Review: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty (Windows/OS X)

Editor's note: We're happy to present the first-ever contribution from long-time site reader James Heinichen. When it comes to StarCraft, there's nobody who I'd trust more than James. Enjoy the review! -- Nick

Hello, I'm James Heinichen and I thought that you might want to hear about StarCraft II! If you're interested at all in any of the following you should read this review: Blizzard, real-time strategy (RTS) games, StarCraft, Jim Raynor fan-fic, cigars (oh yes, there are plenty).

Twelve years after StarCraft first revolutionized the RTS genre, Blizzard has released the long-awaited sequel. As a die-hard StarCraft fan, I have anticipated this game for as long as I can remember. My expectations were high, much higher than they have been for a game in years, probably since Metal Gear Solid 3. Fortunately, they have been exceeded.

Multiplayer

I'm no stranger to StarCraft II's multiplayer modes. I've played both the beta and full retail release, probably racking up about 250 ranked and unranked matches between them. That doesn't include countless games on custom maps, which add up to a sickening amount of time that I prefer not to think about.

There are too many improvements in StarCraft II's multiplayer game to list. However, there are three that set it apart from its predecessor as well as any other RTS I have been exposed to.

The first, and best in my mind, is the waypoint system. It allows you to queue up actions for any unit, such as sequential building construction from a worker or a rally pointed attack-move across the map. This ability changes the way you play the game: It feels nothing like the clunky, often infuriating unit and worker control of the first game.

The second change in gameplay comes from the introduction of Xel'Naga watchtowers. They allow you to remove the fog of war from a large area around the map, allowing you to see troop advances far before they reach your base – provided you place a unit next to one of the watchtowers. Having played a few hundred games, I can readily state that the control of these towers can truly make or break a match.

The last major change in gameplay is the ability to select as many units as you want within one group, something that has long been an issue in RTS games that don't allow it. Finally you can move your entire army across the map without pressing fifteen buttons and clicking madly like a speed junkie. This change is perhaps the most pleasing simply because the rage induced by failed control groups in the first game often resulted in a loss for less-skilled players. You will understand what I mean when you select 150 units and send them charging at your opponent as he does the same and watch the chaos of 300 units blowing up in a shower of sparks, melting from acid, or burning to death with a scream.

The matchmaking system is very well-made. I've used it somewhere between 100 and 150 times so far and have only rarely played an opponent who was far removed from my own skill level. No one really knows how it works, but it does its job well, placing you against opponents of fairly equal skill regularly and quickly. The system makes the age-old hassle of finding an opponent who is fun to play against a lot less painful than any other RTS I have experienced.

Single Player

The story picks up five years after the end of StarCraft's Brood War expansion. Emperor Mengsk has solidified his power as ruler of the Dominion and painted Jim Raynor, your protagonist, as a traitor and a terrorist. The clichés run rampant throughout the story but they stay true to the feel of the original. The storyline is no longer driven by short mission briefings and dialogue within the maps; instead, it is crafted primarily with between-mission cutscenes. The storyline does justice to the first iteration of the series, filling in gaps and bringing new life to both past events and new happenings. I truly cannot say much without throwing spoilers out left and right, so I won't. Simply put, the story is every bit as good as the high bar set in the original. With its great dialogue and voice acting, the narrative of Wings of Liberty alone is enough to justify the eight- to twelve-hour trek through hostile Dominion-controlled, Zerg-infested, Protoss-observed space.

Playing as Jim Raynor, leader of Raynor's Raiders, you are fighting against Mengsk's Dominion as a freedom fighter. You earn money from completed missions,which grants you the ability to add static upgrades to your units, such as permanently training unit abilities like marine stimpacks. This reduces the agonizing process of starting each map in the same hurried rush to research upgrades. Of the 29 available missions, a single play-through will net you up to 26. Those three remaining missions are the result of a choice between two differing strategies, and to play them all you would have to complete the single player campaign twice.

There is an addition to the Single Player option once you log on to Battle.net that includes Challenge Missions. These missions are a helpful tool for all levels of players. As the missions progress from basic to advanced and expert difficulty levels, you learn skills ranging from micromanaging only a handful of units, which teaches effective unit countering skills, to much more advanced tasks such as building up an economy, managing a second base, and defending against constant Zerg assaults upon your base.

The challenge missions start off with the basics of each race, teaching you what units are most effective against other race's units. This knowledge, combined with a very limited use of micromanagement, can net you fairly easy gold ratings. The advanced missions teach you how to use each race's most ability-intensive units: the Terran Ghost and Raven, the Protoss Sentry and Templar, and the Zerg Infestor. While these units are not required in lower bracket ladders, they make or break games once your opponents and you, dear reader, have more experience with them. The final challenges do not include a Zerg challenge; however, they teach you basics that can be extrapolated to other races of play. One Protoss challenge requires you to only use hotkeys to kill an absurd number of units, a skill certainly required for higher level play. The other two challenges – both as Terran – focus upon defending your base while building up an army and protecting against an early rush.

If there is a graph somewhere that charts the most inept to best player on a continuum – and I assure you there is as I am charting it right now – the single player challenges will pick you up and throw you, somewhat violently and painfully, toward the “kick-ass” end of that continuum. Truthfully, it teaches a lot of old tricks for those who never played the first game, but there are also a lot of new tactics for veterans to learn that become the building blocks of experience for competitive play.

As a veteran of the earlier StarCraft games, I played through the game on Hard difficulty once at about 10 hours' playtime and found it to be challenging. However, the four difficulties are fairly evenly spread, allowing everyone from newcomers to die-hards to find the right difficulty setting for their own experience. However, players interested only in the single-player component might find themselves disappointed with the value of their purchase. But if you intend to play multiplayer, the game is easily worth the plunge: Playing custom maps with friends or strangers via the new Battle.net is endless fun. The user-generated maps have been steadily pumped out since the game was in beta, and if you enjoy video games at all, odds are there is a custom map you will enjoy. I've played everything from a side-scrolling shoot-‘em-up to a map that puts you through a series of “party” games, which can range from Mario Kart races to Frogger-style avoidance games, and hundreds tower-defense games in between. If you have been on the internet recently I'm willing to bet you've played a tower defense kind of game, and once you've played one you have the itch, right? StarCraft II already has a few hundred tower defense type custom maps. Impressive, considering the custom map scene is only a few months old. Already the options are seemingly endless with a steady supply of new maps – at least a few each day that are worthwhile and new. The possibilities with the map editor seem endless, but I must shamefully admit that I am afraid (see: terrified) to venture into it after my failed (tear-and-blood-filled) experiences with the Warcraft III world editor.

If you deign not to read my glowing review, the short version is that StarCraft II is an extremely well-done sequel. Both single-player and multiplayer game modes offer solid entertainment value and, when put together, they easily offer more than $60 worth of pleasure. And with the added bonus of no monthly fee, I suggest you quit WoW and buy this game so I can crush you with my ball of fury.

Recommended for:

  • People with friends
  • People without friends
  • StarCraft enthusiasts
  • Competitive and casual gamers
  • Anyone who likes RTS games
  • People who enjoy pretty space warfare

Not Recommended for:

  • Your already-empty wallet
  • Xenophobes
  • Victims of acrophobia or astrophobia

StarCraft II is available for Windows and Mac OS X for $59.99. The reviewer purchased the game and played the single-player campaign to completion, and he has also spent more hours competing in matches on Battle.net than he would care to mention. If you'd like to play against him, feel free to look him up — his Battle.net ID is Wakl 468.

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