The permanent upgrading system is heavily reminiscent of Relic’s Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War. But that’s what Blizzard does best – take an existing format and improve upon it. StarCraft II is not a particularly innovative title – it’s not trying to be. If anything, it brings home the point that the real-time strategy genre has been largely stagnant (Creative Assembly’s Total War series to one side) since Warcraft III. Indeed, StarCraft II often feels like an in-house evolution of its sister series.
Besides, many of those real-time strategy titles that have decided to focus heavily on innovation in recent years have lost their way. Case in point, Command & Conquer 4’s dramatic reinvention of the wheel that was met with, at best, mere scattered applause in March.
But perhaps the greatest strength in StarCraft II’s singleplayer campaign is its illusion of scale and choice. The player is free to take or leave those new units; they can interact heavily with the characters on the Hyperion or skim across them superficially. But should they scratch just a little, they’ll find an experience rich in detail. The game's borders, its limitations, the proverbial "man behind the curtain" are especially well concealed. That makes for a deeply immersive experience like none other in its category.
StarCraft II’s singleplayer campaign is probably enough to enshrine it in the annals of real-time strategy gaming. But the source of its assured longevity, and the reason it has induced hysteria in otherwise civil and composed grown men is its online multiplayer component.
Gamers have been playing the original StarCraft online for the last twelve years. The game’s competitive circuit is as much a business as any other sporting league and its stars – in Korea more so than elsewhere – are treated with the same kind of reverence.
If the singleplayer campaign is a portly, jovial new friend you’ve decided should join your Friday night pub group, the game’s online multiplayer is his steroid juicing twin – fast, toned, pitiless. Much of the superfluous fat has been trimmed to create a highly refined competitive experience. Matches are decided within moments and newcomers need tread carefully.
Prerequisite to success online is a thorough understanding of the unique playstyles of all three races, the Terrans, the Zerg and the Protoss. As the singleplayer campaign is heavily composed of Terran gameplay with just a handful of Protoss missions and no Zerg missions at all, new players will have to invest some time coming to grips with the playstyles of the latter two.
To assist in that process, StarCraft II offers a series of offline challenges that are designed to hone a player’s skills. Additionally, players can practice against five tiers of AI.
Even so, we expect the barrier to entry may simply be too high for the merely curious, who at the very least will have to play through five ego-deflating "placement matches" before Battle.Net 2.0 – Blizzard’s new online gaming portal – places them into a league in which they can find competitive matches. Once there, their position will continue to go up or down based on their performance. Still, once Battle.Net has ascertained your skills, its matchmaking system proves robust and it will reliably pair you at your level.
Multiplayer is limited to Battle.Net. Players cannot compete against one another over a Local Area Network – something that has been a point of contention among the harder kernel of longstanding real-time strategy fans.
As far as we’re concerned, the lack of LAN play is only a problem if you don’t have an internet connection. Playing with others in the same room is fine provided you can all access Battle.Net, and the latency shouldn’t prove an insurmountable issue unless you’re quietly nurturing dreams of a professional career. In saying that, it’s not a welcome method of structuring the game, and it would have been more agreeable if Blizzard had found a technological solution that allowed direct connections.
But for the experienced, or the eagerly competitive, StarCraft II's multiplayer is without peer. Fine-tuning is always an ongoing process as more data becomes available, but already StarCraft II’s multiplayer exhibits the kind of sophisticated balance and network support that will see it succeed its forebear as the last word in real-time strategy gaming.
Twelve years is an awfully long time between drinks. The original StarCraft was released in 1998. It’s still wildly popular.
We don’t expect StarCraft II will be any different.