StarCraft II - Wings of Liberty Review
"Hell, it's about time" growls Tychus Findlay in the opening cinematic. The poster-boy for bad-ass pretty much echoes the sentiments of every real time strategy fan the world over.
Finally, the sequel to 1998's game of the year has arrived and promises to bring all the glory and all the horror but it is fair to say it has a huge weight of expectation resting on it. Competitive players seem to worry about the game mechanics changing, a dumbing down of the metagame that they have spent years perfecting. Equally newcomers who may have found the old game inaccessible and the community too demanding have their hopes pinned on this incarnation being more forgiving. In addition to all this, any developer of a real time strategy title faces the reality that base building and troop stacking is considered "old hat" by the new-school, and previous attempts by other franchise's to reinvigorate the genre have been met with mixed reactions at best.
The balancing act that Blizzard will have to pull off is as challenging and as difficult as anything they will have attempted before. Any game with such a faithful community, despite being over a decade old, will have some very entrenched thoughts about what is "proper" for the franchise. Equally, there are many new gamers to entice and to thrill with something new and innovative, much as they did the first time around. Getting it right in a way that pleases everyone is the real conflict, a more alarming prospect than a slobbering horde of Zerg or an incoming fleet of Protoss.
Blizzard are stalwarts in these types of situations but experience sometimes counts for little in a changing gaming landscape - will the Wings Of Liberty see the game soar majestically high above the competition, or will lift off be prevented due to a weight of unrealistic expectation?
First things first. Everything the veterans would want from a StarCraft title is here. There's no new gimmicky way to mine resources, there's no mobile bases and there's recognisable tech-trees, even if there are a few new units to get to grips with along the way. The key difference that the old heads will notice is speed, with research and building being discernably quicker than the original and that's a good thing. Most of the campaign missions carry a sense of urgency, whether it's liberating oppressed civilians or trying to hold off a rampaging pack of Hydralisks while awaiting extraction. Everything else is as expected and it's a bold statement, a testament to the original, and it only takes a few minutes playing it to realise that there's plenty of truth in the old adage "if it isn't broken, don't fix it."
With a game such as StarCraft 2, many will be focusing on the multi-player but we urge players to look at the single player campaign, it is simply breathtaking. A driving storyline, tons of Easter Eggs and bonuses for long standing fans and it probably has some of the best characterisation in any game to date. The frontier feel of the universe has been accentuated even further in the four year aftermath of the Brood Wars, the re-colonisation of Mar Sara the perfect setting to blend science fiction and Western genres. The cut-scenes play out like Red Planet Redemption, all whiskey soured and revenge themed, just with spacesuits instead of Stetsons.
In between missions there is an opportunity to interact with characters, pictures, items, television, jukeboxes and more; fleshing out the in-game world and making it feel real. Is it necessary to hear the game's main protagonist lament what has become of his one-time love? No, of course not... Does it make the game a more profound experience? Absolutely. From the comedy of the propaganda heavy news broadcasts, to the old friends from previous titles that pop up along the way, there is a wonderful level of detail and polish. Additionally, some extra missions are only discovered upon such interactions so it is not just a case of style over substance.
Blizzard have brought some gameplay elements to the game that are pretty much staples for any title these days. The achievements are the most instantly recognisable of these, awards being handed out for completing missions with certain stipulations or as a player progresses through the game. Again, these don't need to be completed but there are rewards of sorts for doing so. For example completing achievements contributes towards a "Blizzard Rating" with harder achievements conferring more rewards, some will provide an avatar that can be used in place of the standard Terran picture for a player's online profile. Others provide decals that are also displayed proudly. While old-school gamers seem stubbornly resistant to the simple allure of achievements they do provide replayability and are a welcome addition.
There is also a persistent profile for the single player campaign that can be different each time. Credits can be used to unlock special benefits for certain buildings and units and tech points can be spent on unlocking enhanced, imbalanced units which can facilitate more difficult missions. Many of these units will not feature in multiplayer as they are not suitable for the competitive game, so they are another reason to savour the single player adventure.
Sometimes creative decisions can overshadow positive aspects of games and in the case of StarCraft 2 many players want to question the decision that there is only a Terran campaign to play here; a significant deviation from the original game that enabled all races to be controlled. For some this is deemed a cynical marketing ploy and it is something they are unlikely to be convinced of otherwise. Those with an open mind should dismiss any notions of being short-changed though. The single player campaign is long, with branching storylines and optional missions. It also offers full access to the multi-player with no such limitations over who players can control. This is not some expansion pack masquerading as a full priced game and should not be labelled as such.
