Our lengthy testing reveals that StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a terrific game, but it's ideal only for a very specific type of gamer.
You could say our StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty review is a little overdue, but a game such as this takes a lot of time to feel out - especially its multiplayer component. We also had the opportunity to have long-time industry vet Jeff Green (whose lengthy resume includes a stint as the editor-in-chief of the influential PC gaming mag Computer Gaming World) write the review for us. We gave Jeff plenty of time to chew on Blizzard's latest effort, and what he found was that while StarCraft II is a terrific game, it's really only ideal for a very specific type of gamer.
Like other lower life-forms, I like bright and shiny objects. And in the world of PC gaming, no one these days makes brighter and shinier objects than Blizzard Entertainment. So it’s been easy enough to get caught up in the pre- and post-release hype of StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, the hugely anticipated sequel to the best real-time strategy game ever made. Waiting 12 years for a sequel to such a great game will do that to a guy - even one who calls himself a critic and thus should be above such craven fanboyism.
And on the surface, what’s not to love here? As expected, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is a slick, first-rate, blockbuster production from Blizzard, with all its usual whistles, like a stirring, dramatic score and beautifully done cinematics - as good as anything in video-gaming. A satisfying single-player campaign (the first of a trilogy) and a smartly designed revamp of its phenomenally popular multiplayer game are complemented by all sorts of goodies - skirmish mode, co-op games, achievements, challenges and more - that will keep you busy and happy for weeks, months or longer.
But StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, despite its 'big tent' approach and broad attempt at accessibility, is not for everyone. First, it’s a strangely conservative game, stuck in time gameplay-wise, a prisoner of its long, successful legacy and the expectations placed on it by its fanatic competitive multiplayer base, who might have gone in open revolt if the developers had radically reinvented the game. But in the 12 years since the first game, the real-time strategy genre - what’s left of it, anyway - has moved so far past StarCraft’s ancient resource collection/base-building model that the gameplay here almost feels... quaint. In addition, despite a seriously valiant effort - as good as I’ve ever seen - to open up the multiplayer game to new and less-skilled players, you’re still going to have to get pretty damn good to survive StarCraft II’s brutal online community, and unless you have tons of time and patience, it may be too much for those not already battle-scarred from the first game.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’s single-player campaign, divided over 29 missions, is set 4 years after the events in 1998’s Brood War expansion and is told entirely from the point of view of the Terran race, with rebel leader Jim Raynor now taking centre stage as the story’s protagonist (the Zerg and Protoss will each get their time in the spotlight in the upcoming Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void expansions, respectively). Whether you think it’s a 'rip-off' or not that you’re only getting the first part of the story here is up to you. Me, I’m glad they decided to take their time this way in the single-player game, as it allowed Blizzard to dive deep with the Terran on every front - gameplay, storytelling, interface, cinematics - providing a much richer experience than had they tried to cram all three races into one game, as in the first StarCraft. (Multiplayer is another matter, which I’ll get to shortly.)
While StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty's fundamentals remain startlingly unchanged (the first time I saw my drones hovering around the blue minerals and green Vespene gas, 12 years after I first started collecting them, it was dread at first site), the missions themselves are varied and creative in their challenges. One mission, 'The Devil’s Playground', floods the lower areas of the map - not coincidentally, where all the resource nodes are located - with lava every 5 minutes, killing any units you fail to evacuate. The 'Outbreak' mission is divided into day-and-night cycles and overruns your base with ghoulish, infested Terran every time the sun sets. What could have been gimmicky in lesser hands is well executed here, as the fundamentals of economic efficiency and strategic build orders still make the difference between success and failure.
In between StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty missions you now spend time on Raynor’s battlecruiser, the Hyperion, talking to characters and upgrading and researching new technologies. This sounded like a bad idea to me when first announced a few years ago (just let me play my strategy game, please), but Blizzard has pulled it off and made a better game for it. I love the way it broadens and opens up the game. Getting to choose how to upgrade units and structures and which new technologies to explore has continuous gameplay ramifications as you proceed through the campaign. Researching Shrike Turrets in the Hyperion’s lab, for example, adds powerful turrets to your bunkers to help defend your base even when the bunkers are unmanned. Similarly, you can use discovered Protoss technology to create automated refineries, eliminating the need for drones. (All of these special abilities, by the way, are limited to the single-player game.) The campaign structure itself is nonlinear in places, allowing you to choose not only which mission to pursue at certain times but also, in a few crucial points, which side of a moral or political issue to take - with different upgrade rewards given depending on your choice.
Difficulty-wise, I played the campaign on 'Normal' mode and had some trouble in places, but I’m not that good. StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty's 'Casual' mode is just ridiculously easy - this is good, I guess, for folks either at the lower end of the evolutionary ladder or who just can’t handle the genre but want to experience the story.
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty’s multiplayer has, of course, taken on a life of its own for over a decade, and there are players so good now that they might as well be Protoss themselves. Clicking 8 billion times a minute, they sure don’t look human. It’s so intimidating that more casual civilians like me abandoned it long ago (a phenomenon that also affected other long running titles like Counter-Strike). So Blizzard gets a lot of credit here for going way out of its way to provide tons of offline tools to help even the most unskilled of noobs get prepared for StarCraft II’s multiplayer. Skrimish mode against the AI comes with a set of tools, such as replays and build order charts, so you can study what you did wrong and what the AI did right. A great set of Challenge-mode missions offer teaching aids against specific multiplayer strategies, such as defending against Zerg rushes. And once you venture into multiplayer itself, you get 50 practice matches against other unranked opponents (usually as bad as you) before you have to join the mandatory ladder system on Blizzard’s revamped Battle.net service, which so far seems to be doing a good job of matching opponents at similar skill levels.
Still, StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty multiplayer is not an easy affair. That player base that spent 12 years honing their skills is still out there, and the game is close enough to the original that all that fast-paced multitasking they now have built into their DNA is going to smack you upside the head if you don’t catch on quick. Further, because this first game of the StarCraft II trilogy only focuses on Terran in the single-player, giving every single new Terran unit its proper due, it’s practically impossible for new players to fully understand how the Zerg and Protoss work, except by humiliating trial and error. As such, I have yet to feel comfortable even bringing one of the other races into a multiplayer match, and I know I’m not alone. It’s an odd feeling to play a multiplayer game with three distinct races and yet only feel like I can play one of them because of a lack of information. Experienced players may laugh this objection off, and that’s okay. But if there’s one downside to Blizzard’s decision to make a trilogy of StarCraft II, it’s this: You’ve made two-thirds of the game impenetrable to those trying to learn it.
Given that, I do think that reviewing StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty is, honestly, a bit like reviewing The Fellowship of the Ring as representative of The Lord of the Rings as a whole: We’re just at Part One here. We’re not going to know the sum total of how successful StarCraft II is until the Zerg and Protoss expansions are out.