It's not every day that Blizzard releases a game, so examining the nature of a new title from that developer in order to recommend it to others is a process fraught with trepidation.
We've been doing little else but playing StarCraft II since early Tuesday morning. Therefore, although you may spot a few fatigue-induced fumbles, what you're reading is the real deal - we've clocked the campaign, been thrashed online, and had a good chance to verify our findings from the extensive preview sessions Blizzard were kind enough to provide us with stretching back to BlizzCon '08.
A real-time strategy game set in a war torn universe plagued by political intrigue and beset by the constant threat of total annihilation, both StarCraft and its sequel recount the bloodied interactions of three races: the pioneering and politically corrupt human Terrans; the Protoss, an ancient and ruthlessly objective alien species; and the devouring Zerg, a xenomorphic alien swarm ruled by a single hive mind.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’s singleplayer campaign picks up four years after the events of the original. You play as Jim Raynor, a freedom fighter branded a rebel by the Terran Dominion – the ruling empire he unwittingly helped to install. Raynor’s motivation is to bring down the Dominion and its ruthless Emperor, Arcturus Mengsk.
The unfolding storyline is a slightly-greyed tale of good and evil. It’s compelling, expertly paced and unburdened by unnecessary aggrandisement or allusion. Regrettably, Wings of Liberty is just one of three instalments in StarCraft II, so it’s also incomplete. Particular narrative threads drop out (presumably to be picked up again in the two planned expansion packs), others occasionally feel too incidental and the conclusion is – as you’d expect – far from conclusive.
Story is frequently moot, or at least less pressing, in a real-time strategy title. It’s a genre where you’re often set a stage and left to deliver the story yourself. Wings of Liberty, however, successfully introduces significant role-playing and progression elements to its fundamental base-building formula.
The staging ground for Raynor’s campaign is his Battlecruiser, the Hyperion. The ship itself operates as a large interactive menu composed of four wings. In each wing, Raynor can choose to interact with other characters in cut scenes – many of whom have additional missions for the player to complete, and almost all of whom are prepared to offer an opinion on current events. Incidentally, all the dialogue scenes in StarCraft II are built with the galaxy editor, a development tool that ships with the game and is available for users to create their own content.
Also built with the galaxy editor is The Lost Viking, a mini-game that can be found in the cantina wing of the Hyperion. Both of these showcase what a promising tool the galaxy editor is - unfortunately, we haven’t had enough time to truly sink our teeth into it.
Elsewhere in the cantina, Raynor can watch the propaganda-ridden Dominion news to gauge reaction to his campaign, or hire mercenaries. If purchased, these limited elite units can arrive by drop ship on the battlefield.
From the bridge, Raynor can select from any number of available missions, and the player can review past cinematics. Occasionally, Raynor will also be required to make decisions that will have divergent results as to what units are available to him in the future.
The missions themselves typically conform to the base-building mould, with objectives ranging from time challenges, survival, gathering and destruction. Players are set up with the bare essentials after which they must accumulate minerals and vespene gas which can in turn be spent on units, defences and greater production facilities. Your standard real-time strategy fare, then.
Nonetheless, StarCraft II imbues each mission with detailed relevance during the briefing sessions – the player is never left to wonder why they’re performing the task at hand. Moreover, every mission contains its own unique mechanic not to be found elsewhere in the game.
In addition to incrementally introducing new units and presenting players with a compounding, finely-balanced difficulty curve, players must grapple with particular challenges. For example, you may be required to regularly move your base eastward across a map as a supernova dawn slowly conflagrates the planet you’re occupying.
On the battlefield, StarCraft II isn’t breaking any new ground graphically, opting instead for more cinematic presentation between missions. Although the unit modelling and terrain details are more than capable for this style of game, Blizzard has bypassed the urge to create something that only a top-end machine will run in favour of gameplay.
Each map also contains a number of bonus objectives scattered throughout the level. Foremost among these are Zerg and Protoss research upgrades. Back in the Hyperion's laboratory, Raynor has two tech trees to choose from and can invest research points in one of two exclusive upgrades to his structures.
Similarly, Raynor will also receive credits for completing missions, which he can use in the Hyperion's armory to non-exclusive upgrade his units and vehicles. These role-playing elements add a layer of strategic depth to StarCraft II, allowing the player to customise or upgrade his or her preferred units, or perhaps to automate a task such as resource gathering.
There are more unit upgrades available than Raynor will have credits to spend, so judicious purchasing would be required were it not for the number of largely pointless new vehicles in the game. As you progress, you’ll unlock new vehicles such as the Diamondback tank. Typically, they’ll serve a particular or necessary function on their introductory map, but they’re easily discarded thereafter.
It could be that we’re now so used to multiplayer build orders after playing the online beta so extensively (many of the singleplayer units are not available in online competitive play) that we bypass them by default, or don’t understand their real advantage. Whatever the case, their relegation to the bench hardly put a dint in our progress.