StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty Review
Hell, it's about time!
By Predat0r & Wrecker
The early nineties was the beginning of a new gaming revolution. The rise of 'powerful' personal computers such as the Amiga and PC saw a complexity of games very different from the arcade and 8-bit staples of the preceding decades. Complex 'god games' such as Mega-Lo-Mania and Populous gave way to Westwood Studio's Dune II where players had direct control over individual units and buildings. Thus the modern real-time strategy (RTS) game was born. Westwood Studio went on to create the ‘Command & Conquer’ series, but by this time had some real competition from a company named Blizzard Entertainment.
Blizzard itself was at that time best known for a handful of excellent games like Battle Chess and The Lost Vikings, and then in 1994 they released the critically acclaimed Warcraft: Orcs & Humans. All of Blizzard's games featured very unique graphic styles and humour, and their entrance into the RTS world provided a cheeky, fantasy-themed alternative to Dune II. Building on this success Blizzard released StarCraft in 1998, which was arguably described as a 'space-themed' Warcraft. StarCraft was a revolution in the RTS genre allowing players to play three very different races, each carefully balanced and requiring unique strategies to succeed. It went on to sell more than 11 million copies worldwide and is still one of the most popular online and best selling PC games of all time. Almost half of the copies sold were in Korea where professional games still play for hundreds of thousands of dollars in televised leagues on dedicated channels. It has won more than thirty gaming industry awards, inspired university courses and has apparently even being used by the US air force to demonstrate crisis planning under stress!
StarCraft spawned three expansions not long after, the most successful of which being StarCraft: Brood War. Since then sequels for other Blizzard games (including the juggernaut that is World Of WarCraft) have meant RTS's have taken a backseat. Until now. After much anticipation and expectation, StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is finally here, and as this lengthy (but necessary!) back-story has demonstrated, there is a monumental reputation and legacy at stake.
Terrans' attacking a Protoss base.
To understand a little about the StarCraft world and where StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty fits in, you are going to have a short history lesson on the events of StarCraft and StarCraft: Brood War. Don’t roll your eyes StarCraft veterans; you can do with a refresher course. The future has seen the exile of human 'undesirables' (known as Terrans) from Earth who settle in the Koprulu Sector of the galaxy. Here a brutal government, 'The Confederacy Of Man' is formed, with opposition in the form of the 'terrorist' group 'Sons Of Korhal'. While these two factions are warring, they are themselves attacked by a 'psionic' race of aliens called the Protoss, who in turn are just looking to eradicate yet another alien race - the un-relentless 'insectoid' aliens known as the Zerg. The central character is 'Jim Raynor', initially a member of the 'Sons of Korhal', who leaves after its leader (Arcturus Mengsk) abandons the 2nd in command (and Raynor's love interest) Sarah Kerrigan to the Zerg. Mengsk turns out to be a megalomaniac bent on world domination turning the 'Confederacy' into his own Terran 'Dominion'. Kerrigan is 'assimilated' by the Zerg and becomes the leader of the 'swarm' whilst Raynor forms a group of mercenaries known as 'Raynor's Raiders'. Although many twists and turns have happened along the way, StarCraft is essentially the story of the Terrans getting in the way of an alien war between the Protoss and the Zerg.
The original StarCraft games featured single player campaigns in which players could take control of all three races, but StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is the first in a three-title series, and focuses almost exclusively only on the Terran campaign. Blizzard has been criticised for this as of course it means we are going to have to fork out for the Protoss and Zerg campaigns (StarCraft II: Legacy of the Void and StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm) sometime next year. Interestingly the ‘StarCraft II’ plot features Jim Raynor collecting ancient Xel'Naga artefacts, the re-emergence of the Kerrigan and so on, and so one might have hoped for a new race to play - the Xel'Naga themselves or the prophetic half Protoss/half Zerg race introduced in StarCraft: Brood War.
As far as StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty single player options go, one can choose to play a few tutorials or jump straight into the campaign. The tutorials are short and to the point, and only demonstrate stock standard RTS mechanics that are not really StarCraft specific. Great for those new to the genre, for others it’s best to head straight to the campaign. The campaign is linear to a point, but this time you do have a little freedom to select from a number of extra missions to earn credits. Preceding each level, you have an interactive ‘hub’ featuring, for example, Jim Raynor on his ship where you can move to different areas of the ship getting information from key characters, watching news reports or selecting the next level. This is also a chance for spending credits to upgrade units or hire mercenaries for the next mission, and is a good way to customise your team and works well as a reward system.
