The light bulb, penicillin, mathematics, democracy, and porn. They’re all important inventions, testaments to mankind’s collective creativity and ingenuity. But none of them were ever as much fun as StarCraft. Well, maybe most of them. It’s been about 12 years since the first StarCraft launched. The seminal title was a genre-defining game that cast a shadow over every RTS that followed in its massive footprints. But this week, StarCraft fans finally got the sequel they’ve been waiting over a decade for and it definitely doesn’t disappoint.
The singleplayer campaign resumes where the StarCraft: Brood War expansion left off. Players take on the role of Jim Raynor, leader of Raynor’s Raiders, a ragtag group of rebels railing against the unjust rule of Arcturus Mengsk, Emperor of the Terran Dominion. But Mengsk’s autocratic rule is only the beginning of Raynor’s problems.
The Zerg have also returned. Led by the Queen of Blades, the bug-like aliens are wreaking havoc across the galaxy, infesting Terran colonists as they search for a mysterious artifact. It doesn’t help that Raynor still harbors heartfelt feelings for the the leader of the Zerg swarm. Before she sprouted demon-like wings and a thick layer of carapace armor, the Queen of Blades used to be Sarah Kerrigan, a Terran Ghost operative and close friend of Raynor.
Above: After a betrayal by Mengsk, Sarah Kerrigan was transformed into the Queen of Blades
Enter Zeratul, a Protoss Dark Templar and former ally of Raynor. The mysterious warrior leaves Raynor Raynor with a warning, suggesting that Sarah Kerrigan (aka the Queen of Blades), may be the only one able to save the galaxy from a threat far greater than the Zerg swarm.
With the corrupt and irresponsible Terran Dominion to topple, a galaxy-wide Zerg assault led by a lost love, and a mysterious prophecy foretelling the destruction of everything, Jim Raynor has a lot to deal with. But even if you aren’t already caught up with the intricacies of the plot leading up to Wings of Liberty, it’s still easy to settle into Wings of Liberty’s new story arc. There’s lots of expositional cutscenes to catch you up to speed, and they’re all top-notch with the slick high-quality CG work Blizzard is famous for.
Above: The CG cutscenes look fantastic. Here’s a taste from a teaser
A ton of great RTS titles have released since StarCraft: Brood War, but despite all the great campaigns we’ve played since then, StarCraft II: Wing of Liberty still manages to make every mission feel exciting and fresh. Strangers to RTS titles shouldn’t be daunted by StarCraft II. The singleplayer campaign eases newcomers into the game gracefully, but still offers interesting twists for RTS veterans with unique objectives and special scenarios.
One early mission finds you clearing a colony of Terrans who have been infested by the Zerg. The zombie-like monstrosities will only attack once the sun has set, leaving you with only a small window of time to raze as many of their buildings as possible before rushing back to your base to fortify your defense.
Another mission leaves you on an unstable planet that’s about to burst at its seams. Lava is slowly flooding the map from the map, constantly creeping forward as you are forced to push your forces forward towards the right, moving your mobile bases to minimize damage along the way.
Above: Another mission has you manning a giant laser cannon to cut through thick walls protecting an artifact guarded by Protoss. You’ll need to turn the cannon on the incoming waves of Protoss forces who don’t take kindly to your tomb raiding
But for every minute you spend playing through the great missions in the campaign, you’ll want to spend at least two exploring the Hyperion. Raynor’s giant battlecruiser is your hub between missions and it’s chock-full treats that invite you to explore the ship every time you complete a mission.
There’s the Cantina, where you can hire mercenaries. These specialized units are veteran soldiers and can arrive on the battlefield instantly via drop ship. As you complete more missions, you’ll unlock more of these powerful units and can hire them to join your forces for the right price. Here, you’ll also be able to watch special news reports highlighting your conquests across the galaxy. There’s even a jukebox with a ton of country songs and a working arcade cabinet with a rather decent vertical shooter.
Above: As you complete more missions, you’ll receive new trophies to display on the wall on the upper-right
Above: The playable arcade machine in the corner is a nice touch
There’s also the Armory, a level on the Hyperion where you can purchase upgrades for your units and structures for future missions. If you have enough credits, you can upgrade you can improve your Siege Tanks so their splash damage doesn’t hurt friendly units as much, for example. It’s also worth noting that during the campaign, you’ll gain access to lots of special Terran units, which aren’t available in multiplayer. Often times, these units are favorites from the original StarCraft. So when you’re ready, you can improve your Firebats’ flamers so their attacks cover a wider radius, or improve the rate that your Medics heal friendly troops.
Above: Your armory will fill up as you complete more missions and acquire new units
Head to the Laboratory, and you can also unlock useful upgrades and new units. When playing through the campaign’s missions, you’ll often stumble across secondary objectives that yield research points for the Protoss and Zerg races. As you accumulate research points, Dr. Egon Stetmann, your onboard gadget geek, will be able to develop useful additions to your arsenal based on his findings from studying the alien races. Climb the Zerg research tree, for example, and you can help Stetmann develop Biosteel. Inspired by the Zerg’s regenerative properties, it allows your vehicles to regain hit points slowly. Similar upgrades and new units can also be unlocked after finding enough Protoss research points.
