I’m not going to mince words on this one, because if you’ve been even remotely interested in PC gaming since the late 1990s then you’ve probably played StarCraft. Blizzard may have fed their other RTS series to the MMO meat-grinder, but, at least for now, StarCraft remains as the gold standard of old-school strategy games. On the other hand, it is 2010, and the strategy genre has seen some impressive leaps in the area of both gameplay and story-telling mostly thanks to Relic and their excellent Dawn of War and Company of Heroes series. Can the StarCraft formula still hold up, even all these years later?
Like the old mantra goes, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, and that seems to be the philosophy Blizzard carried in to StarCraft 2. Except for a graphical update, the basic presentation of the game remains the same, as do the mechanics. You build your workers, your basic infantry, get resources and climb the tech tree. Every unit has a special counter, so you have to stay on your toes if you want to come out on top.
If you’re like me though, the first bit of StarCraft 2 you played is the campaign to warm yourself up for multiplayer. The original StarCraft had a pretty intricate plot, weaving between the three races in the universe, the Protoss, Terran and the Zerg. It’s also been ten years since I’ve played the single player, so you’ll have to forgive the lack of a re-cap. Even though my memory of the early games have faded, StarCraft 2 eases you back into the story gently, so even new comers shouldn’t feel too lost.
The difference between this game and its predecessors is that the story mode focuses solely on the human side; more accurately, it centers on Jim Raynor, rebel turned revolutionist turned outlaw. Four years have passed since the Brood War, and Jim is the shadow of the man he once was, until an old compatriot turns up with the promise of more credits that he can dream of. The story mode slowly escalates in scale, starting on a single planet and eventually ranging the whole Koprulu sector. The problem with a slow burn is that the early missions feel very rote by RTS standards, and there’s very little to set them apart. Once you get a few hours into the game, the story telling and the mission design really take off, but the opening chapters seem to drag a bit compared to the rest of the game.
Since the campaign has you beating up the AI, Blizzard lets you go a bit crazy when it comes to your units and their upgrades. Several types of infantry and vehicles that are missing from the multiplayer are present in the story missions, and research aboard your personal Battlecruiser The Hyperion allows you to trick out your forces in lots of neat ways. By collecting both Zerg and Protoss technology while on missions, you can apply upgrades to your structures like having Vespene gas refineries harvest themselves, or use a self-healing alloy on your vehicles and star-ships. It’s all pretty useful, but not so overpowering that it feels like you have a major advantage. Even if you’re just killing AI by the hundreds, Blizzard still maintains that signature attention to detail and balance.
Outside of the missions themselves, you’re given free reign of your cruiser to chat with your crew or purchase new technology. Walking around The Hyperion can best be described as a cross between Mass Effect and an old-school adventure game. You never take direct control of Raynor, but you can click on any highlighted object to either have a conversation or listen to the news. Other members of your crew can help you out here too by providing advice or offering up new mercenary bands to purchase. I really enjoyed talking to the denizens of my ship, but the repeated talking animations of some of the NPCs, specifically your ship’s captain Matt Horner, got on my nerves at some points. He repeatedly does this sort of surprised blink when he talks, which is kind of strange given the level of detail the rest of the ship has received.
Overall, the campaign is very, very solid and the in-house cut-scenes are nothing short of beautiful. Even when StarCraft 2 uses the game engine to power the cinematics, it still looks really, really good. The writing is fairly ham-handed at some points, and the end of the game is a little disappointing. I know that we still have two more chapters to go in the StarCraft 2 saga, but I would have liked to see such an epic campaign come to a more satisfying end.
Although the campaign isn’t a short run by any means, the game mode where StarCraft 2 will get its legs is the multiplayer. While I’m not a great StarCraft 2 player, Blizzard has cooked up plenty of options so even the lowliest of gamers can have a decent challenge when playing. For the newcomers, the Practice League should be your first stop. Whereas most competitive games are played on the fastest setting, the Practice League is played at regular speed and helps you ease into the play style.
In addition to this, Blizzard also has a bunch of Challenge missions where the game walks you through the basics such as proper countering, resource management and unit manipulation (called micro). One you’ve passed these, you should be ready for League play, and even here Blizzard is dedicated to helping you have a good time. The old StarCraft dumped you unceremoniously into an open lobby where you had to pick and choose the games you were going to play. More often than not, this equated to jumping in a lion pit covered in barbecue sauce. StarCraft 2 carves up the population by having several different categories of player skill, starting at Bronze and ending up at Diamond. I’m a Bronze player at best, but I know someone who is Diamond league. If we ever met up in a random match, it would be a waste of both of our time, so the League system is designed to circumvent these one-sided matches.
There’s still the option of custom matches and good old comp-stomps, so even if you’re too timid to try open multiplayer you can still have a game with your friends. Blizzard knows all to well how insular and competitive the population is, so dividing the game up into player-friendly sections was a good call. People you’ll meet online will still offer the perfunctory “good luck; have fun” and “good game”, so even though they’re tearing your base apart from the inside, they’re still sort of polite.
In the end, StarCraft 2 is a worthy successor to the original. It doesn’t try to do anything too earth-shattering, but then again, it doesn’t need to. Blizzard couldn’t risk shaking up the formula too much, so instead they refined it to perfection, the distillation of ten years and nearly billions of games played online. The campaign is good fun too, if you can get past the opening few hours. With custom maps and two more expansions coming, Blizzard will once again reign supreme as the king of PC gaming. We may still be waiting for their other franchise, but if StarCraft 2 is any indication, the wait will be well worth it indeed.
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