Version tested: PC
"StarCraft II is fast." The first words I wrote about Blizzard's real-time strategy sequel, almost two and a half years ago, may well have been an exercise in stating the profoundly obvious - but they bear repeating all the same. It still comes as something of a shock: the urgent, breathless acceleration playing this game requires of your fingers and your brain, darting around the map, micro-managing, multitasking, watching your hastily-improvised tactics blossom or collapse in busy, laser-scattered chaos that always seems a beat ahead of you.
But there's another rhythm building in the background, behind every mission and skirmish, and this one is very, very slow. Conscious of its intimidating complexity and speed - of the yawning gulf between the curious, casual World of Warcraft player who will pick it up on a whim and the 300-clicks-a-minute eSports pro who's been training for it since childhood - Blizzard has built StarCraft II as an epic crescendo: a parabolic ascent through multi-layered campaign, challenge, skirmish and co-operative modes and then multiplayer ladder competition that stretches off into the vanishing-point distance.
One week in, and I'm barely in the foothills of that climb. It is an immense game - and this is just Wings of Liberty, the first part of the StarCraft II trilogy. Not to be outdone in thinking big by the guys across the hall, Blizzard's strategy team has delivered an RTS on an MMO scale.
Even with the time - seven years since Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne - and the bottomless resources they've had, that's not something you can do by brute force. A strategy game with thousands of units and maps and hundreds of hours of grind would just be unwieldy and overbearing. What's so clever about StarCraft II is that it's been built big through technology, finesse, depth, insane attention to detail and, above all, structural brilliance.
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Your first step on the StarCraft II journey is Wings of Liberty itself, the campaign mode told almost entirely from the point of view of the Terrans, one of the game's three races. Downtrodden space-faring humans piloting chunky, battered retro-futuristic mechs, the Terrans led by resistance hero Jim Raynor are caught in a three-way intergalactic struggle between former allies turned evil empire the Dominion, rapacious biomechanical menace the Zerg, and high-tech, high-church alien zealots the Protoss.
Wings of Liberty's installer helpfully recaps the important plot points of StarCraft and the Brood War expansion, including love interest Kerrigan's betrayal and transformation into the Zerg Queen of Blades. It's relatively easy to pick up, mind; though Wings of Liberty exemplifies Blizzard's easy way with grandstanding reversals and epic sweep, StarCraft hasn't got anything like as tangled up in geopolitics and lore as the Warcraft series has. Fans of trad space opera will be well satisfied by this thumping yarn, especially in its occasional, spectacularly well-made CG cut-scenes.
It's not as well-rounded as Warcraft on the human scale, however. There is much to love about the lavish point-and-click interludes aboard Raynor's ship, during which you buy unit upgrades and screen-filling characters swap lines (especially the Cantina jukebox spinning scratchy covers of Raw Power and Rumble; less so the arcade machine that proves the 2D shmup is one genre Blizzard can't do). But the dialogue often falls flat and the characters are either clichéd, banal or both - Raynor in particular, sadly. Still, Blizzard has always pitched its storytelling tone broad and refused to take it too seriously, and the spit-and-sawdust aroma of the Wild West ambiance helps disguise the whiff of cheese.
Moreover, the big-picture matters little, because it's the individual tales told by Wings of Liberty's fantastic missions that really stick in the memory. Penetrate the production values and you'll find level design and scripting of such quality, variety and invention that it easily sets new standards for single-player RTS campaigns.
The surprises, drama, cunning challenges and bold thrills keep coming. Execute lightning raids on speeding trains while dodging patrols; defend your base in panic against Zerg hordes by night, then cathartically pillage their infestation by day; strip back your building to the bare minimum as you race to raise mineral funds before a rival; take control of a lone Protoss hero in a tense, almost Diablo-esque flashback; choose whether to grimly purge Zerg-infested colonists or defend them against a merciless Protoss mothership. All that is from the game's first half.
There are 20 or so memorable hours here, but several times that in replay value across the five perfectly-pitched difficulty levels. The excellent Achievement design guarantees this, with three available for each level; one awarded for completing all primary and secondary mission objectives at any difficulty, and one specific challenge each for Normal and Hard modes, little problem-solving nuggets that can completely change the way each level plays. If you never venture beyond the campaign, you will find still Wings of Liberty a durable and rewarding challenge.
Virtually every one of the nearly 30 missions finds a novel twist on the familiar RTS litany, creating interesting tactical conundrums as well as gradually introducing you to the Terran units (including some you won't find in multiplayer) and surreptitiously tutoring you in the basics of StarCraft play. That they manage to spin suspenseful and exciting mini-adventures to boot - from the confines of that rigid isometric camera - is a miracle.
