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At long last Blizzard unleashes Starcraft 2 to a baying crowd, but has it been worth the wait...
1998: US president Bill Clinton denies having sexual relations with Monica Lewisnki; France wins the World Cup Finals and Blizzard unleashes an epic tale of intergalactic tensions with the release of Starcraft.
Yes, it’s been 12 long years since Starcraft first emerged, surely marking the longest ever period for a sequel to arrive in the history of video games (unless Shenmue 3 ever materialises). With only the murmur of Starcraft: Ghost during the wait, which slipped into the shadows as effectively as its central character, it’s certainly been a long time to hang tight for fans of the series. But now the wait is at long last over.
Regardless of whether you’re an RTS fan or not, the long awaited release of Starcraft 2 has at least provided the type of blockbuster release that the PC has been crying out for in recent years. Excluding World of Warcraft, it seems it’s been nearly that long since the PC last had such a blockbuster release. So for that at least we’re very grateful.
After EA LA’s disastrous attempt to meddle with the format for Command & Conquer 4 earlier in the year, Starcraft 2 comes as a refreshingly traditional experience. Blizzard hasn’t been tempted to change the core gameplay, instead opting to evolve the structure of the game and focus on the bigger picture. So resource collecting and base building are still, thankfully, core pillars of the Starcraft experience. Typically we’d bemoan such a strict adherence to the rulebook, and there is a slight criticism that Starcraft 2 does stick so closely to the classic gameplay experience, but when it’s as thoroughly accomplished as this that’s only a small, largely negligible, complaint.
Offering 29 single-player missions, Starcraft 2 exclusively focuses on the antics of Raynor and the Terrans as he attempts to lead a revolution against the tyrannical forces of Dominion and secure an ancient Xel’naga artifact. Starcraft fans will immediately know what’s what, however newcomers (and those with poor memories) are brought nicely up to speed with preceding events during the installation process.
From the onset the single-player mode is an example of Blizzard’s effortless skill and craft in the genre. Missions are offered in a non-linear manner which is a novel touch for the genre and provides a pleasant sense of choice to the proceedings. Throughout the events Blizzard easily demonstrates how to stage and design missions so the overall experience doesn’t become bogged down in repetition, resorting to the same techniques to win conflicts that ultimately lack a sense of purpose in the grand scheme of things.
All too often RTS titles can become highly clinical, almost sterile experiences. Starcraft 2 is a stunning example of how to do it correctly, injecting charisma and narrative to create an experience that is far from lifeless. Variety in terms of mission design and objectives is central to the experience: in one mission you can be holding the base and defending fiercely for an evacuation, while during the next you’ll attempt to steal a relic from under the noses of the Protoss while they’re engaging in battle with the Zerg. Objectives often change mid-mission, while side missions such as one which tasks you to take control of one singular character throughout the mission, changes the dynamic considerably. It’s this variety and change in tempo that keeps Starcraft 2 rewarding and almost impossible to put down.
Blizzard has staged the order of the missions superbly, which encourages exploration of new options and tactics as they become available along with introducing them along a satisfying gradient so both newcomers and veterans will feel at home as the game develops. It’s the flow of the single-player and the sense of variety that really marks Starcraft 2 as the defining game of its genre.
Cut-scenes bolster each sequence and embellish the mode beyond the genre’s typically low concerns over production and narrative, along with the option to interact with characters and develop the game beyond the battlefield. Relatively early on in the campaign you’ll jump aboard the Hyperion which adds a range of further options. With a Cantina to source and gossip with mercenaries (and play a retro arcade shooter), an Armoury to upgrade units, a Laboratory to research and the Bridge to select missions, Starcraft 2 provides the type of experience the RTS genre has been crying out for. As a result it’s far removed from the repetitive, clinical experiences that typically characterise the genre.
Despite the fact Blizzard decided to split Starcraft 2 into three titles and as such Wings of Liberty only focuses on the Terran campaign, there should be no disillusions where the game's content is concerned. The single-player campaign is still a hefty experience that will last, but naturally Starcraft 2 isn’t just about the single-player. In this respect, Wings of Liberty provides one of the most enduring and enjoyable multiplayer games around; a game that is undoubtedly built to last.
An upgraded Battle.net provides the framework for multiplayer in Starcraft 2 with new ranking and matchmaking options along with enough Achievements to stock an almighty trophy cabinet. Its online integration and lack of LAN options are likely to irritate, but that shouldn’t deter from what is a finely tuned and thoroughly enjoyable multiplayer experience. Once again there’s a considerable difference between the three factions, which doesn’t come at the cost of balance. The ability to play 50 ‘friendly’ matches before embarking on your online career is a pleasant touch for newcomers, and certainly likely to help ease the stiff learning curve that comes when playing against Starcraft vets. But even when you’ve faced humiliating defeat after defeat, Starcraft 2 still manages to urge you on and keep you playing.
In addition to this, Challenges and Skirmish round off the rather exhaustive package. The die hard Starcraft fanatic will also take great pleasure in the Map Editor that comes with the game, which provides the scope for vast creative opportunities beyond merely making maps.
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