The teaser trailer for Starcraft II ends with a close-up of a Terran Marine who calmly states “Hell, it’s about time.”  As any fan of the original Starcraft can tell you, never have truer words been spoken when it comes to the world of videogames.

 

Debuting in 1998, Starcraft and it’s expansion pack Brood Wars has virtually defined not only the real-time strategy (RTS) genre on the PC, but has come to embody the very definition of how popular a videogame can be.  We’ve all heard the stories about how popular the game is in Korea, having national tournaments, loads of professional players, and even it’s own television station.  And did we mention the more than eleven million copies of the game that have been sold worldwide since it’s release?  Ever since the release of the Brood Wars expansion pack, dedicated players have been clamoring for a sequel, only to be met with silence from developer Blizzard.  It seems like every few years there would be some rumor about Starcraft II becoming a reality, only for it to fade away.  Until 2007 that is, when we were finally given official word that Starcraft II was in development.  With expectations incredibly high and years upon which to build up hype, has Starcraft II been worth the wait?

Presented in the now-familiar isometric perspective that developer Blizzard used for the first game, Starcraft II has gone leaps and bounds beyond its predecessor.  Every unit in the game is fully modeled in 3D, along with a several levels of zoom so you can get right down to the ground level and revel in all the carnage.  Add to this tons of animation for each unit and building, as well as extraordinarily detailed environments, and you’ve got quite the visual feast waiting for you in this game.

 

The cutscenes that are sprinkled throughout the solo campaign are of the high quality that you would expect from a Blizzard title, and do a wonderful job fleshing out the storyline as well as developing all the characters you encounter.  The amount of cutscene work is gratifyingly high, with each mission accompanied by at least one cinematic detailing the action.  This might sound like overkill to some, but the developers have spent a huge amount of time on the balance of this game.  Usually game balance is only mentioned when comparing actual gameplay concerns, but in this case it applies to the style and format of the story, making for an engrossing tale that will have you begging for the next campaign to be released.

 

Much of the sound work from the first Starcraft has remained the same, with
individual units having quite a few sound bites for whenever they are attacked,
complete an action, or take damage.  The real difference here is the
stellar voice acting that has been included.  All the main characters have
large chunks of dialogue, and Blizzard has done a magnificent job of weaving
this all together with excellent results.

 

With the exception of being able to zoom in closer to the action, the controls
are exactly the same as the first game, and this is a good thing.  Not only
does this allow for veterans of Starcraft (and RTS veterans in general) to be
able to dive right into the action and control their units how they would expect
to, but newcomers to the game will be able to pick up the extremely simple
control scheme immediately.  This allows players to spend more of their
time learning their units’ capabilities, instead of having to figure out how to
control them.

 

As pretty as Starcraft II looks and sounds, it wouldn’t mean anything if it
weren’t for stellar gameplay, and this title has plenty of that.  The first
game introduced us to a distant future, where an oppressive Terran rule is
grinding the people under its boot.  Enter into this the bug-like Zerg, a
race seemingly bent on destroying everything in their path.  The final race
in this struggle is the alien Protoss, an extremely high-tech race that wants to
eliminate the Zerg, even if they have to crush the Terrans in the process.
This was the genius of the first title, the rock-paper-scissors layout of the
three races.  Whether you preferred the flexibility of the Terrans, the
swarm tactics of the Zerg, or the high-tech approach of the Protoss, there was
something there for every style of game play.

 

Starcraft II picks up the story five years after the end of Brood Wars with
Jim Raynor (one of the original characters) still fighting against an oppressive
rule.  The Zerg have been quiet for the last few years, and no one has
heard anything from our erstwhile allies, the Protoss.  It’s nearly
impossible to tell you any more about the solo campaign without giving away any
spoilers, so let me just say that the tale told in Starcraft II maintains the
high standards that we’ve come to expect from Blizzard.

 

At first glance the gameplay in this title is unchanged from the original,
with a few new units thrown in and some minor changes made to some of the
others.  Its not until you start playing through the missions that you
realize how much of an impact these seemingly minor changes actually make.
Something as simple as the Terran technology of being able to house six units in
a bunker instead of four can make a huge difference in base defense, while the
addition of a Protoss “Mothership” that can cloak other units and still provide
plenty of airborne firepower is obviously a welcome addition to that race’s
fleet.

 

One surprising change in overall gameplay is the fact that not all the units
and technologies from the solo campaign are available in multiplayer.  The
most obvious missing unit for the Terrans is the absence of the Medic in online
play.  The medic is a ground unit that can heal any other human ground unit
and is one of the staples in Starcraft I multiplayer.  Initially it might
seem strange that you don’t have the same units and techs available when online,
but this was obviously implemented to balance gameplay and as experience will
show, Blizzard has definitely got the game balance just right in this title.

 

Let’s be honest here, the original Starcraft absolutely defined the ultimate
in replay value.  Any game that still flies off the store shelves a decade
after it was originally released has to have done something right.  As hard
as it is to believe, multiplayer in Starcraft II has been improved from the
first game.  Through an extensive series of open beta testing, Blizzard was
able to not only fine-tune the excellent online play, but also make huge
improvements to their online service, Battle.net.  In it’s early days,
Battle.net was nothing more than a simplified matchmaking service, allowing you
to browse through who was online and connect with friends to play private
matches.

 

That was the old Battle.net though, and the updated service that you see when
you go online with Starcraft II looks nothing like the original offering.
First of all, everything is done via the online service.  When you first
start up the game, you log in to Battle.net, even if you intend to spend your
time on the solo campaign.  Don’t worry though, Blizzard didn’t make the
same mistake that Ubisoft did by requiring that you be online to play the
game.  If for whatever reason you don’t have an Internet connection
*shudder*, Starcraft II calmly informs you that either Battle.net is down or
your connection is down and you’ll have to play offline.  The only
difference as far as the solo campaign is that you won’t be able to have your
achievements registered.

 

That’s right, I said achievements.  Taking a page from Microsoft’s book,
Blizzard has implemented an achievement system in Starcraft II, and they’ve done
an excellent job with it.  As any veteran of Xbox 360 achievements or
Playstation 3 trophies can tell you, the achievements in Starcraft II are pretty
much what you would expect.  You’ll have to do everything from completing
missions under a certain time limit, finishing all the optional missions, or
going through all the conversation trees with the main characters in the story
to complete these goals.  That doesn’t even begin to cover the achievements
related to online matches, which have their own sets of requirements.  This
adds even more reason to replay solo campaign missions to try new tactics, or
just to improve your time or efficiency.  While none of these achievements
are surprising, the addition of them to the game adds immensely to the overall
experience.

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