After years of wondering when the franchise would get its rightful sequel, fans of StarCraft can finally get their hands on the newest title of the series. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty isn't a radically different game than its predecessor in terms of how it is played or its gameplay basics, but there has certainly been a smattering of changes and innovations. The campaign mode has seen almost a complete overhaul, and while multiplayer mechanics are largely the same, it has a multitude of unit changes and makes strong use of the new Battle.net functionality.
As one of the matriarch real-time strategy titles and one of the most popular titles in the genre up to this day, the original StarCraft is a tough act to follow. If too many changes are made, it alienates the hardcore base of fans, but if not enough changes are made, it would feel like a cheap rehash. That line of reasoning resonates through most of StarCraft II, which is both a blessing and a burden. Many innovations or changes made to the campaign mode either feature differently or don't feature at all in the multiplayer side, so they really feel like separate games linked by a common theme.
The campaign mode of the original game was a very linear series of missions, prefaced by talking head mission briefings before you were thrown into the thick of it. StarCraft II's campaign mode puts a lot more personality and variety into the mix, and gone are those simple briefings in favor of real-time cut scenes that show the characters. After the events of Brood War concluded, Jim Raynor and a band of men stole Emperor Mengsk's flagship Hyperion to use as their base of operations. Before missions, this allows the player to explore and interact with various areas of the ship in a basic manner, almost like an old-school adventure game.
The missions are linear at first to get your feet wet in the new game, but as soon as you take command of the Hyperion once more, your options open up in terms of which missions you wish to undertake and in what order. As you progress through the campaign, you meet up with various friends who will provide missions of their own, and each one will not only have credit rewards for completion but also opportunities for Zerg and Protoss research. In addition, many missions can be completed to unlock new unit types to bolster your choices for future missions.
Credits are spent on technology research when you are back on the Hyperion between missions, and they let you permanently upgrade units. For instance, you may spend the cash to make a Ghost's cloak take no energy or make it so multiple SCVs can build the same structure at once. Zerg and Protoss research accumulates down their respective research trees up to 25 points each, and every five points, you can pick between two research options. For instance, you can choose to increase bunker HP by 150, or you can make it so that bunkers can fit six slots rather than four. These changes spice up things and let you tailor your upgrades to your play style.
There is a lot more plot to go around in the 26-mission campaign mode, and the numerous cut scenes have a lot to do with that. Raynor is scooting around the sector, leading a band of freedom fighters against Mengsk and putting out the fires caused by a brand-new interstellar alien war. While the downfall of Mengsk is his main goal, there is also a nagging choice of what he'll do when he finally corners the Queen of Blades, the current Zerg leader who was Raynor's love before Mengsk left her to die on the planet Char. Numerous side plots pepper the campaign to keep it moving along, complete with a few extremely difficult choices that don't sit along the lines of right and wrong.
The mission design of StarCraft II blows the original out of the water, leaving behind the "build base, amass units, win and repeat" loop in favor of original designs. While building and protecting a base is still important and you will certainly need units to push forward, missions are rarely just about stomping through the enemy's Hatchery or Nexus. Some missions have you killing buildings by day and then protecting your base from zombie-like Zerg swarms by night, while others have you constantly moving your base forward from place to place as a wall of fire consumes the map from left to right. No two missions feel the same, and there isn't a bad mission in the entire roster.
However, if you aren't a fan of the Terran race, the campaign mode may not strike your fancy since it mainly centers on them. Though a handful of missions let you play as the Protoss, the title is quite centered on the exploits of Raynor and his ragtag band of men. Fans who are looking to play a Zerg campaign must wait for the Heart of the Swarm expansion, which is next in the StarCraft II series. To get more proper Protoss action, you will have to wait even longer than that.
Once you have stomped through the campaign mode, you will certainly turn your attentions to the multiplayer mode, which has seen a lot less innovation. Units have been added and changed around, but the base gameplay mechanics of StarCraft II don't differ much from the decade-old mechanics of the original. That's not to say that it is a problem, as those very same mechanics are the ones that have kept the original around for so long, but as the rest of the real-time strategy genre has moved on to squad-based or other mechanics, StarCraft II stands out as being unabashedly old-school in comparison.
To make the game much more newbie-friendly, players can participate in ranked ladders, starting off with the practice ladder and moving up through successive grades. Since only one game account can be made per Battle.net account, players cannot create characters to grief newer ones, as seen in other similar games. As a result, this makes the multiplayer much more approachable to those players who don't know how to read a build order or what a proxy is, and it lets them face off against players with similar skill and experience. The end result is that the multiplayer is fun for all skill levels and less intimidating than the original game.
However, one of the flaws is that the multiplayer portion is so different from the campaign. Certain units, such as the Terran firebat or wraith, which can be used in the campaign mode are not available in multiplayer, and other things that are purchased in the single-player segment, such as stimpacks, must be researched in the tech lab for multiplayer. The flaw is that it makes the two halves feel so different from one another. It also means that certain unit compositions that worked well against others in the campaign mode may not be available in multiplayer, so Terran players will have to relearn a few aspects of their strategies.
The new Battle.net and Real ID integration is in full effect in StarCraft II, letting players maintain a friends list of players in the game and World of Warcraft. Players can form a party of four with their Battle.net friends to participate in cooperative comp stomps and face off against other players. Wins and losses on the ladders are tracked, and simply by playing with friends in ranked matches, your team can be automatically placed and ranked on the 2v2, 3v3 or 4v4 ladders. If you play with the same guys enough, the game automatically creates a team for you, so the whole process feels very organic and simple.
The new game engine brings the franchise into beautiful 3-D for the first time, and it also brings over a slew of special effects and post-processing. The game looks gorgeous, whether you're in the mission and watching Void Rays blast at ground targets with a bright blue beam or trotting around the Hyperion and speaking with crew members. Physics effects come into play when the pieces of an exploding building are scattered, and reflections can be seen in any map that has water. The engine is 3-D, but the gameplay is still largely 2-D, just like the original game. While keeping the high ground still has advantages, such as staying out of sight, the gameplay certainly doesn't involve Vikings flying around and engaging in acrobatic dogfights.
There aren't any radical departures from the original in StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty. Though its gameplay mechanics are certainly dated, they still hold up just as well as they always have. The changes, such as the new Battle.net and the removal of strict linearity of the campaign mode, round out the game quite nicely. The title is simply more of the same, but it's been polished to the point that it would be difficult to make it any more modern without losing the franchise's strong core. It might be off-putting that the campaign only centers around one race, but in spite of that, the game is a surprisingly full experience.
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