Review: Starcraft 2
Twelve years ago, a gaming phenomenon known as Starcraft was launched and created a storm of positive reviews and a competitive scene unheard of at the time for real time strategy games. As much as Blizzard Entertainment loves to update their franchises, Starcraft was pushed aside after the Brood War expansion. Their two other franchises, Diablo and Warcraft, both got new games, and a new phenomenon known as World of Warcraft was born. At last Blizzard has come back to (arguably) its most famed and prized series. I can resonate with what Tycus Finley, the gruff marine in the opening cinematic muttered: “Hell…it’s about time”.
Starcraft 2 is an unapologetically direct sequel and evolution of the original game. The core gameplay is exactly the same as it was twelve years ago: mine minerals and vespene gas, build units and structures to support them, and send them off to blow up anything that moves. The interface and how you interface with the game is very familiar to fans of the original game and to anyone who’s even remotely familiar with RTS games.
That doesn’t mean that things haven’t changed. A majority of units from the original games have been dumped, with only the core units sticking around for each race (Terran’s marines and siege tanks, Zerg’s zerglings, hydralisks and mutalisks and Protoss’s zeolots and high templars). Filling in for them are a set of new units with a vast diversity of new abilities and ideas behind them. For example, the Terrans have the Viking, which can fly as an air-superiority unit or transform into a ground bipedal tank and back again. Zergs have Brood Lords, flying units that shoot broodlings into enemy armies that will distract them as they tear buildings apart, leaving their mother unit unharmed. Protoss have Sentries, which can create force fields to block units (and trap them) as well as guardian shields to reduce damage for units around them. These new units add depth to the game through their unique mechanics and require practice to master using their full potential.
Luckily for players not masters of clicking things at 200 APM (actions per minute), Starcraft 2 tones down the level of micro-management needed to play well. There are lots of small tweaks that make the game more intuitive; workers can be rallied to a mineral field and they will automatically start mining, SCV’s will automatically repair weakened units and structures around them, magic units will “smart-cast” when using skills to maximize damage, and most importantly, you can actually select more than 12 units at a time!
The single player campaign, to many players’ dismay, only follows the Terran race (with some Protoss missions thrown in). However, Blizzard proves that only getting a third of the story is worthwhile by fleshing it out with great attention to detail. Don’t get me wrong, the story isn’t anything special; there’s enough corny one-liners to fill a James Bond movie (or two) and the story is predictable and fairly one-dimensional. Still, the progression isn’t entirely linear in that it allows multiple paths to be taken, resulting in discovering different units and missions. There’s tons of incentive to replay missions or the campaign entirely; besides the branching path missions, there’s research objectives that will unlock special army upgrades, armory upgrades that give your units special abilities, multiple difficulty levels and above all, an absolute megaton of achievements to unlock. Each of the 29 missions have three and there are dozens more associated with campaign-wide goals; accomplishing them will make your mission even tougher and many require “hard” difficulty, which is certainly not a cakewalk by itself.
What I really loved about single player was that no two missions were the same; in the original Starcraft missions generally fell into three categories: your standard verses mode of building a base and blowing up the opposition, controlling a small task force to reach objective locations, and defending your base from waves of enemy attacks. While those three types do appear in the campaign, there are tons of new and original ideas around as well. One mission has you racing to collect minerals; reaching a certain number of minerals is the goal, but complicating matters is an active volcano that fills the low ground every minute or so, forcing you to quickly adjust your attention to saving workers and units not safe. Another has you defending your base with the help of a giant laser that you can aim at specific units, making the mission more about fast reflexes in catching incoming enemy waves. The missions have a great scale of variety and are, most importantly, very fun to play and experience.
Starcraft is known best for its huge competitive scene and Starcraft 2 makes sure to add all the features we’d want in a 2010 online game. There’s a huge list of additions, things like custom parties with voice chat, Facebook integration, post-game analysis and match history, and detailed statistic tracking in your profile. The big addition is the concept of tiered leagues. When you first start playing online you play a series of “placement matches” which gauges your skill and puts you in leagues ranging from copper to platinum. The players within each league are (generally) similarly skilled, so unfair matchups are rarer. Leagues are furthermore broken into divisions, so instead of trying to stand out in a massive 100,000+ player leaderboard you’re simply among 100-200 others. If you’re not about super-competitive player there are custom games (with no win-loss record kept), humans verses AI opponents, and custom games. The latter is particularly interesting since it aggregates the most popular custom maps and applies auto-matchmaking so joining is as simple as double clicking the map; previously you’d have to constantly refresh a list to find that one type of tower defense map you want.
The last huge feature of Starcraft 2 is the insanely deep map editor included. The roof has really been raised, allowing custom animations, graphics, UI, and scripting; it’s enough to look at Starcraft 2 more as an engine that a game with custom maps. Already we’re seeing what can be done; there’s a Final Fantasy battle engine , a third-person RPG game, even a racing game! The downside to all this power is in ease of use; the editor has become incredibly deep and scripting even the simplest triggers can be an ordeal in menu and button navigation to set up.
It could be said that Blizzard played it safe with Starcraft 2, and there’s certainly some truth to that. Sticking to the formula was the right choice, though; any variance to the proven and classic mechanics of the original would make the game feel alien to original Starcraft veterans, who are a huge part of the audience. Blizzard took good mechanics and made them even better and more tightly refined – the balance of Starcraft 2 is certainly leagues better than the “balance” of the originalStarcraft release, where it took many patches for a competitive scene to even begin. The art, voices and animation has been given a 2010 layer of paint, but at the end of the day it’s still Starcraft. Keeping it that way while making the game feel as fresh and engaging as it does is perhaps Starcraft 2’s biggest accomplishment.