I imagine few titles have put a company in such a predicament as StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty did for Blizzard. Rarely do games become hits, rarer still do they become genuine phenomenons; to have a game continuously played by hundreds of thousands of players and routinely show up on the top of sales charts year after year is almost unheard of. So how does a company approach the sequel to not only one of the most popular games of all time but one that has had a decade of refinements under its belt? Very carefully, apparently.
Some surprising changes have happened in the real-time strategy genre since Blizzard last visited it with 2003's WarCraft III: The Frozen Throne. The most surprising of all is that the genre, so popular for so long, has fallen on hard times. Developers are still trying their hand at perfecting the art of fast-paced war, but giants like Command & Conquer have been brought low while both venerable and promising new franchises Age of Empires and the Rise of series have vanished in the interim. What was once one of the most hotly contested genres has become haggard, kept alive by the odd gem like World in Conflict.
Even though the genre has faded from the spotlight, one company has continued to tweak, push, and remold it, striving to inject new life into the tried-and-true mechanics of old. Relic, the genre's current standard-bearer, has released a string of well-received games since 2003, primarily those in their flagship franchises Company of Heroes and WarHammer 40,000. Whether it's the battlegrounds of Europe or a massive derelict spaceship adrift in the warp, Relic has revitalized a genre desperately in need. And it seems as though someone at Blizzard has been paying attention.
While the hardcore StarCraft player might note the subtle differences in the intricate matrix of unit checks and balances, the average fan will take away something very different, namely Blizzard's approach to the campaign. I'm not just talking about the company's decision to focus on one faction per release, either, but in how they tell the story, with the player now given far greater access to the characters' world. For the average fan of the original, it will seem that, save for a change here and there, the actual combat is largely the same as before. But what will really grab them are the emphasis on little details and character interaction as they control rebel-turned-outlaw Jim Raynor in his quest to take down the Dominion, led by his old foe Arcturus Mengsk, and recently reinvigorated Zerg.
From a backwater planet to a battleship, players will get to explore a craft world like never before. The ship is where most of the campaign is spent, whether it's in the cantina to recruit mercenaries, check out the local news, play some tunes and games, or chat with the troops; the laboratory to allocate earned Zerg and Protoss research points to research trees; the armory to purchase unit and structure upgrades; or the bridge to get new info, accept new missions, and replay completed missions. The presentation is all very well-done, and much more involved than in Relic's offerings avatar-chatting offering, but rest assured, WarHammer has yet again inspired StarCraft.
Similar to the Dawn of War titles, missions in SCII are accepted from a handful of available assignments. Each offer rewards, be they Zerg or Protoss research points, in addition to cash. The key difference between the franchises is that the former focuses on sacrifice and the latter on variety. Dawn of War's timed missions focused on the trade-off of loot, sector progress, and area control by jumping from mission to mission before the timers run out. SCII has a similar rewards system and yet, despite the appearance of a tough choice, there is very little trade-off as the vast majority of missions are eventually played. The impact of which is chosen are minimal, since the upgrades from the credits and research points earned only really come into their own once a handful have been chosen, though there are some missions which require the player must choose between two alternatives, each offering a unique reward. The illusion of frantic planet hopping and sacrifice isn't necessarily a bad thing, as tension is suitably increased and it would be a shame to skip any of the missions since they are universally excellent. While Space Marines had to be content with a handful of mission types, the, er, Terran Space Marines will find themselves fighting off zombie-like colonists infested by Zerg, moving a base around as they mine a planet that overflows with lava, and protecting a massive beam as it bores its way into a sacred Protoss temple. Every mission was enjoyable, and I was genuinely surprised by just how much Blizzard was capable of accomplishing within a traditional mission structure. Being able to replay all of them, sans the rewards but still open for achievements, is a great inclusion and only serves to reinforce just how strong they are.
