"But when you get to the core of the strategy game experience – the reason why most people and all of South Korea fell in love with the first Starcraft – there is a pervasive feeling that somehow Blizzard is playing it safe. Where the campaign shows evidence that they were paying attention to how other real-time strategy games have evolved that story telling medium, there is no clue that Blizzard paid the same attention to how Ensemble or Big Huge Games or Relic or even Blizzard itself in Warcraft 3 had advanced RTS design."
Starcraft II comes after over a decade of anticipation, a sequel to one of the best and most important real-time strategy games ever made. Blizzard's original Starcraft blazed a trail that, for a time, made the PC RTS a big thing and left a strong design legacy that continues to echo through the genre. So any reviewer has to deal with the fact that people are already primed to love this game because of the gooey haze of nostalgia coupled with Blizzard's built in fan base.
Not that there's all there is, of course. Blizzard has a reputation for quality and polish that persists even after devoting much of the last few years to focusing on one huge MMO. And Starcraft II is the shiniest real-time strategy game ever made. Though it would be dismissive to simply call it Starcraft I in HD, that's the sense you get as you watch your marines and colossi and overlords do all the things you saw them do twelve years ago.
The polish is most apparent in the story-based campaign. Picking up four years after the first game, you control the Terrans as they fight both the Zerg and an evil emperor. You get access to units and powers that you don't in the normal skirmish game, and a wide menu of choices. Gathering research points from secondary mission objectives unlocks new technology, you can buy upgrades for your units and structures (turrets on bunkers prove very useful) and you can hire elite mercenaries to bolster your forces.
The story itself has echoes of Firefly, with a snarky captain and a Western twang to the music. There's even a train robbery mission. Jim Raynor has the cowboy swagger and ex-con Tychus has a bit of a Texas drawl going on. It's not a very good story, or an interesting one, but it is well produced and well delivered through a remarkable variety of missions. The usual escorts and last stands are given new life by clever scenario design, including a harrowing zerg zombie scenario and an excellent stealth break out mission where you control a single unit.
RTS story campaigns have never really been about strategy, of course, but Starcarft II takes that to extremes. You are explicitly told what to do and how to do it along almost every step of a mission. There's not much figuring things out for yourself. You are given a plan and the only way to fail is to screw up the plan by under-preparing or moving too slowly. The focus on the Terrans works for story purposes, but leaves you ill-prepared for skirmish or multiplayer with any other race, though there are a few optional Protoss missions.
This is where the challenge missions come in, and they are excellent. They serve as tutorials, but not in the usual boring way. There are missions for each race that teach basic tactics like counter units and stealth operations. So if you forgot how a ghost worked or just how much damage an ultralisk could take, these are a great place to start. You are given an achievement based on your performance, with an incentive to do it better the next time around.
But when you get to the core of the strategy game experience – the reason why most people and all of South Korea fell in love with the first Starcraft – there is a pervasive feeling that somehow Blizzard is playing it safe. Where the campaign shows evidence that they were paying attention to how other real-time strategy games have evolved that story telling medium, there is no clue that Blizzard paid the same attention to how Ensemble or Big Huge Games or Relic or even Blizzard itself in Warcraft 3 had advanced RTS design.
This is not about Starcraft II being old-school. It is refreshing, in fact, to have a harvester economy RTS again. Even as other developers take the RTS economy in new directions (primarily making it about zone control, or fixed placements), Blizzard demonstrates that the peon-centered game still has a lot of life left in it and can present game challenges that other designs can't. It is in this type of game that mastery of number and ratios and time come into play. Only a peon-centered game can really emphasize guns and butter decisions – most modern RTS titles ask you to choose between different kinds of guns. Starcraft may be a reminder why the peon-centered game has fallen out of favor; herding your builders and gathers can be annoying. But deciding when to expand to that second base or how many peons to put on vespene duty can have long range strategic consequences.
A few changes aside, Starcraft II plays very much like Starcraft I. And the changes they have made are oddly erratic. They have removed the unit selection limit, but kept the tight zoom on the action. They have idle workers move to repair nearby vehicles, but not go to the nearest resource collection area. In general, the three factions have not changed in any significant way which means their tactics really haven't either. Starcraft II is less sequel than reboot, less improvement than refurbishing.
This is an economy-centered game, with all that implies. Getting a good, solid build order down is crucial since a competent opponent will make few mistakes. (The skirmish AI is a barely competent opponent on Medium.) Research is tied to specific buildings and a lot of your time, especially for the Protoss, will be spent making sure your idle peons aren't just sitting around. This is a game about efficiency, like so many classic RTSes, and it in many ways is the height of that design ethos. But the parallels between the sequel and the original are almost jarring in their precision. There are a few new units at your disposal, but by and large these are the Zerg, Protodd and Terrans you already know.
If you believe that Starcraft I is still the best designed RTS ever made made, then this is probably OK. You would be wrong, but it would explain why so many people have taken to Starcraft II with such joy. It has been a while since a real time strategy game was this big, and many people never really moved on from the Blizzard RTS titles to other more innovative or user friendly games. If Starcraft II is a reason to revisit a favorite world from your younger gaming days, when the PC still ruled the roost, then you could not have picked a shinier star to hitch yourself to.
If you are a genre aficionado like myself, however, you might wonder where the meat is. Starcraft II builds only on its own legacy, and even there only so far as a new coat of paint. As polished and varied as the story campaign is, it is more “do this then do that” than true strategy. No one loves spectacle as much as I do, and I would surely applaud a new and glorious spectacle. For all the glory, though, this is not new. Failed RTS titles have tried more innovation with fewer resources.
Blizzard's caution is understandable, of course. Starcraft is a going concern in South Korea, a major electronic entertainment sporting event even, and if you want those leagues and wannabe major league players buying Starcraft II, then you can't move too far from the formula you've established. All those SCV management skills would be wiped out if the developers had moved to a territorial control model like Company of Heroes or EndWar, or an iterative accumulation model like Age of Empires III. Starcraft is so big that it can only move slowly. Warcraft and Diablo have much more freedom to break the mold.
And that's a shame. As cliché as the writing is in the campaign, the mission and unit design points a way to a world of different multiplayer or skirmish modes. Though many of the game Achievements boil down to “do it again, but on Hard”, from mission to mission they give you something to shoot for, especially in the Challenges, where getting better at those means you will do better in all other game modes.
When you sit back and let the tide of explosions roll over you, the eternal appeal of Starcraft arises anew. It is a game about who can click fastest, who has the best situational awareness, who can anticipate their opponent's move, who can make kill zones and keep healers safe. All standard RTS fare, of course, but done with a panache and sheen that reminds you why this is the biggest PC release of the year.
Starcraft II is not revolutionary in any way except its mass appeal. Most of us will never get to a platinum Starcraft league, but Blizzard's new RTS at least gives your eyes the platinum treatment. This is a summer blockbuster type game, and blockbusters are rarely popular because they mix things up.
Staff review by Troy Goodfellow (August 07, 2010)
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