Things are just about to 'heat-up'.
The missions themselves are well integrated into the story and vary from defending a base from attacks, escorting a convoy or (of course) simply destroying an enemy. At the end of each mission you’ll view an achievement list showing points earned for completion as well as other bonuses for inventive side missions, inciting players to replay to complete all a level’s achievements. In terms of the gameplay, anyone familiar with the original StarCraft is going to be right at home with StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty. At the bottom of the screen, there is the mini-map in lower left corner, unit information in the middle and a 'command card' to issue unit orders on the right. Players select units and buildings with the mouse then give orders to build or attack using the command card. This is an area where some might be expecting a bit more from the game, as although everything looks and sounds a world better than the original, the core gameplay is more or less the same - gather gas and mineral resources, build units and defences, and send units into battle.
There are some changes along the way, with many modern RTS dynamics added such as the ability to select up to a whopping 250 units at once (up from 10). Environments are more interactive, destructible and elevated, meaning that the 'turtling' strategy of lying low & defensive is less effective, as enemies can smash open a back door to the base. In addition, certain units will pass over terrain that others cannot with the AI also vastly improved, with units featuring better terrain navigation and improved smarts for gathering resources.
It is interesting though that some of the old gripes of ‘StarCraft’ games remain - it is still possible to trap units between certain buildings for example. One might speculate that some of these options are omitted on purpose so as not to upset the multiplayer devotees who, for example, have already kicked up a fuss about the addition of an 'idle worker' button - a standard RTS feature only recently added to the ‘StarCraft’ series. The purists complain that such changes make it easier for amateurs, and remove some of their competitive advantage.
"I spy with my little eye, something beginning with....Z".
The multiplayer element of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is closely integrated into the main menus with options to manage your profile, view leagues and ladders you’ve participated in as well as replays and community options. Players can also see games present in their region in addition to the number of players worldwide. Although gamers will come for the single player element of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, multiplayer is most likely where they will stay. After playing five ‘seeding’ matches, you will be ranked and matched to other online players with similar standards of play to battle with or against. A private friend list is also present to chat and construct a more personalised game (managed online via Battle.net).
Unlike the single player mode, all three races are available in multiplayer, and to recap for the non-familiar, the different strategies employed for each race were a large part of what originally set StarCraft aside from other RTS's. The Terrans (mankind of the future) are ‘adaptable’ and favour traditional human weaponry like infantry, tanks and aircraft. Terran units are of average cost and can be repaired or healed. The Protoss are humanoids with glowing eyes and are more technologically advanced than the Terrans. Protoss units are expensive and cannot be healed, but more powerful and efficient, and feature regenerating shields. Meanwhile the Zerg are an organic insect-type race that operates as a 'hive' mind. Their units start as larvae and can mutate (or assimilate enemies) troops. Individually Zerg units are very cheap and weak and require control by 'Overlords' that must be close by, but historically they’re very powerful in numbers.
It seems that Blizzard has focused on ensuring that the multiplayer is well balanced in StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty. Each race contains around 15 units that all have specific strengths and weaknesses in a win, lose or draw type trade-off. Roughly half of the units for each race are either new or have had their abilities modified in some way (e.g. can now navigate difficult terrain or employ temporary speed and damage bursts). It is strange that some of the most popular units, such as the flame throwing ‘Firebat’, are available in the single player campaign but have been removed from the multiplayer. Another example is the medic that can be used early on in single player but is unavailable in multiplayer (a medivac aircraft can be created later on instead). It is assumed this has been done to further tweak multiplayer matches, but on the surface is a frustrating decision. All in all, the multiplayer gaming is still excellent and the refined number of units and match-ups makes it a lot easier to get your head around - and feels strangely like a modern version of chess. Rest assured, if there are any imbalanced match-ups or 'rush strategies' found (most likely by those Korean pro's!) Blizzard will no doubt fix them promptly.
No, the Colossi are not amphibious....they're just cooling their heels.
It is always great to see an old classic get a graphical makeover and the job Blizzard have done with StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is exceptional. The intro and cut scenes are of the highest standard, rivalling anything that is currently out there. Each scene is cinematic and really helps to bind the story closer to the game itself. So do the new interactive scenes between each level which complement the slick menus and wallpaper worthy' space-scape backgrounds. The keen observer will also spot some Blizzard humour with Warcraft 'exotic dancers', a 'Blue Screen Of Death' and even an 'iPistol' commercial that will have the Apple lawyers salivating.
