A Long Time Coming
I read somewhere recently that Starcraft and Starcraft II represent the biggest gap between video game sequels, and for some reason that took me by surprise. Surely there must be some other set of games, some other franchise, that could take that credit away from one of the most beloved real-time strategy games of all time, right? Hell, even if itís not the biggest gap, it was still twelve long years Ė plenty of time for Blizzard to not only work out all the kinks of the original but to surpass it in almost every way imaginable. Doess it? Of course, it Ė is- a Blizzard game after all, with tons of manpower and years of polish behind it, but the long answer is a bit more complicated than that.
The Spice of Life
Rounding out at 26 missions, Starcraft 2ís campaign follows Jim Raynor, the down-but-not-out Terran hero of the first portion of the Starcraft II trilogy. Within the 26 missions will be side-missions which, upon completion, will net you cash, research points, or both. With cash you can buy upgrades for units or contracts for mercenaries, both of which will be present during the remainder of the campaign. As you accumulate research points, you will unlock certain abilities split into a Zerg and a Protoss tree that each offer you choices to add unique abilities for a unit or building.
Jim Raynorís battlecruiser, the Hyperion, is where youíll congregate between most of the missions. This part of the game essentially plays out like a point-and-click adventure where you wander the four main rooms of the battlecruiser to talk to people, read or look at things on the wall, upgrade your army and even play a video game-within-a-video game. Each of the four rooms has a unique purpose.
These are fun additions to the single player campaign but Blizzardís real accomplishments with the game is mission variety. You will be chasing down Dominion trains, breaking out political prisoners on a prison planet, engaging in a credit race with a shady mercenary and, in my personal favorite ďOutbreakĒ, destroying Zerg infestations during the day while retreating and fending off Zerg zombies as soon as night hits. That last one played out like a sci-fi horror movie (complete with stragglers left behind to duke it out for themselves when night fell) and it was one hell of a thrill. That adrenaline rush could be extended to most of the other missions, too, as they all seem to play out like miniature movies. Each one has a unique setting with a clear purpose and it never gets old.
Oftentimes youíll find yourself having to perform both large-scale and small-scale maneuvers to varying degrees, such as in the train mission mentioned above. In that instance I was charged with forming a strike group in order to take out the fast-moving trains, producing enough units to fend off attackers at my base, remaining wary of the deadly patrol dispatched to hunt down my strike group, and, as side-missions, sending out units to discover abandoned vehicles for reinforcements as well as Zerg exoskeletons for research points. And did I mention that was just on normal difficulty? Whew.
And that kind of breathlessness is where the true fun of the campaign lies. The real genius of the missions will often come from your inability to pay attention to two things at once, because chances are there will be at least two important things going on within any given scenario and youíll have to constantly zip back and forth. Though that omnipresence is necessary for most RTS missions, it seems like itís never been more needed here. The amount of things to accomplish and discover in the campaign is an absolute riot, and I canít wait to delve back into it.
A Brand New Playground
Itís unfortunate, then, that the same level of freedom found in the single-player experience could not be translated to the multiplayer mode. With the online competition, your buildings, units and abilities are reduced, most of the unit upgrades are gone, mercenaries are nowhere to be found, the Protoss and Zerg research trees are absent and all of it is done for the sake of balance. While that is a legitimate reason, you only have to experience the single-player campaign to realize how much more content and choice it has compared to what exists online.
But donít let the smaller scale of multiplayer ruin the fun for you, because the online competition of Blizzardís Battle.net isnít so much centered on your range of choices as much as it is your ability to destroy everyone. If the single-player campaign was fun for its variety, the multiplayer is fun for its intensity. For both old and new players, it is nothing short of a nerve-wracking, fist-clenching blast.
A practice league helps rusty veterans and new players up to speed with 50 unranked matches. You can leave this at any time and move on to the official and variously-skilled leagues of multiplayer, ranging from the Bronze league all the way up to Diamond. There are also three Challenges that can be played offline and are designed to help you grow accustomed to the ways of multiplayer. They center on unit-counters, the micro-management of caster units, how to fend off early rush attacks and hotkey utilization. All nine exercises are harder than they look but they should be a good instruction manual and, better still, there wonít be anyone there to watch you when you get creamed.
A raised bar for multiplayer and a breath of fresh air for single-player
A claustrophobic story, and not as much innovation as youíd think