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Review: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty

starcraftii-logo

Twelve years ago Blizzard Entertainment’s StarCraft took the then-fledgling real time strategy genre by storm with it’s fast and highly tactical combat. It was the first real-time strategy game to feature three completely different races with unique gameplay styles. Though initially horribly unbalanced, copious patching and a great expansion eventually helped it evolve into the longstanding benchmark for traditional real-time strategy games as well as the definitive e-sport rts.

With StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, Blizzard is attempting to not only create a sequel for the StarCraft multiplayer fanatics, but also appeal to new fans with it’s lengthy campaign and challenge modes while building the new Battle.Net 2.0 platform which will play host to all Blizzard games in the foreseeable future.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9syc1BroLS4]Here’s the rest of the terran soundtrack.

The semi-linear Wings of Liberty campaign follows the Terran rebel group Raynor’s Raiders four years after the events of StarCraft: Brood War. You do mercenary work for cash to upgrade your troops as well as balancing the effort to overthrow the oppressive emperor Arcturus Mengsk with fighting for survival against the returning Zerg forces.

As you progress through the campaign you are given access to new units as well as credits and research you can spend on upgrades. There is an element of choice here—even though you’ll unlock all the basic units by simply playing through the campaign, you can only get half of the research tech each play through and you don’t get enough cash to unlock every upgrade from the armory in one go.

A lot of units and structures that are not available in the non-modded multiplayer experience are featured in the campaign, including most of the old StarCraft Brood War units such as the Science Vessel and Goliath. Curiously, the Valkyrie from Brood War did not make an appearance, and the Sensor Tower from the multiplayer is also missing.

You generally get to choose from between two and four missions to do at a time, but with a few exceptions you have to do all of them before you can proceed to the final stretch; it’s more linear than it initially appears, but still leaves more choice to the player than most RTS campaigns. Before choosing a mission you are shown how much cash the mission will grant you as well as what units it will unlock and how much research you can gain from it.

As for the missions themselves, they rock. Apart from the introductory missions, every one has it’s own unique gimmick which force you to think differently; examples include having to get all your units and buildings to high ground every few minutes unless you want them covered in lava and a “zombie” mission where you have to defend your base against infested Terrans during the night, while moving out and burning the infested colony down by day.

There are rarely two missions that feel similar and this is further improved by the secondary objectives – often with rewards carrying over to future missions – and achievements pushing you to put yourself in harm’s way in order to complete unique tasks.

In between missions the game turns into some kind of point-and-click adventure where a lot of the story exposition takes place. You can walk around the ship, talk to people, upgrade your units, start a mission or replay any of the previous missions and cinematics. Even though you get the basic idea from just playing the missions, people taking an interest in the story will want to check up on their favourite characters at every opportunity.

The writing is classic Blizzard and closer to the original StarCraft than the Warcraft stuff. Cheesy, yet epic and funny, filled with in-jokes and references to popular culture. If you like their writing in their other products, you’re sure to like it here too. Voice acting is excellent, which is a large part of why the dialogue works even though it is so cheesy.

The 25+ mission campaign will last most players around 15 hours depending on experience and difficulty setting and it truly feels like a whole game in and of itself with the stellar production values, extra units and persistent elements. Even though there are no Zerg missions.

While StarCraft II does feature your standard interactive RTS tutorial to teach you the basics of interacting with units and buildings, it doesn’t do much to introduce new players to the competitive multiplayer. Luckily, Blizzard agrees on this and has added challenge modes to train players in various skills needed to do well in the multiplayer. Examples include micromanaging groups of spell-casters and fending off all-in strategies like the infamous  “Zerg Rush”.

These challenges are certainly a step up from the standard RTS tutorial but they lack in a few areas. Firstly, they are locked to the “Normal” speed setting. Considering that ladder play and nearly every custom game created is played on the “Faster” setting, this seems out of place.

Secondly, there are way too few challenges- there is no challenge for fending off early aggression as Zerg or Protoss, and a few key skills like scouting the enemy is oddly completely missing.

Personally, I’d like to see a challenge mission where you’re tasked with scouting out what units your opponent is building and building the direct counter to it from a limited pool of resources before he attacks and wipes you out.

Another question worth pondering is what happens in six months when the common strategies of today are considered old hat and the challenge missions become outdated. Blizzard has not announced any plans to keep them up to date, but it would not be a surprising move if they decide to do so.

While you can play the campaign, challenge maps and VS A.I. skirmishes offline in guest mode, you are not able to transfer your progress in campaign or challenges across your online and offline profiles, which kind of renders the point of at least the campaign being playable offline moot.

Even though Wings of Liberty’s lengthy campaign and subsequent expansions will keep the game alive for a few years, StarCraft II’s true lifespan will be measured in how long the multiplayer lasts. Therefore, as with all other games where you compete against other players, controls are of the outmost importance.