SCII especially excels in presentation and value. Instead of a discussion between portraits, Raynor and crew are fully modeled and their conversations are played out as cutscenes, giving the proceedings a more involved feel. And I stress value because many felt that the focus on one faction per release would dilute the experience, but instead, that focus has made this first outing that much stronger. It isn't just Terran missions, either, as there are also some for the other factions sprinkled throughout the campaign and in a series of challenge missions. The challenges are addictive practicing tools that double as arcade-style trials that encourage replay in order to gain a higher score. Skirmish is also open to all factions, allowing for a taste of what's to come in the sequels and, of course, to practice for online play.
Online play is also different this time around as Battle.Net has had a significant update since the original's release. For the most part, the updated service fits SCII nicely. A handy news area features info on patches, tournaments, and contests while a top panel allows for quick access to single player and multiplayer. There are also buttons offering quick access to league and ladder information, replays, and party creation. It's very compact, with most options no more than two clicks away, and sleek. A log-in page is troublesome for those whose connections go down before opting to remain checked in, but once set, unstable connections will no longer be a barrier to gaining access to the game. However, Battle.Net updates will block access, due to the heavy integration between the two, which is infrequent but undoubtedly frustrating. Another possible nuisance is the lack of LAN play, which was found in the original.
One of the reasons for the integration is that players now have identities that are carried over from single player to multiplayer. Similar to Achievements and Trophies on the 360 and PS3, SCII features awards for certain conditions killing a set amount of enemies, completing sub-objectives, etc. that go towards a universal score. There are also a number of unlockable items earned throughout the campaign, from icons to adorn the player's avatar and decals to customize in-game units. It's all very nice and filled with the small touches that Blizzard has become known for.
The biggest complaint that can be lobbed at SCII is that, in terms of mechanics, not a whole lot has changed. The periphery factions get some fun new units, such as the massive Protoss tripod Colossus (think War of the Worlds) and Zerg Infestor, which can burrow and spit out infested Terrans, that will inject new life into multiplayer. The Terrans themselves have had several tweaks and additions. One of the most surprising shifts is the lack of Firebats and Medics in multiplayer, least of which because they are in the campaign, but that soon feels normal as time is spent with the new Medivac Dropship and fire-spitting four-wheel Hellion as with most of the changes, a little time is all that's needed. The Command Center no longer functions as a weapon silo for nukes, that now being the domain of the Ghost Academy, and the Control Tower has been replaced by the Tech Lab and Fusion Core. What this means to the player largely depends on their experience with the series; diehards will have to adjust their build orders, requiring some extensive experimentation, while casual players and newcomers will just have more toys to play with. As a casual fan of the series myself, I can say that the changes have been for the better. It seems to be what most players wanted: the original updated with new visuals and contemporary controls, a few new units, and adjustments to the core that provides a familiar but fresh experience. Some gamers, especially those who have moved on to the Company of Heroes' style of tactical play, will find it anything but fresh, but for fans of the traditional style of play, there are few titles as satisfying.
Despite the decade-plus wait, a few things should've been hammered out. In true Blizzard fashion, the graphics and sound are fantastic, adorned with little touches from the satisfying buck of the Siege Tank to the reworked mix of Sweet Home Alabama that give the game so much character. In the midst of all this is a script that often teeters on being flat-out bad. The voice actors are decent, but there are times when both fail the moment and a scene intended to go for the guts lands with a thud. There were also some strange shadow meshes, though that could very well be a driver issue don't ever change, PC gaming. One unfortunate return was spotty pathfinding. Ten years on and my SCVs are still getting stuck behind Supply Depots? C'mon, guys, finish the welds on the other side the one with the wide expanse around it.
But those are very minor complaints for what SCII delivers. A rich single-player campaign filled with side missions, unit upgrades, and greater world interaction complements a solid challenge mode and addictive multiplayer. The interface offers easy access to replays, in- and out-game customization options, and a practice league for those needing a refresher (or way to minimize embarrassment). Whether the player is a returning fan or new to the series, SCII has a lot to offer.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a much more traditional sequel than genre fans might expect, or want. For fans of the older base building and resource harvesting style of play, this is not only an exciting release but an essential one. From a rich single-player experience that goes beyond a simple string of missions to a robust multiplayer component, there is little doubt that SCII will be staying on hard drives for a long time.
(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)