Blizzard Crafts a Gaming Star with StarCraft Sequel
By Jim Bray
Here's a Blizzard that's definitely no snow job: StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, the great new computer game that's been preventing me from getting much work done for the past few weeks.
"In the distant future, in the darkest reaches of space, the ghosts of the past whisper your name. You are Jim Raynor, a marshal-turned-rebel on a vigilante crusade to bring down the Dominion and its nefarious leader, Arcturus Mengsk. Haunted by betrayal and remorse, some believe you may have given up the fight. But you have promises to keep…and a need for vengeance that’s long overdue."
That's how Blizzard Entertainment starts its pitch for StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty and it pretty much sums up where you start in the game. It's several years after the time of the original StarCraft – a game I loved as well – and the universe is definitely not unfolding the way it should.
StarCraft II joins a long line of terrific real time strategy games Blizzard has unleashed over the past couple of decades. You may be familiar with their WarCraft series, from which the World of WarCraft has apparently spawned a huge online community of gamers. WarCraft is fantasy-based – last time I dropped by the fighting was between orcs and humans – whereas StarCraft is basically the same game, but in a science fiction setting.
I haven't entered the online World of WarCraft; I avoid online gaming as much as possible because those folks are serious gamers and I usually get blasted to smithereens the instant I appear. The only thing I can do is cower in a corner and hope the other players' mothers call them for supper. It's quite depressing.
StarCraft, the original, was a great game that, according to Digital Trends, has even spawned a professional league and televised competitions in Korea. As similar as it was in concept and gameplay to WarCraft, the sci-fi setting and environment were neat and you got to play with a whole bunch of nifty gadgetry.
For what more could anyone ask?
Then there are the Zerg. More than the Protoss – the other alien race in the games – the Zerg are a delicious opponent because they and their civilization simply gross me out. They're disgusting beasts; one of the things I liked about the game is how you must at times pursue Zerg doggedly – er, Zerggedly – sometimes just offing them because they threaten your side (well, and because they're Zerg) and sometimes to rescue (or at least bring some peace to) humans the Zerg have infested.
The Protoss are kind of neat, more technological and less foul than the Zerg – but regardless of which race you control (the campaign mode I've been playing starts you as a human, which suited me fine) you have the same basic tasks to perform: find and process resources and use them to build your "home town" as well as your armed forces. You control the amount of peace-loving society you build and balance it with the number of killing units you get ready to rumble, and you're going to need a combination of both if you want to get anything done here.
I play on the "easy" setting because otherwise I probably wouldn't get through the first real mission. I reckon the bad guys don't turn into stains on the beautifully-rendered landscapes nearly as easily when you up the difficulty. But stain, they do!
The game is designed so you log onto Battle.net, kind of like being drafted into the online StarCraft army, though you can also play as a guest. I logged in reluctantly (one more password to remember and digital trail to leave!) and embarked on a single-player campaign that by the time you're done has seen you complete ten missions for each of the three races, which should keep you going for a while. I'm about halfway through the human missions and enjoying myself immensely.
Who knows? Maybe I'll like thinking like a Zerg if I stick around long enough.
The game is built as a narrative, with nicely animated sequences that introduce characters and situations and generally advance the story. Then the movie stops for a while and you get to blow up and kill a bunch of stuff, while also finding artifacts or research that can help you advance your own side's capabilities.
Once you've accomplished your missions the movie resumes for a while and wraps up/sets up the current/next situation and then you go to a main screen that consists of several areas – saloon, laboratory, control room, for example – where you can buy upgrades, enlist help or just hang out and watch the "news" before choosing and embarking on your next mission.
The story's actually pretty compelling and I found myself sitting through all the animations, rather than jumping ahead to where I could just wreak havoc. I believe this is the first game I can say that about.
There are side objectives that you can choose to do along the way as well. Succeeding means more loot or whatever – some, possibly most, are excuses to blow more stuff up, and why keep all those military units standing around?
Of course there's also a multi-player side. You can participate in eight-player battles over the net or the Net, which I imagine would be a blast on a 100 inch screen at 1080p.
Which brings me to the graphics. I hoped for but didn't really expect 1080p capability, but StarCraft 2 works at a wide array of resolutions and you can dial up or roll back the nuances to fit your system. My system hated the game at 1080p so after I had tried it enough to get a feel for its lovely graphics, I lowered the resolution to speed up the action so I didn't have to sit there staring stupidly at the screen while nothing happened.
Now I can stare stupidly at the screen while lots of stuff happens!
Anyway, the graphics are terrific, with great detail and very nice animation.
The musical score – heck, the overall sound track – is great, very rich and enveloping even in stereo. The music reminds me a bit of the "space western" score from the TV show Firefly, and while there isn't as much "western" influence in StarCraft 2, it works well.
And the voice actors do a good job as well.
If you ever manage to get through the entire game and get bored of the online opponents, there's an editor with which you can create your own campaigns.
Blizzard appears to have trod a fine line between coming up with a whole new game and a sequel that will please fans of the original and of RTS games in general. It's new enough and up to date enough – and enough fun – that it will probably reach that goal.
And what's nice is that, while the game is state-of-the-art and new, with more stuff in it than before, it still feels like StarCraft. The original was one of my favorite real-time strategy games and this new one easily fills its space in my casually gaming heart.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty is available for Windows or Mac, in physical media or for download.
Copyright 2010 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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