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Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty Reviewed
Date: Sep 01, 2010
Author: Joel Hruska
Introduction: Graphics & Sound
It's been over 12 years since Starcraft launched, and expectations for the sequel have been quite high*. Well, the highly anticipated sequel, Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty, is here and we've taken the time to play through the campaign, test various difficulty levels, and tackle both human and the computer's AI in multiplayer. The single-player experience in SC2 is quite a bit different than the multiplayer game; we'll examine the two separately.

First, a note on DRM. Starcraft 2 uses a DRM system similar to Steamworks—an online connection is required when installing the game for the first time, but the game can be played offline at any point thereafter.If it's unable to find an Internet connection, the game will notify you that online play and achievements will not be available.

Graphics and Sound

One of the most important aspects of building a sequel is maintaining the ever-elusive 'look-and-feel' of the previous title without veering into banality or losing touch with the elements of the game players liked most, in the name of reinventing everything. Starcraft 2 nails this balance perfectly; if you've played the original game, you'll feel right at home with the game's UI and graphical style.

That's a Terran Command Center from SC1 on the left and SC2's version on the right.

It's not just the game's graphics that recall Starcraft I—many of the sound effects were designed with the original firmly in mind. There's a subtle psychological effect here that's been employed by sequels; your eyes and ears are often reminded that you are playing Starcraft, with all the positive associations that thought engenders. Hearing the boom of a siege tank's shock cannon immediately followed by the sound of its targets going *splat* never, ever, gets old.

The game's voice acting similarly mixes the new with the familiar. While the voice actors aren't identical, Blizzard kept the attitude and intonation of most units intact:  SCV drivers still sound like good ol' boys, the Siege Tank driver really needs to take a few valium, and the Medivac operator recalls the cool, collected voice of Starcraft's dropship. Robert Clotworthy and James Harper return to voice Jim Raynor and Arcturus Mengsk, respectively, but the new actors drop right into place. Tricia Helfer replaces Glynnis Talken as Sarah Kerrigan and does a fine job, even if fans would've preferred to keep the original Sarah.

Ghost of the past:  Sarah Kerrigan, before her infestation (~2499)

Also of note is the game's soundtrack. The original Starcraft evoked a Firefly-like mixture of high-tech and Old West before the latter was even a gleam in Joss Whedon's eye. In SC2, the game's unrepentant rockabilly soundtrack is provided courtesy of a jukebox mounted in the Hyperion's cantina, where covers include: Sweet Home Alabama, Dim Lights, Thick Smoke, and Loud Loud Music, Suspicious Minds, and our own favorite: A Zerg, Shotgun, and You.

Evaluated strictly on its own terms, the game engine is both flexible and gorgeous. Detail levels scale well and can be customized; players opting for the latter will find that the game helpfully notes whether each feature stresses the CPU or the GPU. The screenshots below detail some of the various detail options and their effect on visual quality.

First, we're going to demonstrate various detail levels while holding texture quality constant at Ultra quality.

Low Detail Medium Detail
High DetailUltra Detail
From the upper left—Low, Medium, High, and Ultra Detail
In low detail mode, shadows are reduced to blobs, most terrain differentiation is gone, and there are no miscellaneous decorative doodads or realistic touches—the trees, for example, don't sway. The color palette is also distinctly different. The biggest jump by far is from Low to Medium; this step up changes the entire look of the game. From Medium to Ultra, the changes are subtle—look at the trees and ground to see how shadow rendering changes and softens as we increase graphical detail. Ground details are slightly clearer in Ultra mode, though we had to zoom in several times before we could reliably spot the differences.

In the next set of images we hold game detail level steady (at low), and change texture quality. The order, starting from the top left, is low, medium, high, ultra.

Low Detail Medium Detail
High Detail Ultra Detail
From upper left--low, medium, high, ultra.

Examining our sensor tower, we again note a sizable difference between Low and Medium quality. Low detail looks not unusual for a game written in 2003, while Medium sharpens things considerably. Medium to High sharpens the textures further, while High to Ultra snaps them nearly picture-perfect. Given the fact that SC2 recommends a video card with at least 512MB for High and 1GB for Ultra, the Ultra textures are probably uncompressed.

