A ground-based science fiction/fantasy real time strategy (RTS) video game, the Wings of Liberty is a pure joy to play. The game’s graphics are astounding, the environments are gorgeous, the cut scenes are tight and the user interface is as intuitive as it gets. Players create a Battle.net account & a character profile. After which four single-player game modes and a killer Player versus Player system allow for as mellow or as chaotic a gaming experience as you like.
Starcraft II features offline missions that can be played either one-off or in an ongoing campaign, as well as an enormous but scalable online multiplayer mode. In between there are two PvP practice modes where players can comfortably advance their game from single-player to multiplayer by privately honing their skills against A.I.
Starcraft II’s single-player campaign storyline revolves around a war between three galactic species: the Terrans (essentially recognizable humans), the Protoss (humanoid spiritual mech warriors) and the Zerg (think alien bugs from the movie ‘Starship Troopers’). In Wings of Liberty players control the Terrans while they complete a set of 23 core missions, plus another 6 either/or plot branch missions.
Single player SC2 is easy to learn but a real challenge to master. There are tutorial missions available so players can comfortably hit the ground running, plus four different difficulty modes: Casual, Normal, Hard & Brutal. In Casual Mode players will get an introductory experience with simpler and easier gameplay, while hard cores will relish the blindingly intense pace of Brutal Mode.
Brutal Mode aside, there is also a sizable library of World of Warcraft-style achievements available that players can chase, both in campaign mode (on Casual, Normal and Hard Mode settings) as well as in PvP mode. The campaign is broken down into seven mission trees, three of them conclude with having the player choose one of two campaign plot paths. The campaign’s closing mission tree has a final plot branch that is a point of no return. Once this mission is completed the entire final mission tree is no longer available for replay, precluding the player from earning every possible mission achievement within a single campaign.
However, players can go back within their completed campaign and replay any of the missions prior to the final mission tree in Casual, Normal or Hard modes to gain achievements they may have missed. In this scenario the character will continue to be awarded mission completion monies, but those monies won’t accrue toward upgrades.
Experiencing all of the game’s campaign content (especially tech upgrades) requires players to complete additional campaigns with different plot selections. I am unsure if achievements from multiple campaigns combine for a profile’s overall achievement history. I would hazard a guess that they do, but the only way to find out is to try it. I will do so and post the results here.
As of this writing I have completed the campaign in Casual Mode, plus every mission up to the final tree in Normal Mode, to learn the build orders and familiarize myself with the mechanics. After approximately 60 hours of gameplay I’ve amassed a mere 700 of the 1590 possible campaign achievement points. Make no mistake – this game is huge.
Eventually I’ll replay the campaign in Hard mode to finish as many of the remaining achievements as I can. This should also train me for the speed of the PvP game – which is fast. I’ve dabbled in PvP, but lack the chops for it just yet. Metaphorically speaking… I suck.
So a really nice feature in Single-Player mode is Starcraft II’s PvP weaning system, which is set up to educate both newbs and advanced players alike on the game’s many multiplayer nuances. There is a “Versus A.I.” mode where one can practice PvPcraft against the computer. There is also a “Challenges” mode that prepares players for online PvP against other real life players. Challenges provides a series of missions aimed at honing skills for playing all three species, as well as learning the basics of build orders. This is especially helpful if playing Protoss or Zerg in PvP is to one’s liking since Terrans are really the only species a player is exposed to in single player campaign mode.
Like the original Starcraft, where SC2 Wings of Liberty really cranks up the volume is in multiplayer mode. Terran, Protoss and Zerg are all playable in Player versus Player. Each employs its own indigenous tech trees, troops, facilities, weapons, defenses, vehicles, buffs, debuffs, builds and movement capabilities that may require some quality time to master.
