The Good: Outstanding mission mix, excellent voice work and cut scenes, and superior unit balance. The Bad: But underneath, it’s not all that different from the original StarCraft. The Ugly: With no LAN support, and the single player game is Terran only. Several units in single player are inexplicably missing from multiplayer.
It must be nice being Blizzard, right? I mean, to have so many successful franchises that you can toss one on the back burner, be busy doing other things, for more than a decade, and your fan base is still OK with that. Think about that – the last StarCraft came out twelve years ago, and it still had a whole slew of fans crying out for the sequel. Name another game that has had that kind of cult associated with it. Half-Life 2 is only six years old, and do you hear anyone clamoring for Half-Life 3 in droves? Oblivion came out only four years ago, and it has more or less been lost in the shadow of Dragon Age and Borderlands. An argument could be made that perhaps the vaporware of Duke Nukem has a similar cachet, but I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that’s still coming. But StarCraft II, like some cultural phenomenon, here it is.
All that said, I’m not one of them. I’m sure I played StarCraft twelve years ago. I even believe I played Brood War, and I remember something about an unlicensed expansion pack that Blizzard quashed that I might have had a copy of. But it’s in the past for me. In that dozen years I’ve played something like 10 Need for Speeds, forty-three iterations of Madden football, and half a dozen Civilization (and related) titles. Just in the RTS domain alone there has been Company of Heroes, four or five Dawn of Wars, and in that dozen years there have been a dozen Command and Conquer titles. So I’ve moved on. The name Jim Raynor means nothing to me. Nor does Kerrigan, except for the Olympic figure skater, nor Mengsk. Heck, I hardly remember who the Protoss and Zerg were, except that I recall being the frequent victim of something called a Zerg rush.
So I’m sort of reviewing this as a stand-alone title, which it is of course, but the plotline, which continues the StarCraft story four years later, probably doesn’t resonate as strongly with me as it would for a member of the cult. The game recaps the plotline of StarCraft during the install process, and includes a little more depth of it inside the quick guide, so I don’t feel like I’m left out of the story exactly, but I haven’t spent the last twelve years wondering about star-crossed lovers Raynor and Kerrigan or the awful life under the jackboot of the Mengsk dominion. The excellent cutscenes, voicework, and animation do an effective job of drawing you into the story, but as this is clearly just the first title in a series of three, I had a hard time getting all worked up about it. Additionally, while the single player campaign spans 30 or so missions, all terran, more than a dozen of them are tutorial missions (despite a separate tutorial mission section) to all but the most noobie RTS player.
So, twelve years, what has Blizzard been up to? I can safely say probably not StarCraft 2, because there isn’t a ton of stuff in SC2 that is wholly new or even different. At the core, SC2 an RTS, and really a rather common one at that. Sure, they’ve applied a metric ton of polish to this game. I knew even before I received it, back during Beta testing (which I participated in), that Blizzard was really tweaking every facet of gameplay. A beta update patch would come out and the notes would say something like “gather rate of Zerg worker changed from 2.7 to 2.8 per second” or “Ghost build time changed from 43 to 47 seconds.” But on the whole Blizzard has taken the extremely safe road, sticking with the formula of StarCraft that brought them here. Even features notable in other Blizzard titles, such as the hero units from Warcraft 3, are not here. The three races – Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss – have similar if not identical units and buildings, and they have analogous research trees, and they both mine the same two resources. If that were the extent of the game, SC2 would be pretty damned ordinary, but there are a several things that Blizzard has done to try and set SC2 apart from the RTS pack.
Firstly, and easily most importantly, the single player mission structure includes mission types I’ve never seen before. Beyond the usual escort missions and wipe-out-the-enemy missions, there are reinforcement missions, rescue missions, survival missions, intercept missions, sneaking missions, resource gathering missions, and others. The unfortunate thing from a gameplay standpoint is that the entire single player game is played as Terrans (with Zerg and Protoss points of view likely to come in expansion packs). From the bridge of Raynor’s ship you select missions from a star chart (as in Mass Effect) based upon a shifting set of alliances and priorities. Secondary objectives are frequently introduced during the missions that can net you rewards.
These rewards are the second thing that sets SC2 apart, in that they can be employed between the missions on Raynard’s ship to buy new technologies and hire mercenaries. These technologies are apart from the typical research tree that takes place during the missions. Earned credits are used to change stats for your units and buildings, while research points are used to unlock new weapons and structures – there’s some overlap between those two types, but they are significant enough that they encourage you to seek out the secondary objectives when they become available.
Between the single player and multiplayer realms lie a series of missions called challenges (something like the commanders challenge from Red Alert 3). These missions try to hone the skills that players need to succeed at multiplayer. Of course, some people have been waiting for this game for 12 years and playing it 24/7 since it came out, so likely there will be people better than you are out there. To alleviate that, SC2 splits the multiplayer action into tiers based on player skill.
You begin by playing five games that are used to try and place you in your skill tier (bronze, silver, gold, platinum, diamond, and pro). The game appears to be pretty aggressive about shifting you around between the tiers to give you an even multiplayer experience; one that is neither frustratingly hard nor slaughtering babies easy. That said, SC2 can only be played multiplayer on Battlenet. That works just fine if you and a bunch of remotely-located, broadband-capable friends want to play a game. If, like me, you often congregate at a single house for a LAN party, even with a beefy Internet connection you’re likely to find that you can’t play SC2 – too many people, too small a pipe.
So StarCraft 2 is in essence StarCraft 1 with a new shiny coat of paint on it. The great varieties of missions in the single player campaign and the cutscene movies keep it from dropping into the general miasma of RTS games, but I don’t believe they are sufficient to warrant the accolades that it has been receiving. If you’ve been one of those people experiencing some level of StarCraft withdrawal for the past dozen years, by all means, plunk down your $59.99 and go for it. You likely won’t be disappointed. For the rest of us, you can go with C&C3 for about half of that (complete with LAN support, albeit EA’s kind of buggy version thereof), or Company of Heroes for the outstanding bargain price of $10, and if you haven’t played them yet you’ll likely be just as happy, with a fatter wallet to boot.