StarCraft II has taken twelve long years to arrive, yet it isn’t what you’d call revolutionary. It doesn’t bring any mind-blowing new mechanics or interface concepts to the real-time strategy genre. But then, in many ways, that’s a good thing. Traditional RTS is so deeply embedded in us by now, we want to double-tap a number key and know it’s a shortcut to zoom directly to a grouped squad without consulting the instructions. We fully assume that right-clicking on a squad with the barracks highlighted will automatically send fresh units to join the group on the battlefield. This is all second nature by now, so who wants to mess with it too much?
StarCraft’s races remain the same: the Terran (mobile and balanced humans), Zerg (swarming alien horde) and Protoss (quality over quantity psionic masters). And some of the units remain the same, too, albeit with a spin put on them or new abilities. So while StarCraft II clearly – and quite rightly, in terms of familiarity and continuity – keeps much the same playbook in many respects, it still manages to be brilliantly innovative simply due to the sheer and incredible level of attention to the game design on all fronts, from an overall level, right down to the nuts and bolts.
Having said that, there is one big change, and that’s the single player campaign being Terran only (although you do get to dip your toe in the Protoss briefly). The full Protoss and Zerg campaigns are planned as expansions for a later date. This might seem disappointing to some, but when you realise the level of effort that Blizzard has put into the Wings of Liberty campaign, you’ll understand why it’s been done. There are twenty six missions here, which is only a few short of the original game’s three separate campaigns anyway, and there are also between-mission sections which add huge amounts of depth.
As Jim Raynor, the head of the Terran resistance, your home between sorties is the Hyperion battle cruiser, which consists of four separate areas. Head to the armoury, and you can spend the credits earned via successful missions on unit or structure upgrades. The science lab contains the research console, where the points you’ve gained from salvaged alien technology can be spent unlocking further upgrades or new buildings. The bar has crack mercenary troops for hire to make that next mission a little easier, and the bridge contains the star map and its mission selection screen.
Not only do these rooms represent places where you can scratch your head and direct research and development, but they’re also full of characters to chat with. These interactions develop the plot and add colour, alongside a host of other clickable extras, such as the TV in the bar. Click on that and you’re treated to the latest news report slandering your good self as a terrorist. Select the arcade game in the corner of the bar, and you can play a fully fledged 2D shooter. It’s presentation like this that we dream of, and it all adds a huge amount to the StarCraft II experience.
The other choice you’ve got to make on board the Hyperion is which mission to tackle next. To begin with, there are only a couple of possible selections, but this soon expands into a number of choices. Do you raid a planet with an alien relic on it for a big money payout, or go to the aid of some unfortunate colonists who have been pinned down by a Zerg invasion? All the missions are tightly woven into the storyline, and some involve branching decisions at the start, which adds an extra dimension.
And if that wasn’t enough, the crowning glory of StarCraft II’s campaign is the mission design itself. Apart from the first couple of bog standard sorties, which are there to ease you into battle and introduce base building concepts, each mission has been put together with the sort of care which really makes this RTS shine. The game designers have clearly sat down at length, and come up with all manner of multiple objectives, bonus achievements, and cool settings for every scenario, not to mention miscellaneous clever twists.
This effort encompasses some of the most impressively crafted missions we’ve ever seen in the field of real-time strategy. As an example, one mission involves destroying a Zerg-infected human colony, which has gone bad with the inhabitants possessed and turned into Zerg zombies who only come out at night. You’ve got to defend your base from the massed horde, then when the sun comes up and they bury themselves underground for protection, race out and start destroying the surrounding town’s buildings, which have also been corrupted. Judging when you need to head back to base before night falls, and you risk being surrounded and torn to pieces, is really quite a hair-raising call.
Incidentally, the only nit we’re going to pick as far as this game is concerned is that while the visuals are generally top notch, the graphics get a little flaky where big armies are concerned. When loads of troops are crammed together, they tend to sort of jiggle and swirl around each other a bit, like they’re doing a manic break-dance in the middle of the battlefield. This doesn’t make large armies any easier to direct, but to be honest that’s partly down to our lack of organisation in having big lumped-together groups in the first place.
At any rate, every scenario maintains the quality of this Night of the Living Dead style Zerg mission. We could go into further details, such as the assignment where you have to hijack government trains which has multiple turns and twists, but we don’t want to spoil the surprise. Suffice it to say that the level of innovation is constant throughout StarCraft II’s levels, and it’s really quite a staggering effort. When you put this next to the superb between-mission presentation, this is what you call polishing a campaign until it positively glows.
To experience the single player campaign fully, tackling all the missions, chatting on the Hyperion and planning your upgrades, will take quite some time. And then you’ve got the multiplayer on top, which is also dripping with features. Want a set of tutorials to introduce you to multiplayer gaming concepts, such as defending against an early base rush? You’ve got it. Want an introductory online mode which pits beginners against each other on simple maps with slowed down gameplay in order to learn the basics more effectively? That’s here, too.
The Battle.net multiplayer is just as well fleshed out and implemented as the campaign, and provides a rankings system based on leagues. New players have to take part in five placement matches, and are then assigned to a skill level which suits them; although if you’re ranked too low (or high), you’ll soon get promoted (or demoted) to the correct division. There are also co-op games on offer, and a full friends system. It’s superb stuff. The only trick missing is a LAN option, but that didn’t bother us in the slightest.