Blizzard's StarCraft 2 is more evolution than revolution -- and we think that's a good thing
- It's just like Starcraft 1, the storyline is epic, massive replayability, a few choice improvements in gameplay and graphics
- It's just like Starcraft 1, occasional gameplay glitches, why did it take 12 years?
Starcraft 2 is an excellent single player and multiplayer real-time strategy game. There are a few niggles that stop it being perfect, but a heady combination of nostalgia, evolution and classic gameplay combine to produce one of the best games we've played in years.
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StarCraft 2 is Blizzard's first real-time strategy game since the Frozen Throne expansion of Warcraft III in 2003. It has taken 12 years since the release of the original StarCraft and expansion for the company to complete the long awaited sequel — and the final product is a game that's quite close to the original in gameplay. No doubt some gamers will be disappointed by the small rewards such a long wait has garnered, and there are occasional in-game frustrations as well, but StarCraft 2 remains an excellent experience. It's equally playable for both amateurs and old-school pro gamers.
StarCraft 2, as you'd expect, uses a much newer game engine than the 1997 original. It looks good without being overly flashy — you can bump up the settings on more powerful PCs for some impressive detail and animation, but older machines can also run a more Spartan level of graphics with ease. AI and pathfinding have also been revamped, but the results aren't always positive; a few times throughout the single player campaign we had units stuck on ramps as a result of navigational glitches, but this is a problem that's relatively easy to address in patches.
StarCraft and the Brood War expansion pack had an exciting and extensive campaign that set (we think, at least) the benchmark for sci-fi RTS games in the years to follow. StarCraft 2 is a sequel in the truest sense — the story follows on from the events of Brood War, and all the major protagonists are back to play. We've covered the single player story to some extent before in our hands-on preview, and we won't spoil the plot. Suffice to say it's equally as enjoyable, long enough to come to a satisfying conclusion, and short enough that it leaves you wanting the expansion packs to come out now.
We also happen to think that the single player campaign scores goals for replayability. Sure, you'll be running through the same missions, but you can complete them in different order and try out new tactics. There are a few levels we're keen to replay and attempt to fully complete — there's an enticing carrot-dangling achievements system that encourages harder difficulties and unconventional strategies.
The single player campaign includes a few evolutionary improvements over the original. Most notable is the implementation of the Cantina, Armory, Laboratory and Bridge environments in between missions that allow players to strengthen units or buildings, hire mercenaries or get some extra back-story. This makes gameplay easier — the unit upgrades are generally overpowered, and mercenary units are significantly stronger than the units they're based on — but hardcore players can also ignore these options to avoid altering the game's balance. Having the extra back-story and downtime gives the entire game a slightly less frenetic feel than the original, which is a welcome change.
There are also several units in the single player campaign that you won't see in competitive multiplayer. Firebats, Medics and Goliaths are nifty solo inclusions but having them in multiplayer would have skewed the balance of power towards Terran players — there are similar units available anyway. As you progress through the single player story units are conveniently unlocked as the missions require them, giving players an incentive to keep going.
To be entirely honest, not much at all has changed on the multiplayer side of things. Terran, Zerg and Protoss races are still almost perfectly balanced against each other, and the old-school combination of tactics and über-micro-management is what separates great players from merely good ones. It's relatively easy to play a solid multiplayer match against a casual opponent (or the AI), but it takes plenty of effort and training to keep up in even the lower tiers of online leagues.
As you'd expect, strategy is a huge part of the multiplayer phenomenon. If you're only just jumping into the leagues now, you'll likely find yourself outclassed by those with a few weeks' experience under their belts. The slight tweaks that have been made to units and structures lend themselves to some interesting and idiomatic tactics, which can be surprisingly effective if not countered — you might find a Protoss player dropping a Pylon outside your base which quickly spews forth enemy units thanks to that race's Warp Gate tech upgrade, or a speed-upgraded Zergling rush that occurs before you're able to train a single unit.
In general, the multiplayer side of things is massively good fun. Whenever you log on the gameplay is different and there's always scope to try new things — even if it means you're beaten into a pulp with military efficiency. We don't entirely like the way Battle.net is set up; logging into an account each time you start the game is a hassle, and the lack of a lobby chat room reduces the community vibe. And there's no LAN support! We know this has been repeated and refuted ad nauseum, but with our rose-tinted glasses on we think the game would have simply been better if the option for a quick offline bash between mates had been included. But overall, StarCraft 2's multiplayer is of the highest quality and offers massive scope for long-term replayability.
StarCraft 2 has improved on the original in a swathe of ways. The graphics are nicer and cleaner, without being overly taxing or unnecessarily slick. The continued storyline is immersive and exciting. Gameplay improvements, especially in the down-time between single player missions and the wide variety of multiplayer strategies, make the experience a well-rounded and enjoyable one that should last the test of time. Don't get us wrong — there are annoyances, but they take away from the shine of StarCraft 2 only slightly. We enjoyed our time with StarCraft 2, and we're waiting keenly for future expansion packs — if our experience with this game is any indication, they'll be instant classics as well.
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