It's been awhile since we've posted a good old-fashioned Frankenreview, so we're bringing it back with a game that hasn't seen a sequel in over a decade - StarCraft II.
StarCraft II is the sequel to what many consider the greatest real-time strategy game of all time. It continues the epic tale of interstellar conflict between the Terrans, Protoss, and Zerg, delivering a deep single-player campaign focusing on StarCraft hero Jim Raynor, and expands on the multiplayer experience that's kept us writing about Korea since the turn of the millennium.
Those Korean StarCraft players are tough, but are they as tough as the assembled game critics? We'll see.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is in many ways is the culmination of the RTS genre to date. It takes the best of what has come before, and tightens it up into a totally accessible, yet deceptively complex pinnacle. Like all great games - be it chess or Counter Strike - its easy to learn, and very difficult to master. It's traditional, slick, accomplished; perfectly balanced gameplay will likely keep it on the competitive gaming scene for many years to come, and with good reason.
If there's anything immediately apparent from Wings of Liberty's story, it's that the series' narrative structure has evolved well beyond the original's sparse between-sortie intermissions. Starcraft II is a world thriving in 3D, replete with fully-acted scenes and even a few crucial decision moments that give you a personal stake in the story's development. The writing may sometimes resort to a few contrived clichés, but the delivery behind each uttered line is uniformly excellent, coming together in an epic and entertainingly told yarn that successfully builds on the series' layered mythology. It's a shame, then, that the seams of separation are a little too easy to spot. Raynor's central conflict against Mengsk goes by largely unanswered, and the altogether abrupt ending seems more fitting to the end to a first act than to that of a standalone game. Of course, the moments leading up to the conclusion are exhilarating, but without any kind of resolution—at the very least, for Raynor or for the Terran side as a whole—Wings of Liberty's tale feels a little less than complete.
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Missions and objectives in Wings of Liberty are ultimately played out like a typical RTS game at the core. However, the story and features are integrated so well into the mission structure that it doesn't just feel like a skirmish, but that you're actually fighting and doing things for a reason. Objectives are consistently dynamic and creative, with an earlier level for example requiring you to collect a special form of minerals from ancient geysers, the while fending Protoss forces off your main base and denying them from closing off many of the other geysers on the level. There's another level which mostly consists of lava, and you have to mine 8000 minerals to complete the mission, while defending yourself from Zerg armies, and moving your workers to high ground when the lava begins to rise. It's fast paced and exhilarating, requiring some very quick manoeuvres and consistent macro and micromanagement.
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As stellar as the single-player campaign is, the greatest value from StarCraft II is its multiplayer play. Blizzard's newly launched Battle.net elegantly sets you up cooperatively or competitively with other players or AI on a multitude of game boards, keeping track of skill level and rankings. While the basic principles of play are the same as in Starcraft, many of the game's classic units, like dragoons and guardians, have been scrapped in favor of new models, meaning even veteran players will have a learning curve. Each unit has distinctly good and bad match-ups, so early units never become obsolete. The races are now more balanced, while maintaining distinct flavors. Terrans are highly mobile and adaptable, Zerg burrow and infect, and Protoss favor defensive and deceptive tactics.
Battle.net 2.0 has also moved to a friends-list system similar to Xbox Live and PSN, which is a welcome change from the archaic matchmaking of Battle.net in previous Bilzzard games. The focus on the friends list creates even more jockeying for social status as you can view your friends achievements and ranks. (It seems Blizzard learned more than one trick from World of Warcraft.) If you have a competitive bone in your body, Battle.net 2.0 is designed to keep you playing for as long as there are opponents to defeat and friends to crow over.
StarCraft II is still a game of micromanagement, build speed and base management, playing with and against forces you're mostly familiar with in a theater of war that certainly feels less fresh than it did in 1998. But Blizzard has polished that classic real-time strategy gameplay to a brilliant shine, offering a single and multiplayer experience that is unmatched. The long wait was worth it, if only to kick off another long wait to see how StarCraft II ultimately ends.