The single player campaign contains many uniquely detailed buildings that tie into the story well, with any notion of a 'copy and paste' job dispelled. Overhead power lines, vegetable fields, and shadows cast from windmills and other structures are just some of the detail to mention - even distant starships move in the starry game background. The environments are just as impressive and move from alien forests to barren planets and watery island landscapes, each featuring different weather patterns, geographical events (such as lava flow) and a shift from day to night. It would have been nice to have had the option to view the units from other angles (other than the simple 'zoom down') but this apparently 'distracts focus'. Moving onto the units themselves, they still retain the 'Blizzard' look and feel and feature finely polished design and nice animations including mist, smoke, explosions, energy weapons, debris from destroyed aircraft and some nice heat signatures on the flying units. Even in death the characters in this game look good - particularly the Zerg who seem to pop, explode and gush goo whenever they keel over.
Blizzard is also renowned for great audio and sound effects. Many avid game players can still quote memorable catchphrases from Blizzard's early games such as Warcraft: Orcs & Humans ("Yes my Lord!") or the original StarCraft ("You want a piece of me boy!"). Blizzard has recognised the atmospheric impact that great sound has on games and StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is no exception. The sound effects are every bit as detailed as the graphics and in addition to audibly bringing each unit to life with 'catchphrases' and individual sound effects, the environment features little touches such as crickets at night and other alien wildlife calls.
Each race has an entirely different sound on the battlefield, with the gritty Terran forces, the smooth metallic echoes of the Protoss and the slimy squelches of the Zerg. The gruff and grunts of the Terran forces are authentic and gives real personality to the units in- game. The voice acting of the central characters has to be some of the highest quality around, with each one being unique and sincerely acted. To top all of this off is a very impressive cinematic score that follows players through the entire game with complements from some intriguing 'sci-fi country & western' music (which obviously makes 'space cowboy' Jim Raynor feel comfortably at home).
The elevated landscapes look great.
If you have made it this far through the review (firstly – congratulations!) you might be thinking there is a "but" coming. Unfortunately there is. While it is hard to fault the game itself, the bureaucracy surrounding the online multiplayer and the 'digital rights management' (DRM) implementation is a headache at best. At the time of writing Australian players are 'locked' to the South East Asia region and are not allowed to join friends in other regions or carry across Real ID lists from World of WarCraft. In addition, a constant internet connection is required and although only the Battle.net 'lag' was experienced during this review, there are reports of Battle.net dropping out mid game - even with solid internet connections.
Probably the biggest issue however, is the outright removal of LAN play, which came for free (along with spawned multiplayer installs) in the original StarCraft. This means the hope of getting together with a few friends for a night of play in the one location is pretty much dashed, as casual (or one-off players) will have to fork out for a full copy of the game. Add to this just one account per copy of the game and you can’t even let friends (or siblings) share without affecting your stats (not to mention they have to play to your matchmaking skill level). With Blizzard's Korean friends awarded the privilege of a 24 hour US$1.50 pass to play the game in internet cafes and the like, it doesn’t seem much more of a stretch to allow the rest of us to have some sort of LAN pass or multiplayer 'spawn' install. It is a real shame that Blizzard has forgotten that this aspect of StarCraft helped to make it so accessible and ultimately so successful.
The Final Verdict
The legacy of the original StarCraft is one of the greatest in video game history, so it is unsurprising that Blizzard has taken the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' approach. StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is more of a remake than a sequel. The original gameplay returns with a graphical coat of paint, albeit with some intense tuning under the bonnet. The single player campaign plays out to slick cut scenes and top-notch voice acting and is perfectly integrated into play with detailed units, unique environments and varying missions. While it is a little disappointing to see some of the popular units from the single player mode disappear from multiplayer, there is a fresh mix of new units and other areas have been painstakingly tweaked to ensure balance between races, units and RTS strategies. The problems surrounding DRM are no doubt an issue with the game and the online facilities are far less than perfect with dropouts, lag and some frustrating omissions. The removal of spawned installs and LAN play are also a massive sore point with the PC community in general. These issues aside, there is no denying that StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty breathes new life into the franchise and will probably end up being a modern strategic classic. This review doesn’t even scratch the surface of the detail in the game, which incidentally also includes a map editor and even ‘Facebook’ integration to check who is playing. If you are a 'StarCraft' fan (there are at least 11 million of you out there) or have even a remote attraction to RTS games then this is a must for you. Even if you aren’t a fan of either, it will still probably win you over, so definitely check it out.
A top-quality, extremely slick addition to the StarCraft family.