August 26, 2010

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Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty (PC/Mac)
Blizzard Entertainment, July 27
By Glenn "9 pylon" Given production@hippopress.com

Blizzard takes a step back from its Massive Multi-player Money-Printing Machine and travels a hojillion years into the future with Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, a worthy sequel to quintessential real-time strategy game Starcraft.

When Blizzard released the original Starcraft, a space fantasy themed version of its hallmark skirmisher Warcraft, minds were blown merely by the announcement that players would have three armies to choose from. While it is easy to scoff at the notion of “one more,” the ramifications of balancing three forces against one another while maintaining strategic diversity were profound. One expansion and numerous gameplay and balance patches later, the original Starcraft finally achieved such parity that new tactics are still being developed today. Or should I say up until July 27, when the past 12 years of obsessive gameplay, and the basis for the most popular televised sport in South Korea, were thrown out the window.

The good news is that the detail and delicacy of Starcraft have not been lost in its sequel. The trio of forces — psychic Protoss, technological Terran and insectoid Zerg — still maintain a strong individual identity. Within each force, dozens of units fill specific battlefield roles and complement allied units while countering certain enemy units in an intricate latticework of paper-rock-scissors balancing. Towering Protoss Colossi burn hordes of human marines from the field with sweeping laser beams but fall to aerial assaults that their devastating ground-focused weaponry can’t target. Nimble and vicious zerglings morph into suicide bomber-style Banelings to explode acid over tightly knit groups while the camouflaged Ghost calls in nuclear strikes against heavily fortified positions. Effectively using each unit’s abilities to counter your opponent while maintaining a growing army production base remains the hard nugget of success in Starcraft 2.

While the field of Real Time Strategy has undergone massive changes in the 12 years since Starcraft was released — even Blizzard Entertainment heavily mucked with the format with its hybrid RPG/RTS Warcraft 3 —  Starcraft 2 avoids such alteration. The focus of RTS on squad-based combat as found in titles like Dawn of War and Company of Heroes, both wonderful games, is absent herein. Starcraft 2 has so fastidiously avoided such evolution that one can sophomorically fault it for such head-in-sand development. But Starcraft 2 is better judged as a much, much better Starcraft, further distilling the elegant balance of macro and micro management that it so aptly presented over a decade ago. So is Starcraft 2 simply a visual upgrade with some additional units? Is it just a $60 expansion of the vaunted original?

Part of the argument against this is Wings of Liberty’s 26-mission solo component. Each step of the thickly plotted campaign introduces new units and concepts, and no two missions play the same. Whether you are racing your army and base against a wall of fire, holding the line against nightly hordes of alien zombies or robbing trains with a mobile force, the variety of missions is exhaustive. There are secret missions and campaign branches to be traversed as well. While the core of the game is from the Trran perspective, you engage in a short but intense Protoss mini campaign. Between missions you roam the decks of scruffy-looking protagonist Jim Raynor’s battleship the Hyperion. From these old-school adventure-game-styled rooms you can interact with crew, research unit upgrades, outfit your army, purchase mercenary units and watch tongue-in-cheek propaganda from Raynor’s enemies. The single-player story is rich and well crafted with a plot fitting any pulp space fantasy and a double handful of unique and engaging missions; in all, a treat.

Despite its full-featured solo mode, it is Starcraft 2’s online multi-player that remains the title’s focus. Online matchmaking via Battle.net is a smooth and balanced interface. Players are ranked by a series of judgment matches when they first foray into the fiercely deep multi-player world. From those matches Battle.net places you in an appropriately skilled tier and ladder, doing a fine job of pitting you against similarly abled space army generals. In fact it is this element that immediately places Starcraft 2 over its predecessors’ helter-skelter multi-player environs. While you will still lose frequently — how else do you expect to learn? — you are less and less likely to be blown completely out of the water. Players who best opponents of high ranking are rewarded accordingly, and simply cutting through swaths of low-ranked players offers no benefit to top-tier competitors. But be prepared for an amazingly intricate battle. Starcraft 2’s multi-player is built on the shoulders of its giant parent, and the same detailed strategies that earned courses at UC Berkeley and provided superstar wages to Southeast Asian professional gamers are in full force.

Either element of Wings of Liberty would warrant a full-price release, so let’s quell that griping right now. Starcraft 2 is a fresh and vibrant restart for the entrenched SC leagues. Paying reverent attention to its roots, it seemingly only improves and iterates on itself. Its single-player campaign is one of the most continually rewarding solo strategy experiences ever, with multiple  levels of challenge and a dump truck load of achievements to be mastered and earned. There is one notable fault, though: lack of LAN-based multi-player. The insistence on online-only multi-player has put some PC gaming purists out of sorts. Also, and this is purely personal as a non-competitive gamer, I would have liked to see the same outside-the-box ideas and styles from the solo campaign injected into the multi-player. While the perils of tipping the scales of such a revered multi-player are dire indeed, it is the intensely magnified and hypergilded sameness of the Starcraft experience that scares me off. A+Glenn Given