StarCraft II: Wings of LibertyBy Morgan Webb - Posted Jul 29, 2010
StarCraft II is what I’ve always wanted out of an RTS - fantastic graphics, well integrated story, interesting units, and wildly different factions. It manages to be thoroughly modern while remaining true to its roots, and creates an engaging and utterly replayable experience.
Time to Man Up
The storyline is oddly macho. Think Gears of War style characters with overly deep voices and a taste for whiskey. The difference is that in Gears of War you’re chainsawing aliens in the face, while in StarCraft II you’re trying to collect enough sparkly crystal (umm...minerals...whatever) to begin construction on a new unit type.
There is a sense of humor in the game. For example, you can watch an iPistol commercial with a dancing space marine, and one of the unit types has a voice that sounds like your drunk buddy’s lame Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonation. The problem is you can never quite tell if the humor is meant for comic relief from the serious storyline or if the entire uber-macho thing is supposed to be ironic and funny. The graphics are so good, and the dialogue is so bad--all the title headings are real examples of dialogue from the game--that it’s a bit confusing.
The plot is a mix of Mass Effect and Halo: you’re searching for artifacts while dealing with spectres, religious zealots, and the Flood (OK, the Zerg). The story is basically a mix of easily recognizable gaming tropes (I suppose I could generously call them archetypes), but the characters are interesting and, unlike Halo, at least I could tell you the plot after I finished the game.
Be Wary My Friends, the Hounds of the Void are on the Hunt
In most Real-Time Strategy games that actually bother with a story, you watch a cut scene or listen to a fake news report, then play a skirmish that has no real relationship to what you just watched. What StarCraft II does so well--what it does absolutely flawlessly in fact--is integrating the story with the gameplay. You actually feel like you are winning specific battles that are important to the story. Each mission introduces a new unit or a new concept, and allows you to hone specific skills. For example, an early mission has you attacking bases during the day, and defending your base against constant attack at night. This allows you to practice both skills while the ticking clock keeps you interested.
Each mission gives you a set of primary objectives, such as collecting more minerals than your opponent, and a set of secondary objectives, such as locating a number of artifacts hidden around the map. These secondary objectives are not foregone conclusions, as you will need to go out of your way, make extra units and explore the map in order to complete them. Doing so will often give you access to Zerg and Protoss research bonuses, which allow for powerful upgrades to your structures and units. You can also earn achievements by completing certain objectives on higher difficulty levels, or completing objectives under a time limit. The challenges are especially helpful. These are directed missions meant to teach certain skill sets, like how many of what type of unit will defeat a certain number of a different unit. This additional training is great for both the new and advanced player as StarCraft II is easy to pick up, but truly impossible to master.
In addition to the Zerg and Protoss research bonuses, you earn money to purchase special mercenary unit types or small unit upgrades. You could choose to spend your money and upgrades on more defensive or more offensive gear, depending on your play style, and there is some nice strategy to the choices you make. Several times in the game you are asked to make what appear to be moral choices, but really they boil down to which type of unit or bonus you want as a mission reward, and it is just another method to encourage campaign replay.
StarCraft was always known for its multiplayer, and of course StarCraft II has a robust offering. You can start out by playing up to 50 unranked practice matches, which help the new player get up to speed. You can also play cooperatively against the computer. It remains to be seen whether or not the multiplayer will be as popular as it was in the first game. I cannot predict whether it will appeal to the professional StarCraft community as I am personally not in their league, but it will be a staple of my own online RTS play for the coming months and likely years. Unfortunately, its large-scale adoption faces a number of major obstacles as outlined later in this article.
The Day of Reckoning Draws Near
StarCraft II is almost flawless. It is what most Real-Time Strategy games hope to be: incredibly fun, huge variety, and lots of replayability. There are, however, some major issues with the way Blizzard allows people to play their game.
The first issue has to do with the game’s enforced use of battle.net. This is basically a version of DRM in that you will need to link a Battle.net account to the CD key in order to play the game. (Yeah, you can forget about selling that game used.) Additionally, in the original StarCraft, you could spawn your disk, meaning that your friends could install the multiplayer component of the game without having to purchase it for themselves. This is one reason StarCraft became so popular in Internet cafes across Asia and LAN parties across the world. Now with StarCraft II, players will need to own their own copy of the game, which is linked to their personal battle.net account. There is no LAN support, so you will have to play this game online through battle.net even if everyone is in the same room.
The second issue also relates to Battle.net. Blizzard is heavily pushing their Real ID system for StarCraft II, and while they abandoned its use for their forums, it remains to be seen if they will back off of it for StarCraft II. If you add a friend in StarCraft II using their Battle.net email address or the Facebook import utility, they become a Real ID friend and can see your real name--first and last--and so will any of their other Real ID friends, just as you'll be able to see theirs. This is a huge problem for a lot of people. I don’t know if Blizzard is trying to turn Battle.net into a social network, or if they are just trying to make a moral stand on Internet anonymity, but it is something to be concerned about. You can remain anonymous online and add a “character friend” which does not share private information, but you need to be aware that Blizzard is dying to share your personal information.
While I do agree that Blizzard’s insistence on Battle.net and Real ID are strange and self-defeating, it does not change the fact that the game itself is great. The game gets a 5, while the framework gets a 1. In the world of X-Play, that does not average out to a 3. The game is fantastic and deserves its score, but I do hope people read the reviews and understand what they are purchasing so they are not upset by what they receive.
I also want to mention a more personal problem with the game. I take issue with the holographic stripper in the background of every shot in the cantina. There are normal female characters in the game, but every time you go to one area of your ship, the only thing moving is an undulating hologram of what looks like a blood elf with a boob job. Maybe they didn’t expect women to ever play this game, but they’ve created a self-fulfilling prophecy. She’s distracting, completely unnecessary to the story or atmosphere, and makes me think that Blizzard needs to hire more women.
The Fate of Creation Hangs in the Balance
If you have always hated RTS games, StarCraft II is unlikely to change your mind, but if you like the genre, StarCraft II is a must play. A great single player campaign, a well integrated story, and a robust multiplayer all round out the experience. Unfortunately the game is burdened by the enforced use of an unfriendly Battle.net system that may do Blizzard more harm than good. If you can get past Battle.net and are careful about maintaining your anonymity online, then StarCraft II is a great game worth every penny.
Editor's Note: We updated the above content after publication to more accurately reflect the scenarios presented by Real ID.