As with most PvP titles Starcraft II has ladders featuring 1v1, 2v2, 3v3, 4v4 and Free For All modes against other players. The game also features a Co-op mission mode as well as an unranked Custom Games mode where custom settings and maps can be used. What really shines is Wings of Liberty’s use of Blizzard’s Battle.net to track and publish a player’s match history and PvP achievements. Akin to World of Warcraft’s random dungeon finder, Battle.net’s Automatic MatchMaking system randomly places players or teams in matches with others of similar skill. So we casual players no longer have to worry about getting our asses handed to us by someone who does nothing but play the game.
But the PvP piece de’ resistance is Starcraft II’s League stucture that players can participate in. A league is made up of 6 Divisions ranging from Practice (for newbs) up to Diamond (most advanced.) Each division has its own skill range. Players advance through the divisions as they improve, ensuring they play matches against similarly-skilled players.
Beyond the Diamond division are the Professional Leagues. And when I say professional, I am talking about REAL pros. As in rock stars who are paid to travel and play, have big dollar sponsorship and endorsement deals, and compete against other professional players in public arenas. You know… live venues where fans purchase tickets, buy hot dogs & beverages, nestle into their stadium seats and root for their favorite player or team.
I shit you not. Starcraft video game tournaments are a nationally televised “e-sport” in South Korea that pulls more than a 30-share of the country’s TNS ratings (their version of our Neilsens.) That’s roughly the equivalent of our most recent MLB World Series, NBA Finals and NHL Stanley Cup Finals… combined.
Oh – I almost forgot to mention. As if the game wasn’t already expansive enough, Starcraft II (like the original Starcraft) has an editor that enables players to terraform their own custom PvP maps. These custom creations may then be uploaded to Battle.net and downloaded by other players to destroy.
Blizzard didn’t miss much.
STARCRAFT vs STARCRAFT II
I’ve been playing the Starcraft franchise since it was originally released in March of 1998, and was both a closed and open beta tester for Starcraft II. Starcraft II Wings of Liberty’s one-off and campaign missions, as well as online PvP, were modeled closely after Starcraft and its Brood War expansion set. So if you’re familiar with the original Starcraft, then Starcraft II will be a snap to pick up as the gameplay is nearly identical.
In the original Starcraft, each species has its own playable campaign set against the opposing two species. Players can play any one of the species in campaign mode. Conversely, Starcraft II Wings of Liberty only allows the Terrans to be played in campaign mode with a few Protoss and Zerg missions thrown in for PvP familiarization.
The reason Starcraft II’s campaign mode is limited to playing the Terran species is because its scope is so huge. For Wings of Liberty to have had all three species playable in a campaign setting would have required at least an additional one or two compressed DVDs worth of content. To illustrate the difference in Starcraft & Starcraft II’s storage requirements… the Wings of Liberty was shoehorned into a full DVD, while the Collector’s Edition ships with a small flash drive that has both the original Starcraft and its Brood War expansion set preloaded onto it.
The extra development time needed to render all three species as immediately playable in Starcraft II’s campaign setting would have likely pushed the game’s release date back another few years. So as one might guess, Blizzard is scheduling future Xpack releases to address this. Each release is slated to feature a full campaign for one of the other species. As much as I disdain forking out additional monies for expansion packs, in this case (because of Starcraft II’s scope & volume) I believe it was a smart call by Blizzard.
Having beta’d Starcraft II on and off for 6 months I had my doubts whether it would be playable. As with most betas, server stressing was a primary objective, and all too many times during gameplay would the tests absolutely kill my framerate. But when the servers weren’t being load tested I saw a great game that played just like the original I came to know and love, and the graphics were stunning. So I pre-ordered the Collector’s Edition from Best Buy online, picked it up in-store and haven’t looked back.
If you are in search of a spectacular Sci-Fi/Fantasy RTS video game to roll with for many years to come, search no further than the Starcraft franchise. It’s been around for more than a decade now, and with the record-setting success of this latest Wings of Liberty incarnation (the game even had its own airliner) isn’t going away anytime soon. Starcraft II has a ton of game play for every skill level… and just plain rocks!
NOTE: Should Blizzard ever decide to expand this game into a separate World of Starcraft MMORPG like they did with their original Warcraft series, my free time would be completely laid waste.