It's those irresistible Achievements that will eventually lure you out of the campaign's confines, though. A tempting breadcrumb-trail of points and rewards - under the non-threatening title "exploration" - leads you to the other StarCraft II: the one with the other two races available to play, the one that always starts with a blank canvass and a desperate lunge for resources, the one where you might be facing another player across the fog-of-war-shrouded map.
Many would say this is the real StarCraft, and overcoming new players' fear of it and its reputation as a harsh environment is an even bigger challenge for Blizzard's designers than reviving the art of the single-player RTS campaign. They're successful here too, if less resoundingly so.
There are multiple ways to ease yourself in to the game. Across nine tightly-scripted scenarios, with tiered Achievements for each, the Challenges pick up your StarCraft II meta-tutorial where the campaign left off. They teach effective unit counters, challenge your skills with the more advanced units, and teach efficient macro, micro (one Challenge has to be completed using hotkeys only) and rush defence techniques. They're stern but addictive, and it's only a shame there aren't more of them.
You can then test yourself in both single-player and co-operative skirmishes against AI before taking on a proper ranked multiplayer match - and even then, you can elect to do so in the Practice League. Here you play through 50 matches (which you can never repeat) with specially forgiving rules, and you should be matched only against other new players. (In the game's first week, you still had a chance of running into a seasoned veteran of the beta or the first StarCraft here, but unusually for a multiplayer game the Practice League should actually become a more welcoming environment with time.)
The options are there to build up a substantial body of experience and get comfortable with the game, and even if you're not entirely new to StarCraft, you will probably want to take them. The units are simple but numerous, and the three races are radically different to play. With many brand new units, and many substantially changed from their original forms, there's a lot to learn.
Thankfully, the units are all strikingly designed - both visually and tactically - impeccably balanced, and perhaps more to the point, extremely cool. Crisp art, exquisite animation, potent sound, exciting special skills - burrowing Zerg! transforming mechs! - and Blizzard's willingness to match overpower with overpower, refusing to neuter even the most basic building-block like the Marine: the great thing about StarCraft II's unit design is that, while considering the daunting balance demands of eSport, it has remembered to be fun.
That even extends to base units that can retract into the ground (Terrans can construct gates and walls out of supply depots) or take to the air to flee an attack or settle near a new mining opportunity. The map designs - the game comes with dozens, doubtless soon to be fleshed out by the game's fanbase - exploit multiple levels of elevation with cunning, making the pathing abilities of various units a crucial consideration and widening the gap between air and ground forces. Even if you concentrate on only one of the three races, StarCraft II presents an extremely supple and fluid strategic landscape.
Helping you cope with this are countless small improvements to an otherwise tried-and-true user interface (being able to set a rally point to a moving unit, thus automatically resupplying your front lines, is a huge plus, for example). Learning these and the countless shortcuts you will need to successfully manage the briskly shifting and accumulating facets of a StarCraft II game is essential. But, in a way, the UI itself simply becomes another layer of complexity you have to master.
It's all just a bit much, and despite the great and admirable lengths Blizzard has gone to to help you learn the ropes, there can be no changing that. StarCraft II is, at heart, still an uncompromised and uncompromising hardcore RTS with a resolute focus on micro-management speed. Even in an easy match it's tense and stressful, and not a crack has been left open for luck to enter the equation; this a pure skill environment, hermetically sealed from the forces of chance. That's a vital stipulation for dedicated players, but a tough break for the newcomer who needs a stroke of luck, just one, to feel like he or she might have a foothold in the game.
So Blizzard might still find that a very large percentage of players drop away before they even participate in their first ladder league (the superb matchmaking system that pitches players against each other in small, closely-fought groups, even as they play in a wider pool, which I predict will be the most-copied piece of multiplayer game design this decade). In fact, many won't even try the first of their 50 Practice League matches, never mind get through them.
If that does happen, it won't be because of the new Battle.net, a robust gaming platform that easily matches or exceeds Steam and Xbox Live for features and polish, fitted here to a bespoke and extremely slick StarCraft II front-end. It's a major component of this release and it seems unfair to gloss over Battle.net so quickly - but that's partly a compliment to its transparency, and partly down to the fact that its charms will only reveal themselves over time and through its gradual integration with World of Warcraft and, eventually, Diablo III.
No, if players drop away, it will be because Blizzard has done absolutely everything it can to make StarCraft easier to get into except changing it. Was there room to expand its range without dumbing (or slowing) it down? Maybe. Would that have been the right thing to do? Probably not. Because the hardcore fans would have been cheated, the eSports scene destabilised, the world robbed of a cutting-edge competitive strategy game.
And, more to the point, because millions will thoroughly enjoy StarCraft II regardless, thanks to a dense, thrilling, relentlessly clever and class-leading campaign adventure that takes this RTS to the masses in spite of itself. It might be less than half this sumptuous package, but it's a lot more game than almost anything else.
9 / 10