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StarCraft 2 is a terrifying prospect. In the 12 years since StarCraft was released (yes, it really has been that long) we’ve seen all sorts of changes hit the real-time strategy genre. Emphasis on hero…

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StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty Review

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StarCraft 2 is a terrifying prospect. In the 12 years since StarCraft was released (yes, it really has been that long) we’ve seen all sorts of changes hit the real-time strategy genre. Emphasis on hero units! Control points! Squad focus! Cover systems! Morale!
StarCraft 2 does none of these things. In a way it’s the ultimate retro RTS, with emphasis on the word “ultimate.” Rather than adding in new systems, Blizzard has wisely polished the RTS which remains a multiplayer staple in the West to this day, and which sparked off a massive pro-gaming scene in South Korea.
That’s not to say that there’s nothing new. The biggest changes of all come in the single-player campaign which focuses on the Terran faction and, more specifically, Jim Raynor’s rebellion against the corrupt government he helped put into power in the first game. If you don’t know your Zerg (slimy biological abominations bound to offend aesthetes) from your Protoss (ancient, psionic, and technologically advanced) then worry not: the installer provides a helpful summary of the backstory thus far, and the campaign itself introduces old characters and concepts in such a way that those who’ve little knowledge of what transpired in the first entry won’t feel left out.
Outside of missions, the majority of the action in single-player takes place on Raynor’s battlecruiser, the Hyperion, with players free to wander four primary areas of the ship. The Cantina lets players hire mercenaries, catch up on current events through the heavily-propagandised government news channel, listen to southern rock on the jukebox, or play through a complete Lost Viking arcade shooter. The Armory provides access to an upgrade terminal for individual units and buildings, the Laboratory lets you use Protoss artifacts and Zerg tissue samples to unlock powerful new units and abilities, and the Bridge provides you with a choice between available missions. Plot-centric characters wander all of these areas, and in a manner reminiscent of Wing Commander, you can chat to any or all of them to hear their thoughts on the missions at hand. 
This all plays a far more important role than it might sound. While the characters are admittedly cliched and a little dull, the choices you make in the Armory and the Laboratory have a huge impact on the way you’ll play out further missions. Deciding what to spend your hard-earned credits or research points on is an enjoyably agonising experience – would you rather have your Missile Turrets launch an extra missile every time they fire, or would you prefer your Siege Tanks to do less friendly fire damage? On the lower difficulties, these upgrades gives players the opportunity to keep their preferred strategies viable by upgrading their favorite units; on the highest, they’re terrifying decisions with huge ramifications for your survival chances on the missions to come.
And the missions themselves are something special. StarCraft 2’s single-player mission design is far and away the best I’ve seen in any RTS, with each providing unique challenges. While “destroy the enemy base” and “defend for X minutes” make appearances, most have a twist on the formula. One mission has you fight your way across the map while desperately staying one step ahead of an encroaching wall of flame, forcing you to destroy each enemy outpost rapidly and then use the resources there to set up your next attack. Another, set on a planet with a five minute day/night cycle, has you spend the “safe” daylight time burning down infested villages, while at night you hunker down and defend against massive waves of zombie-like foes. These are tied to Blizzard’s achievements system, too, providing incentive to go back and try beating the missions in different ways (like destroying a certain number of buildings during the night, in the aforementioned infestation mission.) And did I mention that based on your choices, three missions will always be locked off in any given playthrough? The campaign is not only the most enjoyable RTS campaign out there, but it’s impressively replayable.
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The multiplayer is where some would say the “real” StarCraft 2 is to be found, though, and with the sheer number of campaign-exclusive units, the two sections are almost disparate products. Due to the 12-year old community with plenty of StarCraft experience and the fact that the campaign only focuses on one of the three sides, Blizzard has tried found a number of ways to help ease new players in, and it works – with mixed success. The multiplayer side of things is divided into leagues, with five placement matches seeding players appropriately, and the matchmaking system (hopefully) giving you players of a similar skill level to deal with. Prior to this are fifty optional practice matches, which use a slightly different set of maps and a slower game speed. Other than that, there are a variety of fun single-player challenges which aim to teach skills ranging from basic micromanagement and support unit specifics, through early rush defence and the importance of hotkeys.
But there are problems. The practice matches are a nice idea that inevitably breed bad habits – having your base safely walled off to prevent early rushes stops you from learning how to deal with early rushes, and while it provides an environment for new players to work out build orders and tactics without being dominated by experts, skirmishes against the computer do much the same thing without the map tweaks that don’t occur in ranked matches. Sadly, the skirmish AI itself is lacking in personality. While it reacts well enough to your approaches, I’ve yet to see it wall itself off and tech up for air superiority, or do any of the completely batshit insane things that humans do.
Sounds bad, right? Well, in these areas it’s a little disappointing, but these criticisms really only apply for the complete beginner; anyone who’s played a Craft game before should have little difficulty adapting to StarCraft 2’s particulars. This multiplayer component is well-balanced and deeply, deeply enjoyable once you’ve got the basics down, and the matchmaking appears to work well enough in that I’ve yet to be completely steamrolled by an opponent far above my calibre, nor have I ever completely outmatched a player I’ve been paired off with. Multiplayer matches have mostly been close-fought, tense, and exciting, and I’d wager they’ll get moreso once I stop forgetting how best my fearless Protoss can counter those bloody Terran Marauders. With the intricacies of three wildly different races to learn, I’m going to be coming back to this for a long time to come. (It’s worth noting, however, that 2.0 doesn’t feature cross-region play, which is odd. I’m sure there used to be this thing called the internet that let you play games with people anywhere in the world. I must be getting old.)
Even with that, though, StarCraft 2 is well worth the price of admission whether you’re buying in for the single-player, the multiplayer, or both. The single-player campaign is spectacularly well-presented and it continually surprises and pleases with twists on old formulas, while the multiplayer has plenty of tactical nuance in typical StarCraft fashion, with lots of new units and tweaks to keep things interesting, and a matchmaking system that will hopefully help new players avoid experts. When both of these are exhausted, there’s a comprehensive map editor that’s leaps and bounds ahead of Warcraft 3’s offering – and that eventually led to amazing custom maps along the lines of Defense of the Ancients and Tower Defense. Considering the aforementioned Lost Viking shooter was apparently made in the editor, I’m eager to see what the budding SC2 map community can come up with.
If you don’t like Craft games, or if you can’t fathom going back to a “classic” RTS after having been spoiled by directional damage and cover systems, then this probably isn’t for you – but this is StarCraft, and you knew this already. For every other RTS fan on the planet, this is one of the most well-polished, well-balanced, and just plain enjoyable games on the market. Buy it.


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