The expectations for StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty might seem impossible to meet. It’s a sequel 12 years in the making, a follow-up to what’s widely regarded as one of the best real-time strategy games ever made. But Blizzard Entertainment’s newest release doesn’t disappoint. It sticks to the formula that made its predecessor such a success, while updating the graphics and packing in loads of detailed content. Starcraft II expands on the original game’s flavor, with multiple cinematic cutscenes between levels, plus opportunities to seek out extra fluff, ranging from watching how the newscasters are spinning your latest antics to chatting with other characters or choosing what tunes are playing on the jukebox. While it manages to pull off pathos, it’s also filled with laugh-out-loud jokes, including the traditional ludicrous dialogue from your units.
StarCraft’s campaign alternated between controlling humans and two alien races, the monstrous Zerg and the technologically advanced Protoss. But Wings Of Liberty is entirely devoted to playing the Terrans, who are still space cowboys and redneck convicts in power armor. (Comparable Zerg and Protoss StarCraft II games are in development.)
Running marines through 29 levels never feels repetitive, because each board is unique and complex. Players transition from using cars with rail guns to rob trains to beating back zombie-like armies at night while trying to root out an infection by day. These quirky missions add a new level of enjoyment to the routine of base- and unit-building. The game isn’t strictly linear, so players typically have at least two levels to choose from, with each option unlocking different units and rewards. Resource management isn’t just limited to watching your mineral and vespene-gas use on a given level. Between levels, you can use credits you’ve earned to buy upgrades for your units and infrastructure, or hire mercenaries to fight on your behalf. Each level can be replayed if you want to ramp up the difficulty or try for an achievement you missed. The result is a highly customizable experience, easily tailored to individual play styles and skill levels.
As stellar as the single-player campaign is, the greatest value from StarCraft II is its multiplayer play. Blizzard’s newly launched Battle.net elegantly sets you up cooperatively or competitively with other players or AI on a multitude of game boards, keeping track of skill level and rankings. While the basic principles of play are the same as in Starcraft, many of the game’s classic units, like dragoons and guardians, have been scrapped in favor of new models, meaning even veteran players will have a learning curve. Each unit has distinctly good and bad match-ups, so early units never become obsolete. The races are now more balanced, while maintaining distinct flavors. Terrans are highly mobile and adaptable, Zerg burrow and infect, and Protoss favor defensive and deceptive tactics.
Starcraft II does have flaws. The AI still has a regrettable tendency to stand around waiting for commands when there are enemy units or structures nearby, and units often get in each other’s way during mobilization. There’s no way to set tactics for a group, like telling all your marines to use their stim packs when fighting starts, so a high level of micromanagement is needed for some more nuanced abilities. But overall, StarCraft II: Wings Of Liberty is a truly worthy successor. It’s been a long time coming, but the wait was worth it.