One thing that has been at the forefront of the thinking when Blizzard put the game together was the difficulty curve. With a mix of gamers that are going to be used to StarCraft PvP, curious RTS stalwarts trying their first StarCraft title and complete novices wondering what all the fuss is about, how can the game be tailored to suit everyone?
With the single player game there are pre-set difficulty levels that determine computer AI and other significant factors. Of course, the idea is for players to progress in skill and so some achievements from the campaign can only be unlocked on harder difficulties. The AI on the hardest setting on later levels certainly poses a challenge and while it might not trouble the professionals, it's safe to say that the majority of players won't find it a walkover regardless of their posturing.
The beating heart of this game is a classic RTS title, comfortably walking the tightrope of maintaining a deep reverence and respect for the traditions while having no fear in snapping it in line with modern gaming convention. Blizzard do this effortlessly and playing the game is like welcoming an old friend and also meeting someone new and interesting. The learning curve is perfect, the missions varied, the units balanced and the story compelling. A complex, layered strategy title with instant pick up and play appeal? Blizzard have done it.
Over the past weeks and months we have had access to the multi-player aspect of StarCraft 2 through the beta and it is fair to say that it is a hugely addictive aspect of the game. Those times between beta phases where the game was unavailable were torturous and even in the final weekend before launch, when we should have had more than our fill of StarCraft 2 there were still withdrawal symptoms as we waited on the retail version servers going live. This wasn’t helped by the fact we had our hard copy sitting, waiting for the activation servers becoming active...
Part of the reason for the addictiveness and enjoyment that StarCraft 2 offers is how well balanced the Multiplayer experience feels. From early on in the beta the game already felt as good as many completed titles and as we have approached launch small tweaks to the units and balance have enhanced this aspect further.
This fantastic balance is mixed with a great level of accessibility for new players. Those who have not played StarCraft before begin by playing through a series of practice matches against other players. These familiarise the gamer with the interface and allow StarCraft 2 to judge our skill level. At the end of these practice matches we are assigned a ranking, based on performance, and from then on our competitive games are league based starting with matches against players of similar skill levels. This, mixed with a user selectable game speed, is an ideal way to ease new players into the online experience and maximise enjoyment.
As well as these "official" matches we are able to create custom games and play against the A.I. (user selectable difficulty) as well as other humans/friends. Speaking of friends, this brings us on to another strong aspect of the game. StarCraft 2 makes heavy use of the Blizzard Battle.net system. Battle.net essentially works as a game lobby, allowing us to set up matches communicate with our friends and thanks to recent improvements such as Real.ID we can even chat across different games. That's right, once logged into StarCraft 2 we can see which of our friends is in World of Warcraft, where they are and use the chat client to send them messages, for example asking if they fancy a battle... or maybe just throwing some friendly insults their way.
In terms of multiplayer gameplay StarCraft 2 feels much like players would expect. There are selections of pre-defined maps which are designed for differing numbers of players and each has been well thought out to maximise the level of competition and reliance on tactics/skill over brute force. While there are basic principles which come in handy, such as resource mining, blocking and knowledge that Marines, Medivacs and Marauders make a potent combination, there is plenty of flexibility in the way matches play out. It certainly helps to recognise what an opponent is trying to achieve and counter it but the options for making up your own new strategy for success are plentiful.
Due to the single player being focused purely on the Terran race the likelihood is that many new players will focus on them for the PvP aspect of the game, at least initially. However it is the ability to use the Zerg or Protoss races makes the value and long term replayability of the multi-player experience most successful. This is the case because Blizzard have managed to achieve what many RTS developers fail to do, that is to give each race a distinct feel. Playing as each race really does feel different, it’s not just a case of the same units in different clothes... the entire way we approach our tactics has to change based on the race and while this can make initial games a little difficult, mainly while learning the new tech tree, it also makes the first win with each all the more rewarding.
StarCraft veterans will also find themselves well catered for in Wings of Liberty as, like the single player experience, the multiplayer will feel immediately familiar. There are minor interface tweaks and the aforementioned balance changes from the original game but ultimately the core mechanic is the same and experts will be able to pick up and play without having to think.
It really is quite amazing how Blizzard have managed to make the game so accessible for new and existing StarCraft players.
For more on the multiplayer experience, please check out or previous blogs on the beta.
StarCraft II Blog Part One: Thoughts on the beta so far...
StarCraft II Blog Part Two: Thoughts on the beta so far... or how I learned to block
StarCraft II Blog Part Three: Thoughts on the beta... or why haven't they released the game yet?!!
The game looks great, even on lower graphics settings. A significant number of the in-game cut scenes are rendered by the game engine and it's a wise creative decision. The level of detail really brings the characters to life, whether it's Raynor's five o'clock shadow, Tychus's scars and cigar chomping or... Well, maybe there shouldn't be too many names given away as that is all part of the fun. Needless to say the characters all look great, brought to life in a way that previous versions couldn't achieve.