Above: Click on the units in your armory for some background lore
A Touch of Firefly
As you get to know your crew members and explore the ship, it’s hard not to notice elements that remind us Joss Whedon’s science fiction Western, Firefly. The Terrans were always portrayed as being a bit country in the original StarCraft. But like Firefly’s Malcolm Reynolds or Red Dead Redemption’s John Marston, Jim Raynor is a Western hero of the highest order.
Armed with a revolver and a bottle of bourbon, Raynor is unflappable, with a quick comeback delivered with an easy going attitude for every problem of galactic proportions that come his way. The one-liners are plentiful and painfully cheesy at times, but despite all that, the melodrama in between serious missions is always welcome – and when cutscenes fade to black with a twangy slide guitar riff, it’s hard not to marry memories of Serenity soaring through space with Raynor’s Hyperion. It’s good stuff.
Above: Jim Raynor is no Malcolm Reynolds, but you'll still like him a lot
Above: Another unique mission has you robbing Dominion supply trains
Of course, StarCraft has always been about the multiplayer, and from what we’ve played so far, it’s a blast. Still, we’re not professional level players; we wouldn’t be able to tell you if we think unit X needs to have its damage nerfed by X points. But we can say that it feels balanced, and with so many people playing, the matchmaking system seems like it’s doing its job quite well. We haven't run into any problems finding matches quickly, and because of StarCraft's popularity we wonder if we ever will. We found ourselves regularly matched against players of equal skill once we got a few games under our belt.
In many ways, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty feels like StarCraft 2.0 – and that’s a good thing. You’re still gathering resources and building up your army to destroy the other player’s base first. The Zerg are still all about numbers, the Protoss still sport strong but expensive units, and the Terran still support their troops with lots of tanks and ships. Blizzard didn’t mess with the gameplay formula that made the original so intense. Instead, they've refined and polished everything to the point of perfection. Play matches in the lower level multiplayer leagues, and you can get away with easy wins using cheap tactics, like Zergling or Zealot rushes or skipping up the tech tree to air units. But those one note tricks won’t get you very far in the higher tier leagues where scouting, counter-building, and making micro/macro management of your units and economy are more important.
Every unit or tactic has a vulnerability. A large group of Protoss Zealots early on in a match might seem strong, but a small squad of Zerg Roaches will tear them apart. Even end-game units, the biggest most expensive vehicles and starships are weak against specific units from each faction.
And if you're serious about getting better, StarCraft II gives you just about every tool you'll want or need to improve your game. After every match, the end game battle report gives you a second-by-second summary, showing you exactly what you and your opponent were building and buying throughout the entire match. For a more detailed recap, you can use the game's robust replay system, which allows you to fast forward and rewind as you review the match from your perspective, your opponent's or a god's eye view with the fog of war completely lifted. Plus, it's always fun to save memorable matches to watch again later.
Above: There are also special Challenge missions, which were designed to prepare you for multiplayer. They’ll familiarize you with each units’ strengths and weaknesses and prep you for defending against rush attacks
The Galaxy Map Editor
Then there's the Galaxy Map Editor, which also comes with the game. Our friends at PC Gamer have published a great tutorial that will show you how to create your own custom StarCraft II maps. But fans have also created cart racers, prototypes for RPGs, and other promising projects during the brief period when it was available to participants in the StarCraft II multiplayer beta.
We can't wait to see what great things will come next, now that the game has officially launched.
Above: An early version of Wacky Races, a cart racing mod for StarCraft II
Is it better than…
StarCraft? Of course! A cynic might say that “StarCraft II is just StarCraft I with new units and better graphics.” But at the same time, that's all we've really been wanting. “It's StarCraft I, but with new units and better graphics!” Wings of Liberty keeps everything we loved about the original StarCraft, refining and polishing every aspect to the point of perfection.
WarCraft III? Yes. We liked WarCraft III's hero system, but the cost of upkeep for your units ensured that you've never command the sorts of huge armies you can wield in StarCraft II. The thick clouds of Mutalisks and the massive swarms of Marines are back. Sometimes quantity counts.
Dawn of War II? By the Emperor, yes. We loved what Relic did with the Warhammer 40K universe in the Dawn of War series, home of the original Space Marines, the Eldar and the Tyrannids. But StarCraft II outshines the Dawn of War series. The campaign is more satisfying, the multiplayer plays better, and matchmaking via Battle.net works better, making StarCraft II the clear winner.
Congratulations. You've made it to the end of the review, the place where it is customary to list the game's caveats. Sure, it may bother some that you need to log into Battle.net and be online to earn achievements. There's also the controversial RealID system for adding friends through Battle.net that have made many uncomfortable. But really, these quibbles aren't deal breakers by any means. If you're still on the fence about StarCraft II, don't be. It's awesome.
Just for you, Metacritic!
The wait was worth it. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty delivers on all fronts with unique singleplayer missions, a gripping story for the campaign and excellent multiplayer. Prepare yourself for the definitive RTS of the decade. StarCraft II is the new standard and will cast a shadow over all RTS titles that follow for quite some time.
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