It was some time ago now that I loaded the StarCraft II Beta, trembling with excitement that my all-time favourite game finally had disgorged a successor. In a tragic moment that will haunt me for some time, when the installation finished I actually uttered the now-iconic phrase "well, it's about time!".
Literally hundreds of games later the beta closed and we eagerly waited for the retail game to finally deploy. It's been a long time since a PC game generated this sort of hype. PC gamers have glared at the headline-grabbing launches of franchises like Modern Warfare with a kind of bemused outrage - this is our
Does StarCraft II meet expectations? Have the concerns raised by players in the beta been addressed? Is the single player campaign up to Blizzard's standards? Is it fun
? Read on!
Sound and Vision
We won't spend a lot of time here. The game's cinematics have been widely distributed, and video of the game in play rapaciously consumed by most followers of the game via YouTube and official shoutcasts.
StarCraft II looks and sounds like the A-grade title it is. There are a wide range of options for customisation, reflecting Blizzard's ongoing philosophy of extending their games to the broadest range of players possible, while still producing gorgeous visuals when viewed at higher settings.
Gamers with a taste for eye-candy will love the range of explosions and death animations in the game. At times it's just fun to watch replays in high quality to watch the combat unfold. Buildings explode gratuitously and judicious use of physics decorates the animations artfully as chunks of the dearly departed roll off cliffs and bounce across the battlefield.
Overall it's a great-looking RTS presented in the style of the original classic.
It should be noted that the game when viewed at the low settings is not particularly appealing. OK, it's a bit awful
. If you are borderline to the minimum requirements you might want to seriously consider an upgrade to properly experience StarCraft II. If you're just here to pwn nubs then you may not care.
The soundtrack is typically high quality, and the voice acting in the single-player campaign is professional and well produced. The script at times seemed a little
artificial but not overly jarring. This reflects the focus of StarCraft II - this is a game meant to be played
, not passively watched like an RPG.
Let's be straight here - Wings of Liberty's single-player campaign is a refreshing improvement over the previous offerings and includes a wealth of engrossing gameplay and significant replay potential. There is a lot of content to get through in the main mission series, and lots of Achievements to attempt on the re-run (more on these later).
As a primarily multiplayer StarCraft kinda guy, I'm slowly making my way through the campaign in downtime. However, what I've seen to-date is excellent and the feedback from other players has been very positive.
The levels are well-crafted and contain lots of "doodads" for flavour. Indeed, so well are the levels crafted that the not-to-scale standard building structures like your Command Centre and Barracks stand out as not quite right. It's not a big problem but it does highlight the amount of effort that went into the campaign's levels.
The gameplay during the campaign is a mixture of standard build, expand & kill RTS missions with some interesting flavour thrown in. Without going too spoiler-y, there are a number of environmental challenges that present unique problems for players to solve.
There are also the standard defend-for-20-minutes missions and the like, but these are generally well done and have enough side objectives that they don't tend to feel tedious.
Between missions, the environment is interactive and presents non-linear progression paths. Each stage of the game has several missions, and you have an environment with people you can talk to. It's a little static (you don't move around) but it works pretty well. Ultimately this is a supporting and backdrop element to the game and it fulfils this purpose well.
It's certainly a big step up from the cut-scenes and dialog with a "next" button that StarCraft and Brood War featured.
While the over-arching story is locked, you can choose individual missions to undertake and you are rewarded with new units and upgrades to add to your arsenal. The decisions that you make do not appear to impact the generally linear storyline. This is typical of Blizzard - there is one single canonical story.
I would have liked to see the non-linear story expanded with deeper impact to decisions made and actions taken but it's not a big issue. The tale is engrossing enough that this linear progression is not a major issue.
The single-player adventure is also carried out while connected to Battle.net, and Achievements liberally dotted through its gameplay are added to your Battle.net profile, which is quite neat. These Achievements are the key replay option - testing your prowess against mission objectives under varying conditions and encouraging new gameplay styles to beat them.
Ultimately though, it's a single-player experience. The AI is trigger-driven and the difficulty ramps up only via tougher and more numerous enemies. If you want to engage a truly difficult and unpredictable adversary you'll need to stick your head up and take the plunge into what is really the main game - online multiplayer over Battle.net.
