While we toil away on an actual Starcraft II review - which I won't be writing - let's pass the time with some quick, dirty singleplayer impressions. Which I will be writing.
So, yes, this isn't a review. Don't go asking why I'm not talking about this, or that, or why I said this and not that. These are just impressions!
I've been chipping away at the game's singleplayer since its release, having not played a single round of multiplayer, and while I've not yet finished it, I'm far enough in to have got a feel for pretty much everything the campaign has to offer in terms of tweaks, additions and (attempts at) improvements.
The short of it is, Blizzard has perfected a formula that it helped innovate over ten years ago. The long of it is...well, the long of it follows.
Slogging through Starcraft II's singleplayer campaign is like stepping back in time. To the days before World in Conflict, before Dawn of War, before Company of Heroes, when real-time strategy games weren't about flanking the enemy, or laying down suppressive fire. It's a time when they were about frantically clicking a mouse to dig stuff out of the ground before sending bobbly little men to their deaths.
It's a primitive game, in that respect. Your marines can't take cover, the maps lack any real sense of depth, and there's still no scope for genuine tactics. To succeed in Starcraft II you need to do what you did in Starcraft: namely, mine fast enough to build enough units to beat the waves of bad guys that are being thrown at you.
There are some welcome new features; mercenaries bring an added element of strategy to your deployments, while Blizzard has squeezed surely the last drops of innovation from the mission templates for this kind of RTS, with some - one based on I Am Legend in particular - feeling genuinely fresh and exciting. For the most part, though, there's only so much you can do with a game structure rooted in the 1990s.
Of course, Blizzard couldn't have done it any other way. Starcraft's fanbase was too large, too entrenched in its ways, too reliant on the nuances of play during competitive matches for the developers to go making Company of Heroes with Space Marines. In making the sequel to Starcraft, Blizzard could only make, well, the sequel to Starcraft. More of the same, only bigger, and brighter.
Which they've duly done. And it's in this bigness, this brightness that Starcraft II is really grabbing me. See, from Dune II to Command & Conquer to Starcraft, real-time strategy gameplay was for me a chore. Clicking, clicking, scrolling, clicking. Boring. And yet I loved those games regardless, and I loved them for the same reason: they beat me with the stick of gameplay while tempting me with the carrot of the cutscene.
Blessed exposition. Context. Some cutting-edge cinematics to reward me for my thirty minutes in a mouse-clicking salt mine. And this game has them in spades. It's in these trimmings that Starcraft II was always going to have room to move, to innovate (or at least fundamentally improve), and so far for me, it's succeeded. Before and after each mission, the game transforms from RTS to adventure title, as you roam the hallways of your ship chatting with other characters, researching new weapons, hiring mercenaries, watching news broadcasts, playing arcade games and even listening to some clever little cover songs on the cantina's jukebox.
It's Wing Commander 2010. Or, for a more contemporary example, Mass Effect's Normandy without the loading screens. As old-fashioned and out-dated the games' combat is - and for me, that's exactly how I've found it - I'm not really caring right now, because I'm doing what I've always done: rush through a level so I can get home and have a nice, long chat with all the other folks who have managed to avoid dying to that point.
Frivolous, maybe, and also faintly ridiculous considering the amount of work that's gone into the gameplay, but Blizzard didn't spend 12 years in an isolated stupid-tank. They know, after the success of the World of Warcraft, that it's the World of Starcraft that's as important, if not more important than the game of Starcraft, and right now I'm glad it's an area they've poured so much time - and by the looks of it, money & manpower - into.