Luckily, controlling your units is a breeze. Groups of units move smoothly without bumping into each others – an ancient curse of traditional RTS games – as long as you’re not trying to make them, say, walk outside of the map, or straight through a wall.

StarCraft II relies on a mix of new innovation and mainstays from earlier blizzard titles to make controlling casters as painless as possible. When controlling a mixed group of units, you can use tab to switch focus between the different units and cast spells that way. In previous real time strategy games, this would cause all units of that type to cast the chosen spell.

In StarCraft II, targeting a group of High Templars and casting psionic storm will make one High Templar cast psionic storm. Holding down shift and clicking X times will make X High Templars cast a psionic storm each. This is true for all abilities.

It is also true for training units. Targeting five barracks and two starports and pressing the hotkey for Marine five times will cause one Marine to be trained out of each barracks. Then pressing tab and clicking banshee twice will train one banshee out of each starport.

The one piece of criticism I have to offer about the controls is that you can’t seem to freely customize them. Even though the game offers you five pre-made configurations including leftie versions and the classic SCBW control scheme, letting you move individual hotkey bindings would be helpful.

The competitive multiplayer is classic StarCraft, or rather, classic RTS. It’s a game of economy, information, control, speed and strategy. It does not differentiate itself from older RTSes in concept, it’s all in the polish and execution. Out of all the units available, all of them are viable for competitive play, and only the Protoss Carrier has yet to be proved viable on the top level. The lengthy development time and beta testing shows; statistically each race has a very near 50% win ratio for each matchup.

Upon entering the multiplayer you are given a choice to play up to 50 games in a practice league with slower speed and modified anti-rush maps. If you chose not to, or when you move on from the practice league, you play five placement matches and are put into a league based on your performance. This generally works well, but there have been some instances of people ending up in leagues where they really do not belong and get their ass handed to them until they are pushed down to an appropriate bracket. However, most people can expect a 40-60% win rate from playing matchmaking.

As for latency or leaver problems, they generally don’t exist. In my experience throughout beta and launch, I’ve had noticeable latency in 5-10% of my games. Of course, your mileage will vary with location and the quality of your own connection.

Leave abusers, on the other hand, don’t exist because a leave – any leave, regardless if it’s a disconnect or a voluntary exit game – is counted as a loss.

The other side of online multiplayer is the custom maps. The World Editor in Warcraft 3 is responsible for popularizing Aeon of Strife/MOBA games like Defense of the Ancients, Demigod and Heroes of Newerth, as well as popularizing Tower Defense games.

The StarCraft II Galaxy Editor is much more powerful than the earlier Blizzard editors and has already spawned a number of interesting games and even more interesting prototypes.

Battle.Net 2.0 lets you publish up to five of your maps to the Battle.net servers where they will start showing up on the join game list if they become popular enough.

The problem lies in that right now while joining a game you can only see the 50 most popular custom maps, and while that is admittedly more than you’d ever get to see in WarCraft 3, it falls short of the prototype screenshots shown before beta. At the very least, letting you search for a specific map to join seems like an almost mandatory feature that I hope will be patched in later. In addition, the limit of five published maps per creators at a time severely limits mapmakers abilities to experiment without having to pull down one of his more popular maps for a while.

With new Battle.net comes new social features. The friends list has been revamped and is now an actual part of the UI, instead of only accessible by the “/friends list” or “/f l” commands.

You now have two types of friends, Real ID friends and in-game friends. Real ID friends are added by way of email addresses and need to be accepted by the other party. These friends will see your full name as listed in your battle.net profile and will be able to chat with you across games to WoW and in the future Diablo III.

In-game friends acts like the old friends lists – they will only be able to see your chosen nickname and won’t be able to see and chat with you across games.

One highly controversial omission is chat rooms. While in my experience these were mostly populated by flamers and spam bots in earlier games, a large part of the community seem to have fond memories of them. In response to this, Blizzard has promised to patch them in at a later date. For now, players will have to make do with creating temporary group chats with people on their friends list.

Overall, StarCraft II is a great sequel to a great game. It doesn’t innovate broadly, but presents small innovations like the smart casting system where they are needed. While it is certainly not the most photorealistic real time strategy game on the market, it looks great in that cartoonish, exaggerated Blizzard style and the music holds up just as well. For fans of traditional real-time strategy games, this is a no-brainer and I urge all other strategy fans to at least get a 7-hour guest pass and give it a spin.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Genre: Real-Time Strategy

Time: At least about 15 hours for the campaign. Multiplayer can last for years.

Gripes: Lack of offline LAN play, some of the custom map features need some more work.

Get it for the: Great blizzard-style story. Incredibly balanced and competitive multiplayer. Potential for great custom maps down the road.

Disclaimer: I have completed the campaign and played all the challenge maps. I have played in total around 50 games of matchmaking across the beta and retail as well as a high number of custom map games.

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