The city of Irvine in Orange County, California, is almost wholly unappealing. Built by the Irvine Corporation in the 1960s, the branded municipality is 69 square miles of sprawling, empty parking lots and sunbathed sidewalks completely bereft of pedestrians.
Peppered over the concrete creep are the nondescript corporate head offices of the likes of Taco Bell and the Broadcom Corporation.
Visiting this pristine, soulless commuter city gives the mind’s eye a ready canvas for imagining a post-apocalyptic world wherein infrastructure is the last remaining testament to humanity.
Curious then that underwhelming Irvine is also home to the Graceland of gaming. Nestled behind high hedges and a drive-thru security gate is the manicured campus of Blizzard Entertainment, a developer that for more than a decade has produced nothing but chart-topping best-sellers.
Beyond that gate, somewhere in colonial space, jaded outlaw Jim Raynor sits hunched over the counter of a dusty frontier saloon and nurses a whiskey as the Emperor Mengsk extols the virtues of sacrifice to the citizens of the Terran Dominion from a monitor behind the bar.
The downtrodden Raynor, who once vowed to destroy the evil Dominion, has been struggling against the tide for too long and is turned to drink. He is an idealist without the means to deliver; a man inwardly scolding himself for his past failings; a hero whose tragic flaw is his naive willingness to believe the best of those around him.
Like so many games today, StarCraft II’s singleplayer campaign immediately begins to explore themes of utilitarianism, the notion that sometimes lesser evils must be committed for the greater good.
Raynor’s channels to such lesser evils – and enough capital to take the fight to Mengsk – are former convict and Marine Tychus Findlay, and calculating Spectre Gabriel Tosh.
Tychus, who now represents benefactors at the Moebius research Corporation, is a known quantity to Raynor – the two served together in the Heaven’s Devils battalion. The motives of the Machiavellian Tosh are less certain, but as a former Ghost – the psionic covert operatives of the Terrans – Tosh is privy to knowledge that could turn the tide in Raynor’s favour.
The staging ground for the singleplayer campaign is Raynor’s battlecruiser, the Hyperion. The Hyperion itself is divided into four wings, the armory, the bridge, the cantina and the laboratory, each of which serves as an interactive menu.
Back in Irvine, lead game designer Dustin Browder describes the multiplayer experience as “the smallest game possible.” It’s a mantra that has created a svelte and ruthlessly competitive online component. The singleplayer campaign is an entirely different affair. Naturally, it’s a narrative-driven experience, but also one that affords the player a rich variety of advantages and units not available in multiplayer.
From the Hyperion’s bridge, Raynor can choose from a range of available missions, many of them optional. Each mission is preceded by a dynamic briefing that employs both in-game footage and prerendered animations. Blizzard has placed particular emphasis on creating an emotional investment in each mission – none feel incidental or routine.
Moreover, while the missions usually conform to archetypes (such as search and destroy, survival, escort, and so on), each includes a unique feature to distinguish itself from the rest. For example, “The Dig”, a mission carried out for Tychus’ contacts at the Moebius Corporation, sees the player taking control of a gargantuan Drakken Laser Drill in an effort to puncture the defences of a Protoss shrine in pursuit of a valuable sacred artefact. In addition to slowly penetrating the shrine’s gates, the laser can also be turned on raiding parties of Protoss defenders.
Each mission also includes optional objectives. Scattered across The Dig’s map are three additional Protoss relics. Completing these optional objectives, whether against the Protoss or the Zerg, award the player with research points. Once back aboard the Hyperion, the player can visit the laboratory to invest these points in their respective research trees.
Every five points from one to 25 affords the player a choice of one of two upgrades ranging from new structures such as the flame-throwing Perdition Turret and the Zerg-researched automated vespene refinery that harvests gas without SCVs.
Moving across to the armory, Raynor can invest his earned credits in upgrades to units, vehicles and structures. Each unit, vehicle and structure has two non-exclusive tiers of upgrade available for purchase. The humble bunker can easily be upgraded with a projectile accelerator that increases the range of all housed units by one, or, for considerably more credits, can be upgraded to the Neo Steel bunker to house an additional two units for a total of six.
Upgrades at both the armory and the laboratory have been included to allow for more customised playstyles. While in these early missions they appear to proffer dramatic advantages that tip the scale heavily in the player’s favour, Browder assures us that the increasingly impossible odds in later missions will make prudent upgrading a necessity. He expects that the average player will have accumulated perhaps half of the possible upgrades by the time they’ve completed their first play-through.