Starcraft 2: Wings of Liberty Reviewed

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.

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