I'm no strategy expert. Far from it. It's been ten years since I reviewed a game in this genre. It's been twelve years since I last spent any time with Jim Raynor. But even though the genre has passed me by, and despite the fact that I've given up hope that I'd ever become a strategy-devouring armchair general, my desire for this particular game has always been strong. Incredibly strong, in fact.
I played Starcraft on what was then my work computer, stashed away in some dusty corner on a small advertising bureau. That was twelve years ago and I was obsessed. I finished the campaign twice (mostly during work hours) and I spent many sweaty evenings in multiplayer.
I then fell in love with games like Homeworld and Command & Conquer, but after that I'm not sure what happened. The games got too complicated (like in Total War) or the resource management was removed (Ground Control). No matter how good games like Ground Control 2 were, it was the resource management that interests me the most.
I want to build, and build lot of troops. As I said, I'm no strategist. I'm a destroyer. So it suits me perfectly that nothing has really changed when it comes to the gameplay in Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty. In many ways it feels like playing the first game, but with prettier graphics. Sure, there's a couple of new troop types and a brand new story, but when it comes to game mechanics Starcraft II is a game of the old school.
The story in Starcraft II starts four years after the first game ended. Jim Raynor is an outlaw in a dirty t-shirt that spends his time being drunk and unwashed. Kerrigan has disappeared together with the Zerg, and Arcturus Mengsk has corrupted the whole galaxy and rules The Dominion with an iron fist. And here's where you come in - through 26 incredibly well-made missions you have to help Raynor and his Terran troops to fight their way through the galaxy, steal valuable artifacts and destroy Zerg-armies. Everything to stop Mengsk and hopefully also Kerrigan while you're at it.
The thing that primarily has been changed in Starcraft II is that the missions no longer feel like bad multiplayer maps. Instead every map is unique and every mission contains some form of gameplay gimmick that gives the game a lot of variation. In one you have to build troops as fast as you can to grab six trains owned by The Dominion, in another the powerful sun will set fire to new areas which forces Jim and his troops to move their base to new ground. All while fighting off the Zerg, of course.
After about five hours into the campaign I started to long for missions without a timer (or a hidden timer in the form of train time tables or nightly zombie attacks), missions where I could just build at my own pace. After another five hours I had become alarmingly good at doing several things at once, in different parts of the map, and working under tight time limitations. And here's where the game truly shines. The galaxy does not wait for Jim Raynor, or Kerrigan for that matter - and slowly but surely you learn how to advance according to these rules.
I go from being a slow resource hogger to fighting my way forward with a limited supply of troops backed up by medics and artillery. I'm fostered by Blizzard's will to create the perfect tempo and to tell a tight story, and looking back I can easily say that I've never had as much fun during the campaign mode in a strategy game as I've had in Starcraft II.
One new thing in Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty I had no prior knowledge of was the role playing elements on board Jim Raynor's ship, The Hyperion. Jim can make his way to a worn down canteen, the armory, the laboratory and the bridge where most missions are handed out. In all of these four areas Jim can chat with a host of different characters, research the enemy troops, and upgrade everything from weapons to defences, vehicles and buildings.
Each time you clear a mission you gain cash based on your chosen difficulty level and it can be spent on everything from more powerful Goliath missiles to more Bourbon. This is something I assume Blizzard have borrowed from Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War and it works extremely well in Wings of Liberty too.
As you all know Blizzard decided to split Starcraft II into three parts, rather than one game that included all three races. Personally, I can't really get over the disappointment that I can't play as Zerg (in the campaign) at all. This despite the fact that the 26 mission long Terran campaign offers more than 20 hours of enjoyment. We do get a small taster of the Protoss campaign, as you will get to control Zeratul as he makes his way through some Zerg infested ruins. These short missions are, unfortunately, the worst ones in the game and bored me something terrible.
When it comes to multiplayer you naturally get to choose your race. And despite the fact that I'm not a hardcore RTS fanatic I can tell you that this is one of the most well balanced multiplayer experiences in the genre in many years. It is easy to tell that Blizzard made good use of the beta test, and that they have evened out the imbalances fans were complaining about.
In order to quickly get acquainted with the Zerg and Protoss races before jumping into the challenge of online multiplayer, Blizzard gives us a short introduction to how both races function. A necessity as we are not allowed to play as Zerg or Protoss during the campaign.
All matchmaking is handled through Battle.Net 2.0, which was upgraded at the time of release. As soon as you have made your way through the five training missions of each race you are ranked and pitted against a proper opponent. That we are forced to use Battle.Net could have been a source of a lot of grief had it not worked as superbly as it does. The only reservation I've got is that you cannot currently face opponents on other continents.
From a graphical standpoint Starcraft II looks good without being overly impressive. It was said prior to launch that Blizzard consciously kept the graphics somewhat simpler to allow a good experience on older computers - something we sadly haven't experienced at our offices. At least not to the extent we were promised. One of our optimised gaming computers has to work really hard to get a perfect flow on Ultra High, while our nine month old Mac hardly got the game running on medium settings.
But Wings of Liberty is beautifully designed, with detailed and varied worlds, great effects and stunning cut scenes (all rendered in the game engine). The sound design is also great, with a soundtrack that goes from rockabilly to more atmospheric orchestral pieces when the most epic battles of the campaign rage on.
It's been just about 49 hours since I started playing Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty and after 22 sweaty hours playing I have reached the end of the campaign. It's been a very entertaining journey through a familiar landscape with Blizzard's most proven ingredients. Sure I miss being able to play as Zerg during the campaign, and I miss a bit of innovation in the vehicle department, but apart from that it is a superb strategy game that gives the old fans exactly what they've been looking for after 12 long years.