If I was Blizzard, I wouldn’t have touched Starcraft with EA’s wanger. I mean, it’s 12 years old and there has yet to be a more perfectly balanced, engaging, and just plain fun RTS. To prepare for the release of Starcraft II, I went back and played the original. If you haven’t played it in a while, it’s worth going back and seeing how well it holds up. How many games from 1998 can you say that about? (Ok, Half-Life…)
So with such perfection, how do you make a sequel without pissing off everyone? Well leave it to Blizzard to figure out exactly how to do that.
The first step: not changing what works. Starcraft II is still an isometric view RTS with balanced races (duh). But perhaps that’s not such a given. With so many competing RTSes featuring real 3D environments, how much of a shock would it have been if SCII had gone that route? Instead, it has a certain “old school” feeling that does nothing to jeopardize the gameplay, and surely placates purists that I’m sure from the beginning were skeptical of a sequel. The new graphics engine is beautiful, with detailed explosions, laser and fire effects. You can zoom in to get closer to the action, though I rarely found this useful other than seeing units I’ve known for 12 years in WAY more detail than ever before.
Most of the basic units are fairly unchanged, or at least unchanged from how they were in the Brood War expansion pack. Other units have been either deleted or morphed with other units for streamlining. For example, the Zerg Queen unit is no longer a flying spellcaster and is now a ground-based air and ground damage dealer.
The new units are exceedingly cool. The Protoss Colossus is a War of the Worlds-esque strider that can step up and down levels. The Terran Viking can transform between a ground-based walker and an air attacking airplane.
All the new units are just as balanced as you’d expect from a Starcraft game. The Viking, for example, can only attack enemies that are of same type as it’s current form (air for air, ground for ground) and is very venerable while it transforms.
It wouldn’t be Starcraft if it didn’t have a compelling campaign, and boy does it. If you don’t know the story of the original, well, I’m not going to tell you. SCII picks up shortly after Brood War. The characters are compelling, well developed, and the voice acting is exquisite.
But if the game was just a rehash of Starcraft, how interesting would that have been? Instead, and perhaps most compelling, is how cleverly Blizzard has incorporated twelve years of video game design into the sequel. The missions are varied and never boring. And then there's the RPG aspect.
Like many new games, you can customize your units and buildings. This is done with either money that you earn from missions or from “Research Points” you get discovering artifacts throughout the missions. If you love, let’s say Siege Tanks (and who doesn’t), you can tweak them to be more powerful. You can upgrade the Terran Bunker to hold six units instead of four AND have an autocannon on top. You also get money to spend on mercenaries, which are more powerful versions of units you already have.
What’s clever is that you don’t get enough money to have access to every mercenary or upgrade every unit/building. The trees for the Research points force you to choose certain items over others. One of the hardest for me was picking between a massive transport ship or the Predator, a dog-like ground unit with AOE (I chose the former and didn’t regret it).
For my playstyle, though, I feel I was able to get pretty much all I needed for the massive final battle. One word of potential caution: I chose the Raven in the Protoss research, and never used it. The counterpart was the Science Vessel, which I felt I could have used. No going back! Well, unless you play it again…
The AI is much better than it was in the original, though on Normal difficulty I didn’t find the game to be overly challenging except for a few missions, including the last.
And of course there’s multiplayer, with all the settings and options you’d expect. I haven’t played it on Battle.net, as I don’t like crying. I have, however, played co-op with a friend against the computer, which is fun and gratifying.
I was initially upset that the campaigns would be broken up in three, but I felt I got my $60 worth without question. Though I finished the game in less than a week, it was the first game in long time that I couldn’t get out of my head when I wasn’t playing it, and didn’t move from my chair when I was playing it. Simply fantastic.
In closing, I’ll sum up with this: Buy this game.