A totally original tale of space marines fighting aliens.
The thing about calling a game a “classic” is that you have to measure it against the established standard of the day. Classic games aren’t a reflection of the time they’re created, but rather of how they compare to current games. With that in mind, the reason Starcraft and Starcraft: Brood War aren’t undisputed classics is because developer Blizzard reentered the RTS genre again and gave us Starcraft 2. Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty is one of those rare games that evolves the formula so much that it’s practically a revolution.
The game picks up after the events of Brood War. Jim Raynor leads a revolutionary group against Emperor Megnsk while the Zerg and Protoss remain quiet in their respective territories. The calm is shattered when Kerrigan launches another invasion of the Terran Dominion. The player takes control of Raynor as he tries to protect humanity against the Zerg while still prosecuting his war against Megnsk. There’s a lot of back story here, but Blizzard chose a solid starting point so that newcomers won’t feel too lost. The introduction of a few new characters (I’m a big fan of Tychus) keeps the story from being a retread and provides much needed outside perspective to characters who are absorbed by their own drama. The focus is squarely on the Terrans (they’re they only ones with a solid campaign), though Protoss and Kerrigan play roles as well. Overall, the story is a solid space opera that sacrifices a bit to the needs of the campaign, but remains compelling in its own right.
While still recognizable, nearly every aspect of the campaign has evolved. This is most apparent in the missions where Blizzard figured out how to move beyond the glorified skirmishes of the original Starcraft. Missions now focus on taking advantage of the traits of individual units and they encourage the player to experiment with all the unique abilities. Blizzard has crafted clever set ups (such as a moving wall of fire forcing the player to lift their base) and cleverly includes units too unbalanced for multiplayer. The unit based focus forces some unnecessary plot diversions in the story, but is a solid edition to the gameplay. Outside the missions, the player has access to a ship based hub where they can purchase upgrades, talk to team members, and replay old missions for achievements. The whole package, plus the ridiculous polish, makes for a compelling experience that is worth returning to.
Like the campaign, the multiplayer received a major overhaul. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t touch the basic gameplay. Starcraft’s tight balance between the three races carries over to the sequel with a few new units and stat changes to vary the experience. Instead, the biggest shifts come from match matching. Blizzard established a tiered ranking system based on player success. The player plays five evaluation matches which then places them into the appropriate rank. This system does a couple of neat things. It ensures players are matched against opponents of a similar skill and provides clear feedback on player success. It’s easy to tell how good of a Starcraft 2 player you are based on your ranking. Playing matches also provides experience which goes towards acquiring minor rewards like portraits and unit animations. The only flaw in the multiplayer is that Starcraft 2: Heart of the Swarm is out. Many of the best players have migrated over to the next iteration of the game.
Rounding out the Starcraft 2 experience is a clean, compelling presentation that shows off Blizzard’s technical capacity and movie making. Units are distinctive, colorful, and animate smoothly. The environments move beyond the original Starcraft’s bland grays and browns to more vibrant jungles and ruins. The cutscenes make impressive use of detail and scale to create the feel of a living world. It’s telling that one of the opening cutscenes was the first time I really felt the size and majesty of the battlecruiser. Still, the movies growing grandeur feel discordant with the scale of the gameplay. While cutscenes include massive battles between huge armies, the missions and skirmishes have no more than 400 units on screen with space ships the size of 10 marines. It’s a necessary conceit to the genre, but it’s jolting to switch between the two.
There are a few flaws in Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, but they are small. The incredible amount of polish and creativity in the game makes it compelling and one of the true greats of the genre and gaming in general. For players with even a passing interest in RTS games, this is a must buy.