It is definitely about time - Starcraft II has been in various stages of development for a better part of a decade and Blizzard has clearly taken their sweet time crafting and polishing it up for release. Along the way, the story got split into three separate games and what we have available now is the first part of a trilogy - Starcra 22c4 ft II: Wings of Liberty.
In case you have lived in a cave for the past 15 years or haven't been playing PC games for long enough, original Starcraft is a classic real time strategy game from 1998 that is still being played actively and has sold nearly 10 million copies since launch - with half of those copies sold in South Korea where the multiplayer part of the game is something of a national sport. While it wasn't the first RTS game on the market and didn't really add any major new innovations, it became a classic by taking a proven formula and implementing it with great care, polishing and balancing it all to perfection. Proper online multiplayer support through Battle.Net - an online matchmaking system - also helped as many RTS games back in the day were limited to LAN play.
With Starcraft II, Blizzard has taken a simple approach - instead of wasting time trying to "innovate" a proven concept into something new, Blizzard has simply taken Starcraft, continued the storyline with a new chapter that builds on the existing deep backstory and moved the existing tried-and-true Starcraft gameplay to a modern game engine. If you expected a whole new generation of RTS gameplay, SC2 ain't it. The story is presented with suitably high production values and everything is polished and balanced carefully but deep down under all that chrome, Starcraft II gameplay is decisively old school. It is still all about Terran vs. Zerg vs. Protoss on small maps with simple resource gathering, rock-paper-scissors unit mechanics and mouse clicks - lots and lots of mouse clicks. How's your APM?
What is remarkable about this trailer is the fact that its mostly composed of in-engine material. While there are some pre-rendered cinematics in the mix, the vast majority of story sequences are rendered in real time and at the highest settings they look incredible. Pretty visuals come with a price - the hardware required for the Ultra visual settings is fairly beefy, at least for a Blizzard title.
James Raynor, Rebel
Story of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty is very much a continuation of the story of James "Jim" Raynor, a Terran hero of the Brood War. The sequel is set four years after the events of Starcraft: Brood War expansion of the original game and while it is useful to know your Starcraft lore to get every nuance out of the storyline, it is strictly not needed - new players are brought up to speed during the installation.
Since the events of Brood War, Queen of Blades and her Zerg have withdrawn for reasons unknown and with Zerg no longer a threat, Protoss haven't seen the need to meddle with the affairs of humans - they have their own internal issues to work out. So Terran Emperor Arcturus Mengsk has had time to rebuild and has grown to be a nice little tyrant. One of his hobbies has been to discredit Jim Raynor and as the story kicks off, Raynor is leading a rag tag revolutionary group, Raynor's Raiders, to liberate his home colony of Mar Sara. One man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, so things kick off with some Terran vs. Terran brawls as Raynor's Raiders take on local Mengsk forces.
Kill Zerg - Again
Unsurprisingly, to get a solid three-way fight going on, Zerg make a flashy return, prompting Protoss to wake up as well. As Zerg invade multiple worlds around the known space, Terran forces are withdrawn to defend core worlds and many colones are left to fend for themselves - cue Raynor's Raiders to the rescue.
Without spoiling too much of the storyline, Raynor and his buddies end up on many worlds, fighting Zerg, Protoss and Mengsk-loyal Terran forces while things build up towards the inevitable confrontation with Queen of Blades. While you play as Terran for most of the campaign, there is also a short side story that involves playing as Protoss for a few missions. Zerg, on the other hand, is playable only in skirmish and multiplayer matches. This is as expected - Zerg will get their campaign in Starcraft II: Heart of the Swarm (expected in late 2011) while Protoss campaign is coming later in Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void.
The single player campaign is somewhat linear in that it expects you to play certain "blocks" of missions before the story proceeds to the next stage, yet it does let you vary the order of missions and in several cases you are given a choice between two potential actions that determine which of the two possible missions you get to play. When you add the achievements on top of that, there are plenty of reasons to play the campaign at least twice. In total there are 29 campaign missions and while it is possible to dash through to the final mission in less than eight hours (and skip some of them), as long as you set the difficulty level appropriately and follow every bit of the story between missions, the campaign will keep you entertained for a lot longer - 15-20 hours at least.
The campaign is exceptional in that it stays fun and interesting all the way - missions are diverse and entertaining, with the difficulty levels perfectly balanced no matter what your skill level is. Casual is there for RTS newbies who need to learn the ropes and Normal is easy enough to let everyone experience the whole story without too much effort. Hard is exceptionally well tuned to provide a constant but fair challenge throughout the campaign and Brutal is... well... brutal, offering to take on all pro Starcraft veterans and manages to do so without ever being unfair or impossible.
The story has drawn some criticism for being one big cliche with stereotypical, one-dimensional supporting characters. I personally see no issue with it. Heck, it is so obviously and carefully crafted as one big popcorn movie storyline that it feels like it was done on purpose, sort of an in-joke to get that action B-movie feel of a story with fun one-liners, predictable yet flashy events providing just enough glue between the meaty action sequences - the missions - to hold it all together. It is also hard to judge the story when all we have is one third of it. Major parts of Wings of Liberty feel like careful setup for future events and the conclusion can be described as "okay, so what now?"-style partial cliffhanger. Can't wait for Heart of the Swarm.
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