As we noted in our beta review, the core gameplay of StarCraft II stays true to its predecessor. This carries through to the multiplayer mode; the game is evolutionary rather than revolutionary and it shows. This is likely a smart move by the game's creators, as the original has been declared over and over as the most successful Real-Time Strategy game of all time.
StarCraft II is more than a simple reskin though. If you can believe it, the game is faster-paced, and the addition of even harder counters than the original make unit makeup decisions even more crucial and good intel via scouting utterly priceless. Certain units (such as the Protoss Colossus) are designed to annihilate particular enemy unit types and do so with brutal efficiency.
Miss your foe's tech change at your peril, or suffer terrible, terrible damage.
Fortunately, Blizzard has recognised that we aren't all over-stimmed Koreans born with natural APM of over 9,000. Battle.net's shiny new ranking system constantly evaluates your performance and pits you against opponents that should test your skill. It works surprisingly well - and only gets better the more you play.
Online multiplayer in StarCraft II is everything a StarCraft veteran wanted and more. Better, the ranking system allows newbies to find a league suitable to their skill level while they "level up". There are also a number of training modes to learn the skills and gain the knowledge needed to bring down the rain on your foes across Battle.Net.
StarCraft II brings with it the next major version of Blizzard's Battle.net system and a swirling wave of controversy. Is it a visionary step forward, a lemon, or just incomplete?
New leagues enhance the Battle.net ladder, with players broadly ranking bronze, silver, gold, platinum and diamond depending on skill. The system works well - although some players dislike the small 100-player sub-ladders that fill out each of the leagues. Each to their own.
Battle.net 2.0 upgrades the original StarCraft multiplayer system with a notion of Parties
which allow for ranked team play. Each party (or combination of players) are individually ranked, granting each unique grouping of friends in the 2v2, 3v3 and 4v4 arenas a distinct experience. A plethora of Achievements grants a sense of advancement to multiplayer gameplay, carefully crafted to generally enhance and promote quality play rather than detract from it.
Unfortunately, Achievements and leagues are probably the best of the new Battle.net. The new gaming platform has been welcomed with a chorus of criticism, ranging from concerns over regionalisation to a lack of core features one would expect in 2010 such as chat channels, clan integration etc.
The map editor is one of the best released with a game to-date - effectively a game engine. Sadly the map publishing framework in Battle.net 2.0 is clunky and somehow manages to make it more
difficult to get the map you want with the players you want. For example - with everything auto-arranged, there is just no way to request particular skilled players with particular maps.
Battle.net 2.0 ushered in RealID and new regions, both contentious additions.
For the first time we have a "local" Blizzard server (Singapore) to a roaring chorus of do not want
. More explicitly, do not want to be locked
here. Game copies shipped in Australia are locked down to the Singapore server - meaning some Australian players who pre-ordered internationally are stuck on North America away from their friends. Some Australian ISPs do not route data locally to Asia and send the packets all the way to the US anyway.
RealID is the other component of the new social framework for Battle.net - and has also found itself under tight player scrutiny, with concerns over privacy. Additionally criticism is mounting that many of Battle.net's new features such as cross-game chat are only available using RealID - by surrendering your real name and email address to the players you wish to contact.
Worse, RealID is crippled by regionalisation. Australian players, locked to the SEA, cannot connect to, or even see, the status of North American World of WarCraft players including Aussies on Oceanic realms.
Fortunately Blizzard recognised the unique issues for South-East Asia region players, relented late in the beta and promised to relax these region restrictions for Australian players within "about 60 days" of release. Blizzard: we have our timers set and ticking.
The result is a beautiful but limited experience, relying on exterior social frameworks to facilitate what was once a busy (if at times noisy) space. Battle.net 2.0 - until you get a few friends hooked up - is an eerily quiet arena given the thousands of participants.
The integrated voice chat system is unreliable and low quality at best. Many gamers resort to out-of-game replacements like dedicated vent servers.
Ultimately these concerns are peripheral, the ranking system works and SEA Battle.net is stable and available with only the first night presenting any stability problems. What will keep you plugging away deep into the night is the engaging and at times frustrating experience of pitting your will against other players online.