Keep in mind that a number of other detail options can be customized to suit your preference and you've got an idea of how easy it is to fine-tune Starcraft to run well on your system. Gamers with slower systems should note that the single-player campaign is actually tougher on the video card than multiplayer is--maps in single-player are considerably more detailed. Congratulations to Blizzard on building a well-scaled engine that should allow a wide range of computers to play the game.
Starcraft 2: Single-Player
What happened to Kerrigan wasn't your fault.
Which part? Where she got left behind, or where she murdered eight billion people?
—Jim Raynor, to Matt Horner

By the beginning of Wings of Liberty, Raynor is living next door to alcoholism and one block over from despair.

James Raynor was one of the main characters of Starcraft and he's the central character of Starcraft 2. In the original game, Raynor started out as a peacekeeper on a colony world and was forced to ally himself with a renegade organization led by Arcturus Mengsk to rescue his people from the onslaught of the Zerg. Mengsk turned out to be what you might call a bad seed; the would-be liberator deliberately exposed the world of Tarsonis to the Zerg knowing it meant the death of several billion people. Not satisfied with such a general act of douchebaggery, Mengsk also deliberately abandoned his partner, Sarah Kerrigan—a psychic Terran operative, and a woman with whom Raynor was falling in love.

Later in the game, Raynor—having begun to come to terms with the fact that Kerrigan was dead—discovers that she isn't. The Zerg Overmind, having found Kerrigan on Tarsonis and recognized her latent potential, has infested her and turned her into the (literal) Queen Bitch of the Universe. The rest of Starcraft and its expansion, Brood War, boils down to The Galaxy vs. Sarah Kerrigan (aka the Queen of Blades). Kerrigan wins.

Infested Kerrigan. She doesn't cook or clean, but she can melt your flesh off at 10 yards if it suits her fancy

SC2 picks up four years after Brood War but from the look of Raynor, you might think it'd been a decade. When Raynor abandoned Mengsk in the wake of Kerrigan's death, he swore to expose the tyrant for who and what he was, but four years later, his success at doing so has been minimal. The game kicks off with Raynor returning to Mar Sara to investigate suspicious Dominion activity and ends on the volcanic Zerg homeworld of Char. In between, you'll dodge natural disasters, steal cargo, capture military prototypes, and experience the Protoss equivalent of a mind meld*. This last is a nifty plot twist that lets players experience the game from the Protoss' perspective, with enough missions to get a feel for the race.

In between missions, players are free to wander the Hyperion, where most of the game takes place. While access is initially restricted to certain areas, the game eventually opens multiple distinct areas on the ship, each with its own NPCs and functions. As the campaign progresses, you'll be offered the chance to research Protoss and Zerg technology, upgrade units, and hire mercenary bands to improve your chances in the field.

The RTS genre has always been plagued by the difficulty of designing individual missions that feel unique when each game follows exactly the same path of building up a base, managing resources, and building enough of Unit X to succeed at Mission Y. SC2 tackles this from several angles, including unique mission challenges, unit flexibility, and a wide variety of mission types. Because the single-player campaign is entirely separate from the multiplayer game, there are a number of single-player units to experiment with. This also allows every unit from the original game to return, which makes for much preferred continuity.

Hydralisks: Not friendly, not domesticated, and definitely not vegetarian.

If you've got nostalgic memories of hosing Zerg with firebats, you can opt to buy their upgrades back on the Hyperion, or alternately use the Factory-built Hellion ATVs which trade staying power and bunker capability for speed, base damage, and maneuverability. (Fully upgraded, the Mercenary Firebats can take a massive pounding when backed up by Medics - Ed).

Available difficulty levels include Casual, Normal, Hard, and Brutal; difficulty level can be adjusted on a mission-by-mission basis. We started on Normal, just to get the hang of things, then graduated to Hard for the remainder of the game. If you enjoy near-frantic pacing, some of the last stand style missions are great fun to play on higher difficulty. All of the missions include achievements, all of which are split between the Normal and Hard difficulty levels.

