how long we have had to wait for StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty, the follow-up to a real-time strategy (RTS) game that has sold about 10m copies worldwide and still commands a fanatical following.
Rival franchises such as Command & Conquer have Zergling-rushed retail with a string of mediocre sequels over the past decade. Blizzard, by contrast, has turtled in its base for years to create something truly special. Initial impressions are that the game has been well worth the wait.
From the opening cinematic sequence, StarCraft 2 bears the stamp of quality that gamers have associated with Blizzard for the best part of 20 years. Everything about the game exudes polish — from the interface and the visuals, through to the sound, gameplay and online features.
Blizzard hasn’t gone out of its way to innovate with StarCraft 2, but has focused on perfecting the work it has already done with StarCraft 1 and its Brood Wars expansion pack. It is testimony, perhaps, to how far ahead of the rest of the market StarCraft’s asymmetrical RTS gameplay was more than a decade ago.
The multiplayer game is much the same as it ever was: a delicately balanced contest between the Protoss, Zerg and Terran factions. As always, it’s a game about having a macro strategy in mind while closely supervising your units as they wage war on the enemy, defend and build your base, and harvest resources.
Though the three races play very differently, none of them is so powerful that it completely dominates the others. The permutations of tactics, strategies and counter-strategies the game offer are staggering. StarCraft 2 is a refinement of a classic blueprint that has endured for more than 10 years.
Multiplayer is played through Blizzard’s Battle.Net service, which has been overhauled to be as feature-rich and user-friendly as console online gaming services like Xbox Live.
You can do battle with strangers, build a list of friends (you can even hunt down your Facebook friends), and compare your in-game achievements with those of other players. The game supposedly uses an algorithm to match you with players of similar skill, though I have been beaten senseless most times I’ve ventured into multiplayer.
Though much has been made of the absence of local-area network play, there’s nothing stopping you from playing with people in the same room. You just all need to be connected to the Internet.
Even though it’s the successor to the world’s leading competitive multiplayer RTS, the game has more than enough single-player gameplay to justify its asking price. The heart of the single-player game is an expansive campaign that follows the story of a Terran faction led by Jim Raynor.
It’s perhaps the best campaign mode I have encountered in an RTS game. Most RTS campaigns feel like skirmishes against artificial intelligence (AI) opponents with some half-hearted cut-scenes between them.
In contrast to many rival games, StarCraft 2’s single-player campaign is packed with surprises and variety, and twists on the celebrated gameplay of the multiplayer mode. The result is that it feels like a game in its own right rather than a training mode for the multiplayer game.
StarCraft 2 offers up a range of interesting scenarios in its campaigns, ranging from missions that task you with defending bases and escorting convoys, through to those that demand you build a massive army to attack an enemy entrenched in a base.
There are some neat touches here — for example, one mission sees you burning out Zerg nests during the day and retreating into the base at night to defend yourself from Zerg zombies. And the single-player campaign even gives you access to units not available in the multiplayer game.
In between levels, you can upgrade units and buildings with credits you have earned, recruit mercenaries, research technologies, talk to other characters and even play a slick little arcade shoot-‘em-up. The beautifully produced cinematics that tell the story feature great voice acting and visuals — they’re the icing that the perfectionists at Blizzard have put on an already tasty cake.
With four difficulty levels and a host of sub-objectives for each mission, there’s plenty to keep you going here. And ignore the whiners who are complaining about Activision-Blizzard’s decision to release separate games for the Protoss and Zerg campaigns. Those will need to be judged on their own merits. As for the Terran campaign, it offers more depth and variety as any other single-player RTS on the market.
In addition to the single-player campaign, StarCraft 2 boasts a number of short but tough challenges that test your RTS skills to their limits. As difficult as they are, I found them to be a neat way of learning more about the game’s mechanics and refining my skills.
As in most RTS games, you can also train up for the multiplayer game through skirmishing with AI opponents that can offer a set of difficulty levels to cater for amateurs, intermediate players and StarCraft pros. You can also take the AI on in cooperative matches with friends.
StarCraft 2 trailer (YouTube):
StarCraft 2 will not push your machine to its limits with cutting-edge graphics. However, like most Blizzard games, it offers detailed graphics with a pleasing art style and can run comfortably even on older set-ups. I was able to turn most graphics settings up to high or ultra on my ageing PC (Intel Quad Core 6600, 4GB RAM, Nvidia GeForce 8800).
Activision-Blizzard is charging a premium for StarCraft 2 over the cost of most PC games for the simple reason that it can get away with it. At $60 in the US or about R500-R550 in SA, the game is as expensive as new console games, but there’s enough value here to justify the price tag.
I have yet to complete the campaign or sink enough hours into multiplayer to make a definitive judgment about a game people may still be playing 12 years from now. For that reason, I’m not going to going to give it a score or pretend that this is an exhaustive review. But fans of Blizzard’s games probably won’t be disappointed with StarCraft 2. In a world of disposable games, completed in hours and forgotten in days, this is one of the few that millions of people will still be playing two or three years from now. — Lance Harris, TechCentral