The main game itself is equally pleasing to the eye. Units are extremely detailed, even in their uniformity, and it is something that stands up even to the scrutiny of the full zoom. They are immediately recognisable from past encounters, just this time with a makeover. The buildings retain a similar level of old familiarity and new fabulousness. The way they work within the planetary environments to create clear and distinct boundaries isn't anything revolutionary by any means, yet it does make playing the game extremely easy in terms of following the action.
The GUI hasn't changed much either, just a tweak here and there. Once a mission has been selected from the near cinematic quality of the bar or bridge where Raynor finds himself, everything is in its right place. The mini-map has an improved level of detail and colour co-ordination, the alerts for thing such as idle workers or a base being under attack pop up in the same fashion as they did previously. They just look better, which is to be expected given the time between games. Still, it's not just its appearance that is important. The GUI remains intuitive and user friendly despite a tune-up.
All things told Blizzard made the right call in not pushing the in-game graphics too far. It could have become a muddled mess had they done so. Clarity and functionality has to come first in a game of this nature. However, as it stands it looks great in game without the need for showboating and the cinematic cut-scenes are beautifully rendered. The fact that the best parts of the graphical work lie in the time spent in between missions is just another reason to catch as much of it as possible.
Obviously the voice acting is a huge part StarCraft 2 and it doesn't disappoint. There's a real gravitas in all the performances here, no melodrama in what could easily have become an overwrought and hysterical space drama in the wrong hands. Delivered with a light touch the voice acting is amongst the best in the genre, the comedic moments delivered pitch perfect, the action-movie cliches being spat out in a way that will make a player smile as opposed to smirk and a believability in the moments that are there to stir emotions. In a smart piece of juxtaposition Raynor and company obtain all their exposition from the computer, called Adjutant, in a robotic voice that is a voice deliberately at loggerheads with the American drawls of the universe's most wanted men. It's also a nod to the sci-fi staple of having the storyline furthered by an all-knowing mechanoid (yes, you TNG).
The in-game music likes to play with this too, the jukebox having cover versions of songs that seem unlikely to have survived the passing of time, that sound dated and also curiously futuristic at the same time. The music that drives the game is also a note perfect blend of stirring strings, an orchestral sound underpinned by synthesisers and electronic beats. It lurks in the background and genuinely adds something to the game, not quite to the same level that Frank Klepacki's score for the Command & Conquer titles did but without it the levels do seem particularly desolate from an audio perspective.
Sound effects are much the same with the guns and units all delivering their tell-tale snippets. There's not a huge amount of variety, although there doesn't need to be. Units greet the player as they spawn and deliver their few lines when called upon to perform the tasks they were designed for. Eventually it passes by in a blur, an unimportant distraction. The weapons of mass destruction are similarly affected but equally possess enough level of detail to be identifiable from a distance.
A Blizzard game is generally always an event and the surrounding hype and hysteria can sometimes prevent a sober analysis of the reason for the furore. Don't get bogged down in the resistance to change, don't get sucked into arguments about games industry ethics... Is it frustrating that another big title has decided that it has to be a requirement to be connected to the internet to access single player? It is. Should people feel short changed by the lack of Zerg or Protoss campaigns? No. Should these, or similar arguments detract from the achievement that StarCraft 2 represents? Not in our opinion.
And what exactly is that achievement? Well, many might have felt that StarCraft 2 would attempt to reinvent the RTS genre. Instead they do something more profound and difficult. They make players find their love for the genre again, without really changing too much about it. The impeccable game mechanics, a sprawling single-player experience and a comprehensively modern multiplayer platform ensure that they don't have to. If your way of doing things has already been established as the best, why do it differently?
This game will make true RTS fans party like it was 1998 and given the spate of mediocre titles we've been exposed to down the years, it really is about time, no doubt.
|| As good an RTS as there has been in some time, it avoids gimmicks and delivers on the fundamentals in fine fashion. A game for veterans and newcomers alike.
|| The cinematics are wonderfully rendered and look incredible. A sensible sobriety is applied to the in-game graphics, nothing too needlessly flash but still more impressive than most.
|| Voice acting is spot-on from all parties and is accompanied by an effective score. Sound effects are functional and work well.
|| Don't believe the naysayers - the single player campaign is a masterpiece, there are plenty of missions and the multiplayer experience is near limitless. This is a must buy for any PC gamer.
(Not an Average)
|| Worth the wait without a shadow of doubt, a game that delivers across the board and will surely be a contender for game of the year.