StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty was quite possibly the most highly anticipated PC exclusive title of the decade, and with good reason. Around 12 years ago, the original title and its expansion, Brood War, were critically praised for redefining the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) genre, both in terms of story driven gameplay and competitive multiplayer action. With StarCraft II, Blizzard was clearly not content to release a mere sequel – nothing less than an evolution of the RTS genre would suffice for StarCraft II.
In order to adequately review the magnitude of the title, MyGaming has decided to split the review in two – single player and multiplayer.
Many events have transpired since we last gamed in the war torn Koprulu Sector, and roughly four years have passed since the conclusion of Brood War. The Zerg have gone to ground on the planet Char and no one knows what they are up to.
Wings of Liberty
Emperor Arcturus Mengsk leads the powerful Terran Dominion, ruling with an iron fist. Mengsk uses propaganda, subversion and outright terror to keep the population under his thumb. The Dominion casts Jim Raynor as a terrorist in the public eye, and Raynor hasn’t forgotten Mengsk’ betrayal on Tarsonis which saw Sarah Kerrigan captured by the Zerg, and transformed into the Queen of Blades.
In the original title players assumed a silent role as the story unfolded around them. In StarCraft II things have changed – Jim Raynor is the main protagonist of the Wings of Liberty chapter, and players are treated to heavy character development delivered in a highly absorbing and cinematic way.
Jim Raynor is a hard drinking, straight shooting, freedom fighter
Gamers join the action as Jim Raynor and his Raiders are fighting yet another battle to liberate a human colony from Dominion oppression, when the Zerg suddenly re-emerge. Raynor retreats to his personal Battlecruiser, The Hyperion, which becomes a base of operations. Many new characters are introduced as well, each allowing Raynor to reveal a little more about his character and motivation.
Welcome to The Hyperion, Commander
The Hyperion can also be explored by the player by clicking on different characters and objects. Players do not navigate the ship in full roaming 3D (Mass Effect style), but instead are given various rooms to interact with by clicking around.
At this point it would be pertinent to mention that Blizzard has developed an impressive engine for rendering 3D cut-scenes on the fly – a major mechanism for propelling the story and a major addition to the series. The expected high quality pre-rendered cut-scenes also make a return – 13 minutes of pre-rendered footage coupled with 32 minutes of in-engine rendered scenes.
The Hyperion’s watering hole is a popular hangout
The Hyperion is divided into four distinct areas, three of which also serve a particular research and upgrade function. Players can even catch a bit of the Dominion television news service, which expands on the aftermath of missions with some tongue-in-cheek humour.
War is coming
The campaign starts players off slowly, with a few basic units, and steadily increases the selection – a well paced introduction to the numerous units and various gameplay concepts. Raynor will earn money from completing certain missions, which can then be used to purchase dynamic unit upgrades, or hire elite mercenaries for use in future missions. The Hyperion’s armory will proudly display the units as they become available, and it’s a nice touch to be able to have a close up look at the amazingly detailed unit models.
A fully stocked armory is the backbone of any merc army
Zerg and Protoss research samples can also be collected throughout the campaign missions, and these are used to unlock further building and unit upgrades. Each unit, building or research upgrade is accompanied by a nifty little video which demonstrates the ability in action.
The ability to choose an upgrade path means that players will be foregoing certain units or technologies in favour of others, lending an element of replayability. On occasion Raynor will be asked to make a moral choice, although this won’t have an effect on the final outcome of the game. The campaign features 29 missions, but due to the moral choice missions, only 26 can be completed in a single play through. Overall, the campaign story is of high quality and rather engrossing, with multiple arcs to explore .
The laboratory slowly unlocks many alien technologies
Whilst base building and unit production is the backbone of the campaign, there will often be added diversions, goals or environmental factors that force players to adapt new strategies on the fly, all of which keep things interesting as the story progresses. Coupled with hero led missions – stealth missions with Spectre Tosh; assault missions with Tychus Findlay (spoiler removed – Ed) – there is more than enough variety.