*Pro Tip: Game devs and sci-fi writers, please stop using the word 'universe' as a substitute for 'galaxy.' Describing impending doom in ludicrous terms is annoying; it's the functional equivalent of claiming that a hurricane or tsunami threaten to destroy the entire planet. Describing the Xel'Naga / Reapers / Goa'uld / Whatever as threatening the universe doesn't build tension, it just makes the speaker sound overwrought and uninformed.
Starcraft 2: Multiplayer, Conclusion
The one arguable flaw in Starcraft 2's single player game is that it doesn't do much to prepare you for multiplayer. While you'll have a solid grasp on the basics of base construction and defense after completing the campaign, playing against humans is very different than playing against the computer AI. This is exacerbated by the unit and research differences between the two modes. Many of the units that returned from Starcraft in the single-player game—Firebats, Medics, Wraiths, and Goliaths, to name a few—are unavailable in multiplayer.

Pro Tip:  Never, ever trust a Zerg player who tells you he's new after his partner DCs.

This necessitates a change of tactics, both compared to the single-player game and the original Starcraft. Team Blizzard has taken multiple steps to ease the transition—the game provides a variety of "Challenge" scenarios, many of which are aimed at teaching players how to effectively micromanage units as well as identify the proper response to a variety of attacks.

Once online, gamers are offered 50 Practice League missions with special novice maps and a slower game speed. The practice league can be skipped, but the matches are an excellent way to become acquainted with all three races before venturing into the big leagues.

Balance And Differences

Starcraft's great contribution to RTS gaming wasn't just its story but its faction design. Unlike Warcraft 2, where the differences between Horde and Alliance boiled down to different sprites, animations, and spells, the Protoss, Zerg, and Terrans played distinctly differently. Starcraft 2 retains and builds on this core principle; the refinements and changes to the three races manage to significantly alter gameplay without contradicting the original game's design. Terrans are still excellent defenders with moderate unit costs, Protoss units are more expensive but generally more powerful, and the Zerg still favor fast strikes and cheap units.

One of the significant changes to SC2 as compared to SC is the availability / effectiveness of ground-to-air units. Terran Marines are still the earliest and cheapest A2G unit and Protoss have early access to the Stalker (Dragoon 2.0), but Hydralisks have moved deeper in the tech tree and Goliaths are gone. This encourages Terran and Zerg players to build more air units to counter air attacks rather than relying on ground units—the Terran Thor is highly effective as a G2A unit in certain circumstances, but is too expensive and slow to fill the Goliath's shoes as a walking missile turret.

The left-hand image is of a Zerg base in the early stages of construction and fully zoomed in; the Hatchery in that image is mutating into a lair. On the right, a group of enemy Mutalisks are destroying my base--a fully mutated Zerg Lair is to the lower-left.

Hydralisks, meanwhile, are still an important component of Zerg strategy, but aren't the automatic go-to unit that they were in SC:BW. They suffer a significant movement penalty when not on creep and will be cut to shreds when facing an entrenched Siege Tank or Marine/Marauder combo, particularly if the latter is backed by a Medivac or two.

The best way to get into SC2's multiplayer is to dive in headfirst, possibly with a handy online guide open. The practice games are a great way to get experience and beginning strategies are easy to learn and effective.

Protoss Void Rays are a new addition to the game; their beam weapons take several seconds to charge to full power. Once charged, a full group of VR's can cut through enemies in seconds.

As for whether or not multiplayer is balanced, it's easier to flip the question around and ask: "Does game balance need tweaking?" The answer here is undoubtedly yes—Blizzard has already listed changes it will introduce in the first major game patch, due in September. That said, game balance is pretty darn good right now; we've had a lot of fun in multiplayer against all three races and on multiple maps.


Jim Raynor, the original Big Damn Hero

Starcraft 2 is a great game whether you play the campaign, play online, or both. The storyline is compelling, the missions are interesting, and Blizzard has taken pains to gradually introduce multiplayer newbies to online games without smashing them in the face with an iron pan of difficulty. Our fears that the single-player campaign might be too short were groundless; the company's announcement that the sequels—Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void—will be priced as expansion packs rather than stand-alone titles makes Starcraft 2 all the more compelling.

If you disliked the original Starcraft or don't play RTS games, SC2 won't change your mind on either point. Everyone else will have a blast. 

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