There aren't many gamers out there that don't know about StarCraft. Released back in 1998, Blizzard's epic sci-fi real-time strategy game helped popularize the genre, and is still being played religiously in countries like South Korea to this very day. With that kind of devout following, Blizzard had their work cut out for them in creating the highly anticipated sequel. How could they create a game that catered to both hardcore StarCraft veterans, and newcomers to the series? To ultra competitive online players, and gamers who only want to experience an epic story of loss and revenge? Well wonder no more, because StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty is finally here, and it's truly an epic experience that shouldn't be missed by anyone.
StarCraft 2 is a traditional RTS. You have to manage a base, collect resources, and build up an army in order to defeat your opponent. In this respect, not much has changed between StarCraft and its sequel; which, if nothing else, is a testament to Blizzard's original game design. Twelve years later, and it still works beautifully. If you've never played an RTS before, then StarCraft 2 is a good place to start. There are plenty of tutorials for newcomers, and the clean interface and score of helpful hints make is very accessible to the uninitiated.
Taking place four years after the conclusion of StarCraft: Brood War, Wings of Liberty continues the saga of the three races introduced in the original: The ragtag band of humans known as the terrans, the highly advanced race of psiconic beings known as the protoss, and the swarming insectoid aliens known as the zerg. As the first part of the StarCraft 2 trilogy, Wings of Liberty focuses exclusively on the terrans, or more specifically, on Jim Raynor and his revolutionary group known as Raynor's Raiders. As the formal Marshall of Mar Sara, it's your job to help liberate the people from the tyrannical Terran Dominion the very same Empire you helped establish. Of course, that's the plan, until Kerrigan, the Queen of Blades, returns to terran space for the first time in years, and begins invading planets with her armies of zerg.
The story is told through a combination of cut scenes and story sets that take place in between missions. Like all of Blizzard's CGI work, the cinematics throughout the game are breathtaking pieces of art. The story sets are interactive locations where you can talk with other characters, watch news reports, and select your next mission. These sets looks incredibly beautiful, with character models looking amazingly lifelike and a staggering amount of detail throughout each set. It's hard to explain just how good these scenes look you really have to see them for yourself.
And not only do the story sets look great, but they also serve a pretty important function in the campaign. For example, from the Hyperion, which is Raynor's ship and the main story set throughout the game, you can purchase a number of beneficial upgrades for you to use during missions. From the armory, you can upgrade your units on the battlefield. These can range from increasing the damage your tanks do in siege mode, to allowing your marines the use of stimpacks. From the laboratory, you can use research points you gain by completing bonus objectives in missions to study both the zerg and protoss, and use their technologies to your advantage. Lastly, you can hire mercenaries from the cantina, which provide extra powerful units for you to command on the battlefield.
The bridge of the Hyperion is where you can start your missions. At any given time, there will be a number of missions available to undertake, and you can do them in any order you'd like. In total, there are nearly 30 missions throughout the entire game not all of which can be played in a single playthrough. Considering the original StarCraft had around 10 missions per race, it's easy to see why Blizzard felt the need the split StarCraft 2 into three games. And even if you're not a big fan of the terrans (they're actually my least favorite race) rest assured that a handful of missions allow you to take command of another race, which is a nice interlude.
Perhaps the best part about the campaign is the mission variety. In a lot of RTS games, missions often come down to "build a base, build an army, and then destroy your opponents base and army." Well, you'll find no such missions in Wings of Liberty. One mission has you constantly on the move from a wave of fiery death, as the nearby star goes supernova. And another has you fighting off an endless horde of zerg in an apocalyptic vision of the future. Yet another has you breaking prisoners out of a maximum-security jail in a DotA-styled mission. The sheer variety of missions is staggering, and keeps the lengthy campaign fresh from beginning to end. If there weren't so many missions, I certainly would've attempted to beat it in one sitting it's that enthralling.
Aesthetically, StarCraft 2 is gorgeous. In game graphics look great, with units being incredibly detailed and environments looking immersive. Effects like the way creep glistens eerily over the ground, or how units will melt into a puddle of plasma after being torched, all come together to make a truly wonderful looking game. Even multiplayer maps like Lost Temple, which have been reused in nearly every Blizzard RTS game to date, look exceptional. The game also runs incredibly smoothly, with hundreds of units on screen at once not slowing down the performance in the slightest. And you don't need an exceptionally powerful machine to run the game, as the requirements for low settings are quite reasonable.
On the audio front, Wings of Liberty is just as stellar. The soundtrack is expertly composed and fits the StarCraft universe perfectly. The voice acting throughout the campaign is probably the best voice acting I've ever heard in a video game. Some of the voice actors from the original game return as well, such as Arcturus Mengsk and Jim Raynor, which really adds to the nostalgia factor.
In addition to the engrossing campaign, the game's multiplayer is so extensive and deep, it's like its own separate game. When you first jump into the multiplayer, you're asked if you'd like to participate in the practice league or not, which is essentially a set of matches for StarCraft newcomers, with noob-friendly maps that eliminate early rushes, and the game's speed is slowed down. After that, each player is required to play five placement matches, which will determine their skill level. Then, they'll be put in one of five leagues: bronze, silver, gold, platinum, or diamond. The league system works great, and allows players to constantly be matched against people of similar skill.
And although the practice league makes the multiplayer very accessible to newcomers, the game is still incredibly complex and strategic, with a big learning curve for higher-level play. Being able to simultaneously produce workers, manage your supply cap, scout your opponent, control your army, and remember about a half-dozen other things makes StarCraft 2 a very rewarding and challenging game. Luckily, the game is incredibly balanced, with a good representation of all three races online. The keystone to any RTS is balance, and all those months of beta testing seem to have paid off. Of course, the game is still in its infancy stage, and imbalances could pop up at any moment. However, Blizzard has always been pretty good about releasing patches in order to shore up gameplay, and they'll certainly do the same for StarCraft 2.
And if the competitive nature of laddering isn't for you, there are plenty of other multiplayer options in Wings of Liberty. From co-operative games against the AI, to the tons of custom games available, the replayability of StarCraft 2 is virtually endless. Or, if you're the creative type, you can play around with the Galaxy Map Editor, and make your own custom maps and games. The new Battle.net has tons of social features as well, such as chat and Facebook integration, meaning that if you just want to sit back, relax, and play some StarCraft with your buddies, you can go right ahead.
The only thing keeping me from giving StarCraft 2 a perfect score is the fact that there is no LAN. Sure, in this age of the Internet, LAN isn't quite as popular as it was ten years ago, but it is still a core element of PC gaming, and is definitely missed. I'm sure that Blizzard will implement LAN play in the future, probably after everyone has bought the game and the threat of piracy has been alleviated somewhat. Until then, however, I can't call StarCraft 2 "perfect."
Nonetheless, StarCraft 2 is an amazing game easily one of the best games of the past few years. Some games have an epic single-player campaign that can't be missed. And others have a multiplayer component that will keep gamers busy for hundreds upon hundreds of hours. It is very rare for a game in this day and age to do both, but StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty does. The amount of polish, dedication, and heart put into this game by Blizzard shows why they are one of the best developers out there today. No matter who you are, if you consider yourself a gamer, you need to play StarCraft 2.