A mission to a volcanic planet can prove hazardous
With all its glory…
Visually, the game can be divided into two parts – the aforementioned Hyperion sets, and the familiar in-game style. StarCraft II retains all the charm of the original, but with clearly superior graphics.
The maps exhibit just the right levels of colour and detail to suit the particular atmosphere of each mission, and for those with adequate video cards, Blizzard has worked on some highly detailed textures. There are hundreds of unit, building and portrait animations, along with a plethora of doodads covering the landscape – things never get too repetitive or uninteresting to look at.
The Queen of Blades confronts a templar expeditionary force
As an aside, the map editor is also an extremely powerful tool, and those inspired by Blizzard’s example could easily go on to make superb custom maps and gameplay types.
Despite being visually stunning on a capable system, Blizzard has made sure that the game runs smoothly and still looks appealing across a broad range of hardware configurations. This really pays off in the multiplayer modes, when the last thing one needs is a frame drop when the Protoss roll into town.
The sound effects are top-notch, as is the soundtrack – the signature bluesy-prog-rock Terran music returning to compliment the campaign perfectly. Having a capable surround sound system really pays off with StarCraft II – the directional audio is immersive, and often alerts players to the direction of an attack.
Tychus and Jim share tales of the good ‘ol days
The voice acting is also commendable, with each character’s voice suitably matched to their persona. The dialogue is well written and is delivered cleanly and convincingly, both within the cut-scenes and in-game.
…and all its horror
To further encourage players to get stuck into the single player modes there is an extensive achievements system, which also carries over to multiplayer. Each mission has three achievements to strive for, which can then be proudly displayed on your Battle.net profile for bragging rights. Some are devilishly difficult to obtain, and obsessive types will love and loathe this in equal measure.
The Battle.net achievements system is a great way to encourage more play
Having completed the campaign, players may feel like getting into skirmishes versus the AI or online. Blizzard made it clear in the run-up to release that the single player campaign was primarily focused on delivering the story, and wouldn’t serve well as a training ground for multiplayer.
To compensate for this, a ‘Challenges’ mode has been introduced. This consists of nine missions which introduce players to various concepts such as basic unit countering, advanced use of specialist units, and expert use of hotkeys and base building techniques. Completing these challenges will be a step in the right direction to mastering the skirmish.
The AI has been tremendously improved – both for enemy AI and player units. Touches such as the player’s SCV’s/drones/probes no longer becoming confused if ordered to harvest the same block of minerals, and spell-casting units using a smart cast system which avoids wasting abilities are a welcome addition.
The enemy AI will also employ advanced tactics, such as scouting bases, and the human player positions will now only be revealed in the ‘Brutal’ difficulty. If one can master combat against the AI they will be very well prepared to enter the cutthroat world of Battle.net.
“Once again I stand atop the broken bodies of my enemies…”
Despite the furore that surrounded Blizzard’s decision to exclude LAN and operate multiplayer entirely through their Battle.net servers, the system actually works very well. The installation and once-off activation is a relatively hassle free process.
One of the downsides to the system is that in order to unlock single player achievements one must be connected to the Internet. A nuisance perhaps, but also an understandable necessity considering the efforts of Blizzard to curb piracy and encourage people to proudly display their achievements among the community. Another minor complaint is a lack of cross-realm Battle.net (for those who may want to simultaneously game with friends in Korea, Europe and America).
Remaining connected to Battle.net during single player requires barely any bandwidth – something South African gamers will be pleased to know – and being able to chat with your friends at any given moment is a nice feature.
Overall, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty comes off as an extremely well polished product. The classic StarCraft vibe has been retained yet also enhanced with the introduction of numerous cool new units and features. Blizzard has once again produced a product of high quality, and we have come to expect no less. This is certainly a contender for RTS of the year, and perhaps even game of the year.
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