It's been more than a decade since Blizzard Entertainment introduced us to the humanistic Terrans, the psionic Protoss, and the assimilating Zerg swarm in a military science fiction real-time strategy video game called StarCraft. While some enjoyed StarCraft for its engrossing and epic single-player campaign, many favored multiplayer skirmishes over Battle.net, and to this day, StarCraft remains one of the most popular online games in the world. Blizzard Entertainment is ready to change the real-time strategy and competitive multiplayer worlds once again with its upcoming sequel, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Can this follow-up to one of the best games of all time be praised as a true successor to the StarCraft name?
As an avid player of the originalStarCraft for many years, I can tell you that the only thing that's keeping me from digging out the old disc and reinstalling the game is the graphics. One can't expect a 12-year-old game to compete with today's high-definition visuals, but it doesn't change the fact that what used to be a Zerg Drone now looks like a blob of pixels gliding across the screen. Thankfully, StarCraft II is a very big visual upgrade. If you've ever played WarCraft III, picture StarCraft II as an upgraded and polished version. While the structures, terrain and units all look fantastic in their new 3-D format, perhaps the most exciting change is the animations. For example, biological units blasted by the Terran Siege Tank now appear to catch fire and incinerate into dust as opposed to featuring the same death animation. Biological units killed by the Zerg Roach's acid-spray will turn green from the acid, quickly decay and vanish.
Another great feature of the original StarCraft was the audio, and StarCraft II follows suit. Anyone who has played StarCraft remembers the iconic background music for each of the three factions in the game — most notably the Terrans and their country-style music. Blizzard has kept that style going, as the soundtracks for all three factions feature very familiar tunes with a new twist. The sound effects are just as good. Unit weapon sounds are realistic, and every voice-over has the perfect blend of realism and humor. As the Terran SCV would say, "Well, butter my biscuits!"
Even though this is just a preview of StarCraft II's multiplayer — and a beta, to boot — there's just so much depth that I'll have to break it down into bite-size chunks.
Let's start with the upgrade to Battle.net. Announced in 2009, this new and improved multiplayer gaming service is going to feature three unique sections. The first feature is the ability to connect all Battle.net accounts. I've added my World of WarCraft account to my Battle.net account, so all of my Blizzard multiplayer accounts are in a single location. With this feature, players will have the ability to unlock in-game achievements in StarCraft II that rewards users with avatars and decals to display on their profiles.
The second section is the transition that allows Battle.net to be a competitive arena for players on both casual and professional levels. It features a new matchmaking and ladder system, which allows players to find just the right league. Players are placed in one of five leagues (copper, bronze, silver, gold and platinum) based on their skill level and will be matched against those in the same league to create enjoyable and fair gameplay. As a player's skill level increases — or decreases — he or she may be promoted or demoted into a new league. Blizzard also plans on having an invite-only pro league once the game launches.
The third section links the Blizzard community, making it easy to stay connected with friends. The new friends list in both StarCraft II and World of WarCraft allows you to add friends to your list via their Battle.net e-mail. This displays them on your friends list with their real names, and you'll be able to see what they are up to, no matter what game they are playing. Are you currently raiding in World of WarCraft but your BFF is engaging the enemy in a hardcore 2v2 match in StarCraft II? You can see that he's online in that 2v2 match, and you can even send him an instant message. Some feel that this feature is a bit too invasive on the privacy front, but I absolutely love it.
An important feature in any multiplayer game is balance. I've played in the StarCraft II beta since it launched, and in the beginning, you could use certain strategies and combinations to defeat all opponents, no matter what they tried. Some units were so strong that it was silly to create any other unit. Blizzard has since released 10 updates to balance and fix the game. In the salad days of the beta, a friend and I had a no-fail strategy, and our 30-0 record meant that we were ranked first in our division in the platinum league. After the updates, however, we're in the middle of the gold league, which is more or less where we belong. Blizzard is making a huge effort on a daily basis to look at what's working and what's not, and they are actively fixing it.
StarCraft II is pretty balanced, features a new Battle.net system, and looks and sounds great, but is it fun? Yes! I used to play the original StarCraft online almost entirely for its Custom Game feature, which allowed users to host player-made maps with different, non-melee gameplay options, such as tower defense, racing, RPG, and even football-style maps. At this point in the beta, only melee is accessible, but I'm having even more fun than I did with the original StarCraft's Custom Game feature. Everything is enthralling, from microing the perfect rush to taking down your opponent early in the match to scrambling together a last-minute defense and holding off your enemy's final attack wave. I've had a blast in both 1v1 and 2v2 of StarCraft II's melee format, and I look forward to the release of 3v3 and 4v4. Blizzard has said that it plans to add the Custom Game feature to the beta at some point, so I'll keep my fingers crossed ....
Other nice little features of StarCraft II include an advanced replay function as well as detailed post-game stats.
The replay function allows you to load recent and saved replays and watch the game in a variety of speeds, ranging from slow-motion to 6x faster. It also allows you to view the entire map or see the map as a specific player sees it (including fog of war, allied vision, etc.). Another cool feature of the replay function is the ability to compare stats through a selectable menu in the upper left-hand side of the screen, including current income, active units, units in production, units lost, and even actions per minute (APM), which, according to most professional StarCraft gamers, is a very important statistic.
After a match, you can look at a huge amount of information regarding various aspects of the just-completed skirmish. You have the standard summary of army, economy and structures, but you can also compare build orders between players. This comparison details which units were built and when; it's great to see if a user had a slight advantage due to having a better economy or simply because of faster reaction time.
After participating in this beta, I'm looking forward to the map editor, which is free with the game purchase. This is the same editor that Blizzard uses to make the campaign maps, so players can create custom campaigns and multiplayer games.
If you've ever played StarCraft, been a fan of real-time strategies, or are on the lookout for an exciting and competitive multiplayer experience, then StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty has its sights set on you. If you're interested in the game and can't wait until the July 27 release date, GameStop is currently giving beta access to all customers who pre-